Love, hate and the slate

by David Forbes November 4, 2015

Behind the results of election night upsets, the most closely-fought race Asheville’s seen in many years and the beginning of an era of conflict

Above: Campaign signs outside the Board of Elections during early voting.

Well, that was interesting.

In a few hours last night, local electoral norms shattered and Asheville was left with, in many ways, a very different political landscape. I think it’s clear that we are heading for an era of increased local political conflict, though some dynamics like low turnout remain the same.

The election was already unusual in that Ashevillians went into the general election with six competitive candidates all fighting hard for three Council seats. While the margins were close — when early voting came in, a single vote separated two of the candidates  — at the end of the evening Keith Young, Brian Haynes and Julie Mayfield emerged victorious. The sole incumbent — Vice Mayor Marc Hunt — failed to hold his seat. Rich Lee and Lindsey Simerly, despite aggressive campaigns, also fell short of the top three.

At the end of the night (combined with the efforts of write-in candidate Spencer Hardaway) it looked like this:


This came after a campaign that saw the accusations (from campaign supporters usually, not the candidates themselves) fly, different factions of progressives rally behind proto-slates (and neither completely get their way), funding duels between donors and organizations and, in the end, a city heading for an era of increased political conflict and far more volatile elections. That’s something that may actually be for the best.

Here’s what happened and how the climate has — and hasn’t — changed.

The primary results didn’t hold — Covering city elections for over a decade, I’ve heard the often-invoked trope in local politics that the three top finishers in the primary will also win in the general. Sometimes, like in 2007 or 2011, this didn’t happen, but even then most of the candidates stayed in the same spots, with very few changes.

Not this time. Keith Young finished fourth in the primary but shot up to first in the general. Hunt finished a solid third in October but sank to fifth. Mayfield, frontrunner in the primary, came in third. The only candidate whose place stayed the same was second-place finisher Brian Haynes.

Notably, while turnout inched up during the primary, countywide turnout is actually lower in the general election, and the number of voters about on par with previous anemic local elections. That may have been due to the rout of conservative candidates in the primary. Asheville doesn’t have many conservatives, but there are enough that their absence would drop turnout a bit.

The dynamics of city elections changed — For the last few election cycles, sitting City Council members generally won re-election, and those who gained their endorsements and backed their policies usually did well too (Hunt in 2011, Gwen Wisler in 2013). These campaigns generally focused on running resumes more aggressively than political platforms, racking up endorsements and emphasizing a candidate’s purported pragmatism and experience.

Not anymore. Not since 2009, when conservative Carl Mumpower lost his seat amid a general shift towards the progressive coalition, has a Council member who ran for re-election failed to gain it. But Hunt sank to fifth.

Meanwhile, agree with them or not, both Haynes and Young followed a somewhat different playbook.

The election began with an all-white Council amid a time of increased political organizing in the African-American community around everything from history to neighborhoods to police conduct. Young had run for office several times before, giving him experience with the process and the campaign trail.

As for Haynes, as my former reporting colleague Jake Frankel noted, for those outside it it’s easy to underestimate the degree of support he drew from links — through both his famed brother, musician Warren Haynes and his own work with Habitat for Humanity — to a large musical and philanthropic subculture.

So, for both, there was the opportunity to activate voters that may have sat previous elections out, a potentially decisive factor in low-turnout local campaigns. That by itself won’t win elections, but it can be an important factor if the candidates manage to draw on it. Over the course of aggressive campaigns, both candidates managed to do so effectively (turnout ticked up in precincts with higher African-American populations) and combine it with backing from others, particularly progressives dissatisfied with the current Council, to put together a coalition that could counter the approach that previously dominated. That proved even more important than money, as Young raised just under $10,000, about a third of most of the other candidates.

Both Haynes and Young did particularly well in West, South and East Asheville. Hunt and Mayfield managed to hold the northern precincts and had some pockets of support in the east too.

Lee also campaigned hard, but by his own admission started without a natural base and had to try and build one over the course of the campaign. In a close race like this that may have been enough to keep him out of a Council seat.

But more importantly than any particular campaign approach, what’s underlying all this is the state of tension and discontent in our city.

The fact is, whoever one blames for it and whatever one believes to be the solutions, the last two years saw affordability in Asheville worsen considerably, wages falter amid a tourism boom, hotels shoot up everywhere, chain stores come in, a brutal fight over short-term rentals and troubles everywhere from the police department to crumbling pools. I could make that list a good deal longer, and that too should tell you what kind of time we’re dealing with.

That’s the terrain this particular battle was fought on. That fundamentally changes what does and doesn’t work during a race; when a good chunk of the population trusts city government less, the endorsements and experience approach not only isn’t as powerful as it was before, but can actually backfire. “I work closely with top city staff,” for example, doesn’t exactly win over people that don’t trust top city staff.

That environment also means that issues — like the plot of land across from the Basilica or short-term rentals — are more likely to become flashpoints and, in many people’s minds, tie into larger fights about public space, development and gentrification.

Hunt in particular had a number of controversial votes during his term, backing some developments that attracted considerable local opposition, voting to increase support to the Chamber of Commerce after they failed to support a hotel tax going to the city and acting as the city’s point person on a controversial Interstate 26 endorsement. He argued that those were the right calls under the circumstances, but it’s beyond argument that they created an opportunity for progressives dissatisfied with those moves to throw their support elsewhere.

