Channel 9 Primary Election Guide: Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners candidates

CHARLOTTE — Ahead of the primary election on May 17, Channel 9 is asking candidates in several local races why they’re running and what they hope to accomplish if elected.

We sent all candidates contending for the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners six questions and asked them to respond in about 100 words.

READ MORE coverage from The Political Beat HERE

Unlike the Charlotte City Council election, there are only three races for the Mecklenburg County Commission with primaries, At-Large, District 2 and District 6.

Six Democrats are running to be an At-Large representative on the Mecklenburg County Commission. Incumbents Leigh Altman and Pat Cotham are seeking re-election. The top three Democrats will move on to the general election and face Republican Tatiana Thulien

Two Democrats, including incumbent Vilma Leake, are running for the District 2 seat on the Mecklenburg County Commission. There is no Republican candidate in the race.

Two Republicans are running for the District 6 seat on the Mecklenburg County Commission. The winner will face incumbent Democrat Susan Rodriguez-McDowell in the general election.

  • What is your occupation?
  • Why are you running?
  • If elected, what is your top priority?
  • What is a decision made by the current County Commission that you disagree with?
  • What sets you apart from your opponents?
  • Should the county commission have kept $56 million from CMS until a school improvement plan was produced?

Below are the complete, unedited responses of each candidate who chose to participate.

At-Large Democrats

Leigh Altman

What is your occupation? Mecklenburg County Commissioner, At-Large; Attorney

Why are you running? I am running for County Commission to improve the quality of life for our residents. As a lawyer, I used my effort and skills to help people in tough situations and to make our community better. As lead attorney for the Georgia Office of Consumer Affairs and the Commission on Equal Opportunity, I sought justice for people who had been defrauded and people who had been discriminated against in housing. Later, I became a guardian for seniors and represented at-risk kids. I continue to advocate for individuals, now at the policy level where I work for a broader impact.

If elected, what is your top priority? My top priority is increasing household incomes. Many are struggling to meet their most basic needs including housing, healthcare, transportation and food. By connecting people seeking work to the careers in demand in our region we can address the needs of residents who are unemployed, underemployed, or in jobs that do not pay a family-sustaining wage. We must prepare our students better and connect people seeking work to skills and jobs. Our residents need easier access to 1) training for skills in demand, 2) jobs that are hiring, and 3) supportive services to ensure people keep these jobs and succeed.

What is a decision made by the current County Commission that you disagree with? I disagreed with those of my colleagues who voted against the countywide mask mandate. Indeed, I fought hard throughout the pandemic to ensure we had a science-based response at every stage. Our first obligation must always be to protect health and human life and to have the courage to put politics aside and follow the science.

What sets you apart from your opponents? I am the only lawyer on the Board of County Commissioners. We all have valuable life and work experiences, but my background as an attorney is often useful. For example, my legal training helped me to advocate for the County’s comprehensive non-discrimination ordinance and a mask mandate.

Should the county commission have kept $56 million from CMS until a school improvement plan was produced? The School Board exists for students. Our district is facing a crisis: a persistent 30-40% achievement gap between students of color and white students. I have heard from many parents desperate for help. I am proud that the County Commission brought attention to this issue. The School Board has an expert to aid in development of a much more rigorous plan to close these gaps and is greatly increasing focus on accountability for student outcomes. These are good first steps from the School Board, and I know our students will benefit, and there is much more work to be done.

Trina Boyd

Did not respond to Channel 9′s questions.

Patricia “Pat” Cotham

What is your occupation? Recruiter for two companies operating in southern states

Why are you running? To continue to serve the people! Since 2012, they seem to be happy with my record.

If elected, what is your top priority? I have many top priorities. I struggle with an elected official who focuses on a single issue. Priorities change with life. The county is complex, and we need many priorities. The people have many priorities and all of them are intertwined. Our budget shows CMS a financial priority and data show the community wants great schools for all children so I will say education. But I hear the concerns about inflation, affordable housing for the 34K people in the 30% of the average medium income (AMI) and mental health needs.

What is a decision made by the current County Commission that you disagree with? Paying a non-profit $1M to distribute $5M of federal funds

What sets you apart from your opponents? 10 years of successful experience on the BOCC. I am knowledgeable about topics and have built strong relationships. I have a strong history of being in the community in good times and in difficult times. Community sees me in the courthouse, at marches, at community press conferences, at funerals of homicide victims and suicides. They used to see me shake hands of CMS graduates until CMS stopped that opportunity to their partners, I show-up. I am not afraid to speak out for the people and for injustice. My expenses are zero. I never hide from the media!

Should the county commission have kept $56 million from CMS until a school improvement plan was produced? For years we have been asking for a plan and that did not work so we had to do something bold. Our, moving that money to contingency, assured the attention of the media, the community, CMS, and CMS parents. We were always going to give them the money. But at least we forced a spotlight on the many children in 42 schools who were being denied their right to an education.

