An open letter to Asheville’s candidates

by David Forbes August 5, 2017

Our city is in a time of crisis, one that our current political culture is badly unprepared to deal with. But each election is a chance for change. For Asheville’s candidates, here’s a few things you should take to heart

Above: City Hall under renovation. Photo by Bill Rhodes.

So you paid the filing fee, put your name in the hat, threw your hat in the ring, threw down the gauntlet decided to take a tilt and any number of other political metaphors that we in the press will repeatedly brandish during what promises from your end to mostly be an incredibly stressful and busy few months.

We’re plenty strident here at the Blade, and I’ve written and run plenty of criticism of a particular action or idea. However, unless someone’s bigoted, abusive or corrupt they don’t get full bore condemnation. Even if someone’s ideas or approach are off target, it takes considerable commitment to run for office on the often-thankless local level and that’s a dedication to our city — and yes, it is ours — often worth admiring.

At the same time, you’re vying for a chance to wield power. A lot of power actually, despite its occasional limitations. The point of democracy is that power is never above scrutiny. Indeed democracy is, at its best, a powerful force against assumed deference and the aristocracies of wealth and privilege.

That scrutiny includes the cultures that we build around it. Sadly, on that front, the main local political culture is very, very far from where our city needs to be.

So, from 12 years of covering politics in this city, here’s a bit of advice. Below are three things I have heard candidates say over and over again in multiple elections. These beliefs are a major part of why our city’s political culture has repeatedly failed to stop the rapidly-increasing crises that threaten to overwhelm the people of this town.

But every election is a new opportunity. Every election is a chance for those seeking power to do something different. You have that opportunity. Use it.

“I have to play it safe. If I can just make it through these few months, if I can just win a seat, the real work will begin when I’m sworn in.”

No. How you run your campaign is how you will govern. The person you are now is the person you will be in office.

If you hold back from facing controversial issues now, you will hold back then. If you decide not to speak up now, you will not speak up then. If you don’t care about getting more people — especially those in communities usually left out of City Hall’s deliberations — involved for the long haul now, you will not care then. If ego’s your main motivator, you’ll be just as petty on the dais. If you can’t control your actions now, guess what? That flaw ain’t going anywhere.

Base your campaign solely in platitudes? You won’t get much done in office other than put a new coat of polish on a crumbling status quo and many people will justifiably despise you for that. Only have a few small goals? You’ll probably get some of them done, but after that point other, better organized and more established groups — from senior city staff to gentry organizations — will largely influence your agenda.

For all their muck and multitude of problems, elections are one of the few moments where there’s a direct back-and-forth — or at least the potential for one — with the people that actually comprise this city. That’s why those who already have a fair amount of power and privilege rush to hold or pack forums to make their voice seem like the voice, why it seems like a shock to Asheville’s political culture when other voices actually get a chance to directly question and criticize candidates.

The next four months will tell us who you are, how you will govern and — overwhelmingly — what you will and won’t do. Remember that.

“Things seem like they’re going ok. It mostly just needs to be managed and maybe improved a bit.”

No. Good lord, no.

Asheville’s in a crisis and anyone who tells you otherwise is either selling something or has the cash or privilege to ignore it. We’re one of the most unaffordable cities in the country. We remain an incredibly segregated town, with racial disparities getting worse, not better. Wages are stagnant and renters (who make up most of the city) are increasingly wondering when they’re going to get evicted in favor of gentry transplants or tourists.

If you own hotels, manage a hotel or have three extra houses to hock out on Airbnb as mini-hotels, you’re doing fine. If you’re an architect or development attorney, you’re likely hanging in there pretty well. But there aren’t that many of the above, they aren’t who make the city run and things are, bluntly, pretty goddamn awful for much of the rest of us to one degree or another.

Inside City Hall there’s a multitude of issues as well. Despite major mistakes, problems and even the occasional outright lie over the past few years, senior city staff are gaining more power with less scrutiny. A police chief that was supposed to carry out real reform instead scorns accountability while racial disparities mount. A major city effort to overhaul the river district just floundered.

Congrats, you are pouring out your efforts to be smack dab in the middle of all this for four years.

So act accordingly.

What Asheville needs now in City Hall, more than anything, is strong elected leadership, leaders who take the people’s trust seriously and realize that the buck stops with them. This town too often has a case of terminal boosterism that often just boils down to telling people to shut up about the reality of their lives. That suffuses Asheville’s existing political culture to a deeply detrimental degree, often in combination with the “play it safe” factor above.

So set and demand a different course. You are seeking to be a public servant, crafting public policy, accountable to the public. Not the city manager, not department heads, not the police chief or gentry groups. Transparency, something Ashevillians should insist on whatever their political stripe, has drastically worsened over the past few years. Responsibility for changing that relies on you. Get used to asking public questions, demanding public answers, voicing public criticisms and inflicting public consequences.

Incumbents? You are in a position, moreso than many, to have a detailed idea of how all this is failing and how it might actually improve. But you have a responsibility to realize that the overall norms and methods you’ve worked under, maybe for many years, have absolutely failed our city. If you wish to continue in office, you need to make it clear that you realize that things must change, own up to your role in why they haven’t and lay out a clear and aggressive path forward.

You might say that the issues are complicated. This is true. The city — and our Council — certainly have limitations as well as powers. But there is much that can be done that has not been done, excuses that were indulged for too long, essential protections that aren’t enforced, necessary reforms that weren’t taken seriously.

When people point this out they’ll get a condescending laundry list of where the city has spent money and carried out a legion of bureaucratic shuffles that we’re somehow supposed to be impressed by.

To the person who’s just seen their community again starved of key services and improvements, the person whose landlord is forcing them out, the person who’s seen a senior staffer lie and keep their job or the person who’s just had a family member repeatedly harassed these mean nothing.

What I wrote in one of the first columns in the Blade remains true: “a house won’t stop burning because the porch is beautiful.” Stop cramming marketing b.s. at us and get to work.

“We need to bring everyone to the table, reach a consensus and move forward.”

No, this doesn’t work. Politics is about division and power. Democracy exists not because we can all agree but because we don’t and won’t.

Overwhelmingly, I’ve seen “consensus” in City Hall favor those already in power versus those seeking a small measure of it to save or help their communities. It operates from a worldview where the latter must always accommodate to the former, no matter how stupid, selfish or damaging the proposal. If one’s a gentry magnate I understand the approach: it’s a handy political tactic to defuse even the most modest reform efforts. For the rest of us it is a major reason more and more people in Asheville, correctly, do not trust city government.

Treating bigots as equal to those they harass and target only causes more abuse. Pretending the impoverished have the same opportunities as the wealthy is ludicrous. Pretending those who outright despise the very presence of working and low-income people have any ideas compatible with those they seek to evict is an insult.

Your job’s to wield power and increase the amount of justice in this city. Your job is, yes, to fight. It is to listen to the wronged and proceed with the right course. Does that take alliances? Sure. It does not take consensus and, in fact, consensus in this context is toxic to justice. Pick who you will serve, understand who opposes them and lay out a plan to change the way power works here — yes, that includes stripping it from some and enabling more of it for others — until the injustices are actually addressed. Prize change over civility, action over excuses and transparency over the illusion of stability.

Asheville’s hope is that the people of this city are strong and resilient. We manage to survive, to form and keep community even in the face of the pressures and evils we face on a daily basis. Those strengths are the forces that might prove a way out of this.

To do so, we deserve a mayor and Council worthy of our trust.

Act like it.


David Forbes


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