About Asheville’s politics

by David Forbes July 22, 2015

No, Asheville’s government isn’t far-left. That’s absurd. But over the past decade city government’s politics have changed. Here’s an analysis of what actually happened.

Above: A pride flag flies from City Hall after the state’s ban on equal marriage was struck down in October. Photo by Max Cooper.

As of Friday, we’ve got 16 Asheville City Council candidates, the most crowded field in at least a decade, at a time when plenty of issues are at stake.

So it’s good to ask what our city — and our city government’s — electoral politics actually are. As cities grow in population, and Asheville is certainly no exception, municipal politics grow in importance. But this comes on the heels of an era and plenty of outright illusions have cropped up.

One such take from Asheville Citizen-Times columnist John Boyle, who asserted in a column last month that local government is in the thrall of the radical left-wing.

“It’s a far left board that represents a certain large slice of Asheville, but it leaves another sizable slice voiceless,” Boyle writes. “And among longtime residents and natives, the general feeling I hear from some quarters is the city has just gotten a little too freaky for some. Yes, it is possible to keep it too weird.”

In the conception Boyle lays out “evidence” of Council’s radical leftism or the city veering “too weird” as hanging a pride flag from City Hall (“a questionable move legally that undoubtedly rang triumphant with the liberal side of the city but irritated the center and right”) after federal courts struck down the state’s equal marriage ban, rising taxes, riverfront redevelopment, increased spending and the city’s failure to ban an annual topless rally (though they sure tried). He notes the growing number of unaffiliated voters as evidence of supposed centrist wave, writing that “I suspect the liberal shift is leaving those moderates in the middle feeling unloved, too. And their number is growing.”

The idea of Asheville’s city government as far-left — or even aggressively left-wing — is ludicrous, even in terms of North Carolina cities. But as we launch into this latest municipal electoral season, it’s worth looking at a less illusory view of where our city government’s politics are, where they lie on the spectrum, why some parts of the city see it so differently and why, even as local politics are more important than ever, really murky divisions remain.

While we’re trading in anecdotes about general feelings, I’ll lob one. Multiple times covering politics in this city, I’ve heard some version of this jab from liberal and left-leaning activists when outsiders express surprise at the city’s de facto segregation or its relative lack of affordable housing, unions and high wages: “Oh, Asheville’s run by conservatives, they just don’t hate gay people.” Make of that what you will.

Right around the same time Boyle’s column came out, a majority of Council decided to give the Chamber of Commerce’s Economic Development Coalition a larger subsidy, after the Chamber had countered them on a political fight over the lucrative hotel tax. The mayor’s major annual speech identified her key goal as making the city as a “platform for private investment.” The Socialist International this ain’t.

Yes, if one talks to older white people in the more conservative corners of the city their overall impression is that Asheville has just gotten too strange or radical. Part of this is because groups that once had a lot of cultural dominance tend to view even a very small change that leaves them personally unscathed (LGBT people increasingly and publicly demanding their rights, for example) as a lurid defeat. These sensitive souls shouldn’t cry too much — they still have plenty of clout — but their views and political representatives aren’t quite as dominant as they used to be, and they have in fact been eclipsed by a somewhat different political faction and changing times.

How that happened, in many ways, a more interesting story than the fantasia of locals waking up one day to see the Red Army marching down Pack Square. The fact is, over the last decade politics here have shifted in some important ways, and in others they haven’t changed very much at all.

The middle of the road

First, let’s start with the matter of “centrists,” “mainline Democrats,” that pride flag and some terms.

Despite all their ambiguities and contradictions, “left” and “right” are roughly useful because they describe the factions we end up with in political fights and the broad coalitions that form in politics everywhere from protest movements to City Hall to national elections. So in this piece I’ll use them.

I’ll also note, because it’s important here, that throughout this column I’m not using centrist or moderate as a compliment. Viewing it automatically as such is a major problem in our political culture. Moderation in politics, like in life, is only good depending on the circumstances. Sometimes in politics approaches picking a little from different views, brokering compromises between opponents and advancing goals incrementally can make sense.

