Former Mecklenburg County commissioner Jim Puckett is trying to make a comeback for his old District 1 seat, with Democrat and public-school teacher Leonard Richardson standing in the way.
Before Puckett, a Huntersville Republican, announced in 2006 that he was leaving his District 1 seat to run at large, he recruited Karen Bentley of Huntersville to run for his old seat.
“I told her she could have it for as long as she could keep it – that no matter what happened in the at-large race, I wouldn’t try to take it from her” said Puckett, 57, who represented District 1 for three terms beginning in 2000.
Puckett lost the 2006 race, coming in fifth of six at-large candidates. Bentley won and has served the district for eight years. Last year, Bentley returned the favor. Before announcing she wouldn’t seek another term, she gave Puckett a heads up that he’d have a chance to get his old seat back.
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“My wife and I are empty nesters now,” said Puckett, 57, owner of Electro Painters, an industrial electrostatic paint contractor. “So my wife said, ‘Fine, you can go back now.’ ”
To make it back, he’ll have to beat Richardson, who teaches fifth grade at Nations Ford Elementary School in Charlotte and who made an unsuccessful bid for the county Board of Commissioners seat in 2012 and for Charlotte City Council last year.
Richardson, also of Huntersville, grew up in Salisbury, where as a boy he spent six years in foster care until his single mother was able to care for him with help from social services.
He said he would bring empathy to the board, which oversees social services as one of its primary responsibilities.
“I knew about the issues of where she was getting money – and help – from,” he said. “I grew up understanding the struggles that Mom was going through to take care of me.”
That understanding and his knowledge of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, Richardson said, would bring a unique perspective to the board. In addition to running DSS, the board provides significant funding to CMS.
“You’ll have someone there that will fight to ensure that we are funding these services appropriately,” he said. “We need to protect children when they’re not being cared for, and we need to make sure we’re educating those children.”
With two of his three children in CMS schools, Richardson said he’d work to invest in students and teachers “so that we can give them the tools to not only go to college but get good-paying jobs.”
He supports the referendum on the November ballot to raise the local sales tax by a quarter-cent largely for pay raises for CMS employees. He said he’d work to make sure the added revenues would go to employee pay raises.
“I don’t believe in telling voters I’m going to cut taxes. I want to make sure we are funding our services appropriately,” he said. “I don’t want property taxes to go higher.”
Beating the well-known Puckett, though, will be a challenge in a district that historically has put Republicans in the seat. The district, which includes much of University City, Huntersville, Cornelius and Davidson, is split almost evenly among Republicans, Democrats and unaffiliated voters. But many of the Democrats and unaffiliated tend to vote Republican, elections records show.
Puckett, who lost a bid last year for Huntersville mayor, served on the school board for a term before getting elected to the county Board of Commissioners in 2000. On the school board, he successfully led efforts with seven CMS parents – including Bentley – to end court-ordered desegregation. “I went to the school board with the intent to try and return neighborhood school assignment to Mecklenburg County,” he said.
He was a staunchly conservative voice during his six years on the board of commissioners, but he said he tried to engage all commissioners and points of view in the debate. After losing his bid for an at-large seat, Puckett led a failed effort to repeal the half-cent sales tax for mass transit in 2007.
He said the current board needs a business owner. “There is currently a vacuum of people with business experience on the board, someone who deals with employees, budgets and marketing,” he said.
The county, he said, needs to have an “honest discussion” about taxes and “the market forces that weigh upon them with tax rates and services.”
“It’s the whole notion behind the price of government,” Puckett said. “When the Democrats are in charge, they tend to raise taxes and expand services until the public says ‘ouch.’ Republicans cut taxes and cut services until the public says ‘ouch’ and replaces us with Democrats. We need to determine what the public wants to pay and in a market-driven world what level of taxation the public is comfortable with.
“It’s probably more than Republicans think and less than what Democrats think.”