News: CJ Exclusives

Next generation of GOP leaders could come from newly elected commissioners

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Photo illustration

Editor’s note: The original version of this story mistakenly said six counties would flip from Democrat to Republican. Five counties will turn from Democrat to Republican, since Guilford County went from red to blue. The story has since been corrected. 

Republicans won a strategic victory on Election Day in North Carolina, claiming several formerly Democratic county commission boards and adding to the pool of candidates they’ll groom for positions in higher public offices.

Politicians aren’t born. They are trained — often in small roles and in rural parts of the state. Democrats and Republicans strategize carefully years before an election, preparing lower-level officials to rise through the levels of state and federal government. So while it’s easy to focus solely on the outcome of the marquee elections, local results offer a peek around the corner. A look at the lineup of minor-league politicians who may become major players in just a few years.

This year, 308 county commission seats were up for grabs. About one-third of them were decided by primary elections and appointments before Election Day, the N.C. Association of County Commissioners said in a Nov. 17 news release. One hundred and five of the state’s 587 commissioners are new — about 18% of total seats. Republicans will lead 61 of the 100 county boards. Democrats will hold 37. Each party represents about half of the state’s population.

Majority control will flip from Democrat to Republican in five counties, the association said. Caswell, Franklin, Lee, Montgomery, and Richmond counties turned from blue to red. Just two county boards are split evenly between Republicans and Democrats.

Control of 61 commission boards will set a record for Republicans. Democrats held 89 county commissions in 1976. Republicans then began gaining ground in fits and starts. But it took until the 2010s for the GOP to hold a majority of county commission boards.

The wins give Republicans a strategic edge, says Mitch Kokai, senior political analyst at the John Locke Foundation.

“That’s good news for Republicans because it is helpful for them as they train the next batch of state legislators and run for statewide office,” Kokai said.

Plenty of heavy-hitting North Carolina politicians started in local roles.

Republican U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis began his career in 2002, on the board of commissioners for the town of Cornelius. From there, Tillis ascended into state politics. He ran for the N.C. House in 2006 and was re-elected three times. In 2010, Republicans won control of the House for the first time since 1998, and Tillis was named speaker. He served in the role until 2014, when he ran for and won a U.S. Senate seat.

Tillis recently won re-election to the Senate, edging Democratic opponent Cal Cunningham by two percentage points.

Josh Dobson, North Carolina’s newly elected labor commissioner, also got his start in local politics. Before running for the N.C. House in 2014, Dobson was a commissioner for McDowell County. From there, the Republican became a member of the state House. He announced his candidacy for labor commissioner in 2019, and he won the race against Democrat Jessica Holmes by just one point.

The trend has a long history. Republican Gov. Jim Martin served three terms as a Mecklenburg County commissioner in the 1960s. Martin also served as a president of the state commissioners association.

Twenty percent of the 2020-21 General Assembly is made up of former county commissioners, the association said. Newly elected members of the “county caucus” include:

  • Bertie County Comm. Ernestine Bazemore (N.C. Senate, District 3)

  • Alamance County Comm. Amy Galey (N.C. Senate, District 24)

  • Former Craven County Comm. Steve Tyson (N.C. House, District 3)

  • Former Wake County Comm. Abe Jones (N.C. House, District 38)

  • Former Cumberland County Comm. Diane Wheatley (N.C. House, District 43)

  • Harnett County Comm. Howard Penny (N.C. House, District 53)

  • Richmond County Comm. Ben Moss (N.C. House, District 66)

  • Former Davidson County Comm. Sam Watford (N.C. House, District 80)

  • Former Buncombe County Comm. Tim Moffitt (N.C. House, District 117)

  • Haywood County Comm. Mark Pless (N.C. House, District 118)

  • Macon County Comm. Karl Gillespie (N.C. House, District 120)

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