In many ways, the Republican primary for N.C. Senate’s District 39 held by retired Matthews dentist Bob Rucho is a referendum on Rucho himself.
In the past year, Rucho has commanded many headlines, some not so flattering.
He upset many in Charlotte when he began pushing a bill that would remove governance of Charlotte Douglas International Airport from the Charlotte City Council and place it with an independent regional authority.
He upset others after posting a tweet that seemed to compare the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, with Nazis and terrorists. After going viral, the tweet drew criticism from around the country and became fodder for left-leaning cable TV anchors.
Rucho, 65, even took shots at leaders of his own party after they abandoned his ambitious tax overhaul plan, accusing them of not having the “political backbone to fight special groups.”
The headlines are the primary reasons Charlotte attorney Matt Arnold decided to challenge Rucho in the May 6 primary.
“There’s more to representing our district than going to Raleigh and doing the legislative process and working for votes,” said Arnold, 35, running for his first elected office. “You have to engage in the process in a responsible and respectful way.
“I don’t know that Mr. Rucho has done that recently.”
Rucho said Arnold is running a campaign of “personal attacks” void of issues.
“He doesn’t understand the issues and has no plan for the future of the state,” Rucho said. “That is something I’ve already set on a pathway to economic growth and jobs.”
The winner faces no Democratic opposition in November. The district, considered safe Republican turf, covers much of south Mecklenburg County from the Myers Park/Eastover neighborhoods to Ballantyne.
Arnold said Rucho has not provided voters with a “meaningful explanation” for why he pushed so hard to transfer control of the airport to an authority.
“Absent some earth-shattering explanation, I don’t think it’s the right move,” he said. “This is a big change for our city, and to do that without any explaining is not being open and fair to residents.”
Rucho, in his eighth term, was ranked the fifth most-effective senator in 2013 by the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research. He said he laid out his reasons for the airport change in newspaper stories. The move, he said, was an effort to put one of the Charlotte region’s most important assets in a position to achieve “its full economic potential” and insulate it from “politics and cronyism.”
In the end, control was transferred to a 13-member commission, with four members chosen by the City Council and three by Charlotte’s mayor. The commission, however, is in limbo while a city lawsuit to block it winds through the courts.
Yet Rucho claimed vindication for his efforts after former Mayor Patrick Cannon was arrested in March by the FBI on federal corruption charges.
“The airport is too important an asset for any type of that activity to go on,” he said.
Arnold questions Rucho’s “true conservatism” when he wants to “de-localize” Charlotte Douglas’ control and put it under control of people outside of Mecklenburg. “Why would any true conservative want to create more government?” Arnold said.
Friction with leaders
Last year, Rucho had proposed to lower personal and corporate income taxes, close loopholes and expand sales taxes.
In June, he bristled when GOP leaders abandoned his tax overhaul for a different approach. He responded with a letter blasting Gov. Pat McCrory and House Speaker Thom Tillis, both Mecklenburg Republicans.
He also resigned as co-chair of the Senate Finance Committee, but Senate GOP leader Phil Berger refused to accept his resignation.
Arnold said Rucho needed to show more respect. “These are the leaders of his own party he was outing,” he said. “Saying that they don’t have political backbone completely undermines the leadership at the highest level.”
Rucho said McCrory, Tillis and Berger have endorsed him. “The fact of the matter is, they know I’m one of the leaders trying to make North Carolina one of the premiere economies in the country. I was totally committed to lowering the personal income tax to zero.”
He said Arnold was recruited to run against him by a “trial lawyer group” called N.C. Advocates for Justice. Rucho said that after he helped lead an effort to reform medical malpractice laws in the state, he became a target of personal injury lawyers.
But Arnold said he wasn’t recruited by anyone to run. “I’m a member (of Advocates for Justice), but they didn’t recruit me to do anything,” he said. “I don’t know where he got that information, but if he’d debate me, I’d tell him it wasn’t true.”
Rucho recently declined to debate Arnold in a local League of Women Voters-sponsored debate televised by WTVI public TV station. He said he had a scheduling conflict and asked the league representative to find another date.
“I never heard back from her,” he said.
‘Notion of term limits’
In his now-infamous tweet, Rucho wrote after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Affordable Care Act: “Justice Robert’s pen & Obamacare has done more damage to the USA then the swords of the Nazis, Soviets & terrorists combined.”
He said he was warning about the costs of American conflicts, not making a comparison to the Holocaust.
“It was meant to send an alarm to people that Obamacare was going to devastate the country with increased premium costs and deductibles while destroying a great medical system,” said Rucho, who practiced dentistry for 33 years.
“It was designed for people to understand that their lives were going to be drastically altered by the implementation of this ill-designed system.”
The bad publicity that followed is having a negative impact on voters, Arnold said.
“When I go into the district, one thing I keep hearing about is the notion of term limits,” he said.
“People are wondering if it might not be a good time for a new set of eyes on issues. Mr. Rucho has been a faithful servant, but they’re saying maybe it’s time for somebody else to have a go at it.”