The story behind a new Council, deep divides, a historic election and the fight over the heart of a city
Above: the new Asheville City Council, shortly after its Dec. 5 swearing-in ceremony. Photo by Max Cooper.
Ceremonies are revealing things. The one that took place in City Hall on Dec. 5, officially swearing in two new elected officials and two returning ones, was no exception. As far as Asheville City Council meetings go, it was pretty tame. There weren’t heated policy debates or visible arguments. The only vote was unanimous.
The easiest Council meeting is always the first. Yet among the military flags, collegial comity, formal oaths and even an assistant city manager belting out the Star-Spangled Banner, there were telltale signs of the drastic changes 2017 marked in our city’s political life. The whole pomp and circumstance was also a result of a divided electorate chose a Council with both newcomers and established politicians.
One sign of the change was the make-up of Council itself. Going into the 2015 election, Council was all-white, with five men and two women. Emerging from the 2017 ballots, Council has three people of color and a majority of its members are women.
The political contrasts, meanwhile, were particularly evident in remarks delivered by returning Mayor Esther Manheimer and new Council member Sheneika Smith.
A relentless organizer and activist, Smith started multiple efforts aimed at combatting Asheville’s drastic segregation problem, spoke at Black Lives Matter and get-out-the-vote rallies and sharply criticized some local institutions (particularly the Asheville Police Department) and the increasing damage done by gentrification. She rallied support from many of the left-leaning voters who showed up in November.
Smith opened by emphasizing the extensive network of community support that backed her victory, from family and friends to voters and fellow left-leaning candidate Kim Roney. She noted the need for a “revival in Asheville of communities of color.”
“It was a feat for us to accomplish,” Smith said, sharing memories of coming downtown with her sister in the days when most of the area was abandoned.
“Now Asheville’s a lot different, the tales people tell about Asheville are very different as well. A great fraction of our community is suffering, homeless, children who go to school every day who can’t focus on education or retaining what they’ve learned because they’re hungry. This is the Asheville that I interface with daily.”
“Every pursuit won’t be a victory and I’ll tell you now I’ll probably disappoint you at some point. But together we can fight for justice, because we’ve been doing it the whole time,” she continued. “We were born fighting, a lot of us, because we were born marginalized, a victim of circumstance. They’re very acquainted with our social struggles, so join us as we walk and fight for justice. As this Council has embraced equity we will fight for equity and fairness.”
Manheimer, meanwhile, is now the city’s most experienced politician, a veteran of countless political battles and major force in the policies that Asheville’s government has pursued over most of a decade, to no shortage of criticism. Nonetheless, her continuing electoral strength showed that the city’s old political consensus, while under far more pressure than before, still holds plenty of sway. In an otherwise hard year for incumbents she was re-elected easily, and confidently served up a centrist catechism to the public.
“While we’ve had disagreements on this Council in the past, I am very proud of our ability to navigate differences with civil, productive discussion and deliberation,” Manheimer said. “I know that as we welcome new faces to Council we will continue in that vein.”
While admitting “we’re not without our challenges,” including affordability and equity, she also touted the past few years as ones of success navigating a city “crushed by recession” to one with a “low unemployment rate” and praised the controversial City manager Gary Jackson (absent due to illness) for his role in doing so.
But the way forward she said, wasn’t to fight, but to “collaborate, communicate and compromise. To help us be better leaders, to work more effectively with each other, we need the support of our community. This means this community must exhibit the kind of civil discourse that we are desperately needing in our city, our state, our nation and our world.”
“Let’s discard destructive rhetoric and saber-rattling to make our community a better place tomorrow than it was yesterday.”
If you think Manheimer’s words were basically telling restive parts of the public to quiet down following a particularly tumultuous political year marked by protest and mobilization, you’re right. If you’re predicting that it is politically impossible for the approaches advocated by Smith and the mayor to fully align, that’s true too.
There’s a reason for these underlying tensions. Despite its very real limits, city government has a lot of power, control over everything from police and parks to what does and doesn’t get built to how millions upon millions of dollars are spent. But over the last decade, even as developers, gentry, property and some business owners have done very well, things have gotten far worse for many in Asheville. People are searching for a politics that answers the realities they see every day, and finding some very different answers. It is, bluntly, not an environment suited for quiet compromise.
