Politics & Government

Former city council member joins two incumbents in the race for three at-large seats

Former Charlotte City Council member Ella Scarborough thundered back onto the local political scene Tuesday, grabbing the most votes in Tuesday’s Democratic primary and joining two incumbents in the race for three at-large seats on the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners.

A third incumbent, Kim Ratliff, came in last of five candidates and will be off the commission after one term.

At a recent local Democratic Party convention, when it came time for Scarborough to speak, she shouted: “I’m back!”

And indeed she is. With all precincts reporting, Scarborough had 23.05 percent of the vote, followed by incumbents Pat Cotham (22.29 percent) and Trevor Fuller (20 percent).

As the counting wound down, newcomer Elaine Powell (17.38 percent) supplanted Ratliff (17.28 percent) to come in fourth.

Scarborough, Cotham and Fuller will face Republicans Emily Zuyus and Scott Carlisle for the three at-large seats in the November election.

Fuller, the current board chair, was the only man among four women in the primary. He said the outcome showed that the Democrat Party has “a high percentage of female voters and most of those voters tend to vote for other women.”

He said he was gratified to be among the three nominees. “It’s clear that I still have work to do, and I’m prepared to do it.”

It was a race with different subplots.

The three incumbents were first elected in 2012. Fuller is the board’s current chairman; Cotham chaired the commission last year and immediately began to shake up county government. Ratliff was vice chairman last year.

Scarborough spent five terms on the Charlotte City Council and was the first black woman to win an at-large seat. But she’d been missing from the political scene since 2001, when she lost to now-Gov. Pat McCrory for Charlotte mayor. She jumped into the race because she felt the commission lacked a voice for ordinary people.

Powell was the only candidate of the five to make protecting the environment a key issue. She said a healthy environment was a key component to a resilient economy and good quality of life – which would draw businesses into the county.

Fuller brought a calming voice to the board after a year of tumult. Since he took over as chairman in December, he’s shortened meetings and refuses to let commissioners stray from issues that are being discussed.

With issues resolved, the constant bickering among commissioners has ended. So has criticism from commissioners lobbed at county management and staff. Much of the difficult change came during Cotham’s tenure, leaving Fuller to preside over the hiring of a new health director and new County Manager Dena Diorio, the county’s former finance director.

Some saw Cotham as vulnerable. In an effort to build a voting coalition, she won the trust of the board’s three Republicans. But she also lost support from fellow Democrats who complained she excluded them from discussions as she cozied up to Republicans.

Yet her coalition worked. She successfully got the board to support a review of the 2011 property revaluation and move a review of the county’s code enforcement to priority status.

She also led the move to fire longtime County Manager Harry Jones.

Cotham said she knew the move would anger some voters, but she felt Jones had created a culture in county government that stood as an impediment to change. She said Jones and his management team withheld information from the board and lacked oversight of the 2011 revaluation and of a social services department with big problems.

In the latter days of the campaign, she targeted African-American voters with fliers showing endorsement by well-known Charlotte blacks, including lawyer James Ferguson.

Ratliff drew widespread criticism when she said she didn’t want a white man to fill Jones’ vacancy. She repeatedly said she misspoke, saying she only meant to encourage women to apply for the job that Diorio finally got.

In the end, her mistake may have influenced the outcome.

As it appeared things were calming down with the commission, more tumult was created after commissioners voted to replace Cotham with Fuller.

Commissioner Vilma Leake, who’d been a close ally to Cotham while she was chairman, was the deciding vote to make the switch.

Cotham felt betrayed. Leake said Cotham had done a good job as chairman but she was trying to provide other commissioners with leadership opportunities.

Now they rarely talk, particularly after Leake reportedly jabbed Cotham in the head at a get-out-the-vote rally late last month.

Leake denied ever hitting Cotham. But Cotham confirmed it happened and Leake’s opponent, Dondhi Burrell, said he saw Leake take the jab.