Democrats in Mecklenburg County are hoping to retain their 6-3 majority on the Board of Commissioners — and maybe even increase it by picking up a contested seat or two in November.
Although the county commissioners sometimes draw less attention than other government bodies, the nine-member board sets a $1.7 billion budget, provides a big chunk of funding for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and oversees more than 5,500 employees in departments ranging from social services to parks.
And the county commissioners set the biggest share of local property taxes, which are likely to be a hot-button issue next year in the wake of the first revaluation since the botched 2011 assessments. Property values are expected to soar, going up more than 50 percent on average. But that doesn’t mean taxes will jump by the same amount, because county commissioners will choose how to set the tax rate in light of the new values.
Last year, the Charlotte City Council saw a major shift, with a majority of members newly elected and under 40. Democrats have a 9-2 advantage on the city council, where they hold the mayor’s chair and all the at-large seats.
Given the number of incumbents or unopposed candidates on the ballot and the lack of a big shake-up in the May primary, county commissioners are unlikely to see as dramatic a change to their ranks. But Democrats are challenging all three Republican district representatives, two of whom ran unopposed in 2016, for the first time since 2012.
“If you run a smart campaign, it’s extremely winnable,” said Democratic strategist Dan McCorkle. He’s working for Susan McDowell, who’s challenging longtime south Charlotte commissioner Bill James, a Republican.
Larry Shaheen, a Republican strategist, said he doesn’t think the same “throw the bums out” mentality that could pose a challenge for incumbents in national and state legislative races will carry over to Mecklenburg commissioners.
“I don’t think there’s the same animosity we are seeing in congressional and national races,” said Shaheen.
Three county commissioner races have already been decided, because candidates are running unopposed. And with three incumbents and one challenger running for the three at-large seats, at least two of the at-large commissioners will be returning to the dais. Here’s a look at the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners races:
Three Republican incumbents challenged
For the first time in six years, Democrats are fielding challengers to all three incumbent Republican commissioners. These seats have traditionally been safe Republican territory:
▪ District 1 covers north Charlotte, Huntersville, Cornelius and Davidson.
▪ District 5 covers most of the southeast Charlotte “wedge” between Independence and South boulevards.
▪ District 6 covers much of south Charlotte, Pineville, Matthews and Mint Hill.
The three Democratic challengers, all of whom are women, say they think voters are ready for change. But the incumbent Republicans said they think voters will choose to stick with them because of their track records and commitment to keeping a lid on property taxes and spending.
“I don’t foresee a blue wave,” said Matthew Ridenhour, Republican commissioner from District 5. “I think we’re going to work a little harder.”
His opponent, Democrat Susan Harden, said the county commissioners need to work better with the other local governing bodies, Charlotte City Council and the CMS board, to plan for growth, protect the environment and improve the county’s schools.
“We’ve got to do a better job,” said Harden, a professor at UNC Charlotte’s Cato College of Education. “Those relationships have really been frayed.”
Jim Puckett, a Republican, didn’t have a Democratic challenger last election, but this year he’s facing long-time Parks & Recreation commissioner Elaine Powell. Puckett said he’s counting on voters to recognize his accomplishments in a district where Democrats and unaffiliated voters both outnumber Republicans.
“For Democrats who have been engaged and know the issues, I suspect they will be as likely to support me as not,” said Puckett. He points to his longstanding opposition to toll lanes on Interstate 77, probes into the county’s health department after botched STD testing and opposition to Mecklenburg’s plans to subsidize a bid for a new Major League Soccer team.
“I protect my constituents,” said Puckett, who owns an industrial painting and ceiling-cleaning company.
Powell said the county needs to be more forward-thinking and work to build more parks. Greenway construction is behind schedule, and national studies have found Charlotte ranks last among major cities in terms of the amount and access to park space.
“Even with the current population, we are way behind,” said Powell, who works in her husband’s small business. “Based on the population projections, it’s scary.”
The most contentious of the three district races could be District 6, where Democrats are hoping enough new voters have moved in to give them a chance. The district is about 35 percent Republican, 29 percent Democratic and 35 percent unaffiliated.
