Vilma Leake faces challenge from Dondhi Burrell for Mecklenburg County commissioner seat

Vilma Leake, the county’s District 2 commissioner, often touts herself as “the hardest-working commissioner in Mecklenburg County.”

Indeed, if she’s focused on an issue in her district, the other commissioners are sure to hear about it. If a family needs soothing, she’s the soother, and if there’s a ribbon-cutting, community event or funeral in District 2, you’ll often find her there.

“Vilma Leake is an untiring public servant,” said former broadcaster and community activist Ken Koontz, who lives in Leake’s district. “Once she locks onto something, you could not find a stronger advocate.”

All that may be true, says political newcomer Dondhi Burrell, Leake’s opponent in the May 6 Democratic primary. “But you can work hard and not be effective,” Burrell said. “I want to be the smartest and most effective commissioner. I don’t think Mrs. Leake can come up with the data to back up her bravado.”

Leake has been winning elections for a long time. She is running for a fourth term on the county board and before that voters elected her to three four-year terms on the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board.

A former longtime CMS teacher, she served 11 years on the school board, resigning her seat after she was elected county commissioner in 2008.

Leake, who moved to Charlotte in 1964 with her late husband, Bishop George Leake, said she’s worked to “lift up” the lives of poor people and provide a voice “for the voiceless.”

District 2 consumes most of western Mecklenburg, from the Beatties Ford Road area to Steele Creek in the southwest. The primary’s winner will face no Republican opposition in the November election.

Leake is known for her constituent work – particularly for senior citizens, homeless families and people living in poverty. She touts a small business consortium she helped start to assist entrepreneurs in the district. She advocates for teachers and better schools.

“I feel I can continue to serve and change the lives of poor people and be a voice for the masses,” Leake said. “That is where my energy goes: working for people.”

Yet she can be a divisive figure – even to members of her own party.

Some view her as needlessly aggressive, sometimes lashing out at fellow commissioners. With emotions still raw last May a week after commissioners fired County Manager Harry Jones, Leake had a run-in with Democratic commissioner Dumont Clarke, considered one of the board’s most liberal members.

In a brief exchange, Leake told Clarke: “You go back to the old time when white men sat in rooms and made decisions for poor people.” But Clarke, who is white, voted against firing Jones, who is black. Leake, who is black, supported the firing.

Leake said she and Clarke talked about the incident and “we are best friends now.” Last December, she nominated him to be the board’s vice chairman.

Some question her loyalty. Last year, she and commissioner Pat Cotham were close allies when Cotham was chairwoman. But when there was a move to replace Cotham as chair with current Chair Trevor Fuller, Leake voted for Fuller. She said: “I was only offering the opportunity for Mr. Fuller and Mr. Clarke to get leadership experience. Pat did a fine job as chair.”

Her challenger in this election said her “outbursts” aren’t good for the district. They “are not going to get our needs met,” Burrell said. “What worked in the ’60s doesn’t work in District 2 anymore. We need a representative who’ll work to bring people together.”

He said he’s helped run campaigns for other candidates, and has lived in District 2 for nearly eight years.

Burrell, a part-time funeral director assistant who moved to Charlotte in 1990, said he’s proud of his work with his Masonic Lodge, which opened the Double Oaks Masonic Outreach to help residents in the former public housing community. Burrell manages the outreach.

He said he would advocate for jobs for the district, for seniors and veterans and for quality schools.

“Children have to come out of school with a high school diploma that says ‘I’m ready for work’ or go to college,” he said. “If we don’t get children early, we’re going to pay one way or the other – either $8,000 a year to educate, or $40,000 a year to incarcerate. It doesn’t take a mathematical genius to decide which is the better investment.”

Leake said Burrell is an unknown and is inexperienced.

“You can’t run on what you do for the Masonic Lodge,” she said. “You have to run on what you do. I work for the people.”