Mecklenburg County at-large commissioners: Democrats hold three seats, but a Republican challenges

Trevor Fuller
Trevor Fuller

A lone Republican will try to snatch one of three at-large seats held by incumbent Democrats on the Mecklenburg County board of commissioners.

The board’s current and past chairs, Trevor Fuller and Pat Cotham, want to reclaim their seats. Ella Scarborough, who led primary voting in March, is a 10-year veteran of Charlotte City Council who joined the county board two years ago.

Republican Jeremy Brasch is making his first bid for elected office.

Democrats enjoy a hefty advantage in Mecklenburg, with 45 percent of registered voters compared to 25 percent for Republicans. Thirty percent of voters are independents.

The board’s main duties are to set annual budgets and property tax rates and create priorities in key areas including health, education, welfare and mental health. Commissioners serve two-year terms.

Jeremy Brasch

The financial systems analyst is focused on tax policy but goes beyond calling to simply lower rates.

The relatively high combined property tax rate of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County ($1.2944 per $100 valuation) is driving people to live outside the county, he said, even while continuing to work there.

That phenomenon prompted Brasch to envision something other than a one-size-fits-all tax policy. Rates could instead be adjusted to suit specific county objectives, he said, such as creating incentives to spur redevelopment or give taxpayers a reason to stay in Mecklenburg.

“My job, and the reason people hire me, is not to have the answers but to recognize the problem and bring the right people to the table,” he said. UNC Charlotte would be a good place to start, he says.

Brasch says he would bring a moderate viewpoint to the board.

“The best options for our county government often are the choices that blend the best of all the viewpoints,” he said. “We need this voice at the table to help unify our county and serve the long-term needs of our citizens, not to serve the short election cycle of the politicians.”

With two daughters in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, Brasch says it’s important that public schools be adequately funded. He laments schools’ struggles to attract and retain good teachers and would like to see a messaging campaign to make college graduates want to choose teaching careers as “unrecognized heroes in our society.”

Pat Cotham

Cotham, elected in 2012, is a ubiquitous presence at community events, from town meetings in Cornelius to the funerals of murder victims in Charlotte. Getting out of her own zip code, she says, can be illuminating.

“I go everywhere,” she said. “If you’re going to be out there in good times, you need to be out there in bad times too. It just keeps me grounded.”

But while she often works across party lines, Cotham’s relationships with fellow Democrats on the board are strained. They unseated her as chair for 2014 after a tumultuous year that saw former county manager Harry Jones fired and problems erupt with property revaluations.

“I’m effective in doing things on my own,” she said. “I’m the one who goes to 15 graduations. I just find my own way to make a difference.”

Cotham, 66, serves on local committees on homelessness and criminal justice, and spent nearly a year helping Cornelius plan a new arts center. She was a vocal opponent of the Interstate 77 toll lane project in north Mecklenburg.

“My goals are to get deeper into issues like homelessness and housing. I like technical stuff, like to learn about stuff. And I’m not afraid to call out things. ... Because I can’t do big things, I can dig deeper into issues and that makes me valuable on the board.”

Trevor Fuller

Fuller, 49, was elected chairman in 2013 and has held the chair since then despite finishing third among at-large commissioners two years ago. He says the board has been productive under his leadership and now able to differ amicably.

“I wouldn’t say we’ve converted our Republican friends to our believes, but we have far fewer differences than you would believe,” he said. “When you go to our meetings you’ll hear laughter, and I’m not sure that was always the case.”

As chair, Fuller called for a task force to address economic disparities that, a 2014 study showed, found Charlotte’s poor children have the worst odds of any large U.S. city of rising out of poverty.

“I’ve long said that if we’re going to improve the lives of everybody in the county, we need to make sure the prosperity that’s here is a shared wealth,” he said. “And right now there are too many barriers for too many of us, such that you wind up with a situation where these (police shooting) protests can occur. If we don’t address the problem of economic opportunity in Mecklenburg County, I think we allow ourselves to be at risk.”

Fuller has also called for a task force to broaden economic opportunities, which is now meeting, for universal pre-kindergarten education and for county job-training programs to help fill 8,000 local jobs. The protests in September, after Charlotte-Mecklenburg police shot Keith Lamont Scott, only adds to the urgency to act, he said.

He says the county is at an inflection point as it grows, with economic opportunity a focal point.

“We have a sense that we have to make some decisions about where we’re going to be in the next 10 or 20 years. We’re not all from the same cultural background, but somehow we have to maintain what it is that attracted us to Mecklenburg County. We all feel like the decisions we’re making now are going to be long-lasting decisions, and even if we do nothing, that’s a decision.”

Ella Scarborough

Scarborough won her first term as a county commissioner in 2014 but served five terms on Charlotte City Council, where she was the first black woman to win an at-large seat.

“It was just like riding a bicycle – once you start, you just keep pedaling,” she said of her return to office. “The issues have not changed. People need more services, we need more money to provide the services, and the state keeps cutting the money for services.”

Scarborough, 70, chairs the board’s economic development committee and has been a voice for finding jobs for local unemployed people. Upward mobility and education have been key concerns.

“If you don’t have new businesses coming in and don’t develop economically in your city or county, then you’re putting yourself in a position to do nothing,” she said. The benefits of new businesses “are getting there inch by inch, but we can’t do it overnight.”

Scarborough, who once taught students trying to reenter the workforce at Central Piedmont Community College, supports Fuller’s call for county training programs to help fill 8,000 local jobs. The county can help identify the workforce needs of incoming companies and train students to meet them, she said.

When she was 16, Scarborough was jailed for seven days when she and other black students in Sumter, S.C., tried to walk through the front door of a segregated movie theater. As a student at S.C. State University, Scarborough was part of an effort to integrate the only bowling alley in Orangeburg, S.C. Officers fired into a crowd of black students, killing three.

She sees the looting that took place as protesters reacted after the Charlotte police shooting of Scott as counterproductive.

“I do condone that they were smart enough to get out and say ‘We’re not going to take it anymore,’ but you don’t have to tear things up to do it,” she said. “It’s almost self-defeating.”

Bruce Henderson: 704-358-5051, @bhender

Jeremy Brasch

Hometown: Charlotte.

Education: Associate’s degree in aircraft armament, U.S. Air Force; bachelor’s degree in business, UNC Charlotte; master’s of business administration, Georgia Southern University; law degree, Charlotte School of Law.

Family: Married to Natasha, four daughters.

Job: Financial systems analyst, Compass Group North America.

Politics: First run for public office.

Pat Cotham

Hometown: St. Louis.

Education: Bachelor’s degrees in journalism and Spanish from the University of Missouri.

Family: Daughter, N.C. Rep. Tricia Cotham, D-Matthews.

Job: Fulltime county commissioner. Previously worked as an employment advocate for people with criminal records and is a retired corporate recruiter and small business owner.

Politics: County commissioner since 2012.

Trevor Fuller

Hometown: Buffalo, N.Y.

Education: Bachelor’s in English from Hamilton College; law degree from Georgetown University.

Family: Wife, Camille Davidson; son Jackson, daughter Schuyler.

Job: Owner of The Fuller Law Firm.

Politics: County commissioner since 2012.

Ella Scarborough

Hometown: Sumter, S.C.

Education: Bachelor’s degree in library science education from S.C. State University; master’s in organizational leadership from University of Charleston (W.V.)

Family: Widowed; children Troy and Tori.

Job: Retired manager at Duke Energy.

Politics: Served 10 years on Charlotte City Council; county commissioner since 2014.