Partisan municipal races on the horizon in Rowan County after endorsements in 2021

Published 12:08 am Sunday, November 21, 2021

SALISBURY — Local Republican and Democratic leaders say it’s hard to know how much party endorsements impacted the nonpartisan 2021 municipal election, but they agree endorsements are necessary for a more informed electorate.

While all municipal elections in Rowan County are nonpartisan, the Rowan County Democratic Party made a slew of endorsements in the Salisbury race during the early voting period, including Mayor Pro Tem Al Heggins, Rev. Anthony Smith and incumbent Tamara Sheffield. Meanwhile, the women’s group associated with the Rowan County Republican Party endorsed Mayor Karen Alexander along with council candidates Nalini Joseph and Jessica Cloward. Additionally, only Republican candidates were present this summer during a “Patriot’s Rally” held at Sloan Park.

Michael Bitzer, a politics professor at Catawba College, said it’s not surprising that partisanship has become a factor in nonpartisan races given hyper-partisanship across the nation.

“Politics is everywhere,” Bitzer said. “It’s hard to take politics out of any kind of election.”

Gary Freeze, a retired Catawba professor of history, said the nation has “entered a new era where a nonpartisan election has an openly partisan feel.”

Freeze said the consensus throughout the 20th century was party shouldn’t matter on a community level because the best person should be chosen from both sides. It was a model predicated on the idea that most local administrators have a nonpartisan approach anyway, which isn’t true for modern-day politics. That idea was also rooted in the “New Deal consensus,” he said, where economic policies were defined by demand-oriented interventions from the government up until the 1980s.

“Now partisanship is central to our whole fight,” Freeze said. “This trend is adducing the nation. Why should we be any different? This is simply a reflection that Salisbury is very much in the main stage of national politics.” 

Even in local races, Freeze said a display of personal and partisan divisions among candidates, as seen in the 2021 election, can be positive when it comes to the approach of how issues can be worked out. 

Democratic Party Chairman Geoffrey Hoy said the organization’s executive committee voted four years ago to endorse local candidates and provide literature outlining the candidates who aligned with the party’s platform and mission. Party registration is also a frequently asked question among voters, and a candidate’s political affiliation can easily be found with a search of the North Carolina database, he added.

“It just says openly what people know privately about who’s who,” Hoy said. “I just think it’s important to help people be informed, fully informed. I don’t think we should be afraid of saying that openly.”

Hoy said it’s hard to know how impactful endorsements in this election were, but the support felt by candidates from the endorsements definitely mattered.

“If (endorsements) helped get voters out, wonderful. If they helped get some of these candidates we endorsed elected, great,” Hoy said. “But endorsements were one factor that may have helped the candidates get elected.”

Incumbency is another factor. Both council incumbents who sought re-election — Sheffield and David Post — were successful. 

Rev. Anthony Smith, who finished fourth, was the other successful Salisbury City Council endorsed by Democrats.

Heggins was not successful in her bid for mayor against Alexander. Albert Smith, who lost the third seat up for grabs in East Spencer by one vote, was also endorsed by Democrats.

Hoy said he doesn’t see the infusion of partisanship into nonpartisan races as a bad thing. While there’s more room for agreement at the local level compared to higher offices, “there are still different ways of approaching issues,” which party registration can help clarify. 

Rev. Brad Jenkins, chairman of the Rowan County Republican Party, told the Post the organization’s executive committee voted to follow the lead of the Democratic Party’s active involvement and endorse candidates in municipal elections moving forward. Jenkins said voters frequently asked this year about which candidates were Republicans or conservatives.

He said the party is happy Alexander was re-elected, and that the Rowan County Board of Elections did a very good job of taking care of the election with as much integrity possible. But like Hoy, Jenkins said it’s hard to know how much they would have mattered for this election.

“I believe without question there would have been an impact because anytime you work, there’s an impact,” he said.

Republicans hope to codify partisanship in local elections by formally requesting from Rowan County’s lawmakers a local bill to make nonpartisan races in the county partisan. A handful of counties in North Carolina have partisan municipal races.

“It has become that way anyway and not really by our doing,” Jenkins said. “People should have the right to know where their candidates stand. For some people, voter registration speaks volumes to them whether they know them or not because it shows what that candidate publicly wants to identify with.”

Jenkins said partisanship goes on behind closed doors during elections anyway. So, it’s more ethical to be honest and transparent about it to voters.

Recently elected Salisbury City Council members have a different perspective on the issue of infusing partisanship into the local race. Post has publicly vocalized his opposition to such a move, and stated during the night of the election that precinct turnout showed “party against party,” which is regretful as the city’s issues aren’t “Republican or Democrat issues.”

Likewise, Harry McLaughlin Jr., owner of McLaughlin’s Grocery Store, said he didn’t run as a Republican or Democrat. Instead, he ran “as a candidate for all people” because his campaign was about bringing people together. He ultimately received the second-most votes with support across the aisle.

Sheffield said the results showed it was still a nonpartisan race that requires candidates to work for their support.

Former Republican Chairman Don Vick said it’s hard to know whether stronger endorsements from the Republican Party rather than affiliated groups would have made a difference, especially since the women’s group advertised the Republican candidates and young Republicans knocked on doors, which isn’t common for local races, he said.

Though he was against it when serving as chairman, he’s now in favor.

“So we don’t have a choice,” he said. “We’re going to have to do it from now on.”

Vick said the move to endorsements could result in voters casting votes primarily along party lines, but he’s less optimistic an “R” or “D” next to a candidate in a local race will turn out more voters.

Perhaps an example of some voter views, Vick said he wouldn’t support a Democrat running for Senate, but he’s comfortable voting for candidates across the aisle locally if they seem to be one who can do the best job for local residents.

“I’m going to vote my conscience in local elections,” he said.