Sometimes that’s a really terrible idea. No one would think, for example, that it’s a good idea to leave a burning building at moderate speed.

Similarly in politics “we nibbled around the edge of our problems until they broke us,” isn’t exactly how any government wants to go down in history. More than one moderate government has.

So in this piece, “moderate” and “centrist” are used only as descriptors, as approaches that have, for better and worse, plenty of fans and represent certain policies.

Drawing their key base from the secular upper middle-class and property owners, those policies are usually gradual, socially moderate to liberal and allied closely with business interests. Centrists are usually reluctant — with occasional notable exceptions — on social spending, democratic reforms or labor and social justice fights. Sometimes they’re even outright hostile, depending on the demand and the movement, but not quite as often as the right or far-right.

The left and right varieties of centrism differ in important ways — importantly in how each can be pressured by different constituencies on their respective sides — but they also share some things in common, which is why some policies have continued apace even as local government elections have seen a shift.

On that note, in 2015 the idea of support for same-sex marriage as some sort of radical position in the city of Asheville is, frankly, not backed up by any set of facts you want to point to. By the time Council put the flag on City Hall, same-sex marriage was legal in 30 states, with support from a broad majority of the country’s population.

It’s a position particularly supported among Democrats and independents, who combined form the massive majority of Asheville’s electorate. Even in swing states like North Carolina with a sizable religious conservative population opinion on the matter is now split down the middle. The “center” in Asheville’s politics wasn’t upset in the slightest about the pride flag, unless one’s idea of the “center” is stuck in the early ’90s.

So rather than the action of some strange radicals who’ve suddenly seized City Hall this was a move by a basically center and center-left Council to show the populace they supported them on what is, for the majority of the city, an incredibly non-controversial issue. As Basil Soper asserted in a Blade column shortly after, there’s a case on some other parts of LGBT rights — especially the trans part — city leaders remain a good deal more reluctant.

For comparison, when I first started covering local government in 2005, the city was narrowly dominated by conservatives, with two conservative Democrats (then-Mayor Charles Worley and Jan Davis) and two Republicans (Joe Dunn and Carl Mumpower).

That came in the midst of a series of political fights between conservative (some centrists, conservative Democrats and Republicans) and progressive (roughly a coalition of the center-left and left-leaning Dems, with some centrists added later on) factions. Electorally, these fights were marked by the mayoral terms of Leni Sitnick and Worley — Sitnick’s 1997 victory represented a major breakthrough for the progressive side, but Worley led a conservative majority four years later.

A decade ago these battles were still in flux and Council had some progressive types like Holly Jones and Brownie Newman and some, like Mumpower and Dunn, who were firmly on the right rather than the center-right.

But something happened in the ensuing years. The progressives went from an embattled faction that could snag occasional victories to winning repeated majorities in successive elections.

So now Council’s dominated by the center and center-left, with the occasional left-winger. A good example of this arc can be seen in Davis’ election returns, which went from landslide victory to an incredibly slim margin between 2007 and 2011. It can also be seen in disputes over LGBT rights, which went from major controversy in the late ’90s to then-Mayor Terry Bellamy (otherwise center-left on most issues) being the only opponent to domestic partner benefits and an equality resolution on Council by 2011.

In the process, as happens anytime a coalition secures its electoral power, divisions over other issues — like density and development — started to emerge.

Part of what changed was demographic, as the population and culture here shifted leftward. Generational shifts helped the tilt, as millenials and Generation X aren’t particularly friendly to conservative politics, especially on social issues. Asheville also saw substantial growth, and the people arriving were more socially liberal, with even the wealthier among them more likely to be centrist than right-wing. As time went on, some of these groups gathered more money, more organization, more experience and more sheer numbers to work with. After awhile, their odds improved and they have, at least for a time, won a lot of elections.

Old myths die hard

So why do myths like those expressed in Boyle’s column endure? Part of it is because we’re not really used to thinking about local or urban politics the way we do national issues. Even as the politics in our backyard have become more important than ever, the battle lines are even less clear.

