Politics & Government

What happens when you send just one Republican to Raleigh? Mecklenburg will find out.

The state seal at the entrance to the Legislative Building in Raleigh.
The state seal at the entrance to the Legislative Building in Raleigh. cseward@newsobserver.com

Finding their way around North Carolina’s labyrinthine Legislative Building won’t be the only challenge for Mecklenburg County’s newest lawmakers when the General Assembly convenes Wednesday.

They’ll also have to navigate a new political landscape.

For the first time in decades, the state’s biggest county is sending a virtual one-party delegation to Raleigh. Sen. Dan Bishop is the only Republican in the 17-member group that includes eight newcomers. There will also be eight women, three more than last session.

They’ll join a legislature that’s also changed.

Gone are the Republican supermajorities that left Democrats with little influence and Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper with no effective veto threat.

State Sen. Dan Bishop . N.C. General Assembly

“I think we’ll all be finding our way,” said Bishop. “It poses challenges to each side. My approach will be to be as friendly as I can and try to find things we agree on.”

Democratic Rep. Kelly Alexander, the delegation’s new chairman, said the loss of supermajorities means each party will have to work with the other.

“In order to get anything done,” he said, “we’re going to have cooperation between Democrats and Republicans.”

In unseating five of Mecklenburg‘s incumbent Republicans, voters took away some clout.

Rep. Bill Brawley of Matthews had a big voice on tax policy as senior chair of the House Finance Committee. Rep. John Bradford chaired two committees and served as deputy majority whip. And Sen. Jeff Tarte co-chaired the Senate panel on State and Local Government, which handles local bills important to cities and counties.

Brawley helped fight efforts to transfer sales tax revenue from urban to rural counties. He also championed former GOP Gov. Pat McCrory’s transportation plan that, by relying on data instead of politics, benefits growing regions like the Charlotte area.

Like other urban areas, Mecklenburg County and Charlotte often have found themselves at odds with a legislature dominated by Republicans and rural lawmakers. There have been high-profile disputes over the airport, transit funding, money to upgrade Bank of America Stadium and a 2016 Charlotte ordinance extending non-discrimination protections. Charlotte is expected to seek state help for transit and affordable housing.

Tarte said tension may be inevitable on contentious issues.

“You run the risk, with the delegation being virtually all Democrats now, that issues that the Democrats might locally want to push, or things that are perceived as being out out of a progressive agenda, are going to be virtually impossible to move,” he said. “It’s going to be really important to see which moderate Democrats can establish relationships with moderate Republicans at the state level.”

Democratic newcomers acknowledge that even as they plan to pursue their agenda.

Rachel Hunt
Rachel Hunt

“We are are all pretty realistic about the need to work with Republicans and we’re going to seek out the folks willing to work with us,” said Democrat Rachel Hunt, who defeated Brawley. “We are just very interested in getting things done. We’re not there for political aggrandizement.”

Democrat Brandon Lofton, who defeated GOP Rep. Andy Dulin, said, “It’ll still come down to forming relationships and finding common ground.”

Brandon Lofton Courtesy Brandon Lofton

One new senator, Democrat Mujtaba Mohammed, said he hopes to see higher pay for teachers, more tax breaks for seniors and a return to tax-free weekends for school supplies. Like other Democrats, he wants an expansion of Medicaid, which North Carolina Republicans have long opposed.

Bishop said while there’s risk of partisan deadlock, there are also opportunities for collaboration.

“I prefer to begin from the premise that it ought to be compromise rather than deadlock,” he said. “But all you can do is put your best foot forward and see if its reciprocated.”

Local Democrats would seem to have a resource in Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles.

Republicans in North Carolina and across the country have applauded her efforts to bring the 2020 GOP convention to Charlotte over the objections of some fellow Democrats. And she has a good personal relationship with Republicans such as Bishop.

“She and I don’t agree politically on a lot of issues,” he said. “It is not a question of her making any kind of concession on policy. She has enormous personal grace and a deft touch. And I enjoy working with her.”

Jim Morrill, who grew up near Chicago, covers state and local politics. He’s worked at the Observer since 1981 and taught courses on North Carolina politics at UNC Charlotte and Davidson College.