2007 Mecklenburg County, NCNovember 06, 2007
Voters Decide to “Keep Mecklenburg Moving”
By Alan Wulkan, founder and a managing partner of InfraConsult, LLC
On November 6, 2007, 70% of the voters in Mecklenburg County defeated an attempt to repeal the county's existing ½-cent transit sales tax. At first glance, it might appear this was an easy election to win since the tax had been in place since 1998, transit ridership was at record levels, and Charlotte was about to open the South Corridor Light Rail Line, but nothing would be further from the truth.
In the summer of 2007 over 45,000 registered voter signatures were certified by the County's election supervisor, calling for an election to repeal the transit sales tax. A small, but well-known group of conservative individuals spearheaded this effort by funding an out-of-state business which does signature gathering for various causes. For the better part of early 2007, this effort was widely covered by the media along with the issues raised by the group. The issues, as they saw them, included:
- The cost of the voter approved transit tax had increased from approximately $1 billion to $7 billion.
- The South Corridor LRT line costs had doubled.
- The City had mismanaged the rail systems contractors.
- Charlotte was too small for a rail system.
- Transit money should be used for highway development.
Polling in June indicated that if the election was held at that time it was too close to call. The biggest challenge in this election, however, was the voter confusion that would be caused by the state-mandated ballot language. If the voter wanted to support transit they would have to vote against repeal. In addition, another issue concerning school bonds was on the ballot and many of the same supporters were being asked to vote for school bonds and against repeal.
Keys to Success
At the July Center for Transportation Excellence (CFTE) conference in Austin, Texas, I met Natalie English, Senior Vice President for Public Policy for the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce. Natalie was responsible for the Chamber’s efforts in helping to organize support against repeal and finding campaign management support for the election, among other campaign activities. We spoke about what Charlotte was about to face and in July, I was asked to submit a proposal to help with this campaign.
One of the keys to success in any election is having the right campaign team. My firm, InfraConsult, teamed with R&R Partners – another firm well known to CFTE – to support the campaign committee created for this election. Brian Rasmussen led the R&R effort and together, we worked closely with Natalie and her staff on every aspect of this campaign.
Another key to success is having “champions” for an issue-related campaign. For a number of reasons, the City and the transit system were not able to take an active role in the campaign. An independent campaign committee was formed by a number of community leaders and chaired by outgoing City Councilman Pat Mumford. Pat's leadership during the campaign was invaluable and was a major reason we were successful. In addition, incumbent Republican Mayor Pat McCrory, was running for an unprecedented 7th term, and was a long time champion for the transit system. The opposition in his own party tried to make transit a central issue in running a candidate against Mayor McCrory in the Republican primary. The Mayor won the primary with 67% of the vote.
Due to the confusing nature of this election, it was critical to develop a clear, simple message that would be used in all our media, direct mail, and public presentations. That message was Vote Against Repeal, Keep Mecklenburg Moving. The goal was that, by Election Day, the vast majority of the electorate would think it was ridiculous to do anything but Vote Against Repeal. Polling helped to identify the communities’ concerns with congestion, air quality, and growth. An important issue was the fact that economic development in the South Corridor had already exceeded $1 billion, more than double the cost of the rail line. The campaign hit these themes hard, combining them with the Vote Against Repeal message.
It was also critical that once we developed the message and overall campaign strategy, that we stayed on message and implemented the strategy. Our strategy was to spend the first phase of the campaign organizing, researching, and answering the questions raised by the opposition. The second phase was creating the materials that "carried" our message and persuading voters that Voting Against Repeal was critical to the community's future. Finally, of course, getting our vote to the polls was critical to our success.
Thanks to Natalie and the campaign committee, enough money was raised to implement a very aggressive media campaign which included creative TV, radio, and targeted mail pieces produced by R&R. The campaign strategy included targeted elements to high propensity voters, but also included a broad-based, community-wide public education element. Winning the early voting was critical to our strategy. One of the targeted audiences was the African American community. In 1998 the African American community overwhelming supported the sales tax passage. Due to a number of issues involving technology and priorities, the opposition targeted the African American community during the signature campaign. Although polling showed the African American community was always against repeal, nothing was taken for granted and a highly targeted effort resulted in over 80% of the African American community opposing repeal.
You have to love it when a plan comes together. We overwhelmingly won the early vote. By Election Day, the opposition knew the election was lost and the only question was the margin. Our polling was tracking Vote Against Repeal growing to 63% the week before the election. Turnout was high for an off-year election and we won in 194 of the 196 voting precincts. Just about every undecided voter went Against Repeal and Against Repeal won by a larger margin than the school bonds. Clearly the community felt that an improved public transit system was needed more today than ever before. That is not to say that there are no issues which were raised during this process that need to be addressed. The leadership of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County now has the mandate to move forward and implement a vital part of the area’s transportation system.