Tension rippled through the Mecklenburg County Government Center on Dec. 6 as the commissioners filed into their meeting room. At the top of the agenda was the election of the governing body's chairperson, a position usually reserved for the top at-large vote-getter.
Even before the meeting, it was clear that at-large commissioner Harold Cogdell Jr. wanted the job. He was considered for it last year but removed his name after fellow Democrats accused him of back-room deals with his Republican counterparts.
This year, Cogdell wouldn't budge. He challenged Commission chairperson Jennifer Roberts, who announced earlier this year she would not seek re-election in 2012. The two commissioners sat side-by-side on the dais during the meeting, at first not looking at each other.
Cogdell said his effort to unseat Roberts wasn't personal. He respected her and would continue working with her for the betterment of the county. Before the meeting, he told Creative Loafing that he and Roberts are different in some of their political philosophies, particularly their ideas on government spending. But, he said, "I don't believe this is any kind of defining moment in Mecklenburg County or county government"
Maybe not, but it is a strange chapter in county government. Cogdell and Roberts are both Democrats, and members of the same party haven't traditionally crossed party lines in a battle for power. Moreover, Roberts has been the board's chair since 2006, having received the most votes — 6,000 more than Cogdell in the last election — which is normally how the chair is chosen.
On this night, tradition and (some say) loyalty wasn't on the table. Supporters of Roberts sat in the audience holding handwritten signs of admiration for her. Fellow Democrat Vilma Leake nominated Roberts to continue chairing the Commission; Republican Karen Bentley nominated Cogdell.
What historically has been a routine vote turned contentious as Cogdell spoke about his being a Democrat, causing some in the audience to cough and jeer. But he unseated Roberts — with the support of the four Republicans on the board and none of the Democrats but himself.
After the vote, Roberts told her supporters not to worry about what happened. She received a standing ovation. "I haven't lost anything tonight," Roberts said. "I have kept my integrity and I have kept my promises to the Democratic Party."
Has this public power struggle revealed a rift in the Democratic Party? If so, how will the Democratic majority move forward and do the work it was elected to do?
Josh Putnam, visiting assistant professor of political science at Davidson College, said that on the surface it may look as if there's a rift, but that may not be the case. "Any time a party is able to take over and control a majority," he said, "the more seats you have, the harder it is to keep everybody on the same page. This was a move on the part of the one Democrat and four Republicans to try and consolidate some power."
Whatever the reasons, Cogdell's move did not sit well with the other Democrats, namely Leake and George Dunlap, who spoke out strongly against his fellow Democrat. Dunlap expressed his displeasure by saying that under no circumstances should Cogdell serve as chairman. "It's Groundhog Day with a twist," Dunlap said. "Last year at this time we were having the same discussion about who should be chairman of the board of county commissioners. It was at this time that I challenged those around this dais that if they did not like the current process, they could come up with a new one, and that didn't happen."
Dunlap then alluded to party loyalty, suggesting that Democrats, Republicans and Independents should follow the wishes of their particular constituencies.
But Cogdell said prior to the vote that during his time on the board he's always tried to work with all members, regardless of party affiliation. "With the change and the reshaping of the county, it's important that we continue to move in that direction," he said. "With the new culture of having to do more with less, it is an important culture to have in county government ... I think we need to continue in that direction in what I anticipate will be a new economic reality that our country and county will see over the next several years."
While some Democrats, such as Leake, castigated Cogdell for his disloyalty, characterizing his maneuvering as a power move, Mecklenburg County Democratic Party Chair Aisha Dew insisted there is no rift in the party. "We are a diverse and big-tent party," Dew said. "We don't have a regime like some might say the Republicans have [in which] everyone comes in and stays on the exact same message."
Democrats in Mecklenburg County have been in this position before. In 2007, when a new sheriff had to be installed after Jim Pendergraph left that position to become a county commissioner, the election process was questioned. Members of the local Democratic Party went to state party officials alleging that Nick Mackey had broken the rules by failing to hold enough public meetings or adequately publicize the meetings that were held. Activist Jane Whitley filed a grievance with the state Democratic party, which ultimately overturned Mackey's election. In the end, David Erdman, then-chairman of the local Democratic Party, resigned.
So, what will the fallout be this time?
That depends on what happens with the board of commissioners under Cogdell's leadership, said Putnam.
"There's going to have to be some bipartisanship on the [Commission]. If it's all gridlock and division between that group of five and everyone else," Cogdell may be damaged during the next election, Putnam said. "But if you see some bipartisan action between the Democrats and that block of five, it may not be that big of a deal."