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Looking ahead

What would it take to defeat Mayor Pat McCrory in 2009?



N.C. Rep. Beverly Earle had several factors in her favor. She was a Democrat in a city with more registered Democrats than Republicans. She'd gained clout from seven terms in the General Assembly. But all that wasn't enough to successfully challenge Mayor Pat McCrory, who handily won a seventh term Nov. 6 with 61 percent of the vote.

So what's it going to take for someone to beat him?

Even the local Democratic Party leader admits it's a challenge. "It would take a graceful retirement on the part of Pat McCrory," says David Erdman, chairman of the Mecklenburg County Democratic Party. "I'm saying that with a tongue in cheek, slightly."

Slightly. Earle was arguably the most solid candidate in years to take on McCrory, even though frequent Democratic candidate Craig Madans in both 2003 and 2005 got a larger share of the vote, 40 percent and 43 percent, respectively. But several folks say she was handicapped by McCrory's name recognition and bank account, as well as her own late entry to the race.

All that aside, City Councilman Anthony Foxx says he thinks Earle ran a "pretty good campaign," despite attracting only 39 percent of the vote.

"I think there's some silver lining in there, from her vantage point ...," Foxx says. "[Winning is] a combination of building grassroots support and raising enough money to be competitive. But all of that doesn't happen unless you've got the time to go out and build those relationships and to make a case for change."

Democrats didn't come forward with a compelling issue that would distinguish Earle from McCrory. Perhaps, Erdman says, Earle could have drawn sharper distinctions between herself and the mayor if she'd had more time to campaign. "Since the Democratic Party was in agreement with the mayor on the salient issue of the last campaign, which was 'vote against repeal,' we were in a strategically awkward place to be trying to make a contrast on the issue," he says.

But Madans, who wanted to be the Democratic candidate for mayor but then campaigned for Earle, contends well-known local Democrats didn't strongly back Earle. Local Democratic officeholders are comfortable with McCrory, he says, noting that state-level elected officials, such as Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue and Gov. Mike Easley, didn't visibly campaign for Earle.

"Quite frankly, the numbers show that there is no reason why there shouldn't be a Democratic mayor in town," Madans says. (Only about 14 percent of registered voters selected McCrory. Voter rolls show 30 percent of voters are registered Republicans, while 46 percent are registered Democrats.) "The problem is that when it comes down to the big names ... the Democratic Party -- where the money is, the big supporters, not the street soldiers -- does not support its candidates," says Madans, a light-rail critic in a party that lobbied to keep the transit tax.

Erdman denies that, and says organizers knocked on more than 40,000 doors, making it the most organized get-out-the-vote effort in his memory. As a direct result, he says, Susan Burgess finished at the top of the at-large ticket, with Anthony Foxx coming in at second. "This is a complete reversal from two years ago," Erdman said.

So how do Democrats take on McCrory next time, assuming he runs for an eighth term in 2009? "I think it's pretty simple, actually," Foxx says. "I think that one of the things that the Democratic Party needs to do is to start coalescing around candidates earlier in the process so they have the time to do the fundraising and the time to make those connections in the community. That's just a matter of being more intentional and being more deliberate about candidate recruitment."

Madans, who is considering running for a Mecklenburg County commission seat in 2008 or the mayor's office in 2009, says he's the one for the job. "I truly believe I am the only one [capable of] taking him out."

Foxx received 52,130 votes in the at-large city council race. That put his tally second only to Councilwoman Susan Burgess and only about 6,000 fewer than McCrory got in the mayor's race. He's been named as a potential candidate. Will he run?

"We'll see," Foxx says. "I try to make decisions in two-year increments, and I have a lot of things going on in my life, including two children under [the age of] 3. I want to do justice to all aspects of my life. But we'll see."

Perhaps it's a sign of Democrats' acceptance of McCrory that the best chance for the party to win may come when McCrory vacates the office, either by choosing not to run for re-election or by resigning to take another position. "When that retirement comes, there will be an all-out effort by both parties to win the mayorship, and the Democrats will be in there swinging hard," Erdman says.

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