Outside the gates of Charlotte’s municipal government sits a modern-day Trojan horse from which members of Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis’s political party hope to take seats on City Council.
They will succeed in their efforts only if local voters forget that membership in a political party means something.
There exists no better short-hand expression of someone’s political ideas and values than the party with which they associate. To deny this is to deny the very reason for association.
No matter the efforts of individual actors to stand out as individuals, political contestants are necessarily tethered to larger institutions. Candidates operate in a system concerned with cultivating power not only for individuals, but for partisan organizations.
And while no individual is a mere cog in his political party’s machine, neither is he a totally free agent. When he registers as a member of a political party, he ties his fate to it. His victory is the party’s victory, and his loss the party’s loss.
This dynamic exists without regard to the individual goodness or badness of particular candidates. In fact, a “good guy” running under the banner of a baleful political party may be a greater threat to the common good than a son of a bitch running on the same ticket. The good guy’s status as a good guy tends to conceal that his personal advancement harms the public by furthering the mission of the deplorable organization to which he belongs. But the campaign of a son of a bitch — because he’s a son of a bitch — may better alert us to the awfulness of his associates.
A group of Republicans running for Charlotte City Council as “the Slate” hopes to distract us from the reality of our party politics by casting themselves as a band of municipal do-gooders and friendly neighbors mostly unmoved by partisan considerations.
The Slate’s members, including at-large challengers Kyle Luebke, Charlie Mulligan, David Merrill, and Carrie Olinski, mayoral candidate Stephanie de Sarachaga-Bilbao, and incumbent district Councilman Tariq Bokhari, hope to earn the votes of independents and moderate Democrats by offering inoffensive platitudes wrapped in self-consciously millennial packaging.
So, for example, Luebke posted on Facebook that his campaign “isn’t left or right, but is what is needed for our City!” Mulligan wrote on his campaign website, “It’s time to expect more.” During a recent television interview, Merrill observed, “There’s a lot of great things about this city, but we could do so much better.” And Olinski’s website announces that her campaign is focused on “caring for the future of Charlotte.”
The Slate is asking us to mistake politics for vague, feel-good sentimentalism as they engage in suggestion and sleight-of-hand to trick voters into overlooking, forgetting, or dismissing as insignificant their party affiliation. Only if this campaign of distraction succeeds do these GOP candidates stand a chance in Charlotte, where Republicans count for less than 20% of registered voters.
Of course, when talking to their own, the Slate recognizes the blow they could strike for the party should they win election in a Democratic stronghold. They know American politics is unavoidably a matter of party politics — and they hope to fool Queen City voters just long enough to parlay their duplicity into partisan gain.
“We cannot give up on our front lines, in our urban cities where these battles are raging,” he said.
A GOP sweep of the four at-large Council spots in the July 26 election would serve as a bellwether for Republican success in other contests, Bokhari proclaimed, and would demonstrate that the party is capable of “taking … our urban centers back from them.”
Gone is Luebke’s gauzy request that we all just get along, and in its place we find honest talk of political warfare and a hoped-for “red wave.”
What would such a wave look like? If independents and Democrats in Charlotte vote for the Slate, what ideas, values, and policies will they be advancing along with the fortunes of the Republican Party?
The state GOP updated its platform at its recent convention, so we need only take the party at its word to understand what the Slate is asking Charlotte’s voters to endorse.
The North Carolina Republican Party opposes same-sex marriage and supports the power of states to prohibit such marriages, which would again relegate queer people and same-sex couples to second-class status.
The North Carolina Republican Party opposes the right of women to choose to terminate their pregnancies, without any exception to protect their lives or health.
The North Carolina Republican Party opposes efforts to achieve — really, to even talk about or acknowledge the need to work toward — racial justice.
The North Carolina Republican Party opposes gun-free school zones and embraces NRA-style Second Amendment absolutism.
The North Carolina Republican Party endorses the view that our elections are insecure and rife with fraud, which feeds into the Big Lie that the 2020 presidential election was stolen.
