Skip to comments.Wheeler ousted from [Charlotte] City Council: Staunch arena support hurt GOP incumbent
Posted on 09/24/2003 4:44:04 AM PDT by JohnnyZ
Republican primary voters ousted Charlotte City Council member Lynn Wheeler Tuesday night in a surprising upset that put one of the city's most popular and experienced politicians on the sidelines for the first time since 1989.
Some voters -- and Wheeler herself -- attributed her loss to her support for the uptown arena, especially after voters rejected a 2001 package of sports and cultural projects that included the arena.
"I think the conservative Republicans came out to vote and they didn't vote for me, because I led the charge for the arena," Wheeler said Tuesday night. "And so I took the hit because of it."
Wheeler finished fifth in a five-person race for four seats, a stunning low point for the seven-term incumbent, who was the leading at-large vote-getter in the last two general elections.
She finished more than 600 votes behind the fourth-place candidate, Paul Eich. She fared badly across the city, from Cotswold to Coulwood to Huntingtowne Farms, and even in areas where voters supported her in the past.
Jeff Doscher, 37, had voted for Wheeler in other elections. But not Tuesday. He voted against Wheeler and incumbent Mayor Pat McCrory because of their support for an arena, despite the public vote in 2001.
" `No' means `No' on the arena," said Doscher, who voted at WTVI on Commonwealth Avenue.
The Republican at-large slate for November's election will consist of Eich, John Lassiter, Pat Mumford and Fran Perez. They will face Libertarian Christopher Cole and Democrats Susan Burgess, Patrick Cannon and J. Parks Helms (not the well-known county commissioner).
Only 8 percent of the city's voters turned out for the primary, leaving the decision in the hands of party stalwarts.
The anti-arena vote did not hurt McCrory, also a strong supporter of the arena deal approved by the city council in 2002, which differed significantly from the one voters rejected.
McCrory beat Mike Castano and Edward Mulheren to cruise into November's general election, where he will face Democrat Craig Madans and Libertarian Carlton Harvey.
"I'm very, very proud that we ran a positive campaign, talked about the issues and our plan for the future," said McCrory, a four-term incumbent. "Overall, this is a sign that people like the way we're being led and they're looking for solutions and they're looking for leadership."
Wheeler, 57, was one of the council's highest-profile members.
A former planning commissioner, she played an active role in major zoning decisions, including SouthPark mall's expansion and the creation of new shopping centers in the northeast. She led the council's economic development efforts and became a favorite of uptown business interests. She also fostered development on the west side and was one of few Republicans to win the endorsement of the Black Political Caucus.
Aside from McCrory, no one was more identified with the push for a new arena.
Wheeler helped lead the city's efforts to negotiate a new arena deal with the Charlotte Hornets and was a staunch supporter of the failed 2001 referendum. Then she led the push to build an arena anyway and has since been one of its most ardent advocates.
Wheeler enjoys being a public figure. She sought out the media, even a radio sports talk show, and loved pulling the levers of power. "I had to whip Ray Wooldridge into shape," she once told a reporter in recounting her dealings with the former Charlotte Hornets co-owner.
Wheeler did not hide her ambition. She made no bones of her desire to be mayor, sometimes chafing at the lack of opportunity.
"She was a focal point for moving things through the council," said Stan Campbell, a friend and former council member. "She's certainly been one of the major leaders. Sometimes, after 14 years, you do end up making decisions that cause you trouble in low-turnout elections."
Wheeler raised more than $100,000 for her campaign, but spent hardly any before the primary, even as her competitors put up yard signs and sent mailings to voters.
"My committee recommended strongly that I save the money I have and use it for the general election rather than focus on the primary," she said. "I did not agree with that strategy, but I was outvoted, so obviously hindsight is 20-20. Perhaps a mailing would have helped the outcome, but I'm not sure that it would. I think that the arena is so wrapped around me that the other good issues that I have championed that have made an incredible difference in this city were overlooked."
Republican council member John Tabor said he was stunned by Wheeler's loss.
"The only explanation I can come up with is the efforts against McCrory and Wheeler," he said, referring to a push by conservatives to link the two with the arena and demean them. "And they apparently hooked into Wheeler more than McCrory."
Republican voter Deedee Kennelly said she saw no reason to vote against the mayor.
"He's been the mayor ever since we moved to Charlotte," said Kennelly, who has lived here for seven years. "I always say, `Don't fix what isn't broken.' "
Madans is confident that he can overcome McCrory's experience, political savvy and financial advantage.
"This was the race we were looking for," he said Tuesday night. "This is what we wanted. This is what we expected. This will make victory in November even sweeter."
In the at-large race, Wheeler's departure shakes up the conventional wisdom, likely making it easier for Democrats to hang onto their veto-proof majority.
Assuming the districts retain their 5-2 pro-Democratic split, Republicans would need to sweep the at-large seats to gain a majority. To uphold the vetoes of a Republican mayor, they would have to win three of the four at-large spots.
That could be harder with just two well-known names -- Mumford and Lassiter -- on the four-person ticket.
Wheeler said Tuesday night that she was feeling wistful -- and that she still would have favored the arena, even if she knew it would cost her the election.
"I have nothing but wonderful, fond memories and I love this city of Charlotte with my whole heart," she said. "And it is obvious that the Republicans who came out to vote today didn't want to see me on the council any more. And I have to accept that and move on to climb another mountain."
She lost out to Fran Perez, a Young Republican and conservative. It will be tough to get more than two at-large seats on the council, with Susan Burgess and Pat Cannon running for the Ds, but it would have been tough with or without Wheeler. Now at least we'll have two, maybe three, possibly four real Republicans elected in November.
Of course YOU would leap to the defense of a liberal, but FYI we will at least two seats of four with/without Lynn in the general election; this way we are assured of not electing a liberal Republican in one of those two.
Solid victory for conservatism in Charlotte.
And what's more, everyone I voted for won! :)
What kind of arena were they trying to build??? An arena for the Hornets, or were they considering another stadium for the Panthers? Just wondering.
Get it NOW, Wheeler? Still a supporter of the arena even after the voters spoke loudly on the issue. Such arrogance shows a distinct disdain for the tax PAYERS by the tax SPENDERS.
Good for the voters!
Now if we here in Raleigh can only get rid of our council members and the (D) mayor that is foisting the Billion Dollar Boondoogle of the STUPID light rail system on the city of Raleigh I'll be happy.
Our vote is coming up on Oct 7th.
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