Chief Judge Mercer loses his seat

Mecklenburg's Chief District Court Judge Fritz Mercer appears to have lost his bid to keep his seat on the bench, which he's held for nearly 18 years.

Mercer can ask for a recount since so few votes separated him from his opponent, John Totten, a lawyer who was endorsed by the Democratic Party.

Totten beat Mercer by 997 votes, winning 50.2 percent of the vote Tuesday. Also, the county's 4,000 provisional ballots must still be tallied, though they typically follow trends similar to the regular vote.

Neither Mercer nor Totten could be reached Wednesday.

Although judicial races are nonpartisan, most of Tuesday's winners appeared to benefit from a wave of Democratic voters. They'd won endorsements from Mecklenburg's Democratic Party and Black Political Caucus.

In the end, four incumbent judges – Mercer, Todd Owens, Theo Nixon and Ben Thalheimer – were ousted in the seven contested races.

“I think this is an excellent example of why we should not be electing judges,” said Parks Helms, a lawyer and Democratic county commissioner, who says voters got rid of several experienced judges.

The election, he said, “brought out tens of thousands of voters who came to vote for a president, and while there, cast ballots for judges they knew little or nothing about.”

At least two races also featured other unusual twists.

Elizabeth Trosch didn't campaign for the judgeship she won Tuesday. The assistant public defender remained on the ballot but said she no longer wanted the job, after Judge Theo Nixon assumed the seat in April.

The Democratic Party endorsed both Trosch and Nixon, but Trosch may have benefitted from her family's name recognition. Her mother-in-law, Minette Trosch, served on Charlotte's City Council for a decade in the 1970s and 1980s. Her brother-in-law, Lou Trosch, is a district court judge who faced no opposition in his race Tuesday.

“I can only imagine what Theo is feeling,” Trosch said Wednesday. “I am sorry that he's having to experience this. But I have been elected to the position. I am honored. And I will do the best that I can to serve the community well.”

In another race, millionaire Republican Bill Belk held back Tuesday's Democratic tide to win a seat on the bench.

Belk is a grandson of the founder of Belk's department stores and nephew of former Charlotte Mayor John Belk. Though he rarely practiced law, Belk targeted Judge Ben Thalheimer, who had handled part of Belk's divorce case.

Thalheimer gave Belk's wife 52 percent of the $4.9 million in divisible assets.

Belk claimed the courts had treated him unfairly and need to be changed. He called Thalheimer “neither fair nor impartial.”

Thalheimer said Tuesday the ousting of experienced judges sends a chilling message to those committed to fair-minded public service. Belk could not be reached.

At least three of the winning judicial candidates – John Totten, Kim Best and Donnie Hoover – had been endorsed by the local Democratic Party. In two other races, the Party endorsed both candidates.

The Black Political Caucus endorsed all of those candidates, as well as Belk.

“We're happy Mr. Belk won,” said Dwayne Collins, chairman of the Black Political Caucus. “That speaks well for our influence in the community. It speaks well for Mr. Belk. (But) he didn't win just on the backs of blacks.”

African American voters strongly supported most of Tuesday's winners.

In the 15 most predominantly black precincts, most of the judicial winners got between 60 and 80 percent of the vote.

In the most predominantly white precincts, winners got between 30 and 56 percent of the vote.

Many lawyers speculated before the election that Belk's name recognition might be enough for him to win. But they weren't expecting Elizabeth Trosch to beat Judge Nixon.

“That was the biggest surprise of the evening…,” said Mecklenburg Public Defender Kevin Tully. “I don't have an explanation for what happened – why she won. Theo Nixon has done a great job as a judge. And I think so will Elizabeth.”

Even Trosch was surprised: “I never said I didn't want to be a judge…But I certainly wasn't expecting this.”