South Charlotte

District 6 gets real primary

It's been 10 years since county commissioner Bill James, the conservative stalwart and dynamo of District 6, has faced an election-year adversary.

But this year's Republican primary race has heated up.

Last week, Piper Glen resident and retired Goldman Sachs analyst Ed Driggs announced his candidacy, standing on the steps of the Matthews branch of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library.

"We spend too much and we don't get enough done," Driggs said. The District 6 seat covers south Charlotte and the southern edge of the county, from Matthews and Mint Hill to Steele Creek.

When James took office in 1996, Ballantyne was just a pile of dirt and a vision. He's seen the area - and its ever-increasing tax base - explode.

A self-described "lightning rod," the outspoken James is often at odds with the Democrats on the county board.

"My job isn't to tell people what they want to hear, it's to represent them," James said. "And I do my best to. In most cases, the interests of District 6 are different than the interests of uptown."

A number of District 6 residents have grown increasingly frustrated with what they feel is disproportionate care for the amount of tax dollars residents put in the system.

That frustration led about 35 south Charlotte and Matthews residents to form the "South Mecklenburg Alliance of Responsible Taxpayers" (SMART).

The group is loosely formed and doesn't yet have an established identity, but their overarching message is clear: 'We're unhappy with the status quo.'

South Charlotteans' increased dissatisfaction with the city, coupled with an incendiary email from Bill James suggesting the controversial idea, spawned discussion of a "Town of Ballantyne," a secession concept fraught with complications.

But James and Driggs attended the informal SMART gathering at the South County Regional Library a few weeks ago, where talk of creating a new municipality or school board for south Mecklenburg was tossed around.

Driggs says the way James broaches these subjects is inflammatory, that James doesn't present his case in a manner that would compel other commissioners to listen.

James defends his mode of operation.

Residents of District 6 "want somebody who is going to speak up for them," said James. "The county commission is not some corporate board room. It's a dog-eat-dog world on the county commission, and you have to speak up for yourself."

In attendance at Driggs's campaign announcement were Driggs's wife, Caroline, their two kids, Ted and Lili, and a handful of supporters, including Tim Morgan, an at-large member of the Board of Education and resident of District 6.

Driggs's children attended South Charlotte Middle School and were in the I.B. program at Myers Park High.

Driggs, who moved from Connecticut to Charlotte 10 years ago with his family, said he's long considered running for a county commission seat. But Lili, a sophomore at Princeton, was still in high school at Myers Park. Now, "the decks are clear," he said.

The window for candidate filing is Feb. 13 to Feb. 29, and the primary election is May 8.

Driggs has raised nearly $30,000 and has invested about $10,000 of his own money, according to his campaign staff. He's been planning for this campaign since last May.

"I worked on Wall Street," said Driggs. "I'm ready for a fight."

James recently sent a fundraising letter to 700 of his supporters.

"I honestly think the best thing to do in a situation like this, which I have been in before," said James, "is to provide good constituent service and to stand up for the people out here. In the next couple of months we're going to be talking about the budget and taxes. ... When the chips are down, the people out here know that I'm in their corner and that I'm fighting with them."