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Charlotte Observer

Many potential candidates ask: Why bother? Strong incumbents, 'safe' districts, negative politics not worth fight
By Richard Rubin
October 29, 2002

Democrat Rita Arundell didn't even consider running for county commissioner this year.

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."

So 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.

In South Carolina, 88 of 124 state House races have just one major-party candidate.

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 opponents.

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 said.

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 whites).

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 many prospects.

After an 11-month-long General Assembly session and a four-month short session, Wilson said she worked hard to persuade reluctant candidates.

"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 office.

"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."

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