Rob Christensen

She’s a long shot to beat NC’s most powerful politician. But she won the right to run.

In her first run for elective office, Democrat Jennifer Mangrum is challenging  an incumbent who is arguably the state's most powerful politician, state Senate leader Phil Berger.
In her first run for elective office, Democrat Jennifer Mangrum is challenging an incumbent who is arguably the state's most powerful politician, state Senate leader Phil Berger.

For the past decade, Senate leader Phil Berger has been the most politically powerful man in North Carolina and he aims to keep it that way.

Governors during that period — Democrats Bev Perdue and Roy Cooper and Republican Pat McCrory — have increasingly become figureheads, while Berger & Co. make all the major decisions.

Berger proposes to weaken them even further by putting a constitutional amendment on the ballot that will make the office of governor the weakest it has been, in the view of some experts, since the 1830s. That is when the legislature – not the people — elected governors to two-year terms.

At home, Berger, an Eden attorney, doesn’t have to kiss any babies or ride in any parades unless he really wants to.

He has run in a district designed to elect a Republican, where during the past four elections he has twice been unopposed and other times won in landslides of 61 and 59 percent. The Washington Generals have had a better chance of beating the Harlem Globetrotters than a Democrat has of defeating Berger.

But last year, courts declared the GOP-gerrymandered state Senate districts unconstitutional, and a result the legislature redrew some Senate districts in August including Berger’s.

The newly aligned district is forcing Berger to introduce himself to new voters, and it has made the district somewhat less friendly although still Republican leaning. Three of the four counties were not previously in Berger’s district.

As a result, Berger has attracted a potentially stronger opponent — Jennifer Mangrum, a personable, high-energy education professor at UNC Greensboro.

In encouraging her to get into the race, state Rep. Jeff Jackson of Charlotte told her she would be Berger’s “worst nightmare.”

Mangrum is running with broad support from teachers and the backing of groups like Emily’s List and Lillian’s List that support progressive female candidates. She is also receiving a hand from some of the state’s current and former power players, including former U.S. Commerce Secretary Luther Hodges Jr., Charlotte banker Hugh McColl, retired Winston-Salem businessman John Burress, Frank Daniels, former publisher of The News and Observer, and former Gov. Jim Hunt – most of whom no longer have business before the legislature.

Mangrum has an intriguing biography — born at Camp Lejeune where she was the daughter of a Marine combat veteran, married to a former Marine aviator, and public school teacher for years before her current role of teaching other teachers how to teach.

Before deciding to run against Berger last year, she had been a registered Republican — although she said she basically wasn’t political.

Berger is still the odds-on favorite in a district that voted heavily for Donald Trump for president. But voters have been in a restive mood, and suddenly there are fewer sure things.

Not wanting to take any chances, Berger’s allies have sought to keep Mangrum off the November ballot.

At issue is her residency. Mangrum had lived in Berger’s district for 18 years when she decided to challenge him. But that was no longer the case when the district lines were redrawn in August.

Before the Feb. 28 candidate filing deadline, Mangrum moved from her home in Guilford County to Reidsville. She rented a house, paid her taxes, changed the address on her voter registration, driver’s license, credit cards and credit union.

Republicans challenged her residency. They noted that her husband — from whom she has separated — stayed in Greensboro with one of their daughters who was finishing her senior year in high school. And they raised other questions as well — such as why there was only a three-month lease on her Reidsville house.

The challenger, a local real estate agent and GOP volunteer, walked through her house, pretending he was representing a buyer, and decided Mangrum had not moved a sufficient amount of her belongings. Mangrum later said the idea of a Berger supporter checking out her closet was “creepy.”

Because Berger’s Senate district includes Rockingham, Caswell, Stokes and Surry counties, a special five-county elections board was appointed to hear her residency challenge. The board voted 3-2 along party lines, with the Republican majority voting to disqualify her.

Her appeal went before the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement in Raleigh on Thursday, attracting dozens of supporters wearing red T-shirts from teacher supporters reading “Enough Berger! Save Our Schools!” or “Red4Ed.”

When the pro-Berger forces began raising the question about her separation, Stella Anderson, a Democratic board member, had enough. She said if the “shoe were on the other foot,” and a male candidate was separated, it would not be an issue.

That brought applause from the overwhelmingly female audience and an admonishment from chairman Andy Penry, that such outbursts were not appropriate in a quasi-judicial hearing.

The state board voted along party lines once again. The four Democrats — along with independent Damon Circosta — voted to reinstate Mangrum as a candidate. The four Republicans voted against it.

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The Republicans have not said whether they will appeal the case to the N.C. Court of Appeals.

GOP leaders candidly say they are looking forward to November, when they hope voters pass a constitutional amendment allowing the legislature — instead of the governor — to make appointments to state and local election boards. The Republicans, believing they will still hold legislative majorities, would then be able to control the election machinery and the Jen Mangrums of the future would not have a chance.

Even though he won the case, Mangrum’s attorney, Michael Crowell, the dean of North Carolina election lawyers and a former Institute of Government professor, was discouraged by all the party-line voting.

“It used to be county boards would decide on the merits,’’ Crowell said. “But it has changed. It’s a party-line vote. The system is not working.”

Christensen: 919-829-4532; @oldpolhack