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Political musical chairs in Charlotte

Harold Cogdell apparently thinks the N.C. Democratic Shuffle is a new dance craze

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Ever since Gov. Bev Perdue announced in January that she would not seek a second term, the new rule for North Carolina politics is to expect the unexpected. So last week, when Democratic Mecklenburg County Commission chair Harold Cogdell, Jr. announced he would not be seeking re-election, it just proved to be the last dance in a ridiculous game of political musical chairs.

Between repositioning of the gubernatorial race, redistricting of state congressional districts and personal squabbles on the local level, Democratic leadership in the city and state is poised to look very different next year. Three Dems — Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton, Rep. Bill Faison, and former Congressman Bob Etheridge — are vying for Perdue's job, and the May primary winner will take on former Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory in November.

As for the state's congressional makeup, redistricting has turned North Carolina's maps upside down, with the likely outcome being that, when the dust settles in November, more Republicans than Democrats will be in the N.C. delegation. Congressmen Brad Miller and Heath Shuler already announced they will retire rather than compete in tougher new districts, while Rep. Larry Kissell is in for the fight of his political life in the nearby 8th District. But Rep. Sue Myrick's announcement that she will not run again creates an opportunity, though slim, for Democratic representation from the 9th District.

In the case of local politics, Cogdell's departure is a welcome development for those who detest smarmy sycophants. Cogdell's moves over the past four years suggest he values cultivating his personal image over serving the public interest. He was elected to the Commission in 2008 and served as vice chair for two years before failing in his first attempt to unseat fellow Democrat Jennifer Roberts as chair. Then, three months after he pushed to provide an additional $110,000 for the C.W. Williams Community Health Clinic in 2011, the nonprofit hired him to do its legal work. In April of that same year, Cogdell left his law practice of 14 years to become executive director of the area Big Brothers Big Sisters program, but then left the organization abruptly to return to practicing law.

Then, Cogdell once again heard some strange calling to be County Commission chair, and in November 2011 he made a deal with the four Republicans on the Commission, who voted for him as chair, thus defeating Roberts and the other Democrats 5-4. That move made Cogdell a leading representative of one of the most heavily populated counties in the country. But after all his jockeying, Cogdell turned around last week and announced that he's calling it quits.

"I think that his motivation and direction has been very mysterious," said Roberts. "So I'm not surprised by anything anymore."

As a fitting cap to an egocentric career, Cogdell's announcement came just two days before the Feb. 29 filing deadline to run for office in 2012, and it created a brief period of chaos as hopeful office seekers scrambled to get on the ballot for the May 8 primary.

With Cogdell's retirement, three at-large members will no longer be on the ballot, since Republican Jim Pendergraph and Democrat Roberts both are running to replace Myrick in Congress. All told, 17 people will be vying to fill those three at-large seats on the County Commission: 12 Democrats, four Republicans and one libertarian. Among the Democrats is Harry Taylor, a 2008 congressional candidate who became a hero to the national progressive netroots community in 2006 when he told then-President George W. Bush that he should be ashamed of himself.

The primary will narrow the race down to three candidates from each of the main political parties along with the libertarian, and the top three overall vote-getters in November will then land seats on the Commission.

Republican Commissioner Neil Cooksey, who represents District 5, has said that he also will not run again in 2012, which leaves a total of four open seats; four Republicans and two Democrats have filed to run for his position.

All of this should make for an interesting election season. "I think with the presidential race competing for North Carolina, and the DNC being in Charlotte, we can expect very high turnout," said Roberts. "And I think voters are going to have some real choices, especially in districts where they might not have felt like they had a real choice in the past."

Mecklenburg County Democratic Party chair Aisha Dew said it's all beneficial to her party. "This is a great opportunity for Democrats, especially if the president is able to bring his voters from 2008 back out to the polls," Dew said. "We are poised to win the three at-large seats, and compete for every office on the ballot."

But can the Democrats win the seat that nine-term incumbent Myrick will soon vacate? During her career on Capitol Hill, Myrick has long been a toady for corporate interests and a particularly nasty Muslim- and Latino-bashing demagogue. So far, 13 candidates have lined up for the May primary; of those, 11 are Republicans, one is a libertarian and the lone Democrat is Roberts.

All in all, Mecklenburg County voters bear a tremendous burden to not waste an opportunity to elect new leadership. The next few years could be a time of bold reforms and positive civic engagement. No matter what the outcome, a Mecklenburg County without Harold Cogdell or Sue Myrick is already something worth looking forward to.

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