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GOP faces conflict over Charlotte airport; issue of local control?

In the fight for Charlotte Douglas International Airport, the City Council’s two Republicans – Andy Dulin and Warren Cooksey – have been closely aligned with the council’s Democratic majority.

Dulin has been especially adamant that the city keep control of the airport, blasting efforts by the GOP-dominated General Assembly to put someone else in charge.

He called a consultant that recommended an authority “slick.” He called an airport advisory member who was lobbying for an authority a “chump.” And he’s said passionately that the city-owned airport belongs, in part, to him – and his father and grandfather before him.

But in the fall election to replace Dulin – who isn’t running for re-election – other Republicans are taking a less strident tone.

In Dulin’s District 6, as well as across the city, Republican candidates are trying to walk a narrow path between powerful state Republican legislators who support an airport commission and city voters, many of whom don’t support the change.

Four Republicans are seeking Dulin’s District 6 seat, which covers much of affluent south Charlotte and is heavily Republican. Based on early fundraising, two candidates – Kenny Smith and Kate Payerle – are front-runners.

Smith said he believes decisions that “can be made at the local level should be made at the local level.”

But when asked whether he would have voted with other council members to file a lawsuit to stop the airport bill, Smith said he would have instead joined an airport study group proposed by GOP legislative leaders.

“I would have voted to support joining the study to buy us additional time,” Smith said. “I supported the study and continued dialogue.”

The City Council instead decided to sue. It’s unclear whether it will ultimately prevail, but the city has so far received two favorable rulings in Mecklenburg Superior Court.

On Thursday, a superior court judge granted the city an injunction against the airport commission bill, turning the issue over to the Federal Aviation Administration.

Payerle, an attorney for the law firm Robinson Bradshaw, is in a difficult position politically.

Richard Vinroot, a Robinson Bradshaw attorney, is representing Jerry Orr, former airport aviation director, and the airport commission in the legal fight with the city. Vinroot was also a special guest at a Payerle fundraiser.

Payerle said she has not done any legal work for the firm on the airport. If elected, she said she could be recused if the litigation continued and there was any conflict.

Payerle declined to comment on the controversy, except to say she would “encourage both sides let bygones be bygones. Let’s focus on the best way to run an airport.”

Cooksey, who isn’t running for re-election in District 7, said the airport issue is difficult for Republicans because one tenet of conservatism is minimal government. He believes that is at odds with the General Assembly’s actions.

In late July, the Observer interviewed about 50 voters in the four GOP-leaning state legislative 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.

In May, an Observer poll found that Charlotte residents favored keeping control of the airport by a 3-1 margin.

But at the same time, many of the state’s most powerful Republicans support the change, including local legislators Ruth Samuelson, Bill Brawley and Bob Rucho. Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, a former Charlotte mayor, hasn’t chosen a side publicly.

Cooksey supported joining a study group on the airport, but he also supported the council’s plans to sue.

“There is a divide between those of us who have taken the oath of office and with those of us who haven’t,” Cooksey said. “Things do look different once you get elected. I can sympathize with the candidates. If you are a Republican running, what is the correct approach?”

Former City Council member Edwin Peacock is expected to win the Republican mayoral primary in September. Peacock has said the airport fight is a sign of the inability of the city and state, as well as Republicans and Democrats, to work together.

But in July, when an airport authority bill was likely, Peacock said he “stood with” the City Council and Mayor Patsy Kinsey in their efforts to keep control of the airport.

Last week, the General Assembly repealed the authority bill and replaced it with a bill that would create an airport commission. The city would own the airport, but the commission would run it.

In an interview this week, Peacock said he still supports council members and Kinsey.

“I still stand where I stood before,” he said.

Other GOP candidates have a similar position to Peacock.

Dennis Peterson is a Republican running for a City Council at-large seat. He said he would have voted as Dulin and Cooksey did, supporting the city’s lawsuit.

“For you to make a change like that, I think there needs to be a well-thought-out and publicized justification,” Peterson said.

Republican Mark Frietch, who is also running at-large, said he also supports the lawsuit. But he said the city should have communicated better with the opposition. He cited a comment from members of the airport advisory board, who said they never heard from the city.

“As a business owner, if you don’t hear from a group under your wing, you should reach out to them,” Frietch said.

Republican Vanessa Faura, who is running for an at-large seat, said she is still studying the issue.

Ed Driggs, who is running for Cooksey’s District 7 seat, said he thought the airport should stay with the city and that the lawsuit was “the only remedy the city had.”

Ken Lindholm, a District 6 candidate, chided state Republicans for their tactics in trying to make the airport independent.

“The manner they are going about it is wrong,” Lindholm said. “That, I think, is what the big uproar is about.”

Harrison: 704-358-5160
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