CHARLOTTE, N.C.—Mecklenburg County Commissioner Jim Puckett has a bumper sticker on his big, dark blue Chevy SUV that says "got kilt?" It's a reference to his Scottish heritage, a heritage that makes him a regular at the Loch Norman Highland Games, where the events include "turning the caber," or flipping an 18-foot-long tree trunk.
And like another famous Scot, William Wallace-made famous by the Mel Gibson movie Braveheart-Puckett seems to have something of an appetite for uphill battles. Before getting elected to Mecklenburg's Board of County Commissioners, he served on the school board at a time when he was often the only conservative vote on an issue. He now finds himself the unofficial leader of the Republicans on the county commission-but, like William Wallace, he is the leader of a group badly outnumbered, six to three, making it impossible for his side to get anything done.
Impossible, that is, until now. And how he did it could be a lesson for a national Republican Party that has given way to the temptation to compromise principle in order to win votes as it approaches the mid-term elections in November.
When Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools were asking for more money for school construction, Puckett and the other Republicans wanted to allocate some funds, but not nearly as much as the six Democrats. The Puckett-led Republican minority outmaneuvered Commission Chairman Parks Helms to get passed a $123 million school-funding package in August that was less than a $152 million package recommended by a nonpartisan citizen's panel led by a former North Carolina governor, and much less than the $198 million package Democrats wanted.
Puckett was able to convince his fellow Republicans that by sticking together they had leverage because the Democrats were split on the issue. Puckett, who is fond of saying, "You can't outspend the Democrats," knew that the richest of the Democratic packages would exceed the limit of the so-called Certificates of Participation (COPs), an emergency funding mechanism. In other words, to fund the largest of the Democratic plans would require voter-approved bonds.
Conventional wisdom said that school bonds on the ballot would help the Democrats; but Puckett wasn't buying it. He knows his constituency and believes that people are so dissatisfied with the school system that a bond issue, which would be a referendum on the effectiveness of the schools, would go against the Democrats. "A referendum didn't scare me at all," Puckett said. "If [they] wanted to have that fight, I was willing."
It was at about this time-in mid-August-that Puckett caught a break. The North Carolina General Assembly passed a bill that allowed yet another way for local school systems to fund capital improvements. This "lease-back" program allows private entities to move forward quickly with design and construction of buildings, with the assurance that the local government will lease the properties when they are built. The lease-back program actually reduced the amount of capital required right away-from $152 million to $123 million.
Puckett had "turned the caber," and Helms knew it. The commission chairman gave in, and the Republican-led funding package passed in a Democratic-controlled commission by a vote of 6-3.
In retrospect, Puckett acknowledges that a lot of things had to go his way, including passage of the new state law that allowed the lease-back program. And Puckett says he's reluctant to give advice to a sitting president and the national Republican Party. But he did say that "the Democrats have their problems, too." Factions are constantly forming and re-forming, and sometimes just taking a firm stand on principle will earn you the support of your friends, and the respect-and perhaps even a few votes-from your political enemies.
It's an idea that even William Wallace could embrace.
-Warren Smith is editor and publisher of The Charlotte World