Many potential candidates
ask: Why bother? Strong incumbents, 'safe' districts, negative
politics not worth fight
By Richard Rubin
October 29, 2002
Arundell didn't even consider running for county commissioner this
In 2000, she was trounced by Bill James in south
Mecklenburg's District 6, where Republicans outnumber Democrats
nearly 2 to 1.
"Unless you have some miracle way of changing
people's minds," she said, "there's just no point in trying."
James, who easily won a September primary, will coast to a fourth
term next week without even token opposition.
Arundell and others
like her across the Carolinas aren't running for office this year,
citing gerrymandered districts, negative politics and the
time-consuming ordeals of campaigning and serving. What they've left
behind: races for Congress, state legislature and local offices with
just one major-party candidate on the ballot.
Nearly half of the
120 races for the N.C. House aren't races at all, uncontested by
either the Democrats or Republicans. Eight of 10 House seats in
Mecklenburg are uncontested by the major parties. And just one of
the six Mecklenburg County commissioner district representatives
faces a general-election campaign from the opposing major party.
South Carolina, 88 of 124 state House races have just one
The Carolinas aren't unique. North
Carolina's percentage of uncontested races is about the same as the
national average in 2000, according to the National Conference of
State Legislatures. Largely because of partisan districting, only
about a dozen of the 435 U.S. House races are considered toss-ups.
Even some candidates who fall in favorable districts decline,
races, saying they can't suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous
Mecklenburg commissioners Chairman Parks Helms said he
worked to recruit candidates this year, but ran into reluctance.
"The campaigns have become so negative and divisive and unpleasant
that many good, qualified people simply are not willing to subject
themselves to the abuse that you get in the political arena," he
Incumbents slant districts
The lack of competition doesn't
mean that North and South Carolina are one-party states; in fact,
statewide elections are more competitive in both Carolinas than
they've been for most of the past century.But district by district,
there's little competition. Incumbent legislators themselves throw
up the biggest roadblocks to challengers: slanted districts that
protect legislators and their parties. A Superior Court judge drew
this year's N.C. legislative districts and there is still little
competition. Urban districts drawn to benefit Democrats (often black
candidates) leave suburbs-only districts that favor Republicans (and
Even where there are two candidates, district demographics
make most seats virtually unwinnable for challengers. Incumbent
members of Congress Sue Myrick and Mel Watt of Charlotte don't draw
challengers with deep experience or fund-raising ability because
people with their eyes on a political future don't want to get
routed by a powerful incumbent.
"If they lose too many races before
they're in a race they have a chance to win, then you can understand
why they may be reluctant," said Sydnor Thompson, a Democrat who
often helps recruit candidates.
N.C. Rep. Connie Wilson, who
recruited Republicans to run for the legislature this year, said she
concentrated on finding candidates for Republican-leaning seats and
swing districts, not the tougher races.
National experts say that
just one of the Carolinas' 19 U.S. House races -- Chris Kouri vs.
Robin Hayes -- is even close.
"The fact of the matter is that we
have a broken system from the start," said Rashad Robinson, field
director for the Maryland-based Center for Voting and Democracy.
"Who will win these seats (is) predetermined and in many cases, the
most competitive races are in the primaries."
The center advocates
structural reforms, such as multi-member districts and proportional
representation, in which parties get seats based on the percentage
of votes they win.
Too much time, money
Running for office -- and
then serving -- consumes candidates' time and money, scaring off
After an 11-month-long General Assembly session and
a four-month short session, Wilson said she worked hard to persuade
"Unless a person is retired and has a very
understanding husband or wife, very few people can even consider
running for the legislature," she said.
For instance, Democrat
David Keesler has the makings of a political resume: a decade as a
prosecutor and a desire for public service.
But he also has two
young girls, so he has put off requests to consider local or state
"The truth is that these elected offices, if pursued
properly, take a lot of time to do well," Keesler said. "And from
the standpoint of a person with a young family and a challenging job
in Charlotte, that's a very tall order."
Others reject chances to
run because politics turns them off.
On paper, Katie Tyler seems
like a good political candidate. She's opinionated, well-spoken and
runs a Charlotte construction company.
But when local GOP leaders
asked her to considering running for Mecklenburg County commissioner
this year, she said no. The Republican-leaning independent said she
couldn't sacrifice some of her positions -- support for abortion
rights and Democrat Erskine Bowles -- in the name of party unity.
"I think I could do a fabulous job in the business of politics,"
she said, "but I just don't think I could stomach the business of politics."