Six politicians and a showdown

by David Forbes October 7, 2015

Inside the results of the Asheville City Council primary, what it means and the showdown the results have set up

The voters (about 13 percent of them anyway) have spoken: last night, six Asheville City Council candidates made it past the primary. Julie Mayfield, Brian Haynes, Vice Mayor Marc Hunt, Keith Young, Lindsey Simerly and Rich Lee will compete for three seats. The election saw more interest in both the number of candidates and voters than any in nearly a decade.

By the end of the evening, the results looked like this:



What the does it mean? Quite a lot, actually. This election was one of the more revealing in some time. Here’s some key lessons going forward.

Turnout’s up — This summer, I attributed the high number of candidates to a variety of factors, including a relative lack of incumbents and the number of issues — like wages and housing — facing large swaths of our population.

Indeed, that interest and the number of active campaigns seem to have borne fruit as voter turnout ticked up from the positively anemic levels we’d seen since 2009 to the highest percentage of voters since 2007. While it’s still at a far-too-low 12.7 percent if this continues, it’s unabashedly good news: nothing in our city is improved by the vast number of people who stay home during local elections.

At the same time, it’s not exactly anything to be proud of. Asheville’s turnout remains far below where it should be for a politically-involved (if usually in a very fragmented way) city. At the same time, changing a miserable trend is quite welcome and worth noting.

The general election is going to be a fight — Look at those margins among the top six, especially among the candidates from second on down. They’re really close for how these elections tend to go. Over the past decade we’ve usually seen one candidate with an overwhelming lead, then with three (or maybe four) fighting for the second and third spots and the sixth usually trailing far behind. Now the number of votes separating the candidates are far more narrow and while Mayfield’s lead is decent, it’s not insurmountable.

This time we’re heading for a general election with six candidates with enough organization, bases of support, resources and endorsements to make a serious go of it. Expect them all to step up some serious efforts in the general election, with a lot more competition than usual, and negative campaigning is a lot more likely as their campaigns seek to cut their opponents thin margins. None of them (including Mayfield) should sleep too soundly; it’s very possible that order could change by election day.

Progressive divisions — The election continued the dominance of Asheville’s “progressive” candidates — basically a loose coalition of socially liberal centrists, the center-left and some left-wingers, as conservatives were once again shut out (something I’ll delve into more in a second) despite making a more energetic effort than usual.

But, as happens anytime a coalition gets repeated victories, divisions start to emerge and candidates and constituencies rally around those. That’s been happening for some time on a number of fronts (e.g. density and development) but this cycle it’s especially crystallized around two specific issues (at least to judge by the feedback I’ve seen): short-term rentals and the fate of the plot of city-owned land across from the Basilica. Ashevillians who may vote the same way in state and national elections are perfectly capable of tearing each other to shreds over Airbnb or the proposal for a St. Lawrence green.

The St. Lawrence push endorsed Haynes, Young and Lee, who have all supported some type of park or public space on the site, and provided green signs at polling sites around the city (a tactic the related PARC political group has also used in past elections). Mayfield, Hunt and Simerly all are open to selling the land, albeit while trying to ensure some of it will be a plaza area (Mayfield is open to a public park if it’s funded by private donations). The Sierra Club backed Mayfield and Hunt. The AFL-CIO Central Labor Council backed Lee and Simerly. Equality NC backed Mayfield, Hunt and Simerly. The latter also received endorsements from local Democratic politicians. Lee rallied a number of activists to back his campaign, and he wasn’t the only one. This even extends to the Council dais: as one of our readers pointed out last night, Council member Gordon Smith supports Mayfield, Hunt and Simerly, while Council member Cecil Bothwell supports Haynes, Young and Lee.

I note that welter of endorsements (and I’m sure I’ve missed plenty) because in the absence of organized slates running under common platforms our city’s factions, such as they are, are represented more in voting records, alliances of convenience, endorsements and differing constituencies among the overall loose progressive coalition.

