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The Electoral Politics of Widening I-77

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Politics is a numbers game – always has been, always will be.

But the numbers behind the politics of widening I-77 are not just the ones you read about in the papers.  They aren’t just about spending over $500,000,000 dollars to add lanes to less than 30 miles of road.  It’s not just the 20, 30, or 40 years the pro-toll side tells citizens they will have to wait if this project does not go forward as currently planned using tolls.  It’s not just the zero other options they say exist.

In many ways those numbers are just sound and fury signifying nothing.  If you’ve attended more than one of the numerous debates, discussions, and presentations that have been held around the area or read any of the countless articles published by all types of media, you’ll realize these numbers are always changing.  They are moving targets and nobody really knows the true answer to many of the questions asked.

There are numbers though that are very real and may ultimately drive the final decision, or at least influence how some of our local leaders behave on the road to getting there.  Those numbers are 1023, 242, and 8.6.

Here’s the hard reality of our coming election cycles.  Our North Mecklenburg members of the General Assembly, all of them Republicans, should all have some reasonable concern that if they end up on the wrong side of this issue it could cut short their tenures in Raleigh or shoot down their attempts at higher office.  With House Speaker and North Mecklenburg representative, Thom Tillis, finally announcing his entry into the 2014 US Senate race this week, it’s time to take a look at what the HOT Lanes decision could mean when it comes to our elections.

So what about those numbers?

1023. That’s the margin of victory for Charles Jeter in his close race for the newly created NC-92 legislative district.  It is one of only a handful of truly swing districts in the state.  If he supports HOT lanes, he will lose votes in North Mecklenburg, his base.  Will he lose enough to cost him reelection if he faces a half-decent Democrat as a challenger?  Who knows?  Does he want to risk it?  His recent actions are inconclusive.

This legislative session, Rep Jeter submitted bill H157, one of his first, that would limit the use of transportation funds to transportation projects.  The bill met the crossover deadline, and he has heavily promoted his support of the bill making sure everyone is aware of his desire to spend our road money wisely.  He spoke about the bill at the February LKN Chamber “Focus Friday” gathering.  His comments at the Chamber also indicated that he might be open to considering other options on I-77, or that at least he had not made up his mind on the project.  He seemed to be really trying to reassure people he’s not a full-blown supporter of the current plan for tolls on I-77.

Here’s the thing.  It won’t work…not unless he comes down firmly in the camp opposing the project. Saying you are not a strong supporter of a project is not the same as saying you oppose a project.    Unless, he actively opposes the I-77 HOT Lanes project, he loses votes.  Period.  Unfortunately, Rep Jeter missed his best opportunity recently to actually oppose the project when he voted against the amendment to H267 which would have required the legislature to vote on toll projects before implementation.  See H267: Redux – NC House really, really, really doesn’t want to vote on tolling you for the details on that vote.

Actions speak louder than words, and in this case Rep Jeter chose not to take an action that matches his words.

The next number is 242, as in Cornelius Precinct 242.  This precinct in State Senator Jeff Tarte’s home town voted overwhelmingly for him in the July 2012 runoff which ended the bitter primary campaign last election cycle for NC Senate 41.  In fact, Senator Tarte’s margin of victory for the entire race was covered by just this one precinct.  He defeated his opponent, John Aneralla, by a total of 193 votes, and he won Precinct 242 by 203 votes.  Precinct 242 lies in the heart of the proposed I-77 HOT Lane plan.  Any fall off in support here and in neighboring precincts would hurt in the event of another primary challenge.

Admittedly, a primary challenge is not very likely, and Senator Tarte has insulated himself considerably in this region of the district with his efforts to fix the county’s broken revaluation process.  For example, see When the politicians get it right… on some of the positive publicity he deserves on that issue.  However, Cornelius is also the home base for opposition to the HOT Lanes plan.  Many Cornelians who were convinced that Jeff Tarte was the best choice last time might think otherwise if given a choice in another primary and he is perceived to have done nothing to stop the toll plan.

Earlier in the HOT Lanes debate they were seeing things like this tweet from their State Senator.  It’s a picture of a traffic jam on a 20 lane road and implies this is what proponents of general purpose lanes are trying to foist on the public.

When asked about this tweet, here was the response…

That was back in February.  Now, in a current and ongoing conversation on Senator Tarte’s Facebook page, he’s openly discussing the issue.  Readers should definitely check it out.  In its own way, the below comment from Senator Tarte is rather refreshing.

“When folks send you messages they will hold you accountable at the polls – that is kind of petty and senseless – because it is not really a threat, it is how our political process works. If one does not want their actions judged, you should not run for elected public office. Being held accountable on every Election Day is one of the things that makes our system the greatest method of governing that man has known to date. Please hold me accountable on every issue as well as my entire body of work.”

Senator Tarte is in a “safe” seat for Republicans, but his support for the HOT Lanes option on I-77 will definitely make it less so for him personally in the event someone challenges him and makes this a central issue in a primary campaign.

And finally, that last number of 8.6.  According to the most recent numbers on the State and Mecklenburg County Board of Elections sites, 8.6% of all North Carolina Republicans live in Mecklenburg County – 170k out of a total 1.98m to be more exact.

If there is any unrest among that group of Republicans it will have an impact on the next major statewide political race here in North Carolina – the 2014 race for Kay Hagan’s US Senate seat.

Last week NC Speaker of the House and North Mecklenburg Representative, Thom Tillis, announced his candidacy for that seat.

However, to get a shot at that seat, he must first come out on top in a primary.  Being a main driver of a very unpopular project in his home county which contains a sizable chunk of the state’s Republicans, does not help that cause.  It does not help it at all, and he can only lose votes because of it.  Dr Greg Brannon, the only other candidate officially in the race, mentioned the HOT Lanes issue as part of his “welcome letter” to Speaker Tillis for the 2014 Senate contest – ensuring that this is an issue which will be part of the primary campaign.

To win a first primary outright, a candidate needs 40% of the statewide vote.  Losing any sizable chunk of voters who should be in his camp will make that much more difficult for Thom Tillis.  If a race like this goes to a runoff, then it’s anyone’s guess who comes out the winner.  Ted Cruz’s runoff victory in Texas being the obvious comparison.

And if Speaker Tillis makes it out of the primary?  In the general election that 8.6% will be even more critical.  The general election race for US Senate will likely be very close with no margin for error.

A cautionary example would be the 2008 race between Pat McCrory and Beverly Purdue.  The moderate Mayor Pat lost that race by a razor thin margin. One has to wonder how much of that margin was due to Mecklenburg County conservatives who didn’t vote for him after his championing the Uptown arena and light rail.

As the clock ticks away on the HOT Lanes issue, more and more voters will be lost.  The only question is just how high that number goes.

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