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Airport politics: some voters in GOP districts question the takeover

Republican Sheila Forbis of Mint Hill says she’s pleased at what the GOP-controlled N.C. legislature accomplished this year – with one big, distressing exception.

She calls it “a shame” that Republican lawmakers – including those from Mecklenburg County – were able to pass legislation designed to strip control of Charlotte Douglas International Airport away from the city of Charlotte, its owner for 70 years.

And the 59-year-old administrative assistant at Charlotte Country Day school was so turned off by how it happened – rapidly, and mostly behind the scenes – that she’s not sure she could vote again for Rep. Bill Brawley, the Matthews Republican who represents her in House District 103 and helped lead the airport takeover.

“I’m sure he had his reasons … but I am still disappointed in him,” she says. “He leading this bill has definitely changed my opinion of him.”

Forbis appears to speak for many in Brawley’s district, and in the legislative districts represented by Sen. Bob Rucho of Matthews, House Speaker Thom Tillis of Cornelius and Rep. Ruth Samuelson of Charlotte – all Republicans and all key backers of legislation to shift control of the airport.

Last week, the Observer interviewed about 50 voters in the four GOP-leaning districts, and found little support – for the airport takeover. Fewer than 10 of those interviewed backed the idea, while nearly 30 lauded the way Charlotte Douglas has been run over the years, and said they saw no reason for change.

“My philosophy is: If it isn’t broke, don’t fix it,” said one of Rucho’s constituents, Sandra Dickerson, 64, of Charlotte.

Many residents who Observer reporters spoke with also criticized the GOP legislators for failing to make their case to the public and, instead, keeping their reasons vague and their plans under wraps.

“I don’t think the lawmakers do a good job telling us what they’re doing,” said John Furrow, 45, a Republican and a teacher from Huntersville. “I’m confused how the state can walk in and take it from the city.”

Mint Hill’s Nancy Carpenter, 82, a retired optometric assistant and a straight-ticket GOP voter, said she wanted more transparency.

“I think Brawley went behind us all,” she said. “He hasn’t been real upfront. And you can tell it’s been secretive by how it’s shocked so many people.”

Some told the Observer they were still on the fence about the airport issue because things have moved so fast and with so little explanation that they’re left with mostly unanswered questions about how it might affect them.

“I want what’s best for regular people rather than politics,” said Allison Kushner, 26, an unaffiliated voter in Rucho’s district who works in sales. “Will it affect jobs and what would the logistics be? What will be the same and what will be different?”

‘Leave it in Charlotte’s hands’

Two weeks ago, the legislature, voting mostly along party lines, approved legislation that would have transferred Charlotte Douglas to a new independent 11-member authority. But that law was quickly blocked when the city asked for – and got – a restraining order from a Charlotte-based judge.

Then, just before adjourning last week, the legislature passed a new bill that shifted control of Charlotte’s airport to a 13-member commission. Samuelson, who pushed the last-minute bill, said it would head off the city’s lawsuit. She also cast it as a compromise, though city officials so far have declined to endorse the commission plan.

Interviewees who said they supported the change promoted by Rucho, Samuelson and the others argued that the airport is more of a regional resource than just a city one.

“Charlotte-Douglas is more than just Charlotte; it serves many communities outside of the city’s jurisdiction,” said Dorcas Regelbrugge, a housewife in Samuelson’s Charlotte district and a registered Republican. “There are enough issues in Charlotte as it is. The City Council has its hands full and it should not have to keep control of the airport. (Yet) the city is being covetous of power and has trouble relinquishing it.”

But most voters interviewed last week echoed Republican Brandy Funderburk, a 42-year-old customer service representative in Mint Hill: “I think they should leave it in Charlotte’s hands. I’ve always found Charlotte Douglas to be pretty pleasant, and you can get good prices for trips. Overall, Charlotte has made the airport pretty OK.”

An Observer poll in May found that, by a 3-1 margin, Charlotte voters want the city to keep control of the airport.

And though legislation that would take it away from the city received nearly unanimous support from GOP lawmakers in Raleigh, the move drew opposition from several high-profile Republicans in Charlotte, including City Council members Andy Dulin and Warren Cooksey.

