With Wheeler out of the picture, candidates have a rare opportunity: come in first now and establish yourself at the top of the power structure, or come in third or fourth and spend the next few years waiting your turn.
That's the race being run by Republican incumbent Pat Mumford and former school board member John Lassiter. Lassiter, a Republican, came in first in the countywide school board race in 1999. In the 2001 at-large race, Mumford came in second, less than 100 votes behind Wheeler, in his first run for office. Both deny they have mayoral ambitions, which is customary in Charlotte among candidates who do in fact have mayoral ambitions.
"They both want it bad and they're not going to wait forever," said UNCC Political Science Professor Ted Arrington. "I know this because I talk to people who talk to them every day and they want to be mayor."
Democrats Susan Burgess and Patrick Cannon also want to be mayor, or have been rumored to. They're both grappling with racial issues within the local Democratic Party that could hold them both back -- or vault them to the top. Burgess finished second in the 1999 at-large race for City Council, her first run for city office. Then she inadvertently got caught up in the ongoing brawl between white and black Democrats that started when former Democratic County Commissioner Jim Richardson, an African-American, lost his at-large seat in 2000 when white Democrat voters didn't support him in the same numbers they supported his white Democrat running mates. The next year, African-American voters played payback, and Burgess, who is white but who had always garnered support in the black community, lost a bid for mayor in an at-large primary in which she only got 30 percent of the vote against African-American candidate Ella Scarborough.
Because African-American Democrat County Commissioner Darrel Williams was knocked off in the at-large race in much the same fashion in 2002, some speculate that Burgess could once again be bypassed by angry black Democrat voters who may "single shot," or vote only for Cannon, who is African-American.
Cannon said last week that he was disheartened that he came in last or close to last in 2001 in middle- to upper-class white neighborhoods like Dilworth that ring the inner city, areas that are strongholds for his white Democrat colleagues and have been strong bases of support for Burgess.
"It concerns me that I would finish that way," said Cannon. "There was no love there."
Cannon and Burgess may both be Democrats, but they're hardly running as a team. Cannon knows that ruminating on racial politics right before an election, as he has been doing lately, will only encourage black voters to single shot him. And while the trend Cannon has described is certainly real, his motivations might not just stem from frustration with racial voting within his party. Cannon is well aware that the Democrat who gets the most votes in the at-large race will likely be elected Mayor Pro Tem, a largely ceremonial position, presently held by Cannon, which carries prestige and in the past has been a stepping stone to the mayor's office.
That's why Burgess has been so quick lately to insist that Cannon has nothing to worry about and will win a seat. The reality is that the two are running in a wary race of their own for a third place or better finish, a situation that puts them both at a slight risk of losing the race entirely.
With healthy African-American turnout and some single-shot voting, Cannon, who finished third in 2001, could come in ahead of Burgess and maybe even climb to a first or second place finish this year, although it's a long shot. But, Arrington says, single-shot voting in African-American precincts could cost Burgess a seat on council or land her at the bottom of the pack. On the flip side, if there isn't high turnout in the black community, Cannon could lose the race if the white Democrats he "has concerns about" don't support him.
That would open the door for newcomer Republican Fran Perez, one of only two women running, to grab a seat. Perez, who formally began campaigning only three months ago, has amassed an impressive list of endorsements that includes US Rep. Sue Myrick, Mayor Pat McCrory and Mumford, among others who see her as an up-and-comer. With their own races wrapped up, incumbents like Republican City Councilmember John Tabor have been actively campaigning for her, while party insiders have helped her financially with a last-minute campaign blitz.
Republican Paul Eich, who finished fifth two years ago, stubbornly refused to raise money this time. He's says using volunteers to reach voters. Eich says this may make him attractive to voters because by taking no contributions he's not beholden to special interests. This approach has been tried repeatedly in the past, but not by anyone who was subsequently elected.