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Ray McKinnon Looks to Move From Political Activism to Elected Office

From the trenches

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Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners at-large candidate Ray McKinnon's campaign slogan is "Justice, Mercy and Humility." If you've got any doubts that those are his priorities, check his forearm; it's tattooed on him in black ink.

Ray with one of his sons.
  • Ray with one of his sons.

The slogan comes from McKinnon's favorite bible verse, Micah 6:8, which reads, "He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God."

The verse perfectly embodies McKinnon's career as a pastor and public servant focused on issues around social justice. In the lead-up to the primary election on May 8, we sat with the 37-year-old father of five at Rhino Market & Deli to discuss the change he wants to help make at the county level, the role of faith in his community work and his thoughts on today's political climate.

Creative Loafing: Since moving here in 2012 from Greensboro, you've been active in politics, co-founding New South Progressives among others. Has politics been a lifelong passion for you?

Ray McKinnon: I've always been pretty active. I was an intern in Guilford County when I was in college. Civics is the only class that I got a 99 in. I've just always been intrigued by politics, and that's always been a part of who I am.

You've been active at the local, state and federal levels. Where do you feel most comfortable?

When we started New South Progressives, one of the main reasons we started is because you've got a lot of groups that look at national politics, the president, the senators, the state politics, but I really feel like it's the local decision makers who impact people the most, and it's also coincidentally the one that seems to be less sexy, the one that fewer people pay attention to.

I care about politics, all of it, but I'll tell you man, national politics, I've just been turned off from it. I used to religiously watch Rachel Maddow, but I just can't watch anymore. I can't hear another thing about Russia, I can't hear another thing about Donald Trump. That stuff is important, it is. But it's not going to help anybody in my community where I serve get a house. It's not going to help them get a job. It's not going to help them overcome the things that we're facing right now, understanding what the connection between Donald Trump and Russia was. And we spend all of this energy, and that's fine, but that's not what I'm spending my energy on. Even though I can't stand Donald Trump, I'm not spending any more time on it.

How did New South Progressives come about?

Ray with his brother, Aron McKinnon.
  • Ray with his brother, Aron McKinnon.

Sebastian Feculak, Lula Dualeh and I started it shortly after we all returned from the [2016] DNC. All three of us were delegates for Bernie Sanders. All of us were also involved in party politics. We decided that we had a lot of people who were newly involved in politics here locally, who helped Bernie Sanders, and we didn't want that to go to waste. And so we decided that you had all these people who understood how to organize so we wanted to do something with it, so we started New South Progressives shortly before September 2016, around July-August.

The Extraordinary Event Ordinance was the first thing we tackled, and that's what we're talking about with local policy stuff. We saw Braxton [Winston] get arrested because of the EEO, and it was the thing that we spent our first year working on to get repealed and we eventually did get it repealed. And for us, New South Progressives, we don't want to just say we're going to protest something, which we have and we've demonstrated, but how do we take that passion and effect real change.

Why run for county board?

Folks have asked me, "Well, why didn't you run for city council?" For me, God bless what city council does, but what they're responsible for, I don't get excited about transportation, I don't get excited about that sort of thing. For me, it's Health and Human Services, Parks and Recreation, things that really directly impact my family.

My wife's a public school teacher. The county I think too often has an adversarial relationship with school board. They don't work collaboratively. They're suspicious. All of our kids are adopted through the public foster care service, so we have this deep respect and admiration for social workers and understanding the role that they do and the support that they need. Of course, parks. We spend a lot of time at Hornets Nest Park down the road from our house. Those are things that get me passionate.

Your fellow New South Progressives co-founder Lula Dualeh ran for a county seat two years ago and lost, but it looks like she was just ahead of her time with the new wave of younger city council members just voted in. Do you think the county board is ready for a similar wave?

I hope so. But I think the challenge for Lula was that she was running in a district against an entrenched incumbent. Clearly I'm hoping the county is ready. We're making this push, [fellow at-large candidate] Jamie Hildreth and I. Jamie is also a younger guy, we have this sense that the county is ready for change. The city council had a wave and it wasn't just from millennials or young people, there are other folks, older folks who are ready.

Ray with former Mayor Harvey Gantt.
  • Ray with former Mayor Harvey Gantt.

Today I met with Mayor Gantt, and he said, "I think it's time for us to get fresh perspective." And that's not disregarding the work of folks who came before us. But I think the county is ready. I think folks are seeing, especially in the county commission, what happens when you have entrenched people who maybe feel entitled to their position. And they forget that it's a public trust and that they don't own it, it's the people's seat.

What would you like to see change on the commission?

By their actions, I don't feel like the county commission understands collaboration. Certainly they don't understand it with each other. You've got the Democrats fighting each other. You've got the Democrats handing control of the commission effectively over to the Republicans, to commissioner [Jim] Puckett, and they're not working together. It's ridiculous.

