Republican Matthew Ridenhour lost his Mecklenburg County commissioner seat in the local blue wave of 2018. Now he’s back for a third attempt to reclaim it.
But Laura Meier, the Democratic incumbent, isn’t giving up the District 5 seat without a fight — even if it means taking shots at, or back at, her opponent over social media. She feels the current slate of county leaders has made progress, from putting forth money to acquire land for future parks and greenways to prioritizing mental health.
- She wants to keep going after a rather short (two-year) term.
- “I’ve had to fight fire with fire,” Meier says. “I’m just trying to show who he really is because he’s not moderate. He’s actually very conservative.”
Why it matters: District 5, located in south Charlotte and home to affluent neighborhoods like SouthPark and Myers Park, is a purple area where Republicans have lost ground. With a majority unaffiliated makeup and only a few thousand fewer registered Republicans than Democrats, the GOP may still have the numbers to seat a “dissenting view” on the all-Democratic board.
Zoom out: All the sitting commissioners are running for re-election, except temporary at-large representative Wilhelmenia Rembert, who stepped in for Ella Scarborough while she was on medical leave.
[Go deeper: Axios voter guide for the November 2022 elections in Mecklenburg County]
Driving the news: Despite some of their top local priorities aligning (green space and education), Ridenhour and Meier’s contrasting political views have added fuel to an already fiery race. From a Twitter squabble over Wordle to pointing fingers at each other’s past survey responses, the two have hashed it out online for weeks.
- Recently Meier argued that voters shouldn’t support a “pro-life” candidate who could one day leverage his local political experience in a statewide campaign. “I don’t think somebody with anti-choice values should be going for a state office because we’re about to lose our bodily autonomy for women,” she says. “And that’s a big deal for me. It’s a driving force, actually.”
- But Ridenhour contends the county does not provide or fund abortion services. “It’s really a nonissue,” Ridenhour says. “She’s trying to make this an issue because it’s an emotional issue.”
Still, commissioners do have a say in public health policy, Meier notes. Plus, the county funds health organizations that offer contraception and may counsel pregnant women on their options. This year’s budget includes $270,919 for Charlotte Community Health Clinic, for instance.
Between the lines: Ridenhour has also called Meier out for her past statements about school resource officers (SROs). One of the main pillars of Meier’s campaign is mental health, and she says she would explore switching out SROs with mental health professionals to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline.
- Meanwhile, Ridenhour has vocally supported law enforcement, at a time when police are leaving the field.
State of play: Some of the county’s most controversial funding is that of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. Every year the commissioners finalize decisions about the local contribution to the school system as part of the budget process.
- Both candidates are campaigning to improve student outcomes in CMS. Meier taught for CMS in a drop-out preventative program in the ’90s, and Ridenhour is a founding board member of charter school Steele Creek Preparatory Academy.
- In 2021, Meier was one of only two votes against a county budget that temporarily withheld $56 million from the school district in response to the widening achievement gap.
- To some, restricting funds and forcing the school board into mediation increased perceptions of a broken relationship between the two bodies. Meier says the move by her colleagues was wrong, and she supports giving the district the funds it says it requests.
“‘The test scores have been declining.’ Well, so has the money,” she says. “Does anyone connect those dots? I think we should try something completely new and give them the money they need for a few years and see what happens. Because they can’t do more with less.”
The other side: Ridenhour says “just writing a check to CMS” for more money isn’t the solution. He says he would sit down with the school board to identify which programs are worth funding. “Then county commission can feel more comfortable funding them and then can go to the community and say, ‘Yep, this is what CMS says they need. We agree. This is going to be a success,'” he says.
Flashback: The first time Meier went against Ridenhour, she wasn’t the candidate. She was volunteering on the campaign of his 2018 challenger, Susan Harden. When Harden did not seek re-election in 2020, Meier says Harden and others encouraged her to run.
Before then, Ridenhour was winning the county seat by wide margins in 2012, 2014 and 2016. After losing the election for a second time in 2020, he says he swore off politics. But then, he recalls one day raking leaves — around the time commissioners were responding to COVID and voting on mask mandates — and he was thinking that the blue board was lacking differing views.
- “I just felt like a lot of those people in the community, their voices weren’t being heard,” he says. “In fact, they were being just outright dismissed.”
The big picture: Ridenhour received an endorsement from The Charlotte Observer editorial board this year for his “strong, contrary voice.”
- But Meier asks, “Do they watch our meetings? My colleagues and I do not agree on so many things. We’ve got a whole wide spectrum … We don’t rubber stamp anything.”
The intrigue: Both Meier and and Ridenhour say they’ve cast some tough votes during their years in office. Both referenced a difficult decision of whether to contribute taxpayer money to potentially transformational projects for the county. But in her case, Meier eventually agreed to give the money, and in his, Ridenhour fought against what seemed to be a “done deal.”
- Meier says she was at first hesitant to approve $38 million in tax breaks for the Atrium Innovation District, skeptical of how the corporation was helping those lacking health care and insurance. She says she eventually learned more about Atrium and is now excited about the prospect of “The Pearl,” a planned medical school campus mixed with residential, retail and other uses.
- Ridenhour takes credit for rallying a majority of commissioners together to block financial support for a Major League Soccer stadium in 2017. He says it saved taxpayers more than $150 million and freed up money for parks.
“A lot of folks were telling us … ‘If we don’t do this Memorial Stadium MLS deal now, then MLS is going to expand and they won’t include Charlotte,'” he says.
“Well, we defeated the deal. And I attended, like, 12 MLS matches this year at Bank of America Stadium,” he adds.
What’s next: During the next two-year term, the board will likely adjust the tax rate following the property revaluation. Ridenhour says he would only support a revenue-neutral budget. “My opponent refuses to make that same commitment,” he adds.
The bottom line: This rematch may not come down to “emotional” politics or Wordle scores, but whose approach voters believe is best to tackle county priorities.