Although Republicans still hold an edge, that’s a shift from 2012, the last time James faced a Democrat in the general election. Republicans then accounted for 40 percent of registered voters, while unaffiliated voters made up only 30 percent of the electorate. and Democrats accounted for a similar share.
“That’s why I have a real chance,” said McDowell, his challenger. “People are ready for change.”
James is seeking his 12th term on the board. The longest-serving current member, he’s attracted courted controversy in the past with comments on race and about gay people. He said he’ll be a stalwart against increasing taxes and spending, which he called “insanity.”
“We’re about to have a revaluation next year, and I don’t think that voters want to give the Democrats unfettered access without any Republicans...to temper their judgment, which is often bad,” said James, who didn’t face a general election challenger in 2014 or 2016. He said his long tenure means voters are familiar with him, after two decades. “They know who I am. They know what I stand for.”
McDowell, a former college counselor and operations manager for an arts supply company, said it’s time for new representation. She said she’s much more progressive and inclusive than James.
“It doesn’t matter if you don’t look like me, or love like me or worship like me, everyone has inherent dignity,” said McDowell. “I wanted to run against him because he doesn’t represent my values.”
She said she doesn’t favor a tax increase either.
“I don’t believe we should raise taxes either,” she said. “I’m not in favor of a property tax increase, especially at the same time as a revaluation.”
James said that he doesn’t think District 6 is ready to change from red to blue.
“She’s pretty far left for this district,” said James, a retired CPA.
Ridenhour, a risk manager at a financial software company, said he doesn’t believe the partisanship that’s divided the federal government in Washington and state government in Raleigh has as much resonance in county politics.
“No park gets opened and is a Republican park or a Democrat park,” he said. “People just want nice parks.”
At-large contest a repeat
The at-large race for county commissioners is a rematch of the 2016 contest, with the three incumbents Democrats seeking reelection. The incumbents beat a field of four new Democratic challengers in the primary election to retain their places on the ticket.
There hasn’t been a Republican at-large commissioner since Jim Pendergraph, a former Democrat and Mecklenburg sheriff, served from 2010 to 2012. Given the nearly two-to-one advantage Democrats have over Republicans in registered voters, the three Democratic incumbents are heavily favored to win reelection.
Democrats make up about 44 percent of registered voters in Mecklenburg, compared with 24 percent for Republicans. About 32 percent of voters are unaffiliated.
Republican Jeremy Brasch, a corporate accounting systems manager, is the lone challenger seeking countywide office, as he was in the previous election. In 2016, he won just over 20 percent of the vote, behind Pat Cotham with 29 percent, Trevor Fuller with 25 percent and Ella Scarborough with 25 percent.
Brasch, a financial systems analyst, said he supports a property tax rate that the county could vary to incentivize some development.
“I support one set property rate with the ability to offer temporary incentives to areas we want to encourage development,” said Brasch in a survey the Observer sent commission candidates. “This would potentially lower tax revenue for the county and the county would have to work with the lower amount of revenue.”
Fuller and Cotham aren’t sure the county will lower the property tax rate to entirely offset the higher property values, what’s called a “revenue neutral” rate. The county could collect the same amount of revenue with a lower rate, because the average valuation is increasing. Under a revenue neutral rate, some properties could still pay higher taxes, if their values have gone up more than the average, while others could see a lower tax bill.
“I suspect that the county will reduce the tax rate somewhat next year, but I will first evaluate the county’s needs before making that determination,” said Fuller, an attorney.
Cotham, a former executive search firm owner and corporate sales executive, said the county must be wary of any potential tax increases that would impact vulnerable residents, but also consider the county’s future needs.
“We would need information about future capital needs and how increased revenues could help. It is a balancing act,” she said. “Landlords need to tell us how much rent would increase and what would result from that. Persons on fixed incomes would struggle with increases.”
Scarborough, the board’s chair, didn’t respond to the Observer’s survey. A longtime Charlotte politician, she served five terms on City Council before she won her first term as a county commissioner in 2014.
Three county commissioner candidates, all Democrats, are running unopposed. Longtime commissioners Vilma Leake, of District 2, and George Dunlap, of District 3, aren’t facing opponents in November. Commissioner Dumont Clarke is stepping down, and newcomer Mark Jerrell is set to win his seat in District 4.