When filing for North Carolina municipal elections closed last week, one thing was obvious: this year, there won’t be many uncontested races.
“This year there are definitely more candidates than we’re used to seeing,” said Gary Simms, elections director for Wake County. “There is definitely a sense of people wanting to get involved with politics and there are many grassroots efforts to get people interested in running in local contests.”
In the Raleigh City Council race there are 24 candidates for eight seats – the most in nearly two decades. Seven of those candidates are running for just two at-large seats.
In Greensboro, there are 38 candidates running for just nine seats on the City Council – fifteen of them for just three at-large seats.
There are eight candidates for Mayor of Charlotte, a race that will likely set a new high-water mark for election spending in a North Carolina municipal race. Five of those candidates are Democrats and three Republicans.
Among the legions of candidates packing local races this year, many – from the city council races in the state’s largest cities to commissioner races in some of its smallest – are first time candidates.
In a political year that has been so fractious at both the state and national level, that may make a certain amount of sense.
“The political environment shapes the ground in terms of local elections,” said Dr. Michael Bitzer, professor of History and Political Science at Catawba College. “The usual axiom is you will energize and mobilize if you feel threatened. I think that is certainly the case in North Carolina, where people feel energized because of state level politics. And [President Donald] Trump certainly has energized and mobilized Democrats particularly.”
A large number of this year’s first time candidates are Democrats – or, in the case of municipal elections that are still officially non-partisan, they are running on progressive platforms.
Bitzer said that follows a pattern. After the election of Barack Obama in 2008, tea party-inspired conservative groups responded to Democratic gains by giving rise to a new wave of Republican activism and first-time candidates. Many of them mounted primary challenges against sitting Republicans they found ineffective or insufficiently conservative.
They had great success even in counties like Guilford, with its Democratic majority. There, a tea party-inspired group called Conservatives for Guilford County harried both Democratic and Republican county commissioners, inspired new candidates to run for office and played a key role in flipping the county’s board of commissioners from Democratic to GOP control.
While the group initially butted heads with sitting Republicans and the county Republican party, today its members serve in leadership roles in the county party and one of its early members, Jeff Phillips, ran successfully for county commissioner and is now chairman of the board.
Similarly, Democrats like Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts are now facing challenges from both fellow progressives and more conservative Democrats like State Senator Joel Ford. It’s all part of a battle for the soul of both the state and national Democratic party in the wake of Republican control in state government and the ascent of Trump in Washington, Bitzer said.
“This is the dynamic of the parties sorting themselves into very ideologically pure groups,” Bitzer said. “We’re seeing reaction to national events and reaction to state politics in the candidates we’re now seeing and who is getting more involved.”
Michelle Kennedy is one of the 15 candidates running at-large in Greensboro. She said she’s been acutely aware of politics since Democrat Harvey Gantt took on Senator Jesse Helms in 1990 – one of the most bruising political contests in the North Carolina history.
Kennedy has always been active on social issues – she runs the city’s Interactive Resource Center for the homeless and serves on the Human Relations Commission. But this year, at 42, she’s making her first run for office.
“I’ve spent most of my career working in the social justice arena, advocating for specific initiatives but never really thought about entering the political arena,” Kennedy said this week. “Working in the nonprofit sector I’ve been able to create a lot of change, but when you look at the progressive policies you could move forward as an elected leader, I felt like this is a natural next step.”
Kennedy said she was inspired by disappointment with the current city council but also from aggressive moves against progressive cities and their self-governance by a conservative state legislature.
“We’re in a moment in municipalities, and in Greensboro, where we’ve had a lot of push-back from Raleigh,” Kennedy said. “There are a lot of legislative things that have affected us. And I don’t think we have a city council that has reacted the way it should.”
If elected Kennedy, a lesbian, would be the first openly LGBT member of the city council. She said it’s past time to break down that barrier.
“We’ve had female members, African American members, our first female mayor and our first African American mayor,” Kennedy said. “When you look at the contributions that LGBT people are making in Greensboro, it’s really beyond time that we had a seat at the table in decision making in the city.”
Another Greensboro candidate inspired by state political struggles – especially the battle over HB2 – is Payton McGarry.
McGarry, 21, is a transgender UNCG student who was one of the original plaintiffs in the lawsuit against HB2, the controversial law that limited legal protections for LGBT people. McGarry is now a plaintiff in the amended suit against HB 142, the law that replaced HB2.
He’s also a candidate in Greensboro’s District 3, which is now represented by moderate Democrat Justin Outling.
McGarry said HB2, the lawsuit and the ensuing political fight made him consider politics for the first time.
“I was trying to understand – why is this happening?” McGarry said. “Why are there these policies being passed that demonize groups of people? It’s because there’s no representation.”
McGarry said he’d like to see more LGBT representation from the local to the national level – but he’d also like to see more young people involved in everything from activism and political organizing to stepping up to run for office.
“I think there’s really this divide in the Millennial population,” McGarry said. “There’s this divide between people who think that no matter what they say it doesn’t matter and the opposite of that – that we have to register, we have to vote, it’s our civic duty and that’s the only way we’re going to see change.”
McGarry said he’s realistic about his chances as a first time candidate taking on a popular and well-connected Democratic incumbent.
“I think it’s going to be a tough race,” McGarry said. “But even if it’s a tough race, it increases the notion that young people can run, young LGBT people can run.”
That example can be invaluable, McGarry said.
“If one queer kid can look up and say, ‘He ran, so I can run too’ – that’s what I’m looking for,” McGarry said.
That attitude is leading more Millennials to run for office, Bitzer said – and to get involved at every level of politics as the generation comes of age.
“This could be one of the true hallmarks of the generational shift that’s occurring,” Bitzer said.
As Millennials begin to surpass Baby Boomers as the largest voter-eligible age group, Bitzer said, they are asserting themselves in not just activism but in putting themselves forward for office. Even if they don’t win their first races, he said, they’re likely to become essential parts of the political machinery of their local and state parties.
They could also begin to change the face of politics not just in this state but in the country.
“In some of the analysis that I did about last year’s elections, Millennials are 40 percent liberal in self identification,” Bitzer said. “This is nationally. That’s the largest group of liberals within a generation. If you look at Gen X, Baby Boomers and the Greatest Generation that liberal number drops to 30 percent and lower.”
“There’s a definite shift to the left,” Bitzer said. “And it’s catching up to where conservatives took over the Republican party in a shift to the right.”
Of course, the more liberals who crowd municipal races the thinner they may spread their support.
Michelle Kennedy, the Greensboro at-large candidate, said whatever the fate of individual candidacies, the wave of new blood in politics is a good thing.
“From a candidate’s standpoint I wish there were fewer of us,” Kennedy said. “But from a private citizen’s standpoint, no matter how it plays out this level of involvement is a win.”