That’s partly due to the way the U.S. political system has changed over the past half-century. Our parties have always tended to be incredibly broad, not particularly consistent, coalitions when compared to those in almost any other industrialized country. That means that people with some very different political ideas end up with the same letter next to their name.

To make things even more complicated, because our country’s cities were in relative eclipse for a long time compared to the suburbs, our political parties don’t have a history of focusing on the major battles of urban policy.

That’s resulted in people who may broadly vote and act the same on the national level not agreeing on much at all on the local level. People who will proudly tout their credentials as progressive Democrats will tear each other to shreds over whether dense housing should be allowed in their neighborhoods or how much damage short-term rentals are doing.

It’s not that left and right-wing urban politics don’t exist, of course, or that the U.S. doesn’t have plenty of history of both. It does, from privatization pushed by conservative think-tanks to participatory budgeting or the Right to the City movement on the left. Cities have proven major battlegrounds of public policy, but not in ways that correspond easily to our existing party label.

American political parties usually don’t take positions on municipal issues; the Democrats don’t roll out “here’s what to do about zoning” as part of their platform. Cities tend to be dominated by elected officials from one party (usually, but not always, Democrats) even if the elections are nonpartisan, so municipal politics center far more about the factions and divisions within the aforementioned broad coalition. There’s plenty of those, but without easy names or public labels, the divisions in local politics can be a bit more opaque and less organized.

In Asheville, the aversion to direct criticism combined with low turnout and an emphasis on resume over platform tend to make some of these divisions even less clear.

Then along comes another powerful illusion: the myth of the independent. Under this view, there are two parties with highly partisan positions and a great, undecided centrist mass that shares some views with both but really wants some great compromise position to come forward. Boyle’s piece has brought this myth hook-line-and-sinker (notice the assumption unaffiliated voters are automatically moderates) but you’ll hear it in every corner of the country.

This idea is, bluntly, false, as plenty of political science research has shown. Unaffiliated voters overwhelmingly side with one political party when they vote and they overwhelmingly identify with the left or right.

That means that Asheville’s mass of independents, rather than some great mythical center shaking their heads at pride flags, breasts and taxes, are actually a combination of left-wingers and, to a lesser extent, conservatives already decided on their views. In many cases, including in Asheville, a good chunk of this population doesn’t register with a party because they don’t think that party goes far enough.

The question then isn’t who they side with, it’s if they’ll vote. Occasionally local politicians will buy this myth too, operating on the assumption that the centrists will carry them to victory. They’ve been sorely disabused, as moderate Republican County Commissioner David King was last year.

But the old assumption from the ’90s — of Asheville as a largely center-right and conservative city with a few of the “weird” around for entertainment — dies hard. This doesn’t just show up in Boyle’s column. It also reared its head in last year’s District Attorney campaign reporting from the Citizen-Times, which asserted incumbent Ron Moore represented “mainline Democrats” while challenger Todd Williams represented outside leftists.

But Moore ended up crushed. Indeed, the “mainline” Democrats — actually just the older, more conservative wing of the party — likewise were trounced almost every time they showed up in elections over the past half-decade. The fact is, whatever candidate one preferred in those particular elections, when campaigns are getting beaten by those kind of numbers their group’s not “mainline” anything anymore.

Likewise, the center and center-left have largely dominated Asheville’s electoral politics in recent years because they’ve kept winning elections due to a combination of money, organization and numbers. However unrepresented Republicans and conservative Democrats may feel now, at the end of the day this is happening because they’ve repeatedly failed to turn enough voters out to change that.

Asheville also has plenty of leftist activism and numbers-wise, there’s a good argument more left-wing groups have enough people that share their views that they could run and win, but so far they haven’t mustered the resources and organization to do so. Meanwhile, the center-right and conservatives have money and organization, but problems rallying sufficient numbers to beat their rivals because of those changing demographics. The center/center-left has had enough of those three things to keep a hold on to Council seats. For now.

