Opinion: Daily Journal

A 2003 Election-Watcher Checklist

RALEIGH — In an odd-numbered year, there aren’t the spate of big-ticket elections — for president, for Congress, for governors — from which great political MEANING is usually gleaned. But political junkies can’t wait a whole two years to get their fix, so they make do with local elections in their own communities, with big-city mayoral races, and with the stray legislative or gubernatorial race that crops up.

Most of the significant races of the 2003 political season have already been settled or soon will be. In October, the California circus got a new ringmaster, a number of local contests across North Carolina were whittled down from multiple candidates to two, and several key races were decided outright, including the mayoral jobs in Raleigh, Greensboro, and Wilmington. With the exception of a gubernatorial runoff in Louisiana scheduled for Nov. 15, Tuesday balloting will determine the outcomes in the rest.

The following is a list of local and out-of-state races I’ll be watching most closely and writing about on Tuesday.

* Charlotte. Longtime Republican Mayor Pat McCrory faces a challenge from Democrat Craig Madans, who last ran for the office against Sue Myrick, now a member of Congress, in 1989. The twist is that several local conservative activists have crossed party lines to endorse Madans over McCrory, due to the former’s opposition to the latter’s policy of subsdizing a new arena for the Charlotte Bobcats NBA franchise. The same issue upended longtime at-large council member Lynn Wheeler, who didn’t make the cut last month for a council runoff also scheduled for Tuesday. Mecklenburg voters will also select from a slate of school-board candidates as the community continues to experience spirited debate about school choice and student-assignment issues.

* Cary. With the incumbent mayor sent packing in October, voters in Cary will choose between sitting council member Julie Aberg Robison, the Democrat in this titularly nonpartisan race, and Republican and retired banker Ernest McAllister. City spending, debt, taxes, and growth controls are the key issues. It’s your basic ideological divide kind of election. There’s also an at-large runoff.

* Raleigh. There are two runoffs for city council in the capital city, one between two left-of-center Democrats and the other between a conservative Republican active on disability issues (she has cerebral palsy) and a Democrat who, if elected, would give re-elected Mayor Charles Meeker a council majority with which he might attempt to shift policy away from the political parameters set by former conservative mayors Tom Fetzer and Paul Coble.

* Durham. Mayor Bill Bell isn’t in trouble for re-election, but there’s a major battle brewing in the Bull City for three at-large slots. Two of the city’s traditional political committees, the Durham Committee for the Affairs of Black People and the Durham People’s Alliance, had jointly endorsed candidates for the October vote, but for the runoff a subsequent meeting of the Durham Committee led to a switch of endorsement from Diana Catotti to current councilman Thomas Stith, who also has the endorsement of the conservative Friends of Durham. Sound confusing? Welcome to Durham city politics, a unique world in which political organizations still carry a great deal of weight. Also on the ballot in Durham, by the way, are $124 million in bonds, the largest share for schools.

* High Point. In this Triad city, facing big economic challenges due to the increasing pressure on the traditional furniture and textile industries, an open mayoral seat pits former Mayor Becky Smothers against Al Campbell. Both are talking about getting the city more directly involved in economic development. Also in Guilford County, there is a crowded runoff for three at-large seats on the Greensboro city council and a $300 million school-bond issue that hasn’t attracted organized opposition but would result in a property-tax increase.

* Fayetteville. First-term Mayor Marshall Pitts Jr., a Democrat, faces longtime Republican activist Robert Anderson. Here’s another stark ideological divide. Annexation is a major issue in Fayetteville, as it has been in several of North Carolina’s largest cities in the past few years.

A number of other local races bear watching, too. There are some racial tensions in local elections in Rocky Mount, Kinston, and Elizabeth City, for example. Two other school bonds are on the ballot in Surry and Davie counties, the latter a follow-up to a previous, larger school bond that voters rejected.

* National Races. There are two governor’s races with important implications. In both cases, Democrats are either defending their own or their party’s hold on an office against strong Republican challengers. Also in both cases, the Democrats — Ronnie Musgrove in Mississippi and Ben Chandler in Kentucky — are really running against George W. Bush, claiming that his economic and trade policies are the real reasons for their state’s job losses and fiscal imbalances. If this sounds familiar, it should be — it’s also North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley’s line of political defense. We’ll see if it sells. The Republicans are longtime GOP leader and lobbyist Haley Barbour and Congressman Ernie Fletcher, respectively.

High-profile mayoral races will also be held in Philadelphia, Houston, and San Francisco, all held by Democrats. Referendums on mass-transit projects are on the ballot in Houston, Tucson, and Kansas City. Kinda hoping the idea grinds to a noisy halt in each. And there are legislative elections in Virginia (where the overwhelmingly Republican majority is in no danger) and New Jersey (where a closely divided House and a tied Senate are very much in play).

Check in tomorrow for analysis of the results.

Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation and publisher of Carolina Journal.