If Manheimer or anyone else believes that another lecture on civility and dialogue will change that, or decrease the tumult that’s resulted from it, they’re dreaming. Indeed, the emphasis on gentility over honesty is one factor that brought us here.
This reality was reinforced by events just a month before that ceremony. Turnout nearly doubled from 2015 to 2017. The Council races, in particular, were incredibly hard-fought. I’ve covered every city election since 2005, and I’ve never seen anything like it. In two years, the city’s political spectrum has radically shifted, with previously powerful factions in eclipse or dismantled entirely, and previously dominant ones increasingly under siege.
The polls are shaped by these deeper changes more than they shape them. Elections matter, elections are incredibly important. But most politics happen outside elections, and the reasons for that turnout — the divides and mobilizing that made it possible — emerged over years, not months.
Despite their briefness and formality, the remarks at the Dec. 5 ceremony indicated that, including the cautiously optimistic remarks delivered by new Council member Vijay Kapoor (“these are not normal times, but I wouldn’t bet against this city or this Council”) and Council member Keith Young’s words about the changing demographics on Council and the realities facing the black community (“nearly 30 years ago was the last time we had two African-Americans serve on Council”). All of these were shaped by the fact that there are more eyes on Council than ever before. Indeed, Manheimer specifically referenced this at the beginning of her remarks.
So, to those watching, and to those who have been involved trying to make sense of what is a really chaotic era, welcome. I hope you’ll find the story that follows informative.
As this is an opinion piece and a personal analysis, I won’t hide where I stand: I don’t think our city’s political status quo is sustainable, I don’t believe it is just, I don’t believe that it is reasonable or effective. I have seen it hurt, even ruin, too many good people and communities to ever believe that. I have seen it absolutely fail to take even basic action in too many crises. I believe in the people of this city, in our wisdom and power and that we overwhelmingly deserve a hell of a lot better than we’ve been dealt.
I don’t pretend to know all the answers. I don’t think any one person or institution should be trusted to have all of them. But from over a decade of experience I know that Asheville’s political status quo must end, and that it absolutely cannot survive a massive increase in public involvement and power.
That change requires knowledge, so the following is the story of where we are now and how we got here. It’s the story of a whole era of city politics, its current twilight and the deep uncertainty about what happens next.
Most of all it’s the story of the fight for the heart of a city, with everything good, bad and ugly that implies.
The ‘progressive’ era
Let’s begin with the first election I mentioned above: 2005. In hindsight it proved to be a surprisingly pivotal year in Asheville’s course. That year came during a time when the big struggle between Council’s conservatives and “progressives” (in city politics, roughly a constellation of centrist and center-left Democrats) was still in full swing. It marked the last time, until this year, that an incumbent (Mayor Charles Worley, a conservative Democrat) didn’t make it out of the primary. That summer also saw the hiring of Jackson, who’s remained city manager ever since and is, at this point, indisputably the most powerful single person in city government. His fairly conservative politics (and those of many other top officials), and how repeated Councils chose to defer to them, have played an often-underestimated role ever since.
That year, Terry Bellamy securing the mayorship and progressives won two out of three Council seats, a solid majority they haven’t relinquished since. While things would shift somewhat back and forth over the ensuing four years (there was a small conservative mini-resurgence after an unpopular 2007 plan to shift Asheville to partisan elections), a real and lasting shift had begun.
Importantly, 2005 was — until this year — also the highest turnout city election, with over a quarter of city voters weighing in. That might not sound like much, but it would look like an incredibly engaged city compared to the elections that followed.
Political groupings in local politics resemble loose alliances and coalitions more than formalized political movements. Nonetheless some of these factions prove remarkably enduring, and are worth a closer look than our city’s political culture has often given them.
So, who were the “progressives”?
They were mostly white, middle and upper-middle class liberals and centrists. Then, as now, Asheville’s political shifts were shaped both by local and national changes. Locally, the progressive core were generally people from the above demographics who’d moved to Asheville in the ’80s and ’90s, clashing with the more conservative elites already here.
