Oct 24, 2022 - News

A ‘lonely place’: The contentious race for the only GOP-held state legislative seat in Mecklenburg

Photo illustration: Axios Visuals. Photo: Courtesy of the campaigns of Christy Clark and John Bradford

State House Rep. John Bradford describes his role as the sole Republican in the 17-member Mecklenburg County legislative delegation as a “lonely place.”

What’s happening: His position is a sign of the waning GOP presence in urban areas like Charlotte, where Republicans make up just 20% of registered voters.

  • Meanwhile, Democrats hope to retake Bradford’s District 98 seat they once held as part of a statewide strategy to prevent a GOP supermajority, which they say will further restrict abortion.

“(District 98) truly is one of the seats that will stand in the way of an abortion ban in the state,” Bradford’s Democratic opponent Christy Clark tells me. There should be no restrictions on abortion, she said in an Observer questionnaire.

  • Bradford, however, says he supports the current law that allows abortion up until 20 weeks in North Carolina with some exceptions after that. “I have no intentions myself of going back to Raleigh and trying to make the 20 weeks more restrictive,” he says.

Driving the news: The heated race is the third rematch for the candidates, after Clark unseated Bradford in 2018 by one percentage point, then lost to him in 2020 by a margin of about 3.3 percentage points.

Why it matters: This is one of the few battleground races in the suburbs of a county where there are more than twice as many registered Democrats as Republicans.

  • Still, for someone in the political minority locally, Bradford wields power as a link between the Democrats in Charlotte and the Republican leadership in Raleigh.

Context: The rift between our Democratic-led city and the Republicans in Raleigh isn’t new. It came to a head in 2016, when the General Assembly passed House Bill 2, also known as the “bathroom bill,” which Bradford co-sponsored, in response to Charlotte’s expansion of its nondiscrimination ordinance.

  • But there are times where Charlotte relies on the General Assembly for its priorities. Take Charlotte’s transit ambitions, for example: Charlotte leaders want to put a referendum on the ballot for a one-cent sales tax increase. But to do so, they need the approval of the General Assembly.

Bradford says he is in constant communication with Charlotte’s Democratic Mayor Vi Lyles, particularly about the transit plan. And when District Attorney Spencer Merriweather, a Democrat that Bradford considers a friend, called him about the state senate’s budget that took away a prosecutor’s position from Mecklenburg County, he says he worked to add it back in.

  • Merriweather told Axios in an emailed statement that Bradford was one of a number of local members of the General Assembly from Mecklenburg County he turned to for help.
  • “I’m less concerned about whether I’m a Republican or Democrat, I’m just trying to do what’s right for the county,” Bradford says. “But I would love some company.”

What they’re saying: GOP strategist Larry Shaheen believes the transit tax will only be successful in the General Assembly if Republicans from Mecklenburg County advocate for it.

  • I think if the voters of Mecklenburg County decide to send a message to Raleigh that we don’t want any Republicans, then they need to be comfortable with living with whatever the consequences are, and understand that instead of being at the table they’ll be on the menu.”

The other side: But Clark says the argument for GOP representation in the district is a smoke screen. She says she has relationships with Republicans in Raleigh, and has worked with them specifically on transportation.

  • “It’s just something they’re trying to push forward to imply that I wouldn’t represent Republicans, which I absolutely would, and have,” she says.

The consequences of a Republican supermajority outweigh the benefits of bipartisanship, says longtime Democratic political consultant Sam Spencer, who grew up in Davidson.

  • “Whatever value you might have from partisan diversity in terms of working together with Raleigh, unfortunately we’re living in an era where its overruled by the danger of having an off-the-rails Republican supermajority with no checks and balances, with no gubernatorial veto, and that is actively petitioning the Supreme Court for even more power,” he says.

Reality check: It’s unlikely many voters in the district will consider whether there’s partisan balance when making their decision, especially given the hyper-polarization of the country, says Susan Roberts, professor at Davidson College.

Here’s where the candidates stand on other issues:

Clark

After losing her reelection bid, Clark became a teacher at the end of 2021 in a public elementary school in Huntersville. She said that, plus watching the January 6 insurrection, motivated her to run for office again.

“What I’m seeing firsthand is what a decade of Republican leadership has done to public schools and to working families,” she says. For example, frustrated teachers have said their raises have been inadequate.

On education, she wants to bring teacher pay up to at least the national average, boost per pupil spending and passing school building bonds to improve schools and build new ones.

On gun control, she wants to pass a law requiring background checks for every gun sold in North Carolina.

Bradford

Similarly, Bradford pointed to his support of teacher raises in the budget.

But inflation is one of his biggest concerns, and Bradford says he first ran for office because he wanted to bring his approach as a business owner to ensure thoughtful government spending.

  • He says he’s worked to lower taxes and cited corporate and personal income tax cuts since Republicans took the majority.
  • “I’d rather return money back to your pocket and let you spend it how you see fit than government try to keep it and do different things with it,” he says.
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