It’s a primary race littered with subplots.
Among the five Democrats running for three at-large seats on the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners in the May 6 primary, three are incumbents – all first elected in 2012.
One, Pat Cotham, was the board’s chair last year who led the effort to replace longtime County Manager Harry Jones. Another, Trevor Fuller, is the current chair, wrestling the helm from Cotham in December. The third at-large member, Kim Ratliff, was vice chair on the board under Cotham. They differ little on issues.
A fourth candidate, former five-term Charlotte City Council member Ella Scarborough, is trying to make a political comeback after disappearing from the scene in 2001. That year, she lost to now-Gov. Pat McCrory for Charlotte mayor, like she did in 1999. A year before that, she ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate.
The fifth candidate, county Park & Recreation commissioner Elaine Powell, doesn’t want to be portrayed as “a tree hugger,” but she is clearly passionate about preserving the environment, which affects so many issues Mecklenburg faces.
The three top vote-getters will face Republicans Emily Zuyus and Scott Carlisle in November.
Cotham may forever be known for her single-minded effort to bring change to Mecklenburg and oust Jones. She had campaigned to return public trust to county government, and felt that Jones and “the culture” he created stood as impediments. She said he and managers withheld information from the board and lacked oversight of the troubled property revaluation in 2011 and a social services department with big problems.
Voters gave her the most votes in 2012. After the board elected her chair, she began to build a coalition – that included the three Republican members – to fire Jones. She met with General Assembly lawyers in Raleigh for guidance on how to legally do it.
She chaired the search team for a new county manager, supported an ongoing review of the 2011 revaluation and urged commissioners to make a review of the county’s code enforcements a priority.
Even Ratliff, who supported Jones and voted to keep him, said she’s pleased with Jones’ replacement, former county Finance Director Dena Diorio – and the “peace” that and other changes have brought to the board.
“I told the voters I’d ask tough questions and make tough decisions,” said Cotham, 63, a former corporate recruiter who has been a stalwart in the local Democratic Party. “I stand on my record of leading the charge for massive change so people would feel better about county government.
“Now I can look people in the eye and say, ‘You can have more trust in county government.’ It’s not perfect, but it’s headed in the right direction.”
Yet to get there, Cotham angered some people in her own party. She had a well-publicized run-in with former commission Chair Parks Helms, and other current Democrat commissioners complained she got too cozy with Republicans and excluded them from conversations.
In December, they voted to replace Cotham with Fuller as chair.
After a tumultuous first year, a relative peace has descended over the second year of the three at-large members’ first term.
With issues resolved, the constant bickering has ended. So has criticism from commissioners lobbed at county management and staff – a testament to the confidence the board has in Diorio and her restructuring of county government.
Under Fuller, board meetings are shorter, and he won’t let discussions or debates ramble on.
Much of the difficult change came during Cotham’s tenure as chair, leaving Fuller to preside over the hiring of Diorio and Health Director Marcus Plescia.
“From the moment we took the oath, we faced huge issues,” Fuller, 46, said. “But we (the three at-large members) got great on-the-job training, and I feel like we all got through the turmoil.”
Still Fuller, a Charlotte lawyer, felt the board was “adrift.” Democrats on the board complained that Cotham didn’t keep them informed on issues. So Fuller, who came in third to Cotham and Ratliff in the 2012 election, ran for chair.
“There was just a sense that we were not moving forward in the best way we could, and we needed to make a change,” he said. “We seem to be getting along better, and maybe it’s a mirage, but things seem to be moving smoother.”
Ratliff, too, was replaced by commissioner Dumont Clarke as vice chair.
She’s the board’s quietest member, but during the debate over Jones she was outspoken in his support and her criticism of Cotham’s leadership.
Ratliff openly berated Cotham for not appointing her to committees. After she asked Cotham to let her lead a search committee for a new county manager, Cotham left Ratliff off the committee altogether.
Then Ratliff, 45 and a native Charlottean, came under fire when she told a TV reporter that she preferred commissioners not choose “a white male” to be the next county manager.
She said then and repeated last week that she misspoke. “I wasn’t saying men were bad,” Ratliff said. “I was urging that more women – and more minority women – needed to apply. We don’t always apply.”
Ratliff said she learned from that mistake, and she’s learned much about public service in her 18 months on the board.
She’s proud of championing the issue of placing more nurses in schools and has been widely praised by advocates for that effort.
She’s learned also from constituent work, including recently helping a domestic violence victim find new shelter and working on problems for the homeless.
“You can’t learn everything in a few months,” Ratliff said. “You don’t learn this stuff from reading a book. It takes time.
“Now I believe I can take this new knowledge and help people.”
Though she’s been missing from the political landscape for 13 years, Scarborough needs no introduction.
She’s served five terms on Charlotte City Council – she was the first African-American woman to win an at-large seat – and she lost mayoral campaigns to Pat McCrory in 1999 and 2001. In 1998, she ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate, a campaign ultimately won by John Edwards, the former senator and vice presidential and presidential candidate whose political career imploded in scandal.
So name recognition is not a worry.
Scarborough, 67, who teaches part-time in Central Piedmont Community College’s Pathways to Careers program, said she jumped into the race because she felt the commission lacks a “voice for ordinary people.”
“You have poverty and homelessness here, and they’re talking about a surplus (of money) in county government,” Scarborough said. “I can’t sit here and see this surplus and say I don’t know what to do with it. People need help; schools need funding. We can do better.”
She talks about most of the issues that the other candidates are pushing – jobs, effectively managing human services and building better schools.
Scarborough was raised in Sumter, S.C., and at age 16 in 1963 was jailed with 357 other blacks trying to walk through the front door of a movie theater. Five years later, as a senior at S.C. State University in Orangeburg, S.C., she tried to help integrate the town’s only bowling alley. S.C. Highway Patrol officers fired into the crowd of black students after a trooper was hit in the head with a wooden banister.
Three students died in what became known as the Orangeburg Massacre.
“I’ve seen a lot in my life,” she said. “I believe I can bring that experience to help the county.”
Powell knows she’s an unknown, but she’s been working hard to get out her name. This is her first attempt at elected office, but that doesn’t mean she’s not been involved.
Raised in Wilmington, N.C., and Wilmington, Del., Powell moved to Charlotte in 1986 after graduating from the University of Delaware and got a job as a clinical nutritionist.
She began volunteering in 1989, even before she married and had a child.
One day, she called Mecklenburg County and “got a man on the phone who said, ‘We need citizens like you to be on advisory boards.’ ”
So Powell applied to be a member of the county’s Waste Management Advisory Board and spent 8-1/2 years on that board from 2001 to 2009. Four years ago, she was appointed to the county’s Park and Recreation Commission, for which she chairs the Stewardship Advisory Council.
Her issues are different from the others. She would focus on community health and advocate for protecting natural resources and buying land for parks and greenways.
“I don’t want to sound like a tree hugger or a hippie, but that is so important to the county’s health and economy,” Powell, 50, said. “Without a healthy environment, we can’t have a resilient economy and a good quality of life.”