Over time they’d form (or become increasingly influential in) neighborhood and business associations, non-profits and other institutions that would allow them to gain valuable organizing experience and exert political power more effectively than their opponents. Overall, they tended to do pretty well in the waves of gentrification that followed and with that came more connections, more money and more ability to push their political clout. Some of the up-and-coming progressive figures also cut their teeth opposing the Bush administration, though their most prominent leaders tended (with some key exceptions) to be less leftist activists and more Democratic “netroots” types.
Their efforts to win Council didn’t start in ’05 (the 1997-2001 mayorship of Leni Sitnick was a key breakthrough), but that’s when they really began to control city politics. Historically, Asheville Council members of all political stripes tended to be well-off property owners from the north of the city, and initially the progressives didn’t change that very much, though over time they would make more representation for West (and East) Asheville priorities. Indeed, the gentrifying parts of West Asheville in particular would provide this faction a particularly important base in the elections to come.
In some cases, especially when the outright conservatives still posed a serious threat on the local government front, more left-leaning voters would also be folded, not always comfortably, into the “progressive” coalition in fights over a given election or issue.
The progressives had considerable overlap with centrists and even some business conservatives. They also had a deep aversion to confrontational politics, often publicly framing themselves as the “reasonable” alternative to the left-wing protests and movements that also have deep roots in Asheville. Some of them had been involved in protest or direct action groups in the past, on Council they tended to eschew direct political showdowns and keep their distance from most grassroots efforts. While they had been shaped by fighting the conservatism of the Bush years, unlike leftists they largely viewed its reactionary politics as an aberration rather than a particularly nasty symptom of a deeply unjust political system.
In their first four years, Asheville’s progressives moved forward environmental initiatives, expanded the city’s affordable housing support from nigh-nonexistent to paltry, banned gated communities, started new programs aimed at sharply reducing chronic homelessness, turned a more skeptical eye towards (some) developers and launched many, many plans. These were intended to create a modern, forward-looking “aspirational” city, but the processes were usually de facto dominated by white, well-off “stakeholders,” city staff and consultants. The majority of Council often did this over the objections of the remaining conservatives, loudly averse to spending or social programs of even the incredibly modest variety. But the local right-wing was fighting a losing battle: in 2009, the progressives swept the board.
Running the dais
The 2009 elections saw Bellamy win another term easily. Three people also entered Council that played major — and sometimes clashing — roles in the vicissitudes of the local progressive politics that followed: Esther Manheimer, Gordon Smith and Cecil Bothwell. Importantly, last year’s elections would see Manheimer overwhelmingly re-elected, Smith out after he declined to run for a third term and Bothwell the first incumbent since Worley to suffer defeat in a primary. Both Smith and Bothwell built their political careers as progressive gadflies, the former as a blogger and networker and the latter as a media personality, activist and journalist.
With the conservatives largely at bay, the cracks in the progressive alliance started to show, particularly about density and development and questions of where the city’s resources should be allocated. Bellamy’s homophobia sunk her political career when she became the sole vote against basic affirmations of LGBT rights pushed through by the new Council members.
Importantly, the 2009 election also took place in a worsening recession. In the ensuing years of crisis modes and tight budgets, Council members formed a close alliance with appointed city staff, frequently touting how closely they worked and how much they were in agreement.
Senior city staff, of course, are political too, so it’s worth examining what those politics are, especially during Jackson’s tenure. The 1,100 workers that carry out the work city government day-to-day have a welter of political views and affiliations, of course, but over this time period many of the top officials’ views definitely leaned in a very specific direction.
While plenty of elected officials voters sent to the dais from 2005 on were averse to leftist ideas, many top city staff leaned even more conservative, and that played out in how even ostensibly progressive policies were implemented. After the wave elections of 2009, for example, Council passed a living wage for city workers. But under Jackson’s administration, in practice the city left out hundreds of part-time and “temporary” workers, many of whom were paid little more than minimum wage. When a Blade investigation and public pressure compelled Council to finally give all city workers a living wage in 2015, Jackson (who makes $190,452 a year) fought the effort tooth and nail.
