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Gerry-Rigged

Our pointless County Commission races

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Winning A Seat on the county commission, particularly in the at-large races, has almost nothing to do with a candidate's stand on the issues, previous accomplishments, character, or eloquence in debate.

When it comes to local politics, most voters in Mecklenburg County know so little about what's going on around them, they are fully capable of feeling outrage over a tax increase, then voting for the incumbent responsible for it.

Why? Because the incumbent's name sounds more familiar than the candidates challenging him.

It's true: the chief factor in who wins a county commission race is whether voters recognize a name when they see it on the ballot. And the only way for a first-time candidate in an at-large commission race to get enough name recognition to win is to spend between $40,000 and $80,000 on advertising. Unless you're independently wealthy, there's only one way to get your hands on that kind of campaign cash: spend years kissing up to members of your party with enough political sway to get their donors to give you money.

Meanwhile, the six commission districts are so gerrymandered -- by sitting incumbents who draw and redraw them -- members of the opposite party might as well not waste their time running for office. A few powerful members of the party that happens to control the district usually decide who will win the primaries, in which no more than a few thousand people vote anyway. The chosen candidates seem to wind up with enough dough from developers, other politicians and a generous handful of regular donors to buy enough name recognition with ill-informed voters to win the primary. Then they sail through the general election thanks to the gerrymandering of their district and presto, a commission seat is theirs. Long live democracy in Mecklenburg County.

Given this longstanding situation, it will be darn near impossible for Democrat Angeles Ortega and Republicans Dan Ramirez and Joy Isenhour to win at-large seats on the county commission, no matter what they do in the next seven weeks. At least for now, they simply lack the money to win.

Well-known Democrat Parks Helms, who currently chairs the commission, is planning a joint campaign with Ortega and Darrel Williams, a Democrat from District three who is running at-large this year.

That and the low-budget cable commercials she's running will give Ortega some exposure to voters, but more people will still know at-large incumbent Republican Tom Cox's name, so Cox should win a seat, as should Democrats Helms and Williams.

And that means the Democrats will retain power in a 5-4 margin on the commission, which means that nothing will change from the way it's been over the past two years.

Neither of the two lone challenger candidates in the six county commission districts has raised a significant amount of money, and the districts are so gerrymandered by party that it wouldn't help them if they did. It's pretty safe to say that in November, incumbent Republican Jim Puckett will beat his Democrat opponent Mary Barker in District 1. Incumbent Democrat Norman Mitchell in District 2 and recently elected primary winner Valerie Woodard, a Democrat, face no opposition in gerrymandered Districts 2 and 3. In District 4, which was drawn to elect a Democrat and nothing else, Democrat incumbent Dumont Clarke faces a Libertarian he'll likely beat to a pulp without any kind of effort. District 5 Republican Ruth Samuelson and District 6 Republican Bill James have no general election opposition and only a token number of Democrats in their gerrymandered districts, so they'll win as well.

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