Another critic of how the takeover effort has been handled: former City Council member Edwin Peacock, who’s the leading candidate to get the GOP nomination for Charlotte mayor.

“I’ve been opposed to this Raleigh leapfrogging of Charlotte from Day One,” Peacock said last week. “We know how the state feels when the federal government tries to tell them how to do something.”

Peacock called for slowing down, getting more facts, and then working out the best solution.

“The legislators are coming into city hall to make those decisions (because) they think they know what’s going on based on what they’ve heard from a few people. Distasteful.”

Longtime Mecklenburg County Commissioner Bill James, from the more conservative wing of the GOP, said he’s not opposed to an independent airport authority. “But I don’t understand to this day the reasons behind it,” James said.

A dizzying round of talks

The idea of shifting control of the airport emerged earlier this year, with Rucho and Brawley saying that unnamed business leaders were worried the airport could get mixed up with Charlotte politics. There was also concern – by, among others, US Airways, which operates a hub in Charlotte – about the future of longtime Aviation Director Jerry Orr, whose relations with the city had been rocky.

“It’s time to put it to rest because there’s too much uncertainty out there,” Rucho said in early July, when the airport legislation was finally ready for takeoff.

A few dizzying weeks later, Orr is no longer at the airport’s helm – he said he was fired, the city said he resigned. And despite attempts by Tillis and Gov. Pat McCrory, a former Charlotte mayor, to negotiate a compromise at one point, the city and state remain at odds and in court. A hearing is set for Thursday.

Orr’s name came up frequently during the Observer’s interviews with voters in the four districts. Many credited him with Charlotte Douglas being a success story, and said they favored keeping him in his job.

“He’s a man of vision,” Regelbrugge said. “I’m surprised they haven’t named the airport after him.”

But a few interviewees said Orr was one of the reasons for all the controversy.

“He’s part of the ‘good ol’ boy’ network,” said Mike Beaver, a 39-year-old photographer from Charlotte.

Will the airport issue hurt these GOP lawmakers when they go before the voters again next year?

Maybe, said Beaver, an unaffiliated voter who pulled the lever for Samuelson last year but is not sure about 2014.

He called the airport takeover “an unnecessary power grab. Raleigh is making a big mistake.”

Political scientist Michael Bitzer of Catawba College said voter anger over the legislature’s controversial action on abortion, education and other hot-button issues could bring more Democrats than usual to the polls in next year’s mid-term elections.

But he’s skeptical that Samuelson, Rucho and Brawley will be in much danger of defeat next year – if they can avoid a GOP primary.

They all represent such Republican districts that Samuelson, Brawley and Tillis all ran without Democratic opposition last year. And Rucho won easily, with 61 percent.

All four districts also went for GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney – perhaps the best barometer of whether districts are safe for GOP candidates.

“It would take a monumental earthquake to put them in the Democratic column,” Bitzer said.

Mecklenburg commissioner James said the airport takeover could be an issue for Samuelson, whose district is mostly in Charlotte.

But he predicted that, by the time Election Day comes, people in the suburbs outside Charlotte aren’t “going to give a rip if Charlotte runs the airport or if an authority does.”

Blowback for GOP?

Still, Bitzer said the airport issue could hinder Samuelson next year if she runs for House speaker.

“This (airport issue) could be toxic for her in the (legislative) chamber,” he said. “(GOP legislators) may say, ‘If she can’t even (show) appeal back home, how is she going to do so in the Republican caucus?’ ”

The issue could also affect Tillis, who lobbied for the takeover. Instead of running for re-election, he’s hoping to get the 2014 GOP nomination for the U.S. Senate seat now held by Democrat Kay Hagan.

“There could be blowback against Tillis if he gets the nomination,” Bitzer said. “He’s walking a very fine line – he has to deal with a Republican primary electorate and, then, statewide, in a general election, tacking back to the (political) middle.”

And any Republican who hopes to defeat Hagan will have to get a lot of votes out of Mecklenburg – home to both Tillis and to Charlotte Douglas International Airport, whose control remains up in the air. Observer reporters Amanda Albright, Dan Burley, Liz Crampton and Caitlin McCabe contributed.

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