This conservatism also played out in who Jackson pushed into key city positions. In 2014, for example, retiring City Attorney Bob Oast (a moderate sometimes sympathetic to open government efforts) was replaced by Robin Currin, a development attorney with far-right legal views on transparency, LGBT rights, protections for protesters and the ability of local government to combat discrimination and poverty.
From cracking down on demonstrations to rewriting zoning laws at the behest of developers and property owners, cutting down food trees and ignoring transit advocates, during the “progressive” era senior city staff have continued to advocate courses that sometimes seemed to run counter to what elected officials espoused. But in 2017, despite mounting controversies, Council acquiesced to them gaining more power.
Indeed, whatever political differences they might have had most senior staff, like most of the progressive elected officials, were white, well-off and versed in the jargon of city policy. Their identity politics aligned pretty thoroughly. So with varying degrees of reluctance the members of successive Councils would pursue an informal but close alliance with the top bureaucrats in an effort to smooth the wheels of government and avoid major upheavals.
Whatever the arguments for this arrangement, it definitely decreased public involvement; voter turnout dropped like a rock during this time period even as more centrist “progressives” like Marc Hunt, Chris Pelly and Gwen Wisler easily won seats on Council.
It also furthered, among left-leaning Ashevillians the impression — not without reason — that the city government was progressive in name only. From my days at Mountain Xpress to the Blade‘s round of “How Asheville’s government works” presentations last year, one question I’ve heard over and over was: “we elect progressives but they’re not progressive, why?”
The longer they last, the more alliances shape the parties involved. The ties to staff played a major role in ensuring the centrist part of the progressive coalition largely proved dominant as the years wound on. Because this gave a largely conservative group a fairly free hand in shaping policy, it also pushed Council’s politics as a whole further right.
The three victors of 2009’s elections provided particularly telling examples. Gordon Smith fought the expansion of Airbnb and pressed for more funds for affordable housing (though they remained relatively anemic) but he also backed expanded policing and paid lip service to the problems of redlining before voting to expand an interstate through black and latino neighborhoods. Bothwell began his political career touting his left-wing bonafides and secured a second term partly due to being one of the few progressives opposing staff-backed development policies. But despite all his vocal dissents, he ended his time in office praising right-wing officials like Currin, backing policing expansion and pushing to give landlords to have more latitude to turn housing over to tourists. Manheimer, after playing a key role in pushing the city’s basic LGBT rights resolutions early in her first term, took point on rejecting a 2016 push for the city to pass non-discrimination protections. The rest of Council followed her lead.
Even plenty of progressives off Council followed suit over the next eight years. It’s not an uncommon sight to see people who argued for radical environmentalism and pacifism in 2005-09 brandish some pretty conservative property rights justifications today. But other progressives, especially those harder hit by a gentrifying city, would move more to the left — or stop voting entirely — as Council took a more conservative tack. That would, as time went on, prove key.
What did Asheville’s “progressives” get as they became more centrist? What, from their view, were the fruits of that informal alliance with the city bureaucracy?
Asheville became regarded as a safe bet by investors, getting a coveted AAA bond rating, more revenue went into street repairs and sidewalks (though how equitably is a very different tale). The city pushed to make areas like the River Arts District and Haywood Road a focus for private investment. The city nabbed deals with big companies like Linamar and New Belgium (in exchange for lucrative tax incentives). Asheville weathered the recession without massive cuts to personnel (though wages for most of its workers stagnated while senior staff remained relatively highly-paid) and with some of the lowest unemployment in the state (thought many jobs paid poorly). New rules were adopted to “streamline” downtown development, numerous consultants were hired and numerous plans issued, giving, from the centrist view, a sound base for future policy. A pride flag was flown from City Hall when a federal judge legalized equal marriage in North Carolina. Asheville became a hub for tourism and made numerous national lists as a top destination, with an attendant development boom. Police spending expanded a lot, affordable housing spending inched up a bit.
