The blue rip tide that swept many Republicans from office in Charlotte-Mecklenburg stopped short of the county courthouse.
Bolstered by controversial election changes that might as well have been a line of sandbags, the GOP swept four contested court seats on a bench traditionally dominated by Democrats.
Until Tuesday night, Mecklenburg’s district judges were elected countywide. Under the plan put in place by the Republican-led legislature for this election, District Court candidates had to run in districts. The General Assembly also eliminated primaries, meaning multiple candidates from the same party could end up in the same race.
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The latter provision proved decisive in north Mecklenburg in the campaign for the Superior Court seat in from District 26C. There, Huntersville attorney George Bell, who lost a countywide District Court race two years ago, bested two Democratic challengers who split their party’s vote.
Bell’s received 24,671 ballots, or 46.97 percent of the total. His opponents, Reggie Knight and Howard Clark, got 34.90 percent and 18.12 percent, respectively. Combined, the Democrats topped Bell by some 3,200-votes.
The new election map appeared to been a pivotal factor in south Mecklenburg where two Democratic incumbents lost to Republican challengers in District 26A. In third district race, a Republican incumbent easily won re-election.
In one of the most closely watched campaigns, Michael Stading, a former assistant district attorney and now a successful criminal defense attorney, defeated Alicia Brooks, who was seeking her second term on the District Court bench.
Both received high marks from lawyers in the N.C. Bar Association. But while Brooks was graded slightly higher by her peers, she trailed Stading at the polls, losing by about 1,800 votes in a race where Stading received 51.64 percent of the vote.
Critics of the judicial election changes dismissed them as legislative meddling to elect more Republican judges. Their GOP authors said the new lines better reflected voting patterns and population shifts.
Either way, no one benefited more under the new plan than Republican Paulina Havelka who had lost decisively in her previous court races. But Havelka admitted that she challenged incumbent Donald Cureton in the new south Mecklenburg district primarily because the lines were so favorable for a Republican.
Cureton, who was seeking a third term, received some of the highest marks on the Bar Association survey; Halvelka, some of the lowest.
But after Cureton jumped out to an early lead, Havelka drew closer throughout the night. In the end, the challenger received 50.64 percent, about 700 votes more than her Democratic opponent.
In the third race in south Mecklenburg, Republican incumbent Sean Smith easily turned back Democrat Sabrina Blain, 56.45 percent to 43.55 percent.
Normally, judicial races are relatively quiet affairs. But this campaign to took on a more rancorous air.
Blain said she got in the race because she didn’t like the way she was treated in Smith’s courtroom. Then, Blain’s residency in the district became a legal fight that required an order from the state elections board to keep her name on the ballot.
In a Democratic showdown in District 26F, which stretches northwest from uptown, Assistant District Attorney Karen McCallum turned back Khalif Rhodes, the county’s chief magistrate, 56.58 percent to 43.42 percent. McCallum will fill the seat of retiring District Judge Becky Tin.
While well known in many parts of the county, Rhodes drew criticism for issuing court summonses to some defendants accused of violent crimes instead of having them arrested and jailed under bonds. The state board of elections also temporarily shut down his campaign for reporting violations, and years ago Rhodes was convicted of not paying taxes in Pennsylvania.
Superior Court District 26C Seat 1
- George Bell 46.97%
- Howard L. Clark III 18.12%
Reggie E. McKnight 34.90%
District Court 26A Seat 1
- Alicia D. Brooks 48.36%
Michael J. Stading 51.64%
District Court 26A Seat 2
- Donald Cureton, Jr. 49.36%
Paulina N. Havelka 50.64%
District Court 26A Seat 3
- Sabrina Blain 43.55%
Sean Smith 56.45%
District Court 26F Seat 2
- Karen D. McCallum 56.20%
- Khalif Rhodes 43.80%