Opinion

Much feared Sen. Berger faces a fearless newcomer

Here’s the campaign matchup. Who should be afraid of whom?

On one side, state Sen. Phil Berger, a nine-term Republican from Eden, leader of the Senate and a politician who plays hardball with those who oppose him, whether it’s the Democratic governor or an upstart in his own caucus.

On the other, Jennifer Mangrum, a former third-grade teacher and now an associate professor of teacher education at UNC-Greensboro. She was opposed to HB2 and appalled by Donald Trump’s election. She switched her party affiliation from Republican to Democrat and is making her first run for elected office.

As a political newcomer, Mangrum should be the jittery one, but she’s not. “I’m a third-grade teacher at heart,” she says. “I’ve dealt with playground bullies before.”

Berger’s office did not respond to a request for comment, but aspects of this race make him look like the skittish one. Mangrum announced her intention to challenge him more than a year ago, but when a new court-ordered map of legislative districts was unveiled in August of 2017, the Guilford County portion of Berger’s district – the portion where Mangrum lived – was gone.

Mangrum, the daughter of a Marine who served in three wars, decided to take the fight to Berger. She rented a home in Reidsville inside the newly-drawn District 30 and, having recently separated from her husband, declared Reidsville her new home a month before the Feb. 28 filing deadline.

Some groups had urged her to stay where she was and run against Republican Sen. Trudy Wade. But Mangrum says the only way to reverse North Carolina’s hard turn to the right is to unseat the man leading it.

“I told them I’m not running for a seat in the Senate. I’m running for his seat. I think North Carolina needs for me to replace him. He needs to go,” she says.

Mangrum is an eloquent and effective speaker, she’s attracted funding from around the state and she also received the endorsement of a prominent conservative Republican, Luther Hodges Jr., son of the late governor who helped create Research Triangle Park. But she’s a political neophyte taking on the state’s most powerful politician. Surprises will come.

One arrived shortly after the filing deadline when Billy Cushman, an active Republican from Eden, filed a challenge to Mangrum’s candidacy on the grounds that she had not established residency in Reidsville. Since District 30 includes four counties, the State Board of Elections appointed a five-member panel – one from each county and one extra member to break a tie – to hear the challenge.

Mangrum established herself as a Reidsville resident by signing a lease, changing her driver’s license and voter registration, registering her car and paying local taxes and changing the address she had on file with her employer – all before the filing deadline. The special panel – three to two Republican – heard hours of testimony, but took only a few minutes to rule along party lines that Mangrum had not satisfied the residency requirement.

The majority’s reasoning had to do with everything but the law. One panelist said he had a hunch that Mangrum would reconcile with her husband and move back to their Greensboro home. Another noted that Mangrum’s youngest daughter, a high school senior, had not moved with her. Another said Mangrum only moved to Reidsville to challenge Berger and would likely leave if she lost.

Mangrum’s lawyer, Michael Crowell of Carrboro, has appealed to the State Board of Elections. A hearing is expected by the end of this month. If that fails, he will appeal in court. In the meantime, Mangrum is spending time and energy defending her candidacy that could have gone into her challenge to the incumbent. That, of course, was the point of the challenge.

Nonetheless, she says polling shows she holds her own with Berger when voters are told she supports expanding Medicaid, spending more on public schools and doing more to clean up Duke Energy’s coal ash pits. Libertarian R. Michael Jordan of Eden is also in the race, which may drain votes from Berger.

"There's this urban myth that Berger can not be beat. My slogan is — 'We got this,' " she says. "He has power because we gave it to him and we can take that back."

Barnett: 919-829-4512

  Comments