These years were also marked by massive political conflict with the state legislature, one that would define the stretch from 2010 to 2014 and further cement the alliance between elected officials and city staff. It even temporarily bolstered Asheville’s government by providing a common enemy during a time when the progressive coalition was otherwise coming apart at the seams, as the city faced (and defeated) a state attempt to seize the water system and fought (and is heading for a court battle) attempts to gerrymander its election system. Indeed, her prominent role in these battles is one reason Manheimer’s avoided some of the political backlash that’s struck many other incumbents. The state legislature, Ashevillians of nearly all political stripes agreed, was despicable. Increasingly, that was about all they agreed on.
The centrist view still has no lack of supporters, but it also tends to treat challenges from the left as mysterious, inexplicable outbursts of anger. As an antidote, it’s worth examining how things looked from the other side, for more left-leaning Ashevillians that grew increasingly angry during this time period about the state of their city and the actions of those who ran it.
The brutal fact is that many Ashevillians saw things worsen — sometimes dramatically — over the past eight years. Alongside those glossy tourism spreads, our city also made lists for the brutal pace of gentrification, debt, hunger and a lack of affordability. Repeated State of Black Asheville reports revealed that segregation was getting far worse, not better. While tourism boomed, black household wealth collapsed. Hotels, not housing, took up more and more space downtown while the explosion of the Airbnb industry led to renters literally being kicked out of their very homes to make room for tourists. Local gentry heaped scorn on “undesirables” (i.e. many of the people living and working here) and tried to push social services away from their expensive real estate. Wages stayed flat while the cost of living skyrocketed.
Talking to more left-leaning voters, even some who’d once supported some of the progressive politicians, one theme that came up time and time again was a sense of betrayal, even from those who only expected limited gains from Council. Aside from the escalating problems everyday Ashevillians faced, they also noted a pretty clear list of what wasn’t done, even compared to the modest steps taken by other “progressive” local governments around the state.
During these same years, after all, Chapel Hill and Davidson passed inclusionary zoning (a requirement developers build affordable housing or help pay for affordable housing elsewhere). Asheville didn’t. Greensboro has an inclusive housing ordinance. Asheville doesn’t. Wilson backed a public broadband service. Asheville didn’t. Multiple cities brought more scrutiny on landlords. Asheville relaxed theirs. Charlotte pursued a non-discrimination ordinance to protect LGBT rights. Asheville didn’t (even when LGBT rights groups pressed them to). Several cities sought to better tackle inequity with a human relations commission and tighter oversight on law enforcement. Asheville didn’t. Others reformed police enforcement of traffic stops in an effort to rein in racial disparities. Asheville (mostly) didn’t.
The growing ire I hear regularly flung at tourists, gentry, hoteliers, developers, landlords, bosses — and yes, Council members — all stem from these basic facts.
The divides in the city grew sharper and harsher. Part of what fueled this was the fact that the demographics in the remaining core of the “progressive” coalition were, above all, comfortable. They tended to be people who found life easier — or at least no worse — as the tourism boom continued.
Malevolence wasn’t required for this gap to widen and these problems to worsen, just blindness: given how harshly the city is divided on class and race lines, many notable “progressives” were literally living in another world from the majority of the city. In face of these rising tides they lectured upset locals on patience and process. They had the luxury of doing so.
Sometimes this was just a version of the classic centrist tactic: make up for a lack of broad, popular support by demanding that challenges from the left work through channels your faction set up and control. But in other cases elected officials seemed genuinely puzzled by the increasingly angry reaction to their chidings. I think many of them still don’t realize exactly how badly the constant refrains of “be patient” hurt their legitimacy among thousands of people in this town.
As the 2010s wound toward their midpoint, these divides came to dominate the city’s politics. This didn’t happen in City Hall at first, but in venting after work, conversation over beers and community meetings that city staff didn’t manage to stage manage. The rift was evident everywhere from candlelight protests to waiters wearing shirts with a silhouette of an AK-47 and the words “tourist season.”
