News: Charlotte Exclusives

Turn on the Spending Spigot?

Election results suggest Char-Meck voters have wallets open

Ready or not, Mecklenburg County voters seem to have opted to for more local spending and, more than likely, higher taxes to pay for that spending. An apparent Democratic sweep of at-large county commission races allows for just such a policy to take shape.

Early in the evening Tuesday outgoing commission chairman Tom Cox, a moderate Republican who has on occasion bridged the partisan divide, put the choice before voters in stark terms.

“The three Democrats are saying, ‘We have more needs, and I’m willing to raise taxes,’ ” Cox told The Charlotte Observer.”The three Republicans are saying, ‘You know, I’m not willing to raise taxes.’ ”

Despite that clear choice and despite the advantages of incumbency for two Republican candidates, the Democrats claimed the top three spots fairly comfortably. Several factors seem to have been at work, but turnout was by far the most important.

Compared to his 2002 vote total, Democrat Parks Helms took his tally from 96,000 to almost 158,000. And compared to the last presidential race in 2000, Helms improved his support by some 25,000 votes.

Overall Democrat at-large candidates tallied 263,000 votes in 2002 compared to 446,000 on Tuesday, for a 40 percent increase. Republicans snared some 412,000 votes this year compared to 273,000 in 2002, or a 34 percent increase. That six-percent gap may have been the difference.

However, something else was at work. In 2002 the county had 46 percent voter turnout for the at-large races. This year saw a 65 percent turnout, which sounds like a lot.

But going back to the last presidential race in 2000 we find 84 percent turnout, or 391,486 out of 467,485 possible votes. This strongly suggests that this year some voters opted to “single-shot” a single at-large candidate. Exactly how widespread this tactic might have been awaits a precinct-by-precinct breakdown of vote total, but if former Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board member Wilhelmenia Rembert benefited from single-shot votes from African-American voters it would not be a shock.

Rembert’s 144,000 votes was only topped by Helms, and another Democrat, political newcomer Jennifer Roberts, finished just dozens of votes behind Rembert. Should the results hold up after late ballots are counted, Helms would command a solid 6-3 Democratic majority.

Another factor was the individual issues GOP candidates faced. For example, Republican at-large commissioner Dan Ramirez received some criticism from the Hispanic community for not delivering enough public money to Hispanic community groups. It is unclear if lack of turnout from that community hurt Ramirez, or more to the point, if anything could have helped Republican at-large candidates given the Democratic turnout.

Elsewhere on the ballot all local bond issues passed easily, another sign that voters want to give local officials all the resources they say they need to pay for basic services. There can be absolutely no complaints on this score moving forward from local officials. Road and park improvements, including some $30 million in improvements to the South Blvd. light rail corridor have a green light from the public.

And there was also an interesting outcome in one of the judicial races that would be easy to overlook. Incumbent Mecklenburg District Judge Avril Sisk, endorsed by The Charlotte Observer despite doubts about her preparedness and performance after her 2001 appointment by Gov. Jim Hunt, was handily topped by Charlotte attorney Todd Owens.

In addition to his opponent’s endorsement, Owens overcame the suggestion, quietly voiced in some segments of the Charlotte legal community, that it would not be a good message for the community to replace an African-American female judge with a white male judge. Voters clearly rejected that rather simplistic mindset.

Owens’ judicial philosophy is rooted in the belief that judges should respect the law and not make it. Such a stance has come to be labeled conservative, but it is actually born of the classical liberal tradition of the Enlightenment which holds that laws are to be universally applied to all men, king and pauper alike.

Given the new power granted to avowed adherents of a tax-and-spend mindset, Mecklenburg might be in for a run of quite a few more paupers than kings in the near future.