They're not listening to each other. We have six Democrats and three Republicans. You have Democrats colluding with the Republicans, and now effectively, Jim Puckett runs the show. Jim Puckett, the same guy who said, "Arm the teachers, kids are too soft." This guy is running the show. I'm like, "Sheesh, you could've at least given it to Matthew [Ridenhour], if we're just giving it away." But to be clear, if I'm on the county commission, and we have a 6-3 majority, we're not giving leadership positions away. For me, as a Democratic activist, as a Democratic party leader who worked my butt off to get Democrats elected — why are we working so hard to get Democrats elected when y'all are just going to cede control to the Republicans? And why aren't we holding them accountable for that? This is the first election that we get to hold them accountable for that, and we should.

It does seem that the county commission is far more entrenched than the city council.

It is, and it is amazing to me. If you want change, you've got to make it. You can't get changes in policies if you go with the same policy makers. I don't have any illusions that Ray McKinnon's going to come in there and solve all the problems. I was one of the new people on the Charlotte Housing Authority, me and Linda Ashendorf. Linda and I had the same radical, different perspectives, and it changes things. We didn't get everything we wanted, and it's not like the people weren't doing great work when we got there, because they were.

And that's what I'm talking about. People take it so personally like you're saying, "You were wrong," or, "You're a bad person." We're just asking the question: What more can we do? It's time for something different. It's the same thing at city council. The new folks aren't perfect, I don't agree with everything they've done, but what I love so much, from Braxton [Winston] to Tariq [Bokhari] to Larken [Egleston] to Dimple [Ajmera] to Matthew [Newton] to Justin [Harlow], all of them, even having a different mayor with Mayor [Vi] Lyles, different perspectives give you different options, and we need that. So why have we given such a pass to the county commission?

You served on the Charlotte Housing Authority, and I know that's a passion of yours. The affordable housing crisis is seen as more of a city issue, but is there some role the county can play in addressing it?

I think the first question I'd love to ask, and I really don't know the answer to this, is: What role can we collaboratively play where you have a city/county partnership and tackle the crisis for housing? Folks who make 30 percent below [the area median income], there's nothing for them. Certainly it's hard for teachers and police officers and firefighters, it really is, I know that, but for people who live in the Brookhill community I serve, if we lose Brookhill, that's 389-plus people that we don't know where they're going to live. And this is the crisis. So we ask the question, "What can we do? Can we tackle this collaboratively?"

Somebody was asking me about how we've got to try to keep the Panthers here, and I love the Panthers, but I'm like, "Yo, I'm not trying to talk about how we're going to put a roof on Bank of America Stadium to lure some person to buy the place. We've got so many people in Mecklenburg County who don't have roofs over their heads. Can we get our priorities straight? The County Commission currently, it seems like they want to build a soccer stadium. Again, no problem, I love soccer, I play soccer, my kids play soccer, we love soccer in our family, but that is not a priority for me. A priority is figuring out how we help partner with the city and our other towns, because it's not just Charlotte who has to figure this out. It's our other municipalities. That's the other thing we forget. I'm running at large, I'm not running just to represent Charlotte. That's Mint Hill, that's Davidson, it's Matthews, it's Cornelius, it's Pineville. All these places where we've got to figure out solutions for people.

How does your career as a pastor play into your role regarding community service and politics?

Ray with his niece.
  • Ray with his niece.

I like to say that my running for office is a continuation of my service, a continuation of what I feel like is my calling. I often tell people, "Yeah I'm a Democrat, proudly a Democrat, I'm a progressive, proudly progressive, not in spite of my faith but because of it." For me, the core of my faith is this belief in redemption, this belief in justice. I'm United Methodist, and we have this saying that "There's no gospel apart from the social gospel." I have to concern myself with the way my neighbor is treated. I have to concern myself with systems of injustice and systems of oppression, and not only do I need to concern myself with those, it's part of the call to dismantle those and to erect in its place just systems.

It seems there's a widening gulf between conservative Christianity and progressive Christianity. It seems the message being spread by evangelist conservative Christians is so far off from what you just said. What are your thoughts on that?

We work not just for peace but for positive peace. Justice is at the heart of what I try to do. Righting wrongs is part of our mandate. Caring about how our other siblings are treated is part of our mandate.

One of the things I say to my church probably every week is that our job is to bring light where there's darkness. The gospel is good news, and if people leave your presence feeling broken down and judged and just put upon, there's something wrong with that. If you look at the example of our Christ, there are very few people who left his presence feeling beaten down, and the people who did were folks who thought they were righteous, who thought that they had it together and that they were better than other people. But even the people who messed up, who missed the mark, when they left his presence, they left feeling encouraged, they left knowing that they were loved, knowing that they matter. And that's what my faith tells me, and that informs my politics and informs the things that I advocate for.

I had a lady say on our Facebook page for my church, "Your pastor needs to worry less about the social justice stuff and more about sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ," and the response from our person was, "That's exactly what he's doing."

But this idea of a pastor working in politics, working for justice, it's less novel in the black church than it is in the white church.

[Editor's note: An original version of this story stated that McKinnon's campaign slogan and tattoo reads, "Justice, Mercy and Hostility." That is quite the opposite of the actual slogan and tattoo, "Justice, Mercy and Humility." We apologize for the mix-up. Could we blame auto-correct?]

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