At 9 a.m. on August 20, 15 years after she started the immigration process, Elizabeth Borja became a United States citizen. One day later she went uptown to take care of what now she considers one of her most crucial responsibilities: She voted.
It was the first day of early voting in a municipal primary election, a contest that most of the county’s registered voters will likely ignore. But Borja, who was raised in Ecuador, choked up while she waited in line.
“It was a mix of feelings – everything that you have left in your country, every sacrifice that you have made in your life,” the longtime YMCA employee said. “I feel like this is the most important thing to me.”
To people like Borja, it’s unfathomable that 90 percent of Mecklenburg County’s voters would choose to sit out of any election. But the numbers aren’t pretty for off-year September municipal primaries: In 2015, only 8.8 percent of voters participated; in 2017, the number was 7.97 percent.
There are reasons to believe that this September election could be – should be – different.
For one, the special election in the 9th Congressional District between Dan McCready and Dan Bishop figures to draw a big turnout in southeast Charlotte.
Also, there’s more interest in the Democratic primary for the at-large city council race, where seven candidates are vying for four slots. Five of those candidates are currently on council.
Finally, three candidates are trying to become the city’s first Latino council member, engaging a voting bloc that traditionally has low turnout.
Eric Heberlig, professor of political science and public administration at UNC Charlotte, said that based on early voting results, participation could hit 30 percent.
“If it’s (compared) to a normal midterm congressional election, it’s terrible,” Heberlig said. “If it’s compared to an off-year primary election, which is more like 8 percent, then 25-30 percent is really good.”
Making sense of the 9th District madness
Dan McCready walked onto the patio at Brawley’s Beverage Friday evening, past a sign above the door that says “No Bigots, No Racist, No Misogynist,” then stood on top of a picnic table.
“This has been a long campaign,” he said to supporters. “Our youngest, Eleanor, was born after we started this campaign. She just turned two.”
McCready, a Democrat, has been running for the 9th Congressional District seat for 28 months.
Now, on the last day of a special election, his race with Republican Dan Bishop is a dead heat in most reliable polls.
Why it matters: President Trump and Vice President Pence held a rally for Dan Bishop in Fayetteville on the eve of the election.
Historically, the 9th is a Republican stronghold. No Democrat has held the seat since the 1960s. Trump won the district by 12 percentage points in 2016. Democrats see McCready’s gains as a sign that Trump may be losing support in areas that sent him to the White House.
The very odd big picture: In the fall 2018 midterms, McCready lost to Republican Mark Harris by 905 votes. A few weeks later, he was in Disney World with his family when the N.C. Board of Elections refused to certify Harris’s victory because of irregularities in the results from Bladen County.
The board then held hearings into Harris’s involvement in an illegal absentee ballot scheme. In an unforeseeable twist, Harris’s son John, an assistant U.S. Attorney, testified that his father had been warned of illegal activity in Bladen. Mark Harris took the stand the next day and called for a new election. He hasn’t been charged with a crime.
The landscape: If you’ve driven out of Charlotte toward Wilmington on U.S. Highway 74, you know the 9th. It stretches for 150 miles, from southeast Charlotte to western Bladen County. That makes for a complicated constituency — core issues for members of the Lumbee Tribe in Robeson County, for instance, are different from core issues of the U.S. Army soldiers around Fort Bragg, and they’re probably different from what matters most to people in Myers Park.
The candidates: McCready, a 36-year-old Marine Corps veteran who served in the Iraq War, has an MBA from Harvard Business School and cofounded a clean energy fund. He’s campaigned as a moderate, focusing on health care, Medicaid and education.
Bishop, a 55-year-old attorney and state senator, graduated from UNC’s law school and easily won the Republican nomination in May. In 2016, he authored controversial House Bill 2, otherwise known as the “bathroom bill,” which overturned the city of Charlotte’s nondiscrimination ordinance. He’s promised to be one of President Trump’s biggest defenders in Congress.
Charlotte city council’s at-large race
Seven of Charlotte’s 11-member city council are elected in specific districts, leaving four at-large seats.
All incumbents are running in the Democratic primary: Dimple Ajmera, Braxton Winston, Julie Eiselt, and James (Smuggie) Mitchell. Two of them — Ajmera and Winston — were part of the “millennial wave” that swept city council two years ago. An immigrant from India, Ajmera was the chairperson of the environment committee and helped develop Charlotte’s plan to reduce carbon emissions. Winston, a Davidson graduate who gained notoriety for his involvement in the 2016 Charlotte protests, has prioritized issues related to upward mobility, such as encouraging the development of mixed-income housing developments.
Eiselt, currently Charlotte’s mayor pro tem, was the top vote-getter the first time she ran for council in 2015. Mitchell, who is in his second term as an at-large member, served on council from 1999 to 2013 as the District 2 council member. He’s the chairman of the economic development council.
The three “challengers” are:
- LaWana Mayfield, a Democrat who currently represents District 3. Mayfield was the first council member to oppose hosting the Republican National Convention. “When I look at the majority of my community and the fact that it is very diverse … there is concern about the language that comes out of this administration,” she told reporters last summer.
- Jorge Millares, a businessman whose parents are from Cuba. He’s running to become the first Latino on city council.
- Chad Stachowicz, who ran unsuccessfully against Bishop in 2018 for N.C. Senate. He’s the CEO of a tech company called Cloverhound.
Heberlig, the UNCC professor, said Mayfield has the advantage of name recognition, and Millares has gained momentum through outreach in recent weeks.
“The main reason why you’d see incumbents losing in a situation like this is one or more of them gets out-hustled,” he said.
The Latino vote
Latinos make up more than 15 percent of Charlotte’s population. But only in the past year or so have they organized around elections.
Democrat Gina Navarrete doesn’t have a primary opponent and will face incumbent Tariq Bokhari for the city council District 6 seat in the general election. Gabe Cartagena is among six Democrats in the District 4 primary.
Mecklenburg County has about 29,000 registered Latino voters. In the May 2018 primary, 1,229 participated, according to the county’s elections board. Just six months later, 12,179 voted in the November 2018 general election. That’s a stunning increase — from about 4 percent to about 42 percent.
Alba Sanchez moved to the United States from Costa Rica 19 years ago and has been the Latino programs direct for the Center for Prevention Services and the immigrant welcome center manager for the Latin American Coalition.
She became a citizen in March, and she cast her first ballot on August 21, standing in the same line with Borja.
“All the feelings and emotions,” she said after walking out of the voting booth. “I was remembering the steps along the way, every single thing from the day I took the plane from Costa Rica to here.
“This is something I will never miss.”
For more information about this year’s election, head over to our full Agenda election guide to the upcoming mayoral and city council elections.