District 5 Commissioner: Former Democratic chair tries to unseat the incumbent in a GOP-tilted district

The only contested district race among Mecklenburg County commissioners is District 5, south Charlotte, where incumbent Matthew Ridenhour is challenged by Democrat Marc Friedland.

Ridenhour, 39, a Charlotte native, was first elected in 2012 after unsuccessfully running for Charlotte City Council as a tea party candidate in 2009. He’s campaigning for a third term.

Friedland, 67, is a past chairman of the Mecklenburg County Democratic Party. He founded Talley’s Green Grocery, Charlotte’s first natural foods supermarket, and plunged into politics after closing the store.

Thirty-six percent of the district’s nearly 120,000 voters are Republicans, 33 percent independents and 30 percent Democrats.

Marc Friedland

Friedland became a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 2008 after closing the family-owned Talley’s grocery. He’s served on the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Community Relations Committee for six years and has made race-based economic and educational disparities a focus of his campaign.

He attributes the protests that roiled Charlotte after police shot Keith Lamont Scott to a “cultural segregation” that isolates Charlotte communities from each other. Friedland says his history at the grocery shows he can help bridge that divide.

“We treated everybody with respect,” he said. “One activist told me that what he liked about the store is that ‘nobody followed us around when we went in there.’ We were hiring African-American cashiers in 1991 that couldn’t get jobs at Harris Teeter.”

Lifting segments of the community that have long been ignored begins with education, Friedland says. He likes the idea of universal pre-kindergarten advanced by commissioners Chairman Trevor Fuller.

“A child who grows up on Beatties Ford Road should have the same educational opportunities as a child on Providence Road,” he said.

Friedland says the District 5 race is more about values than budgets and policies.

“It’s really a matter of what is your vision, and (Ridenhour’s) vision is that the less government the better. Government has to fill in the gaps in our economic and social structure. Government has to be there for when the free enterprise system doesn’t work.”

Matthew Ridenhour

Ridenhour is a conservative Republican with a libertarian streak. The Eagle Scout, 11-year Marine Corps and two-tour Iraq War veteran often greets his 22-month-old daughter, Caroline, during the televised Tuesday night meetings.

He said he’s learned in his nearly four years on the board the effectiveness of personal relationships, often across party lines.

“One of the most important things I’ve learned is the importance of meeting people and getting to know folks – people in county departments, community stakeholders,” he said. “Building relationships is how you really get things done.”

Ridenhour took office pitching zero-based budgeting, in which each line item has to be justified. He still likes the idea but has found little support for it on the board. He’s settled for scrutinizing county spending and chairing the audit review committee.

The broad themes he hears from constituents: A desire for Democrats and Republicans to be less divisive and more collaborative; concern for the future of Charlotte’s economic growth, especially for small businesses; and excitement over expansion of greenways and parks.

Ridenhour has a special interest in criminal justice reform, an issue he says is particularly relevant after the Scott shooting. He’d like the county to be part of an effort to take a new look at the justice system, from arrests to incarceration to discharge.

“Maybe there are some policies that need to be changed,” he said. “Maybe we can change things for the better in Mecklenburg County.”

Bruce Henderson: 704-358-5051, @bhender

Matthew Ridenhour

Hometown: Charlotte.

Education: Bachelor’s degree from American InterContinental University, Atlanta.

Family: Wife, Abby; daughter, Caroline.

Job: Risk analyst for FIS Risk and Security.

Politics: Ran for Charlotte City Council, 2009; county commissioner since 2012.

Marc Friedland

Hometown: Philadelphia.

Education: University of Pennsylvania, bachelor’s degree in history.

Family: Wife, Jyoti; two children.

Job: Retired entrepreneur .

Politics: Ran for Charlotte City Council, 2009.