CHARLOTTE – On the Level didn’t just pick Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners District 5 representative Matthew Ridenhour out of the air.
The Tea Partier got the nod because economic development is key to the real estate, construction and land-development industries, and Ridenhour is the board’s eco-devo point man.
He took over the chairmanship of the board’s economic development committee when Trevor Fuller gave it up upon being elevated to the chairmanship of the entire board.
And we were curious to get a sense of whether the nine-member board’s three Republicans are getting any pleasure out of the Democrats’ continued bad-blood spilling after Commissioner Vilma Leake switched sides to vote out fellow Democrat Pat Cotham as chairwoman of the board.
New reports say that Leake “jabbed” Cotham’s head a couple of weeks ago, the latest in a series of alleged questionable public actions by the board’s donkey-party members.
Furthermore, we wanted to find out about the hair.
Ridenhour, who stands tall and solid as a former U.S. Marine Corps staff sergeant, looked buttoned-down and neatly side-parted when he was elected to the board in 2012. He tried a full beard for a year after that. He’s now clean-shaven but has a dashing, center-parted Johnny Depp-type thing going on.
A Charlotte native who spent part of his childhood in the tony Pittsburgh suburb of Mount Lebanon, he keeps a vintage photo of his birthplace – it used to be called Presbyterian Hospital – on the desk of his office on the 11th floor of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center.
The easygoing Ridenhour is a product of Charlotte Christian School, Virginia Tech, and American Intercontinental and American Military universities, and was named to the Charlotte Business Journal’s 2014 40 Under 40 list. He and wife Abby are the proud parents of a 15-pound miniature dachshund.
One more thing before we get to the interview: Ridenhour, 36, is believed to be youngest person ever elected to the Board of County Commissioners.
Janice Paige, who has served as clerk to the board for 28 years, said she couldn’t be absolutely certain, but she can’t remember a commissioner younger than Ridenhour, who had just turned 35 when he took his seat.
He looked even younger up close and personal.
Man, you are young. Thanks.
And the hair. Very Prince Valiant.
It wasn’t that long when you were campaigning, was it? Nah, but that was because I was still in the Marine Reserve, so it was still high and tight. When I was in the Marine Corps, I said I was going to grow it to a ponytail. I don’t know if that’s still a good idea.
Ha. How long were you a Marine? Did you see action? I went to boot camp in 2001 and was in until 2012. I did two tours (in Iraq), both at Camp Taqaddum, halfway between Anbar and Habbaniyah (provinces). My infantry and combat skills training in California was at 29 Palms, and I got MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) training for ammunition technician at Redstone Arsenal in Alabama. The saying is, “Every Marine is a rifleman.” In my first deployment, I was trained in IED’s (improvised explosive devices) and how to handle all kinds of security for the base. There was quite a bit of activity there – it was a huge base with a 20-mile perimeter – and provided security in the surrounding villages, too. My second deployment was military police, again at Taqaddum. I didn’t really want to go back to the same place, but you go where they send you. We did convoy security that time.
Convoy security. That sounds like IED city. It is, it is. We were there to take out the threat. But it was 2007-08, and things had stabilized. We only found one IED, which made for a very long deployment for guys who wanted to get out there and blow stuff up. But it was a good, safe deployment, too. During the first tour, we saw a lot of rocket fire and rifle fire. For 10 days, the base got hit every day, even if it was just along the perimeter. The second tour – nothing happened. That’s a testament to the people of Anbar Province. To get the Americans out, they were going to help make it a safe province so everybody could get back to rebuilding Iraq.
Now that you’re out, what do you do for a living? My background was in operations management with the military. My most recent position was with a medical devices company in operations management.
What does that mean? Ha. That’s a very good question. It means something different to each company. Sometimes it’s Six Sigma work (implementing proprietary tools and procedures to improve operations and minimize defects); or sometimes logistics. I’ve done facilities management, dabbled in the world of finances, even done a little HR (human resources). My most recent contract just ran out. So right now I’m looking for my next position.
Why politics? It was something I was always interested in. When we lived in Mount Lebanon, my father served on the school board. Growing up, I heard Rush Limbaugh on the radio
in our house every day, getting my daily dose of conservative news. And every night at 6:30, we all gathered around to watch CBS Evening News with Dan Rather.
Limbaugh-Rather. … That’s a pretty well-rounded childhood. Ha. Right. I remember seeing Ronald Reagan’s address the night we bombed Libya (in 1986).
“We begin bombing in five minutes”? Nah. Wrong speech. Ha. I moved to Charlotte in in 2008, after leaving active service, and joined the Mecklenburg County Young Republicans in 2009. In the spring of 2009, there was TARP (President George W. Bush’s Troubled Asset Relief Program) and the (U.S. Treasury and Federal Reserve) bailouts (of financial institutions and automobile manufacturers), and I got involved with the Tea Party movement, and ran for (Charlotte) City Council at-large that year. I lost but learned a lot – about campaigning and myself. I went to work for other candidates, and in 2012 felt the calling to get back into it. Unfortunately for us all, Neil Cooksey was losing his battle with cancer, and I had ideas on how to fix what I saw was wrong.
That was a tough campaign. It was a year-long campaign season. I had to run three times. The primary ended with a run-off with Sarah Cherne. But it was Thomas Paine who said, “That which we obtain too easily, we esteem too lightly.”
Quoting a wild-eyed liberal. You’re a bit of a maverick. A bit of a rabble-rouser. Better than a RINO (Republican in Name Only).
And you rabble-rouse about economic development. The committee is important because just about everything feeds into economic development. If you raise taxes, it affects growth. If you sell an uptown parcel to a developer, that’s promoting economic development. Our schools affect economic development because we are raising our next generation of business and political leaders. Point 2 is – to make it more personal – I feel that for us to be the best board (of commissioners) we can be, we don’t. . .we can’t just put out fires all the time, being reactionary. To be the best we can be, we have to be strategic, to look five to 10 years down the road, 10 to 20 years down the road, not just going from one fire to the next. To be part of that, the economic development committee has an importance, looking at, say, the light rail and the development it brings. I can remember, in 1996, there was nothing going on at South End. Now we’re even thinking of doing a North End. (In South End) we’re recreating a whole part of town. South End is now its own little SouthPark, where you can live, work and play. That’s fantastic – and it happens by being visionary and not reactionary.
How is the Board of Commissioners getting along these days, post-Cotham chairwomanship? The BOCC has long had a more rock-’em, sock-’em reputation than City Council. You know, for the most part, we get along well, and across party lines. It’s no secret that last year was a difficult year. Some people are still feeling pretty sore about all that. Just last week there was that weird Leake-Cotham thing – two Democrats at a Democratic event, on Election Day! That aside, I think that we are really starting to work well together, that there’s much more support for each other across party lines.
Nothing makes a Republican look better than standing beside two Democrats. Ha. On the other hand, we’re about to be mired in budget season, so all bets are off. Last year, my first budget season, was frustrating and sad. I didn’t feel we justified our spending – still don’t. We did not follow our appropriate steps. At least we didn’t raise (property taxes) the 2.8 percent that was being talked out – we didn’t need it. But I’m feeling better about this year’s budget (-making process). I still have energy, I’m young – but I’ve grown a lot as a commissioner, and I think better prepared, and I’m not expecting to be as frustrated.
With the growth of Charlotte making the entire county south of Huntersville a metropolis, Republican commissioners are always going to be in the minority. It used to be 4-5, and now it’s 3-6. Outnumbered, but never outgunned.