Both Parties Puzzling Over Dems' Sweep in At-Large Seats

Charlotte Observer, The (NC)
The Charlotte Observer
Carrie Levine, Ann Doss Helms, Richard Rubin, Michelle Crouch and Ted Mellnik
Nov 4, 2004

Tuesday's apparent Democratic sweep of the three at-large Mecklenburg County commissioner seats sparked amazement Wednesday.

Democrat Jennifer Roberts, a political novice, edged out Republican commissioner Ruth Samuelson, viewed by many as nearly certain to win, by almost 2,000 votes, according to Wednesday's unofficial totals. The nine-member board, which now has five Republicans, would shift to a 6-3 Democratic majority in December. That means the current tight-fisted, skeptical approach to public education would yield to higher taxes and spending on Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and county services, members of both parties say.

As Democrats celebrated and Republicans fretted about what the sweep means, everyone puzzled about how it happened.

Mecklenburg's highest turnout came at precincts such as the Mint Museum, Providence United Methodist and St. John's Episcopal Church, where registered Republicans outnumber Democrats two-to-one, numbers released Wednesday show.

Even before election officials said they would audit all early ballots because of an apparent discrepancy, Mecklenburg County Republican Chair John Aneralla said the loss "doesn't make sense at all."

"Something happened in Mecklenburg," he said, "and I'm trying to figure out what."

Several observers, both partisan and nonpartisan, said Republican missteps drove unaffiliated voters to vote for Democrats. For instance, several said a recent effort by Republican commissioners to block early voting on Sunday backfired when some voters saw it as an effort to suppress the minority vote.

Democratic commissioner Parks Helms won a seventh two-year term and topped the pack of seven candidates, followed by Wilhelmenia Rembert, a Democrat who recently chaired the school board.

Samuelson, who left a district seat to run at-large, came in fourth, followed by Republican commissioner Dan Ramirez and Republican newcomer Andy Dulin. Libertarian Jack Stratton garnered the fewest votes.

Samuelson blamed her loss on Democratic get-out-the-vote efforts. "I don't view this as an issues- or candidate-driven result," she said Wednesday.

Ramirez agreed: "Any reasonable person, the way they were campaigning for more taxes and everything, you would think people would not vote for them."

The sweep puzzled many political observers. Some called it a mandate for more spending on public education.

Some said Democratic candidates for president, governor and U.S. Senate swept other candidates up in their wake.

Some saw it as voter rejection of divisive tactics used by Republican commissioner Bill James, who had no opposition Tuesday but spent the weeks before the election talking about illiterate black students and immoral black parents.

And some said it's simply a reminder that among registered voters countywide, Democrats outnumber Republicans by about 47,600, holding a 43 percent to 34 percent edge (the rest are unaffiliated or Libertarian). In an election where turnout was strong everywhere, averaging 65 percent countywide, those numbers mattered.

State Democrats capped a months-long get-out-the-vote effort with 40,000 house calls on Tuesday in Mecklenburg County. After dominating the early-voting turnout, the Democrats used lists of remaining voters to target their Election Day work, said volunteer Nick Blue.

Precinct voting totals show turnout ranged from 81 percent at the Mint Museum in Charlotte's affluent Eastover neighborhood to 40 percent at Sharon Lakes Clubhouse, a south Charlotte precinct where Democrats outnumber Republicans two-to-one.

Those extremes aren't flukes. The precincts with the lowest turnout were consistently dominated by Democrats, while those at the top were heavy on Republicans. Of 190 precincts, 108 have more Democrats than Republicans - and Democrats often dominate by far greater margins.

Ted Arrington, who chairs the political science department at UNC Charlotte, said the result was mostly due to straight-ticket voting, but said Republicans "have to rethink this approach of attacking the schools and attacking other people in general."

Wednesday, James and commissioners Chairman Tom Cox, a Republican who did not seek re-election, traded harsh words.

Cox said James' "racially tinged commentary" motivated Democrats - a notion seconded by Republicans and Democrats.

James said blaming the loss on anything he said is "patently absurd." He attributed the loss to high Democratic turnout, and Cox's decision to vote with Democrats on a tax increase in June.

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