Billy Maddalon (standing) speaks at a forum with three other candidates vying for a vacant state Senate seat (L-R): Darrell Bonaparte, Jeff Jackson and Amelia Stinson-Wesley.
Billy Maddalon (standing) speaks at a forum with three other candidates vying for a vacant state Senate seat (L-R): Darrell Bonapart, Jeff Jackson and Amelia Stinson-Wesley.
Billy Maddalon (standing) speaks at a forum with three other candidates vying for a vacant state Senate seat (L-R): Darrell Bonapart, Jeff Jackson and Amelia Stinson-Wesley.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Just 50 members of the Mecklenburg County Democratic Party hold the power to elect a candidate who may be the sole openly gay or lesbian lawmaker next term as they consider who to appoint to a vacant North Carolina Senate seat this Saturday.

Senate District 37 was left open when Dan Clodfelter resigned to become mayor of Charlotte earlier in April. The choice to replace him falls to just 50 members of the county party’s executive committee who live in the district. Their choice will serve the remainder of Clodfelter’s term this year and replace him on the November ballot, where he was running unopposed, to serve an additional two-year term in Raleigh.

Billy Maddalon, an openly gay Plaza Midwood businessman, is one of four candidates seeking the job. Owner of Plaza Midwood’s VanLandingham Estate and Dilworth’s Morehead Inn, he served a brief term on Charlotte City Council last year, filling Patsy Kinsey’s District 1 seat as she served temporarily as mayor. Maddalon has also served as co-chair of the Eastland Area Strategies Team and once served on the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority board.

Maddalon, a therapeutic foster parent who has adopted two sons, told the forum his life exemplifies one built on “Democratic values,” “caring for people” and “making sure that government works on behalf of those who need it the most.”

He’s also pushed his experience as a local business owner — providing jobs for 500 local families over the years, he says — and his relationships with community organizations and international businesses.

“As a business leader at the executive level throughout most of my adult life, I think I’m ready to build coalitions in Raleigh,” Maddalon said. “Until we have a majority in the legislature, anything we do will have to be done in a collaborative way.”

He’s best, he said, to represent the diversity of District 37.

“I like to say our district is ‘bohemian.’ We have a little bit of everything,” Maddalon said of the district which includes significant portions of Uptown, East Charlotte and Pineville and the Steele Creek area. “It has the most diversity of any district in the county — a huge part of the LGBT community lives in 37 and Asian and Latin American communities who live along Central Ave. through to Sharon Amity. We have the Uptown crowd, if you will, who are largely affluent and largely white and folks out west down to Steele Creek who until recently were largely country folk.”

He added, “We need someone who knows how to deal with all these communities with ease, and I can do that.”

Maddalon may very well get his chance.

‘A seat at the table’

Three other candidates are vying to replace Clodfelter: Eastside advocate and party activist Darrell Bonapart, Mecklenburg County Assistant District Attorney Jeff Jackson and Methodist minister Amelia Stinson-Wesley, who formerly served briefly on the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education.

Questions at the forum included the candidates’ views — mostly similar — on Common Core education standards, teacher pay, coal ash pollution concerns and the relationship between state and local government.

But, Maddalon’s potential election created conversation of its own. If selected on Saturday, he’ll be the first openly gay man to hold office in the state Senate and, by next year, could be the only openly gay or lesbian member of the General Assembly. Incumbent openly gay House Rep. Marcus Brandon (D-Guilford) is currently running for the 12th Congressional District seat and will not be running for reelection to the state House. Just one other openly gay man — Ty Turner — will face off in a crowded Democratic primary on May 6 for a neighboring state Senate seat.

Crystal Richardson, a steering committee member for the Mecklenburg LGBT Political Action Committee (MeckPAC), attended the forum on Tuesday. She asked the candidates directly about how they view they party’s values on diversity. If you had an opportunity to elect the legislature’s only openly LGBT member, would you do it, she asked.

“One of the things that sets the Democratic Party apart is that we do value diversity,” Jackson responded. “We want to see a more diverse group of leaders. Through diversity, we have unity and strength. In this selection, you have a diversity of choices. I’m asking you to vote your conscience.”

Stinson-Wesley and Bonapart agreed.

But, Maddalon said he didn’t want electors to see him as “the gay candidate.”

“It’s not often being a gay man is an advantage in anything,” he said jokingly. “I do appreciate the fact that I have that unique opportunity. Thank you, Democrats.”

Nonetheless, he urged the attendees at the forum to consider the importance of electing the state’s only gay lawmaker.

“All other things being equal, if the party had the opportunity to look at the legislature and not see an African-American present or no women present,” Maddalon asked, “all other things being equal, would we exercise our ability and choice to send someone to represent that community?”

Maddalon said he’s looking forward, if given the opportunity, to being present in the legislature and the very first lawmaker to sponsor legislation repealing the state’s 2012 anti-LGBT constitutional amendment when it is struck down by federal courts.

He also wants to be a visible face for LGBT North Carolinians as the local and national focus on LGBT equality shifts from marriage back to more basic concerns like employment protections. Again, he urged those attending to consider the importance for a community to have “a seat at the table.”

“Discrimination has to have a face on it,” Maddalon said. “Black folk don’t need white folk talking for them when black folk can talk for themselves. Gay people don’t need straight people talking for them when gay people can talk for themselves. Women don’t need men talking for them when women can talk for themselves. Our community can speak for ourselves and when we put a face on it, we do pretty well, because we look just like everybody else and we have the same concerns and the same fears and the same community issues as everybody else.”

He added, “The Republicans would have you believe different, and that’s a value, to have someone at the table to be able to speak to issues from a first-person experience.”

‘Thom Tillis with a heart’

If selected, Maddalon said he will use his skills to benefit the entire party statewide.

“If I go to Raleigh to represent you, I am going to use every skill and tool in my tool box to help put the Democratic coalition and our majorities back together in the General Assembly,” he said. “It’s the only way we’ll ultimately achieve and accomplish the things we most desire. I am an expert fundraiser — I have fund raised lots of money for charity and Democratic candidates over the course of my life.”

And, taking a swing at state House Speaker Thom Tillis, Maddalon promised to support growth for a new Democratic majority.

“I would like to be for the Democrats what Thom Tillis has been for the Republicans — Thom Tillis with a heart,” Maddalon said to audience laughter. “I want to travel this state and identify, cultivate and recruit the right candidates to run in the right districts where we are going to win elections, and then we are going to raise money and we’re going to drive resources — meaning money and volunteers — to those people so that they can get their messages out. We have half the races in our state where Democrats are not running. That’s not acceptable.”

Members of the Mecklenburg County Democratic Party will make their selection to fill the vacant seat this Saturday, May 3, 3:15 p.m., at Little Rock AME Zion Church, 401 N. McDowell St.

[Ed. Note — The original version of this article misspelled Darrell Bonapart’s last name. We have corrected the article and regret the error.]

Matt Comer previously served as editor from October 2007 through August 2015 and as a staff writer afterward in 2016.