Jennifer De La Jara

What is your occupation? I currently have the honor of serving At-Large on the Board of Education. My professional background includes being an Instructor at CPCC, Director of Diversity & Inclusion, and Education Director at International House. In a county with 14% of the population foreign born, my unique experience of having worked with immigrants and refugees from all over the world is needed. Upward mobility and workforce development/entrepreneurship for all will be a focus of my service on the BOCC. I also speak Spanish as a second language and will continue to use that skill in my role of public service.

Why are you running? Our challenges don’t exist apart from each other and neither will our solutions. Being on the school board has given me a new perspective as to how housing insecurity, disparities in health determinants, and environmental injustice affect our families and children. I’m offering an intergovernmental systems approach and collaborative leadership to address our community’s challenges, which will also strengthen communities and improve student outcomes. The County needs new accountability and focused attention on wrap-around services.

If elected, what is your top priority? My top priority is accountability. I’d like to employ a governance model that produces goals with measurable targets for the functions of the Board as we head into the budget season. After setting targets for housing the displaced, reducing health outcome disparities, increasing proper recycling participation, decreasing permitting times for land use projects, etc. then the budget must strategically align to meet those desired outcomes. Without measurable goals, the BOCC can’t track their progress nor ensure that wise investments are being made for services that affect our County’s most vulnerable residents. This must be our priority.

What is a decision made by the current County Commission that you disagree with? I stand with Chris Jackson and Mike Whitehead who wrote a letter to the BOCC last summer signed by Mayor Harvey Gantt, Rabbi Judy Schindler and 76 other community leaders explaining that cutting the equity funding from Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools was ill advised. They voted to eliminate hundreds of critical positions in a pandemic when CMS was working to retain staff. Now that Chairman Dunlap has stated publicly that the BOCC is not an oversight board of the BOE, I doubt this will happen again, though voters should ask the candidates of their choice to be sure.

What sets you apart from your opponents? My professional background working to integrate immigrants into the workforce. I lived in Davidson for two years, so I understand the unique challenges our towns face. I’m proud to be endorsed by leaders across our County, which uniquely positions me as an At-Large representative. I have a proven record related to the intergovernmental approach I’m offering through my work around gun violence and increasing teacher pay. I am also a small business owner and can speak to the challenges and successes of economic development. I will continue to work to support our educators and students, in collaboration with, not against, our Mecklenburg Delegation to the NCGA.

Should the county commission have kept $56 million from CMS until a school improvement plan was produced? The short answer is no. The county failed at this usurpation attempt. The BOCC knew that they had limited authority under the law, but they added Schedule 3 in their budget and established an illegal contingency anyway on June 1, 2021. The questions we should be asking is why did they mislead the public for six months and are they considering it again as some of their debate answers have indicated? We are fighting for equitable funding in Raleigh; our educators shouldn’t have to fight against two hostile government bodies. We need to give our schools the tools and resources they need especially as we dig our way out of the pandemic. Our schools, teachers, and students are not political pawns - they are our greatest treasure and my service will honor them.

Arthur Griffin Jr.

What is your occupation? After leading the McGraw-Hill Education’s National Urban Markets as their Senior Vice President, I made the decision to retire which allowed more time for community involvement and leadership. Currently, I serve on the Central Piedmont Community College Board of Trustees and the Board of Directors for the Renaissance West Community Initiative, Inc.

Why are you running? Growing up in Charlotte, we had a saying, “The more things change, the more things remain the same.” I am running because too many of our children and families are living on the outskirts of hope. My goal is to ensure that we not only know the grim statistics of fifty out of fifty for upward mobility, but we commit to using data to create meaningful change that transforms the lives of those in our community. Together we will rise in educational achievement; access to business opportunities; access to quality healthcare and rise to ensure upward mobility.

If elected, what is your top priority? Tom Cousins once said, " America’s greatest untapped resource isn’t hidden in the ground but is sitting in plain sight: the human capital trapped in poor neighborhoods of concentrated poverty....investing in their well-being can be a social and economic game-changer, BUT only if done in a way that produces results.” I want to maintain a stable and prosperous county so that we can invest in the conditions that contribute to upward mobility such as education, healthcare, affordable housing, equitable economic development, environment, parks, and workforce development.

What is a decision made by the current County Commission that you disagree with? I would encourage the County to be more concise and assertive in its legislative agenda and advocacy. With a focus on upward mobility, I would advocate for enabling legislation to eliminate disincentive work regulations regarding earn income and work to establish program regulations that encourages work. Right now, if a workforce graduate earns $2 over the childcare eligibility earnings limit, the recipient would lose childcare subsidy preventing the individual from maintaining gainful employment.

