Could Democratic County Commissioner Jennifer Roberts commit a felony and still be re-elected? After the Nov. 2 election, it appears her chances are good.
It was the reddest election in this state in recent memory, so red that Republicans won the legislature for the first time in over 100 years. Despite the GOP tsunami, Democrats held on to a majority on the County Commission.
That means Mecklenburg is now perma-blue. We've hit that critical turning point in a county's history where a political party's winning margins become so big that that party will never be held responsible for anything it does again. Individual party members might lose on rare occasions, but the party will always control local politics.
Now, the corruption begins.
It always goes this way in once-great cities that polarize politically. In the last 18 months, we've seen the first hints of the corrupt, incompetent circus one-party power inevitably turns into. The first federal indictment and conviction of a county employee in recent years — she stole tens of thousands of dollars from the county's Giving Tree Christmas charity for poor children — occurred last year. There will be more.
Mecklenburg County Manager Harry Jones, whose incompetence is exceeded only by his self-interest, attempted to derail the investigation, threatening a concerned Giving Tree donor and later lying to the media about the status of the investigation. Roberts, who chairs the Commission, has at best been nonchalant about all of this. No one in county management has ever been held responsible. Commissioners and Jones declined to investigate further to determine how many years back the theft went and if others had swilled at a till meant for poor kids.
Money is beginning to evaporate elsewhere. Several hundred thousand dollars in federal money was apparently pilfered by a Mecklenburg Open Door employee on the county's watch. No one in county leadership seemed to notice or care where money appropriated to build a mental health facility went until federal officials stepped in.
County management has become so fiscally inept that no one noticed when the county went broke. County commissioners and Jones put half a billion dollars worth of bonds on the ballot, which voters passed, without realizing that the county had hit its debt limit and couldn't actually sell them. This occurred after a 10-year debt spree so obscene that the county is still reeling from it. This year, the county was opening new parks garnished with $200,000 art sculptures while cutting library hours and debating the closure of partially full schools we're told we can't afford to operate.
This is the kind of banana republic style management we expect from places like Detroit and Washington, D.C.; the kind Charlotte has long prided itself on avoiding; the kind Charlotte's voters once punished politicians for. Yet despite the situation described above, Jones was recently rewarded with a fat pay raise and Roberts with re-election.
Even the perennial liberals on The Charlotte Observer editorial board declined to endorse Roberts for re-election this year, making it clear that the way the county is run has become an embarrassment, even to them. And still Teflon Jenny won at-large, thanks to high-volume, straight-party voting.
The day after the election, Roberts, who now clearly realizes she is bulletproof, was on NewsTalk 1110 WBT assuring local taxpayers, nearly 10 percent of whom are unemployed, that their homes have risen 10 percent in value since 2003. The county, which hasn't had a tax increase recently, must consider "capturing" some of that additional housing value, Roberts said. Translation: Democrats' new bulletproof majority means they'll never fear raising taxes again, freeing them from making hard choices or worrying about fiscal controls.
Private sector wages in Mecklenburg County have plummeted 10 percent since 2007, the Observer recently reported, a loss of $2.6 billion. Only New York, Las Vegas, Detroit and Phoenix had bigger drops in this recession. In 1999, the Charlotte region ranked 36th in the country in per-capita personal income. Today, the Observer says, we're 119th, putting us in league with Buffalo and Detroit.
In other places, it would be political suicide to even consider hiking taxes on a group of people in as much economic pain as Charlotteans are. That is, unless you're certain that you and your party are invincible, in which case anything goes.