Politics & Government

How will Joel Ford’s vote for the Republican budget play in a Democratic primary?

State Sen. Joel Ford at a Democratic Primary debate at Weeping Willow A.M.E. Zion Church.
State Sen. Joel Ford at a Democratic Primary debate at Weeping Willow A.M.E. Zion Church. dlaird@charlotteobserver.com

State Sen. Joel Ford wasn’t the only Democrat who voted for the Republican-authored state budget last month. But he was the only one running in a Democratic primary for mayor of Charlotte.

In supporting the Republican spending plan, Ford went against most Democratic colleagues, the state party and Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper – who blasted the budget before vetoing it.

“For me it’s simply about providing leadership,” Ford said.

But his vote already is an issue in this fall’s mayoral primary.

“It shows that his values are contrary to what we’re working on in Charlotte,” Mayor Jennifer Roberts told the Observer.

The vote drew a sharp contrast between Ford and his main rivals, Roberts and Mayor Pro Tem Vi Lyles.

Ford, a former Mecklenburg Democratic Party chairman, has cast himself as a Democrat who can get things done by working with GOP leaders in Raleigh. But it’s a risky strategy in a primary that typically attracts the party’s most committed and partisan voters.

“If Democratic primary voters want somebody who’s going to stand up to Republicans, his record is not one that’s going to excite him,” said Eric Heberlig, a UNC Charlotte political scientist.

Last week the General Assembly overrode Cooper’s veto of the $23 billion budget. Ford, who was in Charlotte campaigning, was not in the Senate for the vote. In an interview he said he would have voted with other Democrats in support of the governor’s veto.

But on June 21, he was one of four Democrats who joined all 35 Senate Republicans in voting for the final legislative budget. He was the only Mecklenburg Democrat in either chamber to support it.

“I look at it as putting people over politics,” he said. “Some of the things I’ve been advocating for are in the budget.”

The budget would “raise the age” of young offenders, meaning 16- and 17-year-olds would no longer be automatically charged as adults. It also gives teachers an average raise of 3.3 percent this year, most other state employees a flat $1,000 raise and state retirees a cost-of-living increase.

The spending plan also includes $250,000 for Renaissance West, a childhood education program in west Charlotte that Ford championed as former chairman of the Charlotte Housing Authority.

“I’ve been one of few Democrats from Mecklenburg County able to deliver on issues we say we care about,” Ford said. “I’m able to look my constituents in the eye and say, ‘The things you care about like upward mobility I care about too and was able to do something about it’.”

In vetoing the GOP budget, Cooper said it doesn’t go far enough in helping teachers and schools. He said it “prioritizes tax breaks for the wealthy and corporations” while shortchanging working people.

Cuts to the Justice Department could force Democratic Attorney General Josh Stein to lay off more than 100 staffers. Sen. Jeff Jackson, a Charlotte Democrat, has called the cuts “brutal.”

“I’m not happy about the cuts, but Mecklenburg County will receive additional (prosecutors) and deputy clerks,” Ford said.

Sharon Gladwell, spokeswoman for the Administrative Office of the Courts, said its budget was increased by $40 million over two years. But she said it’s too early to say how that would affect individual counties.

Roberts said the city is trying to tackle crime, specifically a spike in homicides. “That’s a very different priority than what they did in cutting money for the Department of Justice,” she said.

Lyles said Ford “needs to defend his ‘yes’ vote on the budget.”

Heberlig, the political scientist, said it could be the most ardent Democrats who vote in the Sept. 12 primary. In 2015, the city’s mayoral primary drew 8.8 percent of voters. A runoff between Roberts and then-Mayor Dan Clodfelter drew 6.1 percent.

“The challenge we’re facing more broadly in American politics is the people with the most moderate inclinations who are appealing to the broadest group of voters can’t win in the primaries,” Heberlig said, “because the activists want purity more than moderation or compromise.”

Ford said he’ll take his record to the voters.

“I’m going to continue to focus on what I told voters I would do,” he said. “And I’m going to show them the results and allow them to be the judge.”

Jim Morrill: 704-358-5059, @jimmorrill