What sets you apart from your opponents? My approach to accountable governance using the balanced scorecard. My unique lived experiences being born and growing up in an impoverished segregated community in Charlotte. Then rising to achieve the highest success in the military, civic involvement and corporate America and breaking the intergenerational cycle of poverty in my family. My service as a former member of the Mecklenburg County Board of Social Services responsible for setting policy direction for the Department of Social Services. And finally, my successful experience working collaboratively with others across the political spectrum to accomplish community objectives.

Should the county commission have kept $56 million from CMS until a school improvement plan was produced? Once a budget is adopted, the County cannot place CMS funds in contingency. The stated intent was not to keep the funds. As the former Chair of the CMS Board, the County always asked us to submit plans on how County funds would improve student outcomes. During my tenure, we used the balanced scorecard (BSC) for strategic management of district student achievement. From 2012- 2016, CMS spent millions of additional dollars during the Project Lift fiasco without a plan. CMS is spending millions at Renaissance West without a plan. We must seek positive student outcomes.

Yvette Townsend-Ingram

What is your occupation? Director of Foundation Relations, Johnson C. Smith University

Why are you running? I am running for Board of County Commission At-Large for several reasons. First, I believe representation matters greatly. The need for diverse representation on all levels of government has been proven consistently, most recently in the confirmation of our first Black, female Justice of the US Supreme Court. When Commissioner Ella Scarborough left the commission on medical leave, I felt a great sense of duty to offer the representation and the service that Ms. Scarborough could no longer provide the community. I am an empathetic voice of a single Black mother, a former CMS parent and educator, a small, minority business-owner, and an underemployed, middle-class Mecklenburg County resident who has had to rely on county services at times to pay my mortgage or make ends meet. I am running because I can relate to many who have been marginalized in the community and need someone looking out for their best interests.

If elected, what is your top priority? I have four priorities that, to me, are dire—1. Improve Wrap-around Services; 2. Address Food Insecurity; 3. Accelerate the Minority, Women & Small Business Enterprise Program; 4. Improve access, maintenance and expansion of parks and green spaces in underserved neighborhoods. The improvement of wrap-around services for families is my top priority.

What is a decision made by the current County Commission that you disagree with? I disagree with the decision of the additional $11 million given to the CMS BOE. I understand the requirement to release the $56 million held in contingency during arbitration, but the BOE refuses to comply with transparency or the law without accountability. I hope to work collaboratively with the next BOE members to provide the wrap-around services needed and a plan for getting our underserved students the education they deserve.

What sets you apart from your opponents? There are a few things that set me apart from my opponents, but I believe the most impactful is my lived experiences as a Black woman and the nearness of those things to my service in the community. I have a certain empathy that as hard as some of my opponents may try to relate to or understand, they cannot. I have learned so many invaluable lessons from my lived experiences. Most importantly, there is a solution to every problem and/or crisis we have, but it requires collaboration.

Should the county commission have kept $56 million from CMS until a school improvement plan was produced? Yes. Please see my comments above regarding that decision.

District 2

Angela White Edwards

What is your occupation? My name is Angela white Edwards I am retired from a CNA worker my roll now is mother grandmother,transportation provider for my family and friends Caregiver activist for mental health. I served on the mental health Correlation, former chair of network informal support one of the four sub- committee groups of mental health; I was a former Vice President of Reid park neighborhood, pro president at Reid park academy for 4 years I helped in building the KABOOM park in Reid park neighborhood also I set on the committee which is now the first phase of Reid park park. I also in the past volunteer with parent voice .I was OrDane in ministry in 2002 under the late chaplain Scott

Why are you running? I am running for county commissioner the Seat for district 2 because we need to come up in Dignity and pride the older neighborhood needs attention in so many ways to the families to the streets and to also to bring back the spirt of a loving community.I tried to get help from the city and the county for our neighborhood nothing happened. Im tired of passing beautiful neighborhoods to see the despair of our neighborhoods my heart goes out for the struggling families and Parents that don’t know what to do children angry parents angry our senior Afraid and angry it has to stop.

If elected what are your top priorities? Having affordable housing be affordable getting the effective help for families in the need of restoration. Communities being restored with the protection of our policing the neighborhoods like they suppose to the Ultimate goal is pushing a new beginning the main thing we need to look at is put a cape on term that we seat in these seats the long you sit is the less improvement you going to get we always need Freshness

What is the decision made by the current county commission that you disagreed with? Well I tell you I don’t know what decision she had made but o do know the 10 years I was in trip park o found ms leak to be very mean and unlikeable. How can you lead if you don’t connect with your voters i not talking about the one that are her friends I’m talking about all voters in district 2 she shows know compassion and I personally feel district 2 will have more crimes and Homelessness also less and less structure in our homes.

