2013 is first year for nonpartisan Kinston races, staggered Pink Hill races
Although the filing period is months away, local incumbents and elections officials are getting their minds set for this year’s municipal elections.
Every election has something special about it, and 2013’s race will be no exception in Lenoir County’s three municipalities.
In Kinston, nonpartisan elections will be held for the first time, meaning there will be no primary, and voters will not see a party affiliation beside the candidates’ names when they go into the voting booth.
The change from partisan elections comes from five years of residents’ petition drives, a 2008 referendum and a legal battle that almost went to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“I believe this race will be run on individual merit, not party affiliation. … Anyone who wants to file can file,” said John Nix of Kinston, who made an unsuccessful run for the Kinston City Council as an unaffiliated candidate in 2011.
Nix, who said he plans to run again for council this year, was also the lead petitioner in the citizen lawsuit, Nix v. Holder, to have Section 5 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act declared unconstitutional — Section 5 is the part of the law which requires the U.S. Justice Department to preclear jurisdictions with a history of voter discrimination before any election changes are made.
The DOJ rejected — but later approved — the voter referendum in favor of nonpartisan elections. Justice officials argued in 2009 nonpartisan elections would discriminate against black voters in Kinston but reversed their decision when the town emerged from the 2011 elections with a majority-black City Council.
The nonpartisan quest began with former N.C. Rep. Stephen LaRoque, but he dropped his name from the lawsuit after he was federally indicted last summer.
“I don’t know what kind of candidates (nonpartisan elections) will produce but it will be an awesome opportunity,” Nix said.
Lenoir County Elections Director Dana King said nonpartisan elections means there will not be a primary, or a runoff election even if the votes are close.
Voters will be instructed to pick based on the number of seats which are available, such as voting for two in the Kinston council race since two seats are contested, or voting for one in the Kinston mayoral race.
The top vote-getter(s) in each field will be the winners.
“There will be no chance of a runoff,” King said. “If they only win by one or two (votes), whoever wins, wins.”
Jimmy Cochran, chairman of the Lenoir County Democratic Party, said party officials will meet this week to discuss a number of topics, including the municipal elections.
Cochran said he expected, regarding nonpartisan elections, that “people will vote on people they know, people they know about, what they’ve done.”
He said, in a community as small as Kinston, voters will know the candidates and which way they lean politically, even if they do not list their party affiliation.
“I think, even in a nonpartisan race, people will know who they’re voting for,” he said.
Lenoir County GOP Chairwoman Michele Nix favored nonpartisan elections “because that’s what the people of Kinstonvoted for.”
She said people want the same things – safe schools, jobs – regardless of political affiliation, but each political party has different methods of reaching those goals.
“If we ran on the issues, rather than party labels, I think we’d accomplish a lot more,” Nix continued.
Michele and John Nix are married, and she said the party could still endorse her husband’s campaign, since he is a registered Republican.
“I would support him as a spouse and we would support him as a party,” she said.
In Kinston, the Republican Mayor B.J. Murphy will be up for re-election, as well as Democratic City Councilmen Bobby Merritt and Robbie Swinson.
None of the three men confirmed if they will be running again, though.
“Jessica and I have had this as one of our top prayer requests for the last three to six months and we simply aren’t ready to make a decision or announcement,” Murphy said, referring to his wife. “And since filing is not until July we don’t feel rushed to make that decision.”
If Murphy were to run again, it would be his third time. He made an unsuccessful bid against then-Mayor O.A. “Buddy” Ritch Jr. in 2005, and edged out a victory in a three-man race in 2009 to become Kinston’s youngest modern mayor at age 29, and first Republican mayor since Reconstruction.
Murphy, now 32, said whether one or several people file for the office this year “it will have zero bearing on the decision we make for our family and this community.”
Murphy also said he had been a “major proponent” of nonpartisan elections for six to eight years.
“Two-thirds of the voters wanted it and this year they’re going to get it,” he said. “My political position matches what two-thirds of the community really wants.”
Merritt, who won his first term on the five-member City Council in 2009, said he had not fully determined if he would run again.
“I am pretty sure I will be running,” he said. “I wouldn’t say, ‘100 percent,’ but I’m pretty sure I will be running.”
He added: “I’ve enjoyed it and I think we’ve accomplished a lot and I think we’re on the right path — I think 2013 is going to be a good year and I think Kinston’s got a lot going for it.”
Merritt said nonpartisan elections wouldn’t be an issue for him.
“When you’re in a small community, it should be that way,” he said. “You vote for the person, you don’t vote for the party.”
Swinson, who has served two terms since being elected to the council in 2005, was hospitalized for several days in late November after suffering a heart attack.
Swinson, who is in his early 40s, said his health will factor into whether he runs again.
“That’s a major factor in my decision but I’m still weighing the options and seeing how things are going to go,” he said.
He did not expect nonpartisan elections would have a major impact on voter turnout or the number of candidates who file this year.
“I think it’s going to be normal business,” he said. “I don’t think it’s going to be a drastic change in the turnout or the numbers.”
La Grange and Pink Hill, the county’s other two municipalities, will also see races for seats on their town boards this year.
In La Grange, the seats of incumbent Town Council members David Holmes, Veronica “Nicky” Lee and Bobby Wooten will be contested.
In Pink Hill, the seats of town board members Marion Mitchell and Mike Hill will be contested.
In prior elections, the Pink Hill mayor and all board members have run for re-election every four years, but this will be the first year town races are staggered in two-year cycles, with two of the town board members running one cycle and the mayor and third town board member running during the other.
The ballot initiative to stagger elections — the result of legislative action by LaRoque — passed with nearly 70 percent of the local vote in 2011.
“The good thing about having staggered elections is, you don’t lose some of the momentum and the experience in what could be a clean sweep of the elected body,” Murphy said.
Election dates 2013:
July 5 – candidate filing begins at noon
July 19 – candidate filing ends at noon
Nov. 5 – Election Day
Source: Dana King, Lenoir County elections director
The following seats will be up for election:
Mayor B.J. Murphy
City Councilman Bobby Merritt
City Councilman Robbie Swinson
Town Councilman David Holmes
Town Councilwoman Veronica ‘Nicky’ Lee
Town Councilman Bobby Wooten
Town board member Mike Hill
Town board member Marion Mitchell
Source: Dana King, Lenoir County elections director
David Anderson can be reached at 252-559-1077 orDavid.Anderson@Kinston.com. Follow him on Twitter at DavidFreePress.