Matthew Ridenhour spent 11 years as a Marine. It trained him well for the battles Mecklenburg County commissioners encountered during his first term representing District 5.
During that two-year term, the board fired the county’s longtime county manager. It took blows from agitated property owners over a botched 2011 revaluation. Meanwhile, County Manager Dena Diorio began to take the county in a new direction.
Republican Ridenhour, 37, running for a second term, is being challenged by Democrat Art Cardenas, a database administrator for Carolinas Healthcare System, who says the current board has not monitored spending closely enough.
He points to the county spending $160,000 for opening celebrations of Romare Bearden Park uptown last year. “It looks like nobody’s paying any attention to expenses, including Matthew,” Cardenas said. “This is not a personal thing against Matthew. And I’m not against a baseball park or the uptown park, but we don’t have an unlimited amount of money.”
During his first term, Ridenhour was a conservative voice on a board of six Democrats. He says he’s been a compromise seeker, though he’s not shied away from tangling on several issues with the board’s more liberal commissioners, particularly over allowing concealed guns in county parks for people with permits and the sales tax referendum on the November ballot.
“The Marine Corps prepared me well for learning on the fly,” said Ridenhour, 37, a former Marine staff sergeant with two tours in Iraq and a former tea party organizer in Mecklenburg. “I felt like for the first several months I was drinking from the fire hydrant trying to learn a complicated job, with the budget process and then the tough transition we began to navigate. But after the initial period of learning, I feel I have become more effective and have a stronger voice.”
Cardenas, 49, was raised in Mexico City and moved to the United States in 1993 and Charlotte five years later.
Cardenas said he believes he’s got a chance to unseat Ridenhour, focusing on the district’s nearly 38,000 unaffiliated and 38,000 Democratic voters. The district, which stretches from Myers Park deep into South Charlotte, has historically voted Republican, with just over 45,000 Republican voters.
He’s not new to long-shots.
Last year, Cardenas ran against popular City Council member Patsy Kinsey for her old District 1 seat. Kinsey was Charlotte’s mayor for several months after former Mayor Anthony Foxx left for Washington and easily took back her seat with 92 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary.
“I felt Patsy shouldn’t run unchallenged,” he said. “Elected officials begin to take their positions for granted if they do.”
The loss didn’t stop him from trying again. He decided to run for county commission after his property tax bill went up by $300 in 2003 and by $200 four years later.
Cardenas said he supports the proposal to raise the local sales tax by a quarter-cent largely to give Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools employees a pay raise. “Right now, it’s the only way to raise pay.”
He doesn’t favor cutting property taxes – “the county needs the money.” But he wouldn’t raise them either. “We need to find where the waste is,” he said. “That will generate a lot of money.”
Ridenhour said he has kept a close watch on how the board spends money. “I think I’ve brought a sense of fiscal responsibility and responsible spending of tax dollars,” he said.
During the budget process earlier this year, when it became clear that Mecklenburg would have a surplus of money for 2014-15, Ridenhour proposed cutting the property tax rate by 2 cents and said the county would still have money to expand services.
Commissioners decided to leave the rate alone.
Before the board approved the budget, Ridenhour offered a proposal to cut property taxes by a penny and provide nearly $6 million in excess debt service money for a one-time bonus to CMS teachers. His motion failed.
He also pushed to revive a small-business committee to help strengthen the county’s role in economic development.
“People look to the city and county to stimulate job creation,” he said. “Sometimes the answer is government getting out of the way. We’ve got distressed areas in the county, and we need to look at what we can do to spur growth and development.”