Jen Mangrum, a former teacher and first-time candidate, turned back a challenge to her district residency on Thursday, opening the way for her to continue her campaign against state Senate leader Phil Berger of Rockingham County — one of the most influential politicians in North Carolina.
The state elections board, in a 5-4 vote, overturned a decision by a local panel which decided against Mangrum, a Democrat, in a party-line vote in May.
Billy Cushman, a Republican travel agent from Rockingham County, challenged Mangrum’s residency, claiming she had not moved permanently from Greensboro to Reidsville, a town in Berger’s district. The state election board’s four Democrats and its unaffiliated member voted in Mangrum’s favor, while the board’s four Republicans voted against her.
Mangrum said she was happy with the result, but disappointed that the vote wasn’t unanimous.
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“The facts are, I moved,” she said. Mangrum said Berger had been challenged only three times in nine elections, and she felt it was important for voters to have a choice. “I decided that someone needed to stand up to Sen. Berger, and I was going to be that person,” she said.
Cushman challenged Mangrum’s residency based on the short-term lease she signed Feb. 1 for a Reidsville home. The deadline for establishing residency was Feb. 28. Mangrum changed her address on government documents and personal financial accounts. She took seasonal clothes, personal items and pictures with her to Reidsville.
Mangrum’s lawyer, Michael Crowell, said that if the Guilford County board of elections were to look at her qualifications to vote there, they wouldn’t allow it.
She paid taxes, registered a car and changed her driver’s license, credit union account and credit card accounts, Crowell said.
Mangrum had lived in Berger’s district for 18 years. A change in election boundaries this year put the Greensboro home outside Berger’s district.
The district is strongly Republican. Brent Woodcox, a lawyer at the General Assembly, said on Twitter that President Donald Trump won the district by 36 points.
Cushman’s lawyer, Gary Rickner, wouldn’t say whether his client would appeal the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement’s decision to the state Court of Appeals.
“We don’t have any comment,” Rickner said.
Teachers and retired teachers filled more than half the board hearing room. Mangrum is a former classroom teacher who now works in the School of Education at UNC Greensboro.
Bound up in the local panel’s decision was Mangrum’s separation from her husband and the decision to have her 18-year-old daughter, a high school senior, continue to live in Greensboro.
The local panel used a standard to judge Mangrum that it would not apply to a man, said Stella Anderson, a state board member. One of the local panel members, according to the record, was not convinced that Mangrum and her husband wouldn’t reconcile.
“That is irrelevant as it relates to the law,” Anderson said. “This panel chose to impose on her a requirement that is not a requirement of the law.”
Some Republican board members said the board should back the local panel in this residency case, just as it has in other cases this year.
“We have to look at when people move into a district, whether or not they are truly moving in,” said John Lewis. “We have to glean the intent. We have to figure that out from circumstantial evidence.”
In a statement, state Sen. Dan Blue of Raleigh, the Senate’s Democratic leader, said Mangrum’s win is good for democracy because it gives voters a choice.
“The State Board of Election’s decision today gives Senate District 30 voters a distinct choice for their future. Dr. Jen Mangrum has proven that she will work for her district’s interests first; advocating for better schools, access to affordable healthcare and creating an economy that works for everyone,” he said.
Dallas Woodhouse, state GOP executive director, said in a statement that the split vote demonstrated why the state needs to change the board of elections. This fall, voters will be asked if the state constitution should change to have eight members with none chosen by the governor.
As it stands, the governor appoints all nine members, based on recommendations from the political parties and the state board.
“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 wrote.
“This was a hyperpartisan decision that went against the facts and shows the critical need for change through the amendment process.”