Josh Bergeron: Make local races top-of-mind this election season

Published 12:00 am Sunday, August 30, 2020

Now the campaigning begins.

After two conventions, Republicans and Democrats have nominated their candidates for president and divisive political fervor will soon reach unprecedented levels. Debates and name-calling will happen on social media, on TV news programs, during scheduled debates and at family dinner tables. The country is likely to end the campaign more divided than when it began and, if things play out correctly, we’ll have proof of American democracy to show for it in November.

But let’s not forget a fundamental saying of American democracy: all politics is local. So, when you hear someone raise complaints about defunding the police, remember that many of those decisions are made at the local level. In fact, some of the most appealing political slogans are things that the president of the United States actually does not have the sole authority to accomplish on his own.

Voters will be driven to the polls by the presidential race, as happens every four years. An example: There were about 17,000 more voters in the 2016 presidential election than the 2018 midterm in Rowan County. Thousands more Republicans, Democrats and unaffiliated voters made their voices heard at the ballot box.

Salisbury and Rowan County, though, cannot let excitement, or dread, about this year’s presidential election hide the fact that local elections will have a much more significant effect on daily life.

Consider the phrase “defund the police.” It means different things to different folks, but any meaning is more relevant for city council, board of aldermen and county commission races than the presidential race. It’s the Rowan County Board of Commissioners who make the final and most significant decision about funding for the Sheriff’s Office.

The same is true for the Salisbury City Council and Salisbury Police Department. It was a budget proposal from City Manager Lane Bailey in 2017 that raised taxes to boost minimum pay for police officers.

Statements and advocacy by candidates for president may sway some opinions, but it’s ultimately the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education and local educators who decide whether and how students go back to school. Sure, Gov. Roy Cooper set the basis for plans, but proof of local power lies in the fact that some school districts returned to classes with students logging onto the internet while others welcomed kids into classrooms of the first day.

Another case of local officials making a major decision: A 2015 bill supported by local members of the N.C. General Assembly made it harder to remove an “object of remembrance” like a Confederate monument from public property. The General Assembly also made it mandatory for Duke Energy to provide clean drinking water to families living near Buck Steam Station’s coal ash ponds.

In this election, voters in Salisbury and Rowan County should pay attention to statewide and national races — president, U.S. Senate and governor among them.

But more localized races should be top-of-mind.

That includes the 13th District race for Congress, where Rep. Ted Budd, a Republican, faces a challenge from Democrat Scott Huffman. On national issues, it’s Budd in addition to the state’s senators who have a voice and a vote.

Pay attention also to all of Rowan County’s N.C. General Assembly races. Rep. Harry Warren, a Republican, faces a challenge from Salisbury Mayor Pro Tem Al Heggins, a Democrat, for the 76th District seat. Sen. Carl Ford, a Republican, will face Democrat Tarsha Ellis for the Senate seat that covers Rowan and Stanly counties. And Longtime legislator Rep. Julia Howard, a Republican, will face a challenge from Democrat Keith Townsend for the 76th District seat.

County commissioners Craig Pierce and Mike Caskey will be on the ballot in November, but it will be a formality because they have no declared competition.

For school board, which is nonpartisan, all races are competitive, but the East Area seat (No. 3) looks to be the best race. Incumbent Josh Wagner isn’t seeking another term and two strong candidates, Brian Hightower and Kathy McDuffie Sanborn, are seeking to replace him.

It could end up being much harder for challengers to oust incumbents. For the Salisbury seat, incumbent Alisha Byrd-Clark faces a challenge from Jonathan Stuart Barbee. And for the Southeast Area seat, Susan Cox faces a challenge from Jennifer Studer.

While voters will go to the polls — many with their mind made up — specifically to vote in national and statewide races, they should make it a priority to learn as much as possible about local candidates whose decisions will have a more direct impact on daily life.

To help provide that information, the Salisbury Post this year plans to publish its special election section on Oct. 13 — two days before early voting begins.

Josh Bergeron is editor of the Salisbury Post.