People didn’t stay idle. Marginalized communities increasingly organized to push back and try to defend their communities, and Asheville’s de facto racial segregation became a front-page issue due to these relentless efforts. The backlash to the leeway given to the hotel industry, in both its traditional and Airbnb forms, steadily grew. The status quo hold on local politics started to fracture, and outright left-wing ideas started to gain a far more serious hearing than before, especially as many established “progressives” shifted towards the right. It set the stage for what came next.
The left vs. the center
The progressive years also saw voter turnout plummet.
While there was a lot of finger-wagging for that fact, I don’t blame the people of Asheville. I don’t think there’s a particular point to that blame, and I think a far better response is asking why people were so disengaged. In addition to general decline in local government participation and turnout nationwide, often it seemed — especially after 2010 when the ties between Council and staff grew closer — like some city officials were intent on making the workings of government as inscrutable and removed as possible, treating community input by almost anyone outside of their chosen “stakeholders” as a nuisance.
The dominance of more centrist “progressives” was as much a product of who didn’t show up to vote as who did, and that made it particularly vulnerable to shifts in the political winds; even just a few thousand more voters would be enough to change the political landscape. The growing problems described above proved a recipe for upheaval and provided a lot of potential rallying points for leftist causes.
But the political terrain simply being more favorable for a cause doesn’t mean it will increase its power. That takes organizing and many, many, many political battles.
Over time the new reality began to tell. The 2015 elections saw the end of an all-white Council, the final wipeout of conservative candidates (none made it past the primary) and differing strains of progressives square off as the cracks in that loose coalition widened more than ever. For the first time, a more centrist progressive, Vice mayor Marc Hunt, outright lost a re-election bid and the progressives that did win initially took a more skeptical eye to the city’s approach to developers and hoteliers.
The results made it clear that conservatives still had money and organization, but negligible numbers, while the many Ashevillians that leaned well left of the progressives had numbers, but lacked the resources or organization to make a serious dent in elections.
Still, public pressure and new Council members did result in some changes. Those streamlined development rules had opened the path for a much-hated hotel boom, and the new Council moved to hold a far-closer rein on when and how future ones could be built. A narrow majority made some moves to stem the tide of Airbnb-style rentals (though this is an area where the left and parts of the center align for very different reasons). A bond referendum for housing, infrastructure and parks, long sought by more left-leaning progressives, was finally put on the ballot and passed overwhelmingly.
Still, despite those changes and the shocks they reflect, progressives/centrists had enough numbers, resources and organization to maintain a lock on local politics. But in 2017 that too, started to prove more fragile.
Leftism in Asheville has old and deep roots. But alongside real successes and close-knit communities are many tales of infighting, burnout, failed projects and a tendency to focus on national and international causes over local ones, all factors that limit a movement’s power in local politics.
Some of that started to shift in 2016, when APD Sgt. Tyler Radford shot and killed Jerry Williams, setting off a wave of protests that tapped into long-running tensions about segregation and policing. That fight coalesced multiple left-leaning groups and activists under one effort, and the heavy-handed response of the APD under new Chief Tammy Hooper didn’t exactly decrease the tension.
Those fights tied into the events that opened 2017, foreshadowing how drastically the landscape had changed, particularly in a resurgent left.
Since we’ve explored the politics of the progressives and senior city staff, let’s look at who Asheville’s leftists are and how they started to gain a bit more clout.
Asheville’s leftists tend to draw their base from historically marginalized groups (specifically black, latinx and LGBT Ashevillians), renters and the city’s many, many underpaid workers. As desperation increased, many people who’d sat on the sidelines started looking for answers. Not finding much on offer from an increasingly centrist city politics they naturally gravitated towards more leftist ideas. The long history of those ideas in Asheville gave them plenty to tap into.
Indeed, the local left also grew its numbers from some locals who previously identified with the progressive coalition but moved more to the left as successive Councils didn’t take steps they felt were necessary to stem Asheville’s growing problems.
Some non-profits began to take a more critical approach to their dealings with progressive elected officials and in the process, they helped mobilize left-leaning Ashevillians and give them direct experience in dealing with (and sometimes fighting) city government on issues like transit, transparency, food policy and police reform.
