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So Blue ...

Have Mecklenburg voters pushed the county over the edge?

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Mecklenburg County Republican Party Chairman John Aneralla doesn't want to believe it's true.

Last week, he was contemplating something nearly unspeakable for a Republican Party chairman -- that Mecklenburg County has gone hopelessly, permanently blue. That the days when the Republicans could still win control of the Mecklenburg County Commission in non-presidential election years -- or at any other time -- are over.

The only other explanation, he says, is that the county's voting machines malfunctioned, in some cases checking a straight-Democratic ticket when the voter pressed the straight-Republican ticket button. It's a possibility the Republican Party and at least one election judge who witnessed the problem on Election Day plan to bring up this week at the Mecklenburg County Board of Elections, Aneralla says.

But short of some sort of technical glitch, the list of explanations isn't very long.

The county's Republican Party worked extremely hard to turn out voters this time, Aneralla says. It had a better early voting operation than the Democrats, and more Republicans voted early. The state Republican Party pumped upwards of $100,000 into defeating Democrat county commissioners, more than the party had ever spent on advertising in a local commission race. On Election Day, the GOP's grassroots operation was everywhere -- on the streets and at the polls.

"We didn't see much Democrat activity," said Aneralla.

Yet somehow, they failed to win control of the county commission back from the Democrats in a year that should have favored Republicans at the local level because turnout was so low. Instead, Democrats maintained their 5-4 majority by winning two of the three at-large seats.

Charlotte Democratic strategist Tom Chumley and other local Democrats agree that the county's Democratic Party didn't do much this year compared to other years in terms of campaigning. They say Democrat Jennifer Roberts had a great campaign machine, so it's not surprising that she came in first in the at-large race. But they also say that Democrat Parks Helms did almost no campaigning and came in third.

Helms is, of course, well-known but so is Republican Kaye McGarry, who came in first in the non-partisan at-large school board race in 2003, beating her closest opponent by nearly 6,000 votes. Yet McGarry trailed Helms by 78 votes in a race where she ran under the Republican label

Sure, this was supposed to be a good year nationally for the Democrats. But with no high-profile races to jack up voter enthusiasm, voter turnout here stagnated and was 15 to 20 percentage points lower than in places where voters surged to the polls and kicked Republicans to the curb across the nation.

Mecklenburg Democratic Party Chairman Michael D. Evans says it's not that Democratic strength is growing. Evans says what's happening is that many of what he calls the "new urban professionals" who are moving here are registering unaffiliated.

"My sense is the Republican Party here is too conservative for them," says Evans.

Chumley and others point out that the county at-large races were tight, with less than 100 votes separating some of the candidates.

"Anybody can win these things," says Chumley.

Ten years of history and changing voter rolls appear to prove both sides partially right. Since 1996, Republicans have only controlled the county commission once. In 2002, two Republicans won at-large, giving them a 5-4 majority. One of those, Tom Cox, was a moderate Republican who often voted with the Democrats.

Over the years, both parties have actually lost ground here, at least in registration. In 1993, 51 percent of the voters here were registered Democratic, 38 percent were Republican and 11 percent registered unaffiliated. Today, 43 percent of voters are Democrats, 34 percent are Republicans and 23 percent are unaffiliated.

But it used to be that a quarter to a third of Democrats were conservative, and would vote Republican. Now, overall, both Republicans and Democrats say Mecklenburg County is a more moderate place, even though the percentage of Democrats here is declining.

But that increased level of moderation doesn't seem to have translated into an increased level of tolerance for African-American candidates. A week after the election, African-American leaders who declined to be named are buzzing about Wilhelmenia Rembert's loss in the county commission at-large race. Rembert, a Democrat who is African-American, came in last this time after some voters in white Democratic and moderate Republican precincts failed to vote for her but voted for her two white Democratic colleagues. Her loss mirrors those of Jim Richardson and Darryl Williams, two other African-American county commissioners who lost due to the same phenomenon.

White voter decline occurred in 2004, too, when Rembert was elected at-large. But two years ago, with the presidential race in full swing, there were enough Democrats voting overall to make up the difference. This year, with fewer Democrats voting, the stark racial difference in voters' support levels for white and black Democrats caused the defeat of the third African-American incumbent since 2000.

As they have in the past, Evans, Chumley and other Democrats say the disparity isn't the party's fault.

Rembert didn't run as aggressive a campaign as Roberts did, says Democratic strategist Dan McCorkle. Evans also insists white Democrats aren't to blame.

"Rembert got the Democratic vote, but failed to get the Republican and unaffiliated crossover votes," says Evans, though it's difficult to tell the party registration of those who voted for individual candidates.

Democrats also said they will do more in the next election to make sure all their candidates get elected and that African-American candidates don't get left behind at-large.

"I'm disappointed by Wilhelmenia's loss," says Evans.

Whether that will be enough to end the angry buzz in the African-American community is questionable, as are a lot of things that remain unanswered about this election.

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