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The articles from Inside Politics With Steve Harrison appear first in his weekly newsletter, which takes a deeper look at local politics, including the latest news on the Charlotte City Council, what's happening with Mecklenburg County's Board of Commissioners, the North Carolina General Assembly and much more.

Can Braxton Winston’s charmed run keep going on a shoestring budget?

Braxton Winston smiling
Charlotte City Council
Braxton Winston at the Charlotte City Council dais.

A version of this news analysis originally appeared in the Inside Politics newsletter, out Fridays. Sign up here to get it first to your inbox.

Braxton Winston’s political career was launched by an iconic photo.

During the 2016 Keith Lamont Scott shooting protests, the picture of Winston — shirt off, back to the camera, left arm raised with a closed fist in defiance to a row of police officers — rocketed around the world.

A year later, he was elected to an at-large Charlotte City Council seat in his first try for public office.

He easily won reelection twice.

In his current bid for North Carolina commissioner of labor, the good run has continued.

He didn’t draw a primary opponent, advancing directly to the November general election. And if former President Trump’s support softens enough, Winston could be swept into statewide office on a blue wave, no matter what kind of campaign he runs.

But for the moment, Winston is facing a stiff political headwind: a difficulty (so far) in raising money.

Here is how much money the leading Democratic candidates for the 10 Council of State races have in their campaign accounts, as of the end of 2023:

  • Josh Stein, governor: $11.5 million
  • Jeff Jackson, attorney general: $1.8 million
  • Rachel Hunt, lieutenant governor: $452,000
  • Natasha Marcus, insurance commissioner: $204,000
  • Mo Green, state superintendent: $198,000
  • Wesley Harris, treasurer $161,000
  • Gabe Esparza, treasurer $182,000
  • Elaine Marshall, secretary of state: $100,000
  • Jessica Holmes, auditor: $21,000
  • Braxton Winston, labor: $4,800/$20,000*
  • Sarah Taber, agriculture: $15,000

*Winston’s campaign finance report shows two different numbers for how much cash he had as of the end of the year. One listed $4,800. The other was a little more than $20,000.
For perspective, the candidates at the bottom — Holmes, Taber and Winston — don’t have primary opponents. That can take the urgency out of fundraising for now.

Holmes entered the race in December after being appointed auditor by Gov. Roy Cooper to replace Beth Wood, who stepped down after being indicted on a misdemeanor charge of misusing a state-issued vehicle.

Taber is running against Republican incumbent Steve Troxler, who has held the job for nearly 20 years and won by the largest margin of any Council of State race four years ago. She’s probably the biggest underdog of all 10 races.

Winston has been in the race since April. He won’t be facing a Republican incumbent, after Josh Dobson said he wouldn’t run again. There are four Republicans in the race, including Guilford state Rep. Jon Hardister, who has nearly $430,000 cash on hand — at least 20 times as much money as Winston has.

($100,000 of that was a loan Hardister made to his campaign.)

So, has raising money been a challenge for Winston?

“Absolutely,” he said. “It’s a big state. That’s always the challenge. I would say we are running a good campaign and you use the resources you have.”

Winston is from the state’s largest city and can theoretically tap into wealthy Democratic donors like retired bank magnate Hugh McColl, who has given his campaign $2,000.

And when he ran for City Council, money wasn’t a problem. In the three years before his last victory in 2022, Winston raised nearly $180,000 — a huge sum for an at-large council member.

He added: “We think we have been spending in ways that help us maximize our reach, all across North Carolina. Running at large in Charlotte was good preparation for that. I would always love to have more money at the end of the day. But we are comfortable at the pace we are on.”

Braxton Winston speaking at podium
Braxton Winston
Braxton Winston addressing cameras.

Progressive record

During his six years on Charlotte City Council, he was one of the most progressive members.

He initially was OK with hosting former President Trump’s 2020 Republican National Convention, but then led a nearly successful effort to torpedo it.

He was the most vocal supporter of the city’s 2040 Plan, which allows more dense housing in neighborhoods once reserved for only single-family homes. He has said single-family zoning is a legacy of racism, and he’s called out people who want to preserve it — including City Council members who are Black.

He’s been critical of Charlotte police and led a successful effort in 2020 to prohibit the department from buying new chemical tear gas for a year. He also nearly torpedoed a city purchase of ammunition for police last year, a move his colleague Tariq Bokhari called irresponsible.

Winston pushed for more transparency. City Council committee meetings are now live-streamed, in part to Winston’s efforts.

As part of his stump speech, Winston said he wants to keep North Carolina as a top state for workers and business.

“You don’t get to be the mayor pro tem without having the confidence of people in the private sector,” he said. “I have the ability to work towards common sense governing solutions.”

But he’s most animated when talking about workers, not surprisingly, quickly mentioning issues like migrant housing, fair wages and worker safety. He wants to increase the pay of the state’s safety compliance officers.

“To work for more equitable communities, workers are at the center of it,” he said. “How do we solve the affordable housing crisis? We are going to make sure workers are connected to good-paying jobs. That’s why you invest in public transportation and transit, to make sure they are connected to jobs.”

When Winston spoke with Inside Politics this week, he was driving from Raleigh to Charlotte to work as a camera operator for the Charlotte Hornets, a job he’s had for 20 years.

“I am a worker,” Winston said. “I am a grinder.”

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Steve Harrison is WFAE's politics and government reporter. Prior to joining WFAE, Steve worked at the Charlotte Observer, where he started on the business desk, then covered politics extensively as the Observer’s lead city government reporter. Steve also spent 10 years with the Miami Herald. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated.