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You call that a fight? GOP candidates could do better 

Former state Sen. Robert Pittenger vs. Mecklenburg County Commissioner Jim Pendergraph

To listen to some of the local media, you'd think former state Sen. Robert Pittenger and Mecklenburg County Commissioner Jim Pendergraph were having a knife fight in an alley. Please. The two GOP candidates for Sue Myrick's District 9 congressional seat have bumped heads, but so far their conflict has been pretty trifling. If these guys want to trade punches, I can give them more important things to fight about.

Here's what happened: The campaign got underway, and before you could say "Karl Rove," Pittenger accused Pendergraph of making off with "a secret, taxpayer-funded bonus" when he quit as Mecklenburg County sheriff in 2007. Pendergraph scoffed and then passive-aggressively announced that he would be releasing his tax returns and thought the other candidates, including Pittenger, should do the same. Pittenger, a wealthy man with a short fuse, huffed and puffed and retorted that Pendergraph was dodging the issue and "trying to deflect attention (from) what he did."

Not exactly tooth-and-nail stuff, except by Charlotte's usual pretense-of-civility standards.

The supposed brawl isn't the only odd thing about this GOP primary. For starters, it's surprising that former City Councilman Ed Peacock and current Councilman Andy Dulin, both of whom have solid "fan bases" among local Republicans, aren't in the top tier of candidates. I try not to make many political predictions, but I wouldn't be surprised if at least one of those two finished with more votes than Pittenger — but only if someone points out the latter's glaring weakness.

That brings us to the other odd thing: if Pendergraph and Pittenger are going to go medieval on each other, why don't they talk about each other's real squirm-inducing pasts and documented deceits? Or is the possibility of mutual muckraking keeping them from going for broke? This is a relevant question for Pittenger, especially, since Pendergraph's "secret, taxpayer-funded bonus" was simply a check for his accumulated vacation days.

If Pittenger is serious about spotlighting Pendergraph's foibles, he could point to the former sheriff's role in making life miserable for undocumented immigrants and their families. As sheriff, Pendergraph signed Mecklenburg County on to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement's 287(g) program, which lets local officers check the immigration status of individuals arrested for supposedly serious crimes; those suspects are then transferred to private prisons before being deported. The 287(g) program has been strongly criticized by numerous police organizations, which say it hinders their ability to solve crimes in Latino neighborhoods. Others say it often separates parents from children.

Pendergraph became the poster boy for 287(g) and landed a job as executive director of ICE's Office of State and Local Coordination. That was his position when, as we've reported before, he told a 2008 Las Vegas conference of police and sheriffs, "If you don't have enough evidence to charge someone criminally but you think he's illegal, we can make him disappear." That's a shocker, and too many local voters don't know about it, so Pittenger should use that to ... Oh, wait a minute, I forgot: the GOP's teabagging base loves nothing more than Latino-bashing (except maybe black socialist Kenyan presidents-bashing). Guess that's why Pittenger hasn't mentioned it.

Pendergraph is doubly lucky, then, because Pittenger is guilty of actions "the base" won't like. As the Charlotte Observer reported last year, the state-planned Garden Parkway toll road near Gastonia is a more than $1 billion waste of taxpayer money that will move jobs from North Carolina to South Carolina, which isn't paying a cent for the road's construction. In addition, some studies say the toll road will increase congestion on I-85 — the precise opposite of what it's supposed to do. Now, guess: Which former state senator is involved in various partnerships that bought up more than 2,000 acres of land near future Garden Parkway interchanges? If you said Robert "Small Government" Pittenger, you win.

Ironically, the only candidate who's bringing up the subject of Pittenger's insider exploitation of a government program is Ken Fortenberry, a conservative journalist running against Rep. Pat McHenry in next-door District 10. Fortenberry is lashing out at McHenry's financial ties to Pittenger, whom he implies is so unethical he makes McHenry — who has too many documented ethical problems to list here — look bad.

So, you see, if the GOP candidates for Myrick's seat ever want to truly "go negative," they've got a lot to work with.

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