The North Carolina Republican Party seeks to prohibit schools from teaching about sexual orientation or gender identity, an implicit call to enact a Florida-style “Don’t Say Gay” law.
The North Carolina Republican Party wants English to be the country’s official language, a not-so-subtle jab at brown-skinned immigrants from Latin America.
The North Carolina Republican Party opposes school curricula that attempt to honestly reckon with racial and gender inequality.
The North Carolina Republican Party nods to white nationalism by seeking to “revitalize the Judeo-Christian values of Western civilization.”
The North Carolina Republican Party believes the well-established climate catastrophe we face is “subject to scientific debate.”
In addition to updating its platform, the state GOP passed resolutions undermining the idea of public schools; criticizing public health measures intended to stem the spread of COVID-19; and vilifying transgender people and describing as “child abuse” the provision of gender-affirming care to minors.
It’s all right there: nascent authoritarianism, resentful racism, old-fashioned misogyny, unabashed homophobia, religious chauvinism, climate-change denialism, public-health skepticism, and gun-violence do-nothingism. This is what the Slate is asking Charlotte’s independents and Democrats to support.
Despite their millennial brand, the Slate’s candidates belong to a reactionary political party that qualifies as a seditionist pox on the American republic, and to install Republicans in office — at any level, in any position, for any reason — is to further the party’s vile agenda.
The Slate asks us to ignore this reality.
Mulligan recently told WSOC’s Joe Bruno that Charlotteans wary of voting for him and his fellow Republicans ought to “follow us personally,” suggesting the Slate’s members are somehow different from their party.
Even if we accept Mulligan’s faulty suggestion that parties don’t matter and personalities reign supreme, his conclusion doesn’t follow: The Slate’s members, as individuals, are not materially different from their party. When we look at them personally — their ideas, values, and tactics — they are exactly what we’d expect of Trump-era Republicans.
Mulligan wrote on Facebook in December 2020 that he was personally “mad” Donald Trump lost reelection and posted in January 2021 that he had personally spent weeks “as a GOP operative” knocking on thousands of doors in Georgia to try to keep the U.S. Senate under the control of Mitch McConnell and the Republican Party. He also personally endorsed the baseless conspiracy theory that the use of Dominion voting machines somehow tainted the outcome of the 2020 presidential election, and he personally trotted out the tired trope that “the liberal media and establishment lie to us constantly.”
Merrill personally chose to build his campaign on the lie that City Council “defunded” the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, adopting as his own the go-to Trump tactic of seeking to acquire political power by engaging in dishonesty easily proved. (To be clear: The year Minneapolis cops murdered George Floyd and sparked nationwide protests against police violence, CMPD got $285.1 million from the city. Under the most recently adopted budget, CMPD is slated to get $317.6 million. City Council did not defund the police. Merrill is personally lying.)
Bokhari personally peddled the same lie about defunding the police by claiming it was a cause “champion[ed]” by Council. (An aside: In a Facebook ad running right now, Mulligan says, “We’ve had enough of leaders who lie whenever it suits them.” Will he call out Merrill and Bokhari for lying when it suits them? Or is he personally a hypocrite?)
Olinski personally told the Charlotte Observer that no disagreements exist between her and the GOP. She’s personally on board with every awful position the party takes.
This is who the Slate’s members are personally.
So even if Mulligan’s right and we’d be well-served by assessing him and the other candidates personally, it’s plain that their personal politics are just as loathsome as their party’s.
But he isn’t right. Notwithstanding their self-interested efforts to convince us otherwise, these Republican candidates are party functionaries, and their success would be their party’s success.
While Charlotte’s political demographics explain Mulligan’s attempt to downplay the Slate’s partisan affinities, we are not obligated to go along with this deception. Indeed, our duty runs in the other direction: to rebuff the Republicans at our city gates who bear false gifts of comity intended to cloak their party’s malignant designs.