Elections

Can Republicans crack at-large race when they’re out-numbered 2-1?

In the at-large City Council race, Republicans Parker Cains and John Powell are up against a full Democratic slate: incumbents Julie Eiselt and James Mitchell as well as Dimple Ajmera, currently a district member, and newcomer Braxton Winston. Libertarian Steven J. DiFiore II also is running.
In the at-large City Council race, Republicans Parker Cains and John Powell are up against a full Democratic slate: incumbents Julie Eiselt and James Mitchell as well as Dimple Ajmera, currently a district member, and newcomer Braxton Winston. Libertarian Steven J. DiFiore II also is running. dhinshaw@charlotteobserver.com

Parker Cains and John Powell are tying to do what no Charlotte Republican has done since 2009 – win an at-large city council race.

They know they need help.

“Unaffiliated voters are going to swing this election,” says Cains.

Cains and Powell are each running for one of four at-large seats. Republican David Michael Rice, a perennial candidate, is on the ballot but hasn’t campaigned.

The Republicans are up against a full Democratic slate: incumbents Julie Eiselt and James Mitchell as well as Dimple Ajmera, currently a district member, and newcomer Braxton Winston.

Libertarian Steven J. DiFiore II also is running.

Democrats would seem to have a built-in advantage. Almost half the city’s voters – about 48 percent – are registered Democrats. Thirty percent are unaffiliated and just 21 percent are Republican.

The last Republican to win at-large was Edwin Peacock in 2009, and he was defeated two years later. But that doesn’t mean Republicans can’t win, says Eric Heberlig, a UNC Charlotte political scientist.

“What we’ve seen in past municipal elections is the outcomes are much closer than the Democrats’ registration advantage,” he says. “In off-year elections, the demographic groups that make up the Democratic Party are much less likely to turn out than in presidential years, while Republican demographics are much more consistent voters.”

In 2015, for example, Peacock won nearly 48 percent of the vote against Democrat Jennifer Roberts. He lost the election by 3,700 votes.

But the at-large race has been a low-key affair. Most candidates are not widely known.

Cains, 32, Winston, 34, and DiFiore, 33, are millennials making their first run for office.

Powell, 58, ran and lost in 2015. Ajmera, 31, was appointed this year to a vacancy in eastside District 5.

Eiselt, 56, is in her first term. Mitchell, 55, is the only multi-term veteran.

Here’s a look at the candidates:

▪ Ajmera: Ajmera has been on council since January, when she was appointed to a vacancy from eastside District 5. She’s a certified public accountant and a former commissioner on the Charlotte Housing Authority.

She’s probably best known for saying this summer that Republicans who support President Donald Trump “should have no place on city council whatsoever or in the mayor’s race.”

But Ajmera has high-profile endorsements including that of Hugh McColl Jr., former chairman of the Bank of America. He praised her business background and called her a moderate who “does not believe in radical solutions.”

Ajmera came to the U.S. from India when she was in high school. She’s the council’s first Indian-American member and first millennial.

▪ Cains: He believes the council has been distracted by outside issues, including the backlash to last year’s anti-discrimination ordinance. He told one group he would “put national issues aside.”

“I will only focus on issues that benefit our community,” he told the Back Political Caucus.

A native of California, Cains moved to Chapel Hill with his family when he was a teenager. He’s lived in Charlotte since 2007 and is sales director at an IT consulting and integration business.

Cains recently moved to central Charlotte with his wife and 8-month-old daughter. He says he’s ready to work with Democrats to get things done.

“My goal is balance,” he says. “I inherently love discussion … with people who have different opinions.”

▪ DiFiore: As a Libertarian, he tells audiences that there’s more than “Team Red” and “Team Blue.” He’s offering voters a third way.

“I’m not bound by the standard thinking that is typical of either the Democratic or Republican Party,” he says on his website. “I’m not the typical candidate looking to tow the party line … I’ll bring a different point of view, a fresh voice, and new solutions.”

DiFiore came to Charlotte in 2005 as a student at UNC Charlotte. He now works as a sales rep for an industrial lighting manufacturer.

Because Libertarian have some common interests with each major party, he says he’d be able to help find common ground.

▪ Eiselt: In 2007, Eiselt was threatened at gunpoint in a YMCA parking lot. That prompted her to start a grassroots group called Neighbors for a Safer Charlotte that fought for and won more public funding for police and courts.

Now, in her first term on council, Eiselt chairs the council’s public safety committee and says that’s still her top priority.

A Wisconsin native whose career took her overseas, she moved to Charlotte in 1998 for a bank job in international finance. She ran for council in 2015 and received more votes than any at-large candidate.

She said she wants to focus on what she calls the “siloed nature of public safety.” She said that means improving how the city deals with state-funded courts. She also said she wants to work to improve the pay of police officers, which is something Police Chief Kerr Putney said is important to retaining officers.

“It’s cheaper to retain an officer than to hire a new one,” she said.

▪ Mitchell: Mitchell is the council’s longest serving member. He represented District 2 for 14 years and, after running unsuccessfully for mayor in 2013, was elected at-large in 2015.

Mitchell has also been active on the national level. He’s a former president of the National League of Cities.

On council, he chairs the economic development committee, which vets public-private partnerships. He was an enthusiastic supporter of the city helping pay for a new soccer stadium in Elizabeth, an idea currently in limbo.

He’s married to a former astronaut Joan Higginbotham.

▪ Powell: After losing the at-large race in 2015, Powell didn’t disappear. Instead he doubled down, attending council meetings and community events as if he were still a candidate.

“I made a promise,” he says. “When I ran two years ago, I pledged two years of my life to serve. I said I was going to stay involved regardless.”

Powell is a real estate broker and commercial real estate appraiser. He’s also on the Charlotte Mecklenburg Zoning Board of Adjustment.

Powell says he wants to bring “balance” to the council. That’s why he’s stayed engaged.

“That’s part of what a representative does,” he says. “You stay involved. You don’t tuck tail and run just because it doesn’t go your way.”

▪ Rice: Rice, 69, has run for office before. When he ran for mayor in 2013, he had a cable-access TV ministry. He called his political committee “Ricetown Royal Republic.”

Rice said at the time that his ultimate goal is to be mayor of a town that bears his name. The Charlotte election, he said, is “almost like having an election to elect a mayor of Ricetown.”

In the past, Rice has acknowledged financial problems. “Just problems like anybody else would have,” he once said, adding, “It wouldn’t affect my ability to manage budgets.”

▪ Winston: He came to public attention during the protests that followed last year’s shooting of Keith Lamont Scott. A photo shows him shirtless, fist raised against a line of black-helmeted police.

“As I tried to evaluate my role since then, it has been about connecting and building bridges,” he said this year. “I have the ability and skills to do this …in a way that builds common ground, in a way people have not been able to do in the past.”

Winston was raised in Brooklyn, the son of a teacher and a NYC firefighter and former Marine. He attended Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., and went on to Davidson College, where he majored in anthropology.

He tells people he’s running “so more people have the opportunities that I did.”

A freelance camera operator, he lives near NoDa with his wife and their three children.

Jim Morrill: 704-358-5059, @jimmorrill

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