This Saturday, 50 Democrats will gather in a Charlotte church and vote in an election marked both by its brevity and high stakes.
They’ll elect a replacement for former state Sen. Dan Clodfelter, a Charlotte Democrat who resigned this month after being tapped to succeed former Mayor Patrick Cannon, arrested last month on federal corruption charges.
The person they select will not only serve the remainder of Clodfelter’s current term but take his place on the November ballot – and be unopposed for a full two-year term.
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“Given that it’s a safe seat for Democrats, whoever’s chosen for this seat really has the potential to hold it as long as they want,” said Eric Heberlig, a political scientist at UNC Charlotte. “It really is a great prize for whoever the winner is.”
Party voters met the four candidates at a Tuesday night forum, where they generally agreed on issues as they made their case.
It will be the second time in a month, and the third time in seven months, when North Carolina Democrats will have filled a Senate vacancy in a special party election, a procedure mandated by state law.
Last month, Buncombe County Democrats chose a successor to the late Senate Minority Leader Martin Nesbitt. In September, party officials from Orange and Chatham counties named a replacement for Sen. Ellie Kinnaird of Chapel Hill, who resigned.
Unlike candidates on a regular ballot, those running to fill a vacancy aren’t required to formally file for office or disclose financial information about their campaigns.
Arcane party rules determine the number of voters. In Asheville, 149 Democrats chose Nesbitt’s successor. Kinnaird’s was chosen by four party officials from Orange and Chatham counties.
Saturday afternoon, the 50 Mecklenburg Democrats will make their choice at Little Rock A.M.E. Zion Church.
They’ll choose from among east Charlotte activist Darrell Bonapart; Jeff Jackson, an assistant district attorney; innkeeper Billy Maddalon, who served briefly on the Charlotte City Council; and former school board member Amelia Stinson-Wesley of Pineville.
Many appeared impressed with all the candidates Tuesday night.
“They have made it difficult for us,” said Hardin Minor, a precinct official from Elizabeth. “Each one is distinctive and pretty darn knowledgeable.”
With the winning candidate needing just 26 votes, there are no super PACs and no expensive media buys. Instead, campaigning is up close and personal.
Candidates are making calls, sending letters and ringing doorbells.
“I’ve probably fielded about three calls a candidate,” said Russell Fergusson, a precinct chair from Merry Oaks.
Bob Binner, vice chair of Precinct 20 near Freedom Park, had just finished mowing his lawn Saturday when he found Jackson at his door. They sat in the living room for a half hour and talked.
“I thought it was a good move on his part,” Binner said. “I thought it spoke volumes about his earnestness and desire to accomplish something.”
The winning candidate will join 16 other Democratic senators when the short legislative session begins in May. They’ll find themselves in a distinct minority in a General Assembly where Republicans have supermajorities.
The four Democrats stress their different experiences and styles.
Bonapart, 45, advises people with mortgage problems. It’s something he knows about. A disabled military veteran, he found himself in financial trouble after a Mideast deployment that forced him to file bankruptcy.
In the Senate, he said he would support measures aimed at helping people, especially vets, avoid similar problems.
Jackson, 31, calls himself a fighter.
“As a prosecutor, I’ve been trained to be a powerful advocate of what’s right and what’s wrong,” he said. “(People) are waiting to see who will step forward to lead the Democratic comeback, and I’m their man.”
Maddalon, who turned 47 Monday, wants to help his party regain the majority.
“We’ve got to start winning elections,” he said. “The way we do that is to have Democrats in Raleigh willing to do the hard work” of recruiting candidates and raising money for them.
Stinson-Wesley, 46, is an ordained minister who served on the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board and once worked in Cambodia for a nonprofit.
“I’ve lived in a war zone twice,” she said at Tuesday night’s forum. “I’ve walked across a mine field. The Republicans in Raleigh don’t scare me.”