National politics also played its role. The Black Lives Matter push added strength and prominence to existing local movements already primed to use that energy from years of organizing. A left-leaning population facing desperate times spurred a resurgent interest in socialism. Despite his campaign’s relative neglect of the South, presidential candidate Bernie Sanders did very well here. Growing anti-Trump sentiment, as seen in the hundreds of locals who showed up at his 2016 campaign rally to denounce him and his supporters, also played a role.
All these combined to help give leftists more networking, more organization, more interest, more determination and more numbers as the last few years progressed. The activist efforts also resulted in some leftists winning appointment to city boards or show up multiple times at City Hall to advocate for their causes, honing their local political acumen. The left-leaning candidates in 2017 all had some of these elements in their past.
The first months of 2017 saw those threads come together in the fight against a controversial proposal to expand policing downtown. Left-wing political parties, anarchist networks and civil rights groups combined with homeless advocates, social justice non-profits and even some more left-leaning downtown business owners to turn the issue into the biggest political budget battle in memory.
The issue was particularly suited to leftist organizing. It combined several long-running sources of discontent — gentrification worsening the lives of cash-strapped and marginalized Ashevillians, the role of city policy in de facto segregation, a conservative move pushed forward by a “progressive” Council, contempt and a lack of transparency from major city officials — at a time when Asheville’s left was primed to take advantage of them. Even some centrists joined the chorus of critics, asserting that Chief Hooper had gone too far in skipping the usual budget process and using dubious numbers to back her assertions. A coinciding push by the local NAACP and open government activists on Asheville’s traffic stop disparities also built momentum around these issues and kept them in the public eye.
The police expansion passed, though on a split vote. But in the process the fight helped further mobilize and unify formerly disparate groups and turn their focus to local politics.
Before the election, pressure from the left had already started to shape city policy. The first political forum of the year saw incumbents Bothwell and Wisler savaged over the state of policing and segregation in the city. The next day, a Council committee chaired by Wisler pushed forward the process for forming a Human Relations Committee, bringing it out of political limbo.
This year’s Council primary was marked by upsets and razor-thin margins. For the first time in over a decade, an incumbent (Bothwell) failed to make it out of the primary, while Wisler was left fighting for her political life. Three well-established, wealthy candidates heavily aligned with the local gentry and aggrieved about even the modest moves Council had taken to counter rising inequality all lost badly. A slew of major Council candidates declared themselves socialists and openly courted left-wing votes, something unthinkable even a few years before. Half the candidates that emerged from the primary had played key roles in activism efforts that criticized city government around issues like structural racism and a decaying transit system.
The results of the October primary confirmed that the city had entered a different era: the dominance of “progressives” now faced serious challenges, and the left was here to stay.
General election showdown
As the dust cleared from the primary, centrists had two clear choices — Vijay Kapoor and Gwen Wisler. While leftists had to choose between four candidates Sheneika Smith, Kim Roney, Rich Lee and Dee Williams. Voters could only cast their ballot for three.
Ironically, unexpectedly strong left-wing turnout in the primary partly led to this situation, but it definitely put some more strength behind centrists’ efforts and it illustrated the real limitations that still face Asheville’s still-disparate left. While left-leaning candidates and groups rallied together during the police reform fights, they weren’t able to come together behind a united slate of candidates, something that would have considerably boosted efforts to getting new voters on board and organize broad networks of support. That also prevented the development of a clear single platform of policies and reforms, something that I heard plenty of leftists mourn (and centrists highlight) as the campaign wore on.
The general election results delivered Manheimer a second term as mayor as she won handily over socialist activist Martin Ramsey. Manheimer’s a veteran politician with an established base, a prominent role fighting the state legislature and lots of experience on the campaign trail. Ramsey started late and failed to marshal an organized campaign, the name recognition or the level of support left-leaning Council candidates received.
He still ended up with over 3,000 votes, campaigning on the need for radical changes to address the city’s serious divides. In previous mayoral elections since 2005, a more conservative candidate made it through the primary to face a progressive. This time, it was a leftist. While it did show how the landscape had changed, it also demonstrated that leftist candidates without organizing and support will still get trounced.
