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Gang Of Five, Pt. 2? 

Conservative Republicans have a shot at controlling County Commission

This year, voters could wake up the day after the election to find that the infamous Gang of Five is back. Of course, it wouldn't be the same gang that drew national attention to the county six years ago when it defunded arts groups over gay themes in a play. But right now, another group of five conservative commissioners stands a good shot of taking over the Mecklenburg County Commission.

"It'll be worse," said Commissioner Norman Mitchell, a Democrat. "The Gang of Five was only about the arts and sciences. These people are talking about reducing government, which will reduce programs and services. Not only that, it's going to reduce employees and that's what I'm afraid of. They keep talking about "we have to run Mecklenburg County as a business.' Hell, Mecklenburg County is not a business for profit."

The nine-member outgoing county commission has a Republican majority of five. But Republican Tom Cox, a moderate who isn't running again, sometimes voted with the Democrats on critical issues, such as this year's tax increase. This year, the six Republicans with the best shot of taking over the commission appear to be more conservative.

If they win, says Republican County Commissioner Bill James, the board will move to the right.

"Is it going to be more conservative, yes, it will be more conservative, so all you liberals shake in your boots and go vote," said James, the only member of the Gang of Five still on the board. "If Norman Mitchell is worried that we will hold the line on taxes, he's got every right to worry, because we will. Well, life's rough. He has to live within his means. We're not going to raise taxes on everyone else so people on welfare can get a featherbed ride."

None of the six commissioners who run in districts have challengers this year, including James, conservative Republican incumbent Jim Puckett and Republican newcomer Dan Bishop. So party control of the commission will be decided in the race for three at-large seats, which is expected to be highly competitive this year, as it's loaded with political incumbents.

With county budgets stretched, and suburban and urban leaders brawling over which part of the county needs more school construction and renovation, this promises to be one of the most important commission races in recent history. Because the county commission makes the final decision on whether to pursue school bonds, they ultimately have the last word on where schools will be built, if at all. If they control the board, Republicans may also hold the line on school spending and tax hikes at a time when school leaders say the community needs to spend more.

Also potentially at stake is a new uptown baseball stadium for the Charlotte Knights, an issue the commission has been wrestling with. But with the Presidential, Senate and gubernatorial races dominating the airwaves, issues aren't likely to factor much into who wins. Instead, both sides agree that the party that carries the county in the Presidential and statewide races will probably take over the commission. They just can't agree on which party that will be.

Republicans are counting on President George W. Bush to carry the county and pull them through, something he barely did in 2000. Democrats are counting on presidential candidate John Kerry to do the same. Both sides agree Bush will probably win the state. They also agree that US Senate candidate Erskine Bowles and Governor Mike Easley, both Democrats, will probably win their races and carry Mecklenburg County.

Who will have the longest coattails is anybody's guess, but Democrats have an ace up their sleeve -- they have done a bang-up job registering voters this year. Since January, voter registration groups have registered 20,771 new Democrat voters in Mecklenburg County, far more than the 12,495 Republicans who've registered or the 11,765 new unaffiliateds. Since Bush carried the county with only 51 percent of the vote in 2000, anything could happen.

Of the three at-large seats on the county commission, one typically goes to a Democrat and one to a Republican. The other is usually up for grabs. Four current or former local office holders are competing for those three seats, including Democrats Parks Helms, a longtime at-large commission member, and Wilhelmenia Rembert, a former school board chair who lost her at-large race for the school board last year. On the Republican side, Dan Ramirez is defending the at-large seat he won in 2000 and Ruth Samuelson is attempting to swap her district seat for an at-large one. Further complicating matters is the fact that as of July, Republican newcomer Andy Dulin had raised over $80,000, putting him far ahead of anyone else in the race in fundraising. Democratic newcomer Jennifer Roberts is well respected in political circles, but not as well known outside them.

Both sides expect Helms will win back his seat. Both sides also agree that control of the commission could center on how well Rembert does. Rembert, who is black, could find herself fighting an uphill battle. The last two African-American commissioners who ran countywide lost their races.

Local Democrat strategist Tom Chumley says this year will be different.

"Black turnout was very low in the 2003 election and she still only lost by 400 votes in that race," said Chumley. "I think she is in excellent position to win. I would not underestimate her at all. We will have a very, very high minority turnout this year. Trust me on that."

But UNCC political science professor Ted Arrington isn't so sure that high black turnout will be enough.

"Sometimes African-American candidates get the impression that they can win with the black vote in an at-large election and they can't," said Arrington. "Unless [Rembert] spends a lot of money in the white community she can't get enough white votes to combine those with the black votes in order to win."

Arrington says Rembert's stint on the school board won't help her.

"The school board has a very bad reputation among voters in general as not being well run and not knowing what it's doing and making mistakes," he said. "She can't go to voters in the white communities and say I served on the school board, therefore I'm experienced. That's like saying, "Hire me as a prison guard because I worked at Abu Ghraib.' That's not going to work."

But Rembert's probably better known than Ramirez, who has not been a vocal member of the commission during his first term.

Of course, how much any of this will matter if most voters don't know what the issues are, much less where candidates stand on them, is questionable.

"I think it will be how well the parties do as far as getting out their people as to what the outcome is going to be," said Chumley.

Contact Tara Servatius at tara.servatius@cln.com

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