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Decision 2013Mayoral and City Council races

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What we learned from Charlotte’s primary

MAYOR0911_003
Jeff Siner - jsiner@charlotteobserver.com
It's Primary Election Day in Charlotte, and voters essentially will choose a majority of the City Council members, along with nominees for mayor from the Democratic and Republican parties. Democratic mayoral candidate Patrick Cannon speaks with members of the media outside St. Marks United Methodist Church on Clanton Rd. in Charlotte, NC on Tuesday, September 10, 2013. Jeff Siner - jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Some lessons from Tuesday’s Charlotte primary elections:

• Negative ads can backfire.

• Big-name endorsements don’t always work.

• And one vote does count, at least for Democratic City Council candidate Greg Phipps.

Fewer than 7 percent of Charlotte voters turned out for primaries that nominated two mayoral candidates – Democrat Patrick Cannon and Republican Edwin Peacock – and essentially elected four City Council members, including two newcomers.

Here are takeaways from the primaries that could resonate in November and beyond:

Cannon can count on big margins from black precincts

Black voters rallied around Cannon despite an aggressive challenge from fellow African-American James “Smuggie” Mitchell, a longtime district council member.

Cannon won all but one of the 20 precincts where African-Americans make up 75 percent or more of the voters. One of his largest margins came in Precinct 31 off West Boulevard, where more than 90 percent of voters are black. He outpolled Mitchell there nearly 3-1.

And Cannon won nine of the 10 precincts with the highest turnout, winning 56 percent of those votes.

In the 20 precincts with the highest concentration of white voters, on the other hand, Mitchell won nearly 59 percent of the vote to Cannon’s 35 percent.

Cannon, first elected in 1993, has virtually grown up in public office, under the eye of voters.

“He’s homegrown,” said activist Geneal Gregory. “He was young. … We groomed him. He was nurtured by Charlotte.”

Added Democratic state Sen. Joel Ford: “His record and name ID over 20 years is just hard to overcome. It is Patrick’s time.”

Campaign ads can backfire

Mitchell sent a series of mailers promising to continue the “legacy” of former Mayor Anthony Foxx and attacking Cannon for opposing Foxx on the streetcar and other issues.

Some voters criticized the ads as negative. Some said they focused more on Foxx’s agenda than Mitchell’s.

“Smuggie seemed to be running on carrying out Foxx’s program instead of his own,” said former state Sen. Charlie Dannelly, a self-described friend of both. “People like to hear what you’re going to do that’s different than what’s being done.”

Gregory, a Cannon supporter, said she felt the ads were “all about Anthony Foxx.”

“It’s almost like (Cannon) disagreed with Anthony, so now we’re going to punish you,” she said.

So much for endorsements

Mitchell’s mayoral campaign seemed to get a major boost last week with the endorsement of former Mayor Harvey Gantt, Charlotte’s first African-American mayor.

The uptown announcement before reporters and TV cameras was an unusually public taking of sides by a prominent Democrat in a Democratic primary.

It didn’t pay off, at least as much as Mitchell hoped.

One Democratic consultant said that may be because a generation has passed since Gantt left the mayor’s office in 1987.

“The last time Harvey won,” said Dan McCorkle, “was in ’85.”

Power may shift on council

The election could portend shifting power alignments on the City Council.

In 2012, Cannon and fellow Democrats Claire Fallon, Beth Pickering and Michael Barnes joined two Republicans in voting against a capital improvement plan pushed by Foxx. They fought his proposed property tax increase and were skeptical about the streetcar he favored.

That put them on the outs with Foxx.

On Tuesday, Barnes, a district council member, surprised some by leading the Democratic at-large field. He finished ahead of two at-large incumbents, Fallon and Foxx ally David Howard.

Pickering lost while newcomer Vi Alexander Lyles rounded out the field. The four winning Democrats take on four Republicans in November.

If the Democrats win, Barnes and Fallon could emerge with more influence, Howard with less.

For Fallon, Tuesday’s vote was vindication – and a sort of rebuke for Foxx, now the U.S. transportation secretary.

“He had a very bad day, and I don’t think he can come back to Charlotte,” she said. “Everybody he supported got creamed, and the people he didn’t support did well. I would like to thank him for all the help I got from him.”

Sometimes 1 vote matters

Turnout was low and sporadic, and just one vote made a difference in District 4.

There were 3,708 people who voted in the Democratic district primary. Gregg Phipps won 1,483 votes, or 39.99 percent of those cast. He needed 40 percent – or one more vote – to win outright and avoid a runoff.

Runner-up Wil Russell has until Sept. 19 to call for a runoff.

A runoff is also possible in District 2, where Democrats Al Austin and Brenda Stevenson led a field of five but fell short of 40 percent.

Bars aren’t a barrier to votes

In northwest District 2, Democrat Justin Stewart pulled in 181 votes for City Council – all with virtually no campaigning.

Stewart has been in the Mecklenburg County jail since late July, charged with robbery with a dangerous weapon, assault and other charges.

Though he didn’t win, he still finished 78 votes ahead of Democrat Rocky Bailey, a former Charlotte police officer.

Morrill: 704-358-5059
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