The Council front was where the major fights of this political year played out. There were six competitive candidates, all of whom fought hard to rally voters. Whatever one thinks of them — and I heard cogent criticisms of, and cases for, all of them — their efforts helped drive a much-increased voter turnout and a more serious debate about the direction of local politics than I’ve seen in any election year.
On the Council front, Vijay Kapoor proved the breakout candidate of this cycle, coming in a solid first in both the primary and the general.
His campaign served as a reminder that on-the-ground organizing and relentless campaigning are stronger than cash (though he did pretty well in fundraising too). South Asheville had long failed to garner the Council representation of other areas of the city, and Kapoor used his experience in neighborhood organizing there to build support throughout the city. He also took a different tack than previous centrists candidates — one more adapted to the changing views of locals — criticizing senior staff on issues like the controversial police expansion and a troubled infrastructure overhaul in the River Arts District.
Placing second, Smith’s final vote tally wasn’t that far from Kapoor’s and she emerged as the clear favorite of left-leaning voters. While on the campaign trail she didn’t focus on some of her criticisms of local government as much as she had in her previous activism work, her emphasis on the problems of gentrification and inequity kept left-leaning voters on board. She built a disciplined and relentless get-out-the-vote operation bolstered by her local ties (she’s an Asheville native) and her activist experience in the fights of the past years.
Wisler faced some significant hurdles in a much harder environment for incumbents, and her vote total declined considerably from her relatively easy victory in 2013. Notably, her rhetoric and emphasis changed after she came in third in the primary. She campaigned harder, criticized city staff for a lack of transparency on some development issues and emphasized her votes to rein in hotels and Airbnb. At least in this case, it appears that a centrist politician survived the backlash by becoming — at least for a time — less centrist.
Roney had a record as an organization-builder as one of the founders of Asheville FM, a freelancer (she’s a piano teacher) a service industry worker and vocal member of the city’s transit board. Her last-minute victory over Bothwell in the primary showed the strength of the ties she’d built in West Asheville, especially in areas that struggled during the recent gentrification. She rapidly gained strength as the election went on, as her campaign formed closer ties with Smith’s and increased its get-out-the-vote efforts. But she lightened her opposition to Airbnb slightly at a time when the public backlash was growing and soft-pedaled her history as a critic of the current city government, both costing some enthusiasm and support among left-leaning voters and leaving her short of the necessary support to oust Wisler.
A policy wonk, Lee had played a key role in driving more involvement in the city’s politics through efforts ranging from informative videos to online explainers and discussions. In 2015 he put together a solid showing, coming in fourth. During last year’s election season he continued his emphasis on detailed policy proposals. While some (subsidies for smaller landlords) were still well within the centrist wheelhouse, he also added support for more left-leaning ones like a rental crisis fund and increased scrutiny on top city staff. In many ways he exemplified the shift by some progressives away from City Hall centrism. But despite a more left-wing tack, as a city board member he had aligned with city staff on key fights on transit and the RAD overhaul. Combined with a lack of a clear and repeated explanation about his more recent political shifts that led to some skepticism from voters not already on board. His supporters saw him as a savvy reformer dealing with complicated issues, skeptics worried he was an opportunistic technocrat.
Williams was a veteran of local political fights, though often from outside City Hall. Following her unsuccessful 2015 run she worked on several major civil rights efforts such as Ban the Box, increasing the city’s non-existent minority business support and, most prominently, pushing for reforms in APD traffic stops. That, combined with her blunt criticism of the political establishment, attracted support from left-wing political groups and activists. While she attracted condemnation from centrists for her rhetoric (the Asheville Citizen-Times editorial board scoffed at it as “oppositional”), it proved a draw for more disaffected voters.
She also had a long history of different party affiliations (independent, Democratic, Republican and Green) and previous controversies, including a legal case with the public housing authority and a recent dispute with Buncombe County about the terms of a non-profit contract. Some centrists and progressives, led by Bothwell, seized on this and that backlash ended up taking attention away from Williams’ current campaign in a competitive field. It also turned into a torrent of attacