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State elections board puts Berger challenger back on ballot

July 13th, 2018

— Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger will have a Democratic challenger in the November election after all.

The State Board of Elections Ethics Enforcement voted Thursday to put Jen Mangrum’s name back on the November ballot, six weeks after a local panel ruled she doesn’t live in Senate District 30 and disqualified her as a candidate.

It’s not against the law to move to a district to run in an election. But both the local and state boards had to determine if Mangrum really planned to stay there long term.

Mangrum, an education professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, moved from Guilford County to Reidsville just before the candidate filing deadline at the end of February. She and her husband were separated, and she moved into a short-term rental home that the owner was trying to sell.

Claiming to be a homebuyer, Republican Billy Cushman of Eden walked through the home and then filed a challenge to Mangrum’s candidacy, claiming that she didn’t really live there because she had not moved enough of her possessions into the house.

Mangrum had changed her address with the post office and the state Division of Motor Vehicles and was staying in Reidsville most nights. But an elections board for Rockingham, Caswell, Stokes and Surry counties, which compose District 30, voted in May on party lines to disqualify her, saying they doubted she was planning to live in Reidsville permanently.

After a two-hour hearing Thursday morning, the state elections board overturned the lower panel, saying Mangrum had met all of the legal criteria to face Berger in November. Libertarian Michael Jordan is also on the ballot.

Sen. Phil Berger, R-Rockingham

Arguably the most powerful politician in North Carolina, Berger has faced Democratic opposition only twice in the last decade.

“The facts are I’ve moved,” Mangrum said after the hearing. “You can say it looks weird that this 50-something-year-old woman picked up and moved to a district for whatever reasons – it is odd, I admit that – but I did. I decided that someone needed to stand up to Senator Berger, and I was going to be that person.”

The state board voted 5-4 in Mangrum’s favor, with unaffiliated member Damon Circosta siding with the four Democrats on the board.

“I’m going to vote to put this woman on the ballot. The voters in this district can decide what they want to do,” Democratic member Joshua Malcolm said.

The majority determined there wasn’t enough evidence to doubt Mangrum’s credibility about her residency, but Republican board members disagreed.

“The hearing panel heard the evidence. They had the ability to judge the credibility of all the witnesses. They had the ability to evaluate and bounce it back and forth,” Republican member John Lewis said.

Democratic member Stella Anderson said the lower panel was preoccupied with Mangrum’s personal life, raising questions a male candidate wouldn’t face.

“The concern [was] with whether or not she was legally separated, whether she was going to reconcile, going back to Greensboro to spend time with her daughter, her motives,” Anderson said.

Mangrum said she was sorry the vote wasn’t unanimous.

“The challenger walked through my home, pretending to be someone else,” she said of Cushman. “People are tired of this – I call it creepy, this creepy political game. After the first appeal, he said to me, ‘Nothing personal.’ It is personal.”

Lawyers for Cushman didn’t say whether they plan to appeal the state board’s ruling in court.

Berger’s campaign declined to comment on the decision, but Dallas Woodhouse, executive director of the North Carolina Republican Party, criticized it as “hyper-partisan.”

“Can anyone really believe she lives in a different county than her own dogs? Apparently, the state constitutional requirement that you live in the district you are running in does not apply to Democrats as far as this Democrat board is concerned,” Woodhouse said in an email. “The Democrats on the state board ignored the record established by the lower board. This was a hyper-partisan decision that went against the facts and shows the critical need for change through [an] amendment process.”

The Republican-controlled legislature put a proposed constitutional amendment on the November ballot that would reduce the state elections board from nine to eight members and would put lawmakers, not the governor, in charge of appointing members.

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