Bill James: a politician without a campaign
Clarification Appended If there's controversy on the Board of County Commissioners, there's a good chance Commissioner Bill James is in the middle of it, especially if it has to do with African Americans or gay people. He's a lightning rod who attracts a lot of attention, except at the ballot box. James has been called a lot of things including bigot and racist. But he says that can't be true. "I can't tell you the number of black people who told me, 'You can't say that because you're white.' Well, I'm 1/64th black," says James. "If that makes me a homey or something and now I can talk about it, then that's what I'll do. But my goal is to fix the problem, not allow it to fester." What happens most often is a full-scale eruption, or as James puts it a community-wide discussion. Here's one example from March: a federal report found nearly half of black women 14 to 49 have genital herpes. James felt the need to send an e-mail to a couple thousand people. He recommended a prevention message that targets African Americans. But he didn't stop there. James said blacks are more promiscuous. That upset a lot of people. The local Republican Party leader even paid him a visit to tell him to tone it down. "What some people view as controversial, others view as finally somebody had the guts to say that," says James. "You have to consider whether the statements I make represent the majority of the constituents in the district I represent. I contend that I do." Don Blanzy just filled out this year's primary ballot. "I align myself with someone like Bill James because I see him as a man of character across the board," says Blanzy. "Does he make mistakes like us all? Yeah. Does Bill do some stupid things? Yes." Blanzy had a lot of choices for U.S. Senate and other races, but there was only one name for District Six Commissioner: Bill James. It'll be the same in the fall. No one, Democrat or Republican, has challenged him since 2002. The district includes Mint Hill, Matthews, and the Ballantyne area. As you might expect it's mostly Republican and 84 percent of registered voters there are white. Phil Redmond of Matthews says voters don't always agree with James when he's spouting off. Take the time he asked Commissioner Vilma Leak if her dead son was a "homo." "I suspect a lot of folks look past, perhaps, some of the comments he may make," says Redmond. "But I think his stance on trying to fund the essentials and not the extras and really focus on budget control, deficit control, I think, appeals to a lot of folks." James is an accountant by trade and he approaches his work on the county commission with that mindset. He's thorough and knows the ins-and-outs of county protocol. Reducing the county's debt has always been one of James's missions. In the fall of 2008 he urged all the rating agencies to look closely at the county's mounting debt. He sent the email the day before county officials visited the agencies. This is what many conservatives love about James, but it's his frankness on social matters that rubs some the wrong way says local Republican Party Chairman Rob Bryan. He says a couple Republicans contacted him about running against James this year. "Some folks who felt like they could represent views of the district while still trying to work with folks that may hold different views in a little more positive manner," says Bryan. But in the end they decided it would be too hard to defeat James. As for Democrats, the head of the local party Joel Ford says he knows of one person who considered challenging him this year, but decided against it. "At the end of the day you have to be realistic on what your chances for success are and when you look at certain districts or certain areas to run in, the challenge can be on paper insurmountable," says Ford. James says the controversies that surround him have also made him tough to beat. "Good or bad, like me, hate me, I have really high name ID," laughs James. He's got a shrine of sorts to the controversy he generates. A wall in his home has eighty framed editorial cartoons, most lambasting him. "That also goes along with name ID," says James. So he's become a politician without a campaign, a man with boxes full of 8-year old campaign signs he's never opened. "I have about 700 signs so I'm ready to go. It's like being dressed for a prom and not having a date. That's okay." Clarification A CDC study released in March found that 48 percent of African-American women 14-49 have the genital herpes virus, not that they have genital herpes.