It’s also worth noting that these divisions aren’t fixed and have plenty of differences within them. Mayfield and Simerly disagree with Hunt about busking regulations currently proposed by city staff (they oppose them, he supports), while Haynes doesn’t support the city’s recent tax increase (Young and Lee do). Contra some right-wing observers, neither Smith or Bothwell are any sort of puppetmasters here. Asheville’s politics are, for better or worse, far looser than that and every politician of every stripe maneuvers to line up a majority to support their goals

Those two issues are where the candidates might shake things up considerably. A Haynes, Young, Lee sweep would, combined with Bothwell’s vote, pretty much block any sale of the land near the Basilica.

It also might change the city’s stance on Airbnb and its ilk. Bothwell, contra the current majority of Council, has said he thinks it’s time to relax the ban on short-term rentals in most residential areas of the city and seek to regulate them instead. He opposed a recent move to increase fines and enforcement of that ban, and Lee, Haynes and Young all also indicated that if they were on Council, they would have voted the same way. Mayfield, Hunt and Simerly all supported the increased fines and enforcement of the ban.

Conservatives fall short — Farther right on the political spectrum, this primary also had some very interesting results. Three conservative candidates — Carl Mumpower, Ken Michalove and John Miall — all came forward to, as Miall put it, “take Asheville back.” All three had experience in government, including (for Mumpower and Michalove) as a Council member and mayor, respectively. While the three ran separate campaigns, they had some very similar issues and themes: all were critical of the current Council, sometimes sharply, especially on taxes. Unlike the progressive coalition, a conservative in this year’s primary had three pretty clear votes if they wanted to see Council shift right. Altogether, it was a more serious pushback from conservatives than we’ve seen in local politics in some time.

It didn’t work. Mumpower came closest and had a not-inconsiderable amount of resources (though not as much as most of the progressive candidates), but was still behind Rich Lee by a relatively wide margin for an election of this size.

This is where the centrist part of our city’s ruling combination of centrists and center-left types is important. Plenty of the business community that might provide more resources for a conservative tilt are just fine working with some of the current members of Council.

Also, the fact is that the political terrain in Asheville is simply not that friendly to conservative candidates. Contra some assessments, the city’s political center doesn’t seem to get terribly riled up about taxes and LGBT pride flags on City Hall. While our local elections are low turnout, and potentially enough conservatives could rally to be competitive, at the practical level we’ve now seen enough elections that it looks unlikely. It will take incredibly unusual circumstances or candidates to change that.

African-American turnout increases — There are six precincts in Asheville where African-Americans make up more than 20 percent of voters and one of those (Southside/Livingston) where they make up a majority. Since the departure of Mayor Terry Bellamy two years ago, Council has been all-white for the first time in many years. This election, however, saw two African-American candidates — Dee Williams and Young — who campaigned actively and both placed highly in all of those districts except Montford (where Young came in a close second but Williams placed seventh).

While Williams didn’t make it past the primary, both candidates outperformed others with significantly more funding when it came to their vote numbers. If turnout continues to rise amid the current political environment, expect our city’s African-American community to play a larger role election time in coming years.

Money has its power — and its limits — Money matters in politics, but it’s also easy to overrate its importance. The primary results gave plenty of evidence of both. The candidates that finished top three all raised more than $25,000 so on the surface, it looks like it played a decisive role. Of the top six, only Young marshaled less than $10,000 for this campaign.

But notably all of the top six candidates also campaigned extensively, received endorsements, rallied volunteers and their bases.

Indeed, Young’s placement at fourth despite having considerably less funds than the others shows the ability of all of the above to balance out the impact of a war chest, to some degree.

Another example occurs down the ballot. Despite raising nearly $16,000 Corey Atkins finished 11th, a good deal behind Dee Williams. Williams, by contrast, raised just $1,500 but campaigned extensively. It’s a reminder that while money talks, it’s not the only voice in politics.

That said, with the field narrowed, plenty of groups will turn their attention to who may be the victors in what’s likely a close-fought race, and how to help or harm them. It’s going to be an interesting month.

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