Mayfield managed to show that the old approach can still hold some power and has its supporters, though her third place finish also shows that it’s no longer dominant. While Simerly has a long history of activism on LGBT issues and affordable housing — and would have been the first LGBT person on Council if she’d won — her campaign largely followed a run-the-resume and endorsement-heavy approach similar to Mayfield and Hunt. Given the electorate’s mood this year, that may have proven more a hindrance than a help.

City politics now has a love/hate relationship with slates —  While the conventional political wisdom here is historically averse to slates of candidates running under a common platform (though plenty of groups endorsed three candidates before), Asheville’s political culture took some steps towards just that due to the competitiveness of the race.

The PARC political action committee threw support behind Young, Haynes and Lee, printing green signs noting their support of a park on city-owned property across from the Basilica. That trio also got the support of Council member Cecil Bothwell (PARC’s treasurer). Smith endorsed Simerly, Hunt and Mayfield, as did the Sierra Club and a number of local politicians.

While some might read the mixed results (neither group entirely won) as disproving this change, it’s notable that it’s rare for a single slate just to sweep a competitive election. Of course, plenty of Ashevillians did vote for people on both those slates, but they certainly played a role in rallying voters and resources.

While just about every candidate kept it publicly civil and swore they were open to working with the others, this is politics and it will never be anything other than a fight over power. In that fight, the fact is people go for deals and approaches they think will help them win.

So the actual dynamics were less kumbaya than arms race, and some of the organizations were even blunt about it. A local Sierra Club leader noted that they mustered resources specifically to counter PARC and put Mayfield, Hunt and Simerly (who all publicly supported each other) in office. This even led to some “strange bedfellows” type occurrences, like conservative Ken Michalove (a candidate in the primary) endorsing Young, Haynes and Lee — all progressives — as a counter to the current city government. By the end of the campaign Haynes was referring to slates and, except for Lee, each proto-slate was holding separate campaign parties.

That’s all absolutely understandable in an increasingly competitive political environment. As much as people may extoll voting for politicians as individuals, alliances are necessary for any cause to advance. Our country, after all, was founded by people who condemned political factions while organizing them as fast as they could.

But it also leaves Asheville’s politics in a strange in-between space. We’re perhaps just a bit too big and contentious now — despite the low turnout — for the old small-town, individual approach to win. Yet our city’s political culture still remains averse to a more organized slate approach that sees groups running distinct platforms or campaigning together in an attempt to drive up turnout and shape policy. It will be interesting to see how that resolves over the next few years, which are going to have plenty of political fighting.

We saw more conflict, and that’s the new status quo — In the mid-2000s a long political battle between conservatives and progressives turned decisively towards the progressive coalition (roughly some centrists, center-left and left-wing types) over several elections, backed by changing demographics in Asheville.

Of course, divisions among progressives have emerged before, but this election could well indicate that those have now solidified as important divides, similar to the way the battles between conservatives and progressives marked Asheville politics for about a decade.

While Mayfield’s election means that Council’s overall positions on short-term rentals and the land across from the Basilica remain unchanged (barring a sitting member changing their position) you’re a lot more likely to see more 4-3 votes in the future.

While we can expect a bit more debate on the Council dais, more telling was the torrent of rhetoric that emerged over social media and elsewhere as locals picked one side or another, with some going so far as accusing the other of being pawns of their preferred set of nefarious powers (hoteliers, developers, donors, Airbnb, etc.)

The tensions mentioned above also fuel this too, of course, which is why I think these conflicts will happen again and again. The close election — and the accompanying invective — are the result of a divided city and a reminder that no matter how many times local pols swear they believe in consensus at the end of the day inevitably not everyone gets their way,

Our town tends to overvalue consensus and agreement. While I’m no fan of the petty insults or misinformation that can crop up from all angles during the heat of campaign season it’s also true that political conflict can be a good thing and consensus can be used to ignore real differences and problems. Conflict can shake up old patterns, bring in new groups and force more issues to be addressed as competing candidates (or slates, even) seek to broaden their appeal, knowing that they can’t take the next election for granted. In a city where most people are often deeply demobilized and disconnected from the political process, some conflict might be exactly what we need.

If you’re reading this, don’t quit — Which brings up the final — and most important — point. The Blade is fortunate to have a committed, involved readership. Many of you are donating money every month to local journalism after all. I know for a fact we had subscribers and readers supporting every candidate in this election, and many actively volunteered as well.

So, to all of you: don’t quit.

Because what I mentioned before — about how demobilized and disconnected most people here are — is a really terrible situation. It leaves the people of a wonderful city badly suited to face some very daunting problems.

One of the worst things I’ve seen here is people mobilizing for a single election and then heading home, content or demoralized.

Don’t. Our city needs a hell of a lot more engaged civic culture if we’re going to survive as any sort of place worth living in. So become an activist, form a union, call for changes, volunteer, speak up and hold every single person elected last night’s feet to the fire. Relentlessly.

This is a marathon, not a sprint. While elections are important, ninety percent of politics happens in the years between. In the focus of a single day and a single fight it’s easy to forget that. Don’t. Take what you’ve learned over the past months and use it going forward.

We deserve a city worthy of its people. That will require a hell of fight, but there is nothing more worthwhile. I hope to see all of you in the fray.

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