How Democrats took all Mecklenburg commissioner seats for the first time since 1964

When Bill James won his first term on the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners, Bill Clinton was running for his second term as president, a new phenomenon called the “World Wide Web” was catching on, and Donald Trump was a brash real estate developer who had just purchased the Miss Universe beauty pageant.

When Mecklenburg’s new commissioners are sworn in next month, it will be the first time James isn’t among the group since 1996. The 11-term Republican was one of three incumbents swept aside by a blue wave that fell short of some Democratic hopes nationally but crashed with a seismic impact in Mecklenburg County.

Three Democratic challengers, all women, defeated all three Republicans on the board Tuesday, winning districts that have long been Republican strongholds. For the first time since 1964, Democrats won every seat, and they’ll go from a 6-3 to a 9-0 majority this upcoming term.

It’s a major shift for the board of commissioners, which will be overseeing the implementation of a countywide revaluation next year that’s expected to send property values soaring. The board, which will include four newcomers and five incumbents, will set the property tax rate, as well as deal with issues ranging from the fallout of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ fight with the county’s towns over charter schools to how to fund and expand the county’s park and greenway system.

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Susan Harden, who defeated District 5 commissioner Matthew Ridenhour by 925 votes, credited strong campaigns waged by herself and fellow challengers — now commissioners-elect — Susan McDowell and Elaine Powell.

“I’m thrilled that we’re all going in together,” she said. “We had three really strong candidates.”

The sweep likely reflects several factors: The county’s increasingly blue character as the number of registered Republicans slowly falls, an intense and well-funded get-out-the-vote campaign by Democratic congressional candidate Dan McCready in southeast Mecklenburg, and a big “break the supermajority” vote campaign to defeat Republican legislators from Mecklenburg that likely boosted Democratic turnout. Democratic voters said they were also energized by national issues, especially President Trump.

“I was surprised by the outcome,” said Ridenhour, who defeated his Democratic opponent in 2016 with 58 percent of the vote. “It was a perfect storm. ...I think what we saw was anti-Trump, anti-legislature and 9th District.”

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Ridenhour said he had heard from friends at a McCready watch party as the results came in Tuesday. His district overlaps with a chunk of the 9th District congressional seat, and McCready won most of the precincts in areas like Myers Park and SouthPark.

Bill James

Some fear the effect of Mecklenburg Republicans — who represent about 23 percent of the county’s registered voters — without a representative on the board (Democrats make up 44 percent and unaffiliated voters about 33 percent).

Commissioner Matthew Ridenhour T. Ortega Gaines ogaines@charlotteobserver.com

Mecklenburg County commissioner Jim Puckett HO

“We only held three out of the nine seats to begin with, but I think the three voices we had were loud,” said Ridenhour. “We added that diversity of thought...If we have a one-party control, where’s that diversity of thought? Where are the checks and balances?”

The newly elected commissioners all said they plan to listen to constituents on both sides of the aisle. But commissioner Pat Cotham, the top vote-getter county wide and a Democrat who has worked with Republicans on the board, echoed some of Ridenhour’s concerns.

“I don’t want people to think they don’t have any voice,” she said of Republican voters. “People will feel that, and it will be frustrating to a lot of people.”

Larger shift

The changes on the Mecklenburg board mirror other local shifts, as Mecklenburg gets more and more blue.

Democrats have held a 9-2 majority on the Charlotte City Council since 2011. Only two Republican legislators from Mecklenburg County, state Sen. Dan Bishop and Rep. Bill Brawley, won reelection Tuesday, meaning the Mecklenburg delegation to Raleigh will be almost entirely made up of Democrats. Brawley is only 52 votes ahead of Democrat Rachel Hunt in unofficial returns, so that result could change as absentee and provisional ballots are counted.

On the board of commissioners, all three Democratic at-large representatives won reelection, and the three Democrats in the remaining districts were unopposed.

In north Mecklenburg, Powell defeated Puckett, long a familiar name to voters there from years on the school board and as a county commissioner. Cotham speculated that strong Democratic pushes to defeat state Sen. Jeff Tarte and Rep. John Bradford III, both of whom lost, likely drove many Democratic and unaffiliated voters to the polls to help push Powell to victory.

Elaine Powell Courtesy Powell campaign.

Natasha Marcus, the Democrat who defeated Tarte, raised more than $566,000, financial reports show. Christy Clark, who beat Bradford, raised almost $800,000. Powell’s campaign, covering some of the same turf, brought in just $7,303 through the third quarter.

Susan B Harden 1.jpg
Susan Harden Courtesy Susan Harden

In 2016, Puckett ran unopposed and garnered almost 55,000 votes. This year, he only racked up 29,759 votes, losing decisively to Powell, who piled up 37,853. That translated to 56-44 percent victory for Powell, a longtime Parks & Recreation commissioner.

Powell said it’s hard to tell exactly how much the races for General Assembly seats helped her, noting that she picked up big vote totals in a few precincts that weren’t in the most hotly contested state legislature districts.

“I think people just want their voices to be heard,” she said.

Puckett couldn’t immediately be reached Wednesday. In another sign of how the county commissioner races differ from higher-profile, more bitterly contested contests, she praised Puckett for his service. She said she was surprised by the size of her margin of victory.

“I know my opponent has done great work in the community, and even though he and I are very different...he loves this community,” she said.

District 6

Susan Rodriguez McDowell Courtesy Susan McDowell Susan McDowell

James positioned himself as a fiscal conservative who kept an eye out for unnecessary spending and the possibility of tax increases. But James’ long tenure has been peppered with controversy over remarks he made about gay people and black people. In 2004, for example, he was criticized for writing in an email that urban black people live in a “moral sewer,” and in 2010 he drew rebukes for writing “Homosexuals are sexual predators” in an email.

Despite such episodes, James often ran unopposed and typically won by a comfortable margin when challenged in District 6, covering much of south Charlotte, Pineville, Matthews and Mint Hill.

McDowell said she believes many voters no longer tolerate such statements from elected officials.

“There are more people that want to move away from that kind of rhetoric,” she said. “People are over that.”

James couldn’t be reached Wednesday.

Portillo: 704-358-5041