Mecklenburg County’s top conservatives stood around a fire pit at Selwyn Pub on Tuesday night and released their first loud cheer in some time. To their delight, voters had rejected a sales-tax increase, 57-43.
The proposal to push the tax from 7.25 percent to 7.5 percent would’ve raised $50 million in revenue each year for the arts, parks, and education.
On the other side of town, at Sweet Lew’s Barbecue restaurant in Belmont, Democrats gathered around plates of chicken and banana pudding to celebrate a second term for mayor Vi Lyles. She defeated Republican David Michael Rice, 77-23.
In other races, Democrats held their 9-2 majority on city council. Julie Eiselt, Braxton Winston, James (Smuggie) Mitchell, and Dimple Ajmera will remain the city’s at-large council members. The district races produced three new members — Malcolm Graham, Victoria Watlington, and Renee Perkins Johnson.
In the school board race, Elyse Dashew and Jennifer De La Jara secured two of the three at-large seats comfortably, while Lenora Shipp topped Stephanie Sneed by a mere 187 votes for the third.
The race that had the most interest, though, was the sales tax.
The quarter-cent sales-tax referendum: 69,443 against, 51,447 for.
Powerful institutions and people, from the Carolina Panthers to the Foundation For the Carolinas, helped fund the campaign for the tax, raising more than $1 million. Given that support, it seemed like the kind of thing that might pass in a county with twice as many Democrats as Republicans.
But opponents, led by former county commissioner Matthew Ridenhour and District 6 City Councilman Tariq Bokhari, connected with a range of communities using several messages: Sales taxes are regressive, they said, which means they hit poor people hardest. The city had more pressing priorities, they pleaded, from affordable housing to transportation.
A handful of influential Democrats joined the anti-tax push. Among the biggest complaints was a lack of understanding about how the money would be spent. The county’s plan called for $22.5 million to the arts, $17 million to parks and greenways, $8 million to education, and $2.5 million to smaller towns in the county. A consistent concern among people across political lines was the arts portion: How would it be dispersed, and to whom? Would the Arts & Science Council make sure it reached artists of color and up-and-coming organizations, or would it land in the hands of larger institutions?
A quick look at the results map shows that the proposal failed in precincts along Rozzelles Ferry Road and Wilkinson Boulevard — usual Democratic strongholds. Precinct 16, near the interchange of Interstates 85 and 77, told a fairly complete story of the bipartisan opposition: Lyles, a Democrat, piled up a 638-18 margin there in the mayor’s race. The sales tax failed in that same precinct, 355-308.
“We found that one issue that we could agree upon,” Ridenhour said. “That one issue where we could break down walls, the red jersey and the blue jersey, and say, ‘Listen, I don’t agree with you on other things, but I do agree with you on this.'”
Other people at the Selwyn party included U.S. Congressman Dan Bishop, former governor and mayor Pat McCrory, and the lone elected Republicans on the city or county boards — councilmen Ed Driggs and Tariq Bokhari.
“As the old man here,” McCrory said, “this restores my confidence in the future of Charlotte-Mecklenburg.”
“I cannot begin to tell you how relieved I am,” Driggs said. “We have drawn a line and we have held the line.”
“I said, ‘Well, we’ll get to see whether Charlotte’s gone insane or still has its basic senses,'” Bishop said. “And you know what? Charlotte is a perfectly good place for Republicans to succeed.”
Meanwhile, at Free Range Brewing in NoDa, sales tax supporters were quiet as the results posted. This is the second time in the past five years that a sales-tax measure to help fund the arts and education has failed.
They wore blue T-shirts and stickers and watched quietly as Arts & Science Council president Jeep Bryant gave a teary concession speech, citing disappointing results and challenging ballot language — the ballots listed the tax but no words about where the money would go.
Other supporters, such as county commissioner Susan Rodriguez-McDowell and Foundation For the Carolinas CEO Michael Marsicano, stayed behind to mingle with voters. County commissioner Susan Harden said voters weren’t as educated as she’d hoped.
“My experience was that many people who came to vote today had heard very little about it,” Harden said. “People don’t pay attention, so it’s hard … and I don’t mean that in a mean kind of way. You have a low turnout election, and people aren’t clued in.”
Two years ago, Vi Lyles’s victory was a national story, as she became Charlotte’s first African-American woman to hold the mayor’s office. This time, there was little doubt, as she pulled in nearly 80 percent of the vote.
“(Last time) it was of significance to many more people than I imagined. That’s the difference between then and now,” Lyles said, looking out over a comfortable and relaxed crowd that included former mayor Harvey Gantt, U.S. Congress member Alma Adams, and several other current officials. Many of them held a drink called “The Vi” — sparkling wine and cranberry.
Lyles’s profile has grown in the past two years — she was on the Today Show last week — and that will only continue, considering she’ll be the mayor when Charlotte hosts the Republican National Convention next summer.
At-large: Julie Eiselt was the top vote-getter, which means she’ll likely keep her job as mayor pro tem. Braxton Winston finished second, followed by James Mitchell and Dimple Ajmera.
District 1: Incumbent Larken Egleston ran unopposed.
District 2: Former state senator Malcom Graham, a Democrat, defeated Republican Jacob Richardson 85-15.
District 3: Victoria Watlington ran unopposed and will represent the west Charlotte district that stretches from Freedom Drive to Steele Creek. Watlington, after defeating two other Democrats in the primary, replaces LaWana Mayfield, who ran unsuccessfully for an at-large city council seat. Mayfield had been on council for nearly a decade.
District 4: Democrat Renee Perkins Johnson earned 80 percent of the vote against Brandon Pierce to win the north Charlotte seat.
District 5: Democrat incumbent Matt Newton ran unopposed.
District 6: In what many thought would be a closer race, incumbent Republican Tariq Bokhari had a 59-41 win over Democrat Gina Navarrete.
District 7: Republican incumbent Ed Driggs keeps his seat. No Democrats ran in this race to represent the south Charlotte district that includes Ballantyne.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg School Board
Thirteen candidates ran for three at-large seats on the CMS board. Elyse Dashew, an incumbent, was the top vote-getter with 13 percent. She was followed by Jennifer De La Jara, the director of education at the International House in Charlotte, who had 12.4 percent. Lenora Shipp, who worked for 30 years as a teacher and principal, was third with 10.57 percent.