Outgoing Republicans decried partisanship and said Democrats now have a free hand — and the responsibility — to solve pressing social problems, at their final meeting Tuesday following a stunning electoral sweep this month that saw all three GOP incumbents defeated.
For the first time since 1964, one party will control all the seats on the board, after Democrats dislodged Republicans from their traditional strongholds in north and south Charlotte.
The new commissioners will be sworn in Dec. 3. Democrat Dumont Clarke is also retiring. He’ll be replaced by newcomer Mark Jerrell, bringing a total of four new members to the nine-member board. The final meeting typically features speeches full of thanks, reminiscences about long nights in county meetings and praise for departing members.
All of those were present Tuesday — along with more serious warnings, about local and national issues.
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Partisanship, especially from national politicians, is “rotting us to our core,” said Matthew Ridenhour, the Republican who represents District 5. Clarke said, “The press is not the enemy of the American people, as our current president has said repeatedly.”
Jim Puckett, Republican from District 1, praised his colleagues and thanked them. But he also said that Democrats should bear responsibility for problems such as a lack of affordable housing and deficiencies in the school system.
“It is the Democratic party that has been in charge,” he said. “You now are completely in charge. I look forward to you solving those in the next two years...I’m not really sure how you’re going to do it, but you won’t be bothered by the Republicans getting in your way.”
“If you’re not where you want to be, you have only yourself to blame,” said Puckett.
Absent was Bill James, the Republican who has represented District 6 for 22 years. James, whose tenure was the longest on the board, stirred up controversy over the years with remarks about groups such as gay people, immigrants and black people. In 2004 he was criticized for writing in an email that urban black residents live in a “moral sewer,” while in 2010 an email in which he wrote “Homosexuals are sexual predators” drew rebukes.
After losing his reelection bid earlier this month, James also didn’t attend the subsequent commissioners meeting. He said in an email that he wouldn’t be attending Tuesday’s meeting either.
“Already said my Good-bye’s to staff individually,” James wrote. He was defeated by Democratic newcomer Susan Rodriguez McDowell.
Puckett defended James in his farewell speech.
“Bill has been labeled as a racist for 22 years,” said Puckett. “I’ve known Bill very well for a long, long time, and there is not a racist bone in his body. He is brutally honest about what he believes. He speaks truth to reality.”
Puckett said James has been a “lightning rod because of his principled stands.”
“Sometimes there are those who’d rather deal with the messenger than the message,” said Puckett.
Democrats on the board refrained from criticizing James. Trevor Fuller, a Democratic at-large member, said James should be recognized for his more than two decades on the board.
“He is a different person than people think he is, I agree with that,” said Fuller. “I think we ought to honor his service.”
Clarke, also a Democrat, said James’ accounting expertise would be “difficult if not impossible to replace,” especially around budget time.
Commissioners also reminisced about their past rounds of political sparring and lavished compliments on each other.
“If I had some boxing gloves, we would have boxed every night before every meeting,” commissioner Vilma Leake, a Democrat from District 2, said of Puckett. She praised Clarke for including a multitude of voices over the years.
“I’d take you like an old shoe. He shuffles in and he shuffles out,” Leake said. “Within the process, this gentleman is a strong believer in making sure everybody’s heard.”
Of James, she said they had fought fiercely over political differences but became acquainted behind the dais as well.
“We always were at each others’ throat,” she said. “But I had to work with the gentleman, so we became speaking friends.”