Politics & Government

NC Senate race reflects Democratic dilemma: Stand on principle or stand with Republicans

For six years Joel Ford has been a Democratic member of the North Carolina Senate. He was a Democratic candidate for mayor last fall and before that chaired the Mecklenburg Democratic Party.

But along the way Ford has worked with Republicans. And now he faces a challenger who questions his party allegiance.

"I don’t believe that we need to appease Republicans," said Democrat Mujtaba Mohammed. "We've got to be able to provide people . . . with a bold progressive vision."

Mujtaba Mohammed

As much as any N.C. contest, the primary in Senate District 38 reflects national Democratic divisions between progressive ideals and pragmatic moderation, between standing on principle or standing with Republicans if that's what it takes in a state where Republicans hold a solid grip on the General Assembly.

"I would describe it as a philosophical difference within the Democratic Party," said Ford, reciting a litany of his community's challenges. "I, as a Democrat representing that constituency, don’t have the luxury of not engaging the leadership to help my district.”

Party credentials are likely to be a factor in a primary that typically draws the most committed and partisan voters.

For some voters, said Democratic consultant Dan McCorkle, "It’ll come down to party loyalty versus incumbency.”

Ford and Mohammed are two of four Democratic candidates in the district that stretches across north Charlotte from the airport in the west to the Cabarrus County line in the east. A majority of the district's voters are African American and registered Democrats.

Tim Wallis, 26, is a systems engineer making his first run for office. Roderick Davis, 34, has run for several offices and won nearly 48 percent of the vote against Ford in the 2016 primary despite barely campaigning.

Mohammed, 32, is an assistant public defender and former official of the county Democratic Party. He's a former staff attorney at the Council for Children’s Rights.

Ford, 49, is currently an executive consultant for Tennessee-based behavioral health company. He has called himself "a recovering entrepreneur."

In the Senate, Ford is a moderate who has worked with Republicans, who hold a "super-majority" with 35 of 50 seats.

"They don’t need us for anything so I am scrapping and working hard to bring deliverables to my district," he told the Observer. "You can play politics or you can deliver for your constituency."

Last summer Ford was one of four Democrats who joined Senate Republicans in voting for the final legislative budget. He was the only Mecklenburg Democrat in either chamber to back it. He touts the fact that it included $25 million for Charlotte-Douglas International Airport and $250,000 for Renaissance West, a childhood education program in west Charlotte that he championed when he chaired the Charlotte Housing Authority.

But Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, vetoed the GOP budget, saying it didn't go far enough in helping teachers and schools. He said it "prioritizes tax breaks for the wealthy and corporations" while shortchanging working people. Ford, who was in Charlotte campaigning for mayor, was not in the Senate for the successful vote to override the veto. He said he would have voted with other Democrats to uphold the veto.

At a Black Caucus Forum this month, Mohammed said Democrats should fight for education and other issues they believe in.

"Why is it that as Democrats we should give up our values and our principles just to make (Republicans) happy?" he said. "Why do Democrats constantly have to move to the center while they move further to the right?"

Ford said Democrats have to be realistic as long as they're in the minority.

"Unless we as Democrats in this state come up with agenda that will appeal to rural and suburban North Carolina, we will continue to be in the minority," he said at the forum. "It's going to take 26 votes to get anything done in the North Carolina Senate. Then you've got to get (a majority) in the North Carolina House and a governor willing to sign it.”

Records show Ford voted against the Senate majority 22 percent of the time this session. That's more than several Democrats including Sen. Jeff Jackson of Charlotte.

At the forum, Mohammed also chided Ford for missing votes last session while he ran for mayor.

Records show he had 34 excused absences, twice as much as any other senator. And he cast only 240 out of 574 possible votes, fewer than any senator.

"Our district went silent because we didn’t have a voice there," Mohammed said.

In the previous session, Ford cast 1,000 votes, 95 percent of the total. He said when he running for mayor last year, he rarely missed big votes.

"Major pieces of legislation you will find me present and voting with my district,” he said.

Ford, who got just 16 percent of the vote in Charlotte's mayoral primary, said it's about getting results in Raleigh.

"In this environment, with everything coming out of the Republican-controlled legislature, we need thoughtful and considerate Democrats who are still willing to provide solutions for our growing and dynamic (community).”

Jim Morrill, 704-358-5059; @jimmorrill