Rea Farms construction
Construction at Rea Farms near the Ballantyne are of South Mecklenburg County continues in January 2019. Jodie Castelliani / Carolina Public Press

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Democrats won big in 2018 in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina’s largest, but nowhere was the victory more surprising than in the south Charlotte neighborhoods around Ballantyne.

In local, state and federal races, these precincts for decades have been reliably red.

In 2018, they flipped blue.

Development, demographics and democracy

When Ray Eschert and his family moved to rural south Mecklenburg County in 1978, traffic on Highway 51 often slowed to a crawl because of people on horseback. He sometimes would take quick daytrips to Waxhaw in Union County and pass six, maybe seven cars, then he’d putter across a narrow bridge over Six Mile Creek.

It was a long way from Greenwich Village in Manhattan, where they’d lived before Ray’s job with a communications company transferred him here.

“My wife was like, ‘What are you, crazy?’” he said of their first drive through the area that would become Ballantyne.

Now, Highway 51 and the Six Mile Creek bridge are four-lane, divided roads, and the southern outskirts of Charlotte would be unrecognizable to anybody who last visited even 30 years ago. In the mid-1990s, the county approved the largest rezoning in Mecklenburg history — about 2,000 acres — to allow a development group led by Johnny Harris to create Ballantyne out of land that used to be former Gov. Cameron Morrison’s hunting preserve. Today, an area that had fewer than 10,000 residents in 2000 has nearly 25,000.

Still, until recently it remained a disconnected, upscale outpost with concerns that hardly resembled those in the urban Charlotte center, about 20 miles north. As recently as 2012, some Ballantyne residents proposed breaking away to form their own town.

The outlier personality was evident in politics. While Charlotte consistently leaned toward Democrats in federal, state and county elections, Ballantyne and the surrounding areas remained conservative and Republican.

But now, as the tissues of land between center city and the outer neighborhoods continue to fill in, development and politics appear to be changing. That’s one contributing ingredient to the eye-opening 2018 election, in which voters in Ballantyne and surrounding areas swept an 11-time Republican county commissioner out of office, flipped two state Senate seats to Democrats and turned every precinct blue in the two congressional districts that meet here.

At a time when Democrats cruise in cities and Republicans do the same in rural areas, the land in between — the suburbs — is sure to be a battleground again in future elections.

If Ballantyne is any indication, the messages that work in these places evolve as the demographics evolve.

Apartments and denser neighborhoods are developing in an area that once seemed to be all big and new and wealthy, and younger families now find it more appealing in a tight and expensive housing market.

‘Now there is no protection’

Eschert, 72, started the Ballantyne Breakfast Club, a six-time-a-year gathering of elected officials and constituents from south Mecklenburg, in 2001.

Local publications refer to him as the “mayor of Ballantyne,” but he doesn’t take sides in politics — he likes to say his family’s last name is a town in Switzerland, meaning he’s Swiss and neutral. But there’s no way to ignore the transformations, political or otherwise, where he lives.

“For years, it was always, well, certain areas are protected for Republicans,” Eschert says. “Now there is no protection.”

If you think of Charlotte as a clock, with the Interstate 485 loop as the guide, I-74 runs east through 4 o’clock, and I-77 runs south through about 6 o’clock.

Carolina Public Press examined election results from 2016 and 2018 for the 11 precincts that fall outside I-485 and between those two highways — or the area that cups the belt line from Stallings to Pineville.

The precincts are divided between two congressional districts.

The 9th District includes Providence East and Blakeney and the eastern side of Ballantyne; the 12th has Pineville and the western side of Ballantyne.

In 2016, Republicans Robert Pittenger and Leon Threatt won 15,427 votes in the 11 precincts, compared with 15,139 for Democrats Christian Cano and Alma Adams — a 300-vote edge for the Republicans.

In 2018, Dan McCready and Adams piled up 3,947 more votes than the Republicans.

That swing — more than 4,000 votes — was even bigger in the state races.

In the state Senate districts that have precincts here, Republicans had a 2,171-vote edge in 2016. This year, Democrats won by 2,332 — a swing of 4,503 votes against incumbent Republicans.

Jeff Tarte was unseated, while Dan Bishop held on by 6 percentage points. Bishop is now Mecklenburg County’s only Republican representative in the state legislature.

Democrats made even bigger gains in the state House, going from 2,560 votes down in these precincts in 2016 to 2,557 up in 2018 — 5,117 votes — as Rachel Hunt and Wesley Harris defeated incumbents Bill Brawley and Scott Stone, respectively.

Maybe the most noteworthy change was on the county Board of Commissioners. Bill James, who had represented south Mecklenburg County for 22 years, lost to first-time Democratic candidate Susan Rodriguez McDowell. The margin for precincts in the examined area (56-44 percent) was greater than the overall margin (52-48).

James’ ouster, combined with two other GOP losses in county commission elections, makes it a completely Democratic board — 9-0 — for the first time since 1964.

The shutout has even some progressives concerned about absolute power. Property values in Mecklenburg County are expected to soar during this year’s revaluation, and Democrats will be in charge of setting the tax rate without a dissenting Republican among them.

“Supermajorities lead to bad policy and bad process,” The Charlotte Observer’s editorial board wrote after an election in which it endorsed all but two Democrats in the county commission races. “The minority party often serves as a valuable watchdog when things go wrong in government and the ruling party wants to sweep those troubles out of public view.”

Of course, Democrats don’t plan to give back the seats.

‘All the fixin’s’

Few people are more pleased than Connie Green-Johnson, the president of the Democratic Women of Mecklenburg County.

A former federal employee who retired to North Carolina to be closer to her grandchildren nearly two decades ago, Green-Johnson ran against James in 2012 and lost with 43 percent of the vote, then ran against Stone in 2016 and lost with 45 percent. She hoped to win each time, she says, but her bigger goal was to send a message that Democrats could be competitive in south Mecklenburg.

Green-Johnson, who served several years as the Democratic chairwoman for Precinct 227, in 2013 helped assemble a joint precinct board meeting for southeastern Mecklenburg County. About 100 people came out in the cold and sleet for the gathering at Total Wine that winter, she says.

The joint precinct meeting has grown, and for this February organizers expect about a dozen precinct boards to participate.

It was at one of those meetings that Green-Johnson met McDowell and encouraged her to run against James.

Green-Johnson has since moved across the county to Matthews and into a new precinct, but she says the work is the same: Go door to door, precinct by precinct, and give people multiple reasons to vote. She compares the approach to making a salad.

“I’ve tried to eat lettuce plain or with just a little something on it; it’s just blah,” she says. “But if you put all the fixin’s on it, it’s delicious.”

A car speeds past The Ballantyne hotel, a symbol of growth in southern Mecklenburg County. Jodie Castellani / Carolina Public Press

Change, plus organized effort

Pat Cotham has a better understanding of the county’s politics than arguably any elected official. A Democrat, she’s been the top vote-getter in the at-large county commission races four consecutive times, dating to 2012.

But she’d had less success in the south Mecklenburg precincts. In 2014, she finished third in eight of the 11 precincts in the CPP analysis area. In 2018, though, she finished first in nine of those 11, and second in the other two.

Cotham wouldn’t characterize what’s happening as “flipping,” in the sense that Republicans are becoming Democrats. Instead, she credits changing demographics and stronger organization efforts like those put together by Green-Johnson.

Also, Cotham says, she can’t discount the enthusiasm around the 9th District race and frustration with President Donald Trump as things that helped tow local Democrats along this year.

“If Jesus Christ had been a Republican, he’d have lost. (Other Democrats) get ruffled when I say that. But it’s just politics. Timing is very important. And luck,” she says.

“The bigger question that you’re not talking about is, How do Democrats hold onto these people? … How do we continue to engage them and develop them and find future leaders out of these people? That’s an opportunity that’s sitting there waiting, and if we don’t do that, we will regret it.”

Cotham lives just inside the I-485 loop, not far from Ballantyne. But she says that because of the shifts in population, she knows fewer people in Ballantyne than she does in the northern suburbs.

Faces become even more unfamiliar when Cotham goes west of I-77 into Steele Creek, a booming area outside the loop between 6 and 9 on the clock. Since the Charlotte Premium Outlets opened in 2014, the once-rural community has exploded.

While precincts closer to the urban core are smaller and see only 1,200 or so voters in a busy year, some precincts in Steele Creek haul in nearly 6,000.

“If I go to a Harris Teeter and Food Lion in Charlotte, sometimes my ice cream is melted before I get out because I get stopped,” Cotham says. “If I go down there, I don’t experience that.”

Expect more changes

The growth in the southern loop suburbs will continue over the next 20-30 years, as Crescent Communities develops the “River District” on the only big stretch of rural land remaining in Mecklenburg County. (It’s the heavily wooded area between Charlotte-Douglas Airport and the Catawba River.)

The precinct for what will become the River District is No. 200, Dixie-Berryhill. Turnout-wise, it’s by far the smallest of all precincts outside the southern loop, with about 1,200 voters each year.

Crescent’s plans include 8 million square feet of shops and restaurants, 2,350 apartments, 1,000 hotel rooms, and 2,300 houses there over the next 20 or 30 years. The property will cover 1,378 acres — making it the county’s largest master-planned development since Ballantyne.

Eschert, the “mayor of Ballantyne,” could deliver a forecast for people who live on the quiet land that will become the River District.

In the late 1980s, he encouraged his neighbor Tom Mangum to run for the south Charlotte City Council seat. Mangum doubted his chances, but Eschert knew that if they just went door to door in their neighborhood, he had a shot.

“We could probably get 400 people to vote for you right here,” Eschert remembers telling him.

Four hundred votes would make a much smaller dent today, and it’s only going to shrink. Lincoln Harris LLC is developing a 190-acre former golf course on Providence Road known as Rea Farms. It will be more walkable and compact than the early developments in Ballantyne — plans include 455 apartments and a 135-room hotel.

Services are scheduled to follow. In October, Novant Health announced plans to build a new 36-bed hospital in Ballantyne. If approved by the state Health Department, the $154 million facility would open in 2023. Atrium Health, meanwhile, recently filed to build a 40-bed facility on the Union County side of Stallings, just over the Mecklenburg County line. That facility would be only 15 miles or so from the proposed Ballantyne hospital.

For Eschert, whose wife is a real estate agent, it’s all part of the natural life cycles of neighborhoods and people.

“My wife’s sold 100 homes in this 480-some home community,” he says of the Thornhill development where they’ve lived for 25 years. “We’ve had some families move out and go to (retirement communities). And replacing that, we’ve seen people who are much younger and more diverse.

“I like having the young kids here. But if the politicians are too set in their ways and they can’t adjust to change, they won’t make it. You always have to adapt to shifting trends.”

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