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Politics

North Carolina's Elections Board Says Democrat Can Challenge Senate Leader Phil Berger

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NORTH CAROLINA GENERAL ASSEMBLY

The Republican who is arguably North Carolina's most powerful politician could yet face a Democratic challenger after the state elections board decided Thursday that Jennifer Mangrum did enough to establish her residence in the district now represented by state Sen. Phil Berger.

The elections board divided along party lines, with an unaffiliated member selected by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper casting the deciding vote, to reverse a local elections panel's decision disqualifying Mangrum. The state Senate District 30 seat represents Rockingham and northwestern Guilford counties.

Mangrum, a former public school teacher and current education professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, moved into the district by renting a Reidsville home after separating from her husband. But she continued to own their shared Greensboro home when the candidate filing period ended Feb. 28.

Mangrum's situation is something of a special case because while state law requires someone live in the Senate district he or she would represent for a year before running, that was changed for the 2018 elections by a federal judge deciding a lawsuit over gerrymandered legislative districts.

GOP elections board member John Lewis said the local elections officials found Mangrum's relocation decision wasn't credible and their decision should be left in place rather than changed to boost Democrats.

"Giving deference to the decisions and the ability of a local board or the hearing panel to judge credibility in one case but then not giving it to them in the next case because of a desired political outcome is creating confusion," Lewis said.

But at least one member of the closely divided local panel that ruled out Mangrum's run went too far by expressing doubt that her estrangement from her husband was permanent, said elections board member Stella Anderson.

"It's clear that the hearing panel majority imposed on Dr. Mangrum expectations and requirements that are well beyond the law, the legal requirements, for domicile," said Anderson, one of the group's four Democrats.

Democrats hailed the state elections board decision as a victory.

Berger is the Senate's leader, and he heads a disciplined GOP supermajority that has successfully whittled away at Cooper's powers beginning a month after the Democrat was elected the state's chief executive in November 2016.

Since his first election in 2000, Berger has been unopposed in half of his eight re-election contests. He has easily beaten Democratic opponents in the rest.

Berger's legislative office referred requests for comment to the GOP group that backs state Senate Republicans. Berger wasn't involved in the challenge, so it's not up to him whether the decision is appealed, Republican Senate Caucus Director Ray Martin said.

Eden resident Billy Franklin Cushman challenged Mangrum's candidacy. He did not return a message asking whether he planned to appeal Thursday's decision.

Libertarian R. Michael Jordan is also running for the Senate seat.