What sets you apart from your opponents? I have lived the very problems and issues that keeps us from going to the next level and to feel good about ourselves.somethings we are born in that set us back.I can relate at 60 years old and the only one left in my Mediate family not talking about my children and grand children,I’m talking about my mother,father, brother and grand parents all are gone.I know that my faith had to increase but faith without works is dead I want to see families restored I realized a lot of us don’t know who we are I believe god had set me aside for this journey to help others.with the help of god the best is yet to come

Should the county commission have kept $56 million from CMS until a school improvement plan was produced? I fell the county commissioners should never give extra to cms without improvement weather it’s academically or the improvement of the school structure.my problem is with cms according to your zip code your voice is heard and suggesting will or will not be carried out Professionalism has taking a back seat to what Charlotte Mecklenburg school use to be.

Vilma Leake

What is your occupation? My occupation is Commissioner of District 2

Why are you running? I am running to be a servant to the people who need it the most. I will continue to work hard and support the people of District 2. My extensive record and experience proves that I am an asset and a voice to their needs. In the 10+ years I’ve been elected, I have not missed one meeting since.

If elected, what is your top priority? My main priority is to make sure the people of district 2 is represented well. By doing so, DSS will be accessible for the needs of the people with rap around services. I will continue to assist in providing healthcare information necessary and affordable housing for those who need them the most. I will also continue to fight for quality education for our children to be college and job ready.

What is a decision made by the current County Commission that you disagree with? The Decision to continue to neglect the notion of equity for all people regardless or race, creed or beliefs.

What sets you apart from your opponents? I have the most extensive experience and meet all qualifications. I have dedicated my life to the needs of the district and have helped create a community that strives for equity and diversity. I will continue to work so that poverty will not be a way of life for the people of this community.

Should the county commission have kept $56 million from CMS until a school improvement plan was produced? I am the originator and the motion maker to withhold those funds to spark the board to create a concrete plan to assist the children with better education. For clarification, Money was not kept away from the school board. It was withheld to jumpstart a process that is long overdue.

District 6

Jeremy Brasch

Did not respond to Channel 9′s questions.

Desiree Zapata Miller

What is your occupation? My professional background began in the Hospitality Industry while living in New Orleans. I later transitioned to call center operations, managing a staff of over 250 employees. The last couple of years I have worked with senior citizens struggling with Alzheimer’s. I have worked in the private sector as well as non-profits.

Why are you running? The current board is made up entirely of Democrats and history tells us it is never a good idea to have a single party running everything. As a Republican, I can bring ideas and policies to the board that might never be brought up or discussed. We are most effective when we can consider all points of view and do what is right. This single-party rule leaves more than one hundred and sixty thousand Republican voters feeling like they have no voice or representation. I want to serve all the people of my district.

I will apply my training and experience to my service on the County Commission to push fiscal responsibility, keeping taxes low and eliminating wasteful spending. I will insist on accountability and transparency in government because Mecklenburg County deserves improved, measurable results.

If elected, what is your top priority? When I represent District 6 on the Mecklenburg County Commission, I pledge to bring a moderating voice and perspective. I commit to keep taxes low, eliminate unnecessary and wasteful spending, and generate value for the citizens. I commit to spending tax dollars wisely for high quality service and efficiency for government services. The County’s top line item on the budget is for education. Our educational system should be well funded and parents have the right to transparency and accountability from the school system.

What is a decision made by the current County Commission that you disagree with? My Democrat opponent voted to raise our property taxes. My opponent also voted in her first term to raise our sales tax. I commit to fight against increased property tax and increased sales tax. Should we raise taxes during a time of 40-year record inflation? I say no!

What sets you apart from your opponents? My primary opponent

My life reflects a commitment to servant leadership. For the last decade I have worked as a leader within the Republican party in various capacities. I have strong leadership experience in non-profits and for profit organizations. I bring a unique perspective as an immigrant from Honduras. Growing up in New Orleans and living in Los Angeles, I have directly experienced the failures of local leadership. I witnessed firsthand the personal impacts of a metropolitan region’s worsening ability to govern for the good of local residents. As District 6 County Commissioner, I will lead to ensure that Mecklenburg County and Charlotte do not repeat the mistakes other American cities have made when governed by single party leadership. Common sense and doing what is best for local communities must prevail over party politics. I will apply my training and experience to my service on County Commission to push fiscal responsibility, keep taxes low and eliminating wasteful spending. I will insist on accountability and transparency in government because Mecklenburg County deserves improved, measurable results.

Should the county commission have kept $56 million from CMS until a school improvement plan was produced? There are laws in place that do not allow for the County Commission to withhold the funds. However, both the school board and the Commissioners should have been able to come to some agreement. We must have accountability and transparency. All of our children deserve the best education possible.