Some comparisons

So it’s worth looking at where things tally after those changes, at least on the city level. Is Asheville’s government particularly left-wing?

For all the reasons mentioned above, municipal politics in America can be heard to measure. But for comparison we’re in an era when major cities like Seattle are passing $15 an hour minimum wages and have outright socialists on their Council. By comparison, there’s a good argument that even a number of other North Carolina cities have governments a good deal more left-leaning than ours. Even on LGBT issues, one front where Council’s been fairly assertive, Asheville wasn’t exactly ahead of the curve. Seven other local governments in N.C. passed domestic partner benefits before our city, starting all the way back in 1994.

On economic and housing issues, things are a bit more mixed. On one hand progressive and left-leaning Asheville officials have noted that they create more affordable units from local housing programs than any other municipal government in the state.

At the same time, both Chapel Hill and Davidson straight-out require developers to build affordable housing, something our city government’s so far balked at. In 2007 and 2008, Greensboro witnessed an aggressive campaign for a city-wide minimum wage, something our Council’s dismissed, that gathered support from that city’s mayor and some Council members.

While more progressive Council members also tout the affordable housing trust fund, raising contributions to that fund to $1 million a year (out of a roughly $150 million annual city budget) — a longtime goal of local affordable housing advocates — has so far failed to materialize.

It’s also foolish to reduce our city’s politics, which are largely left-leaning, to simply Council versus older conservatives; the spectrum’s bigger than that. Some local advocates have asserted that Council could do a lot more than it has on affordable housing issues, while others have blasted what they see as a far-too conciliatory approach to the hotel industry and the Chamber of Commerce. So the idea that Council is part of some far-left faction even by the standard of N.C. politics is, to put it mildly, really dubious.

Before I noted that Council is largely center and center-left, while some previous city governments were center and center-right. The “center” part of that equation is important too when it comes to another supposedly radical matter Boyle points to, namely taxes and economic development incentives. Neither are new. Whether it was Republican Mayor Russ Martin brokering the Grove Arcade deal in the ’90s, the current Council choosing to back more subsidies for the Chamber or hefty tax incentives for companies Linamar and New Belgium, centrists of whatever stripe are generally open to such incentives and love “public-private partnerships.”

While such incentives aren’t particularly popular among parts of the left or right for different reasons, it’s a hallmark of centrist urban politics and hence (with somewhat different emphases) center-left and center-right city governments. The continuity of such deal-making, along with “aspirational” redevelopment plans, through successive Council regimes is a good demonstration of why outside observers can (wrongly) think that policies never change that much no matter who’s in office.

Sometimes, things particularly popular with parts of a place’s elite can have a hold for quite a long time because some of the same factions remain in power or at least stay at the table as far as part of larger coalitions. Despite all the other changes in the city’s politics, centrists have never been shut out of City Hall.

Where the center-left does differ from the center-right on this is that it’s more willing to raise property taxes to get the funds for these goals, and less likely to opt for cuts as the way out of a revenue crunch. But the tax dollars are largely going to things intended to spur private development, even though the center-left will usually direct a bit more of that money to housing or social programs than the center-right does.

By contrast, one could expect a more left-leaning city government to direct more of those funds to social programs (or raise taxes farther) while a right-wing one would flat out abhor any tax increases on property owners and opt for cuts to services and taxes instead.

We haven’t seen either yet, and we may not for a long time. But no one involved in our city’s politics should sleep too soundly either.

City elections are notoriously low turnout, and in any city the same political terrain can produce a lot of different results depending on things like mood, immediate issues, leadership and organization. It’s not unthinkable that the center-right could still pull off some victories, or that the left-wing might organize enough to see some gains. The answer to “who runs Asheville?” has changed before, and it will change again. Every year that our city’s problems bite a bit deeper, some kind of upheaval becomes a lot more likely.

In the meantime, however those changes shake out, we should look at our city’s politics as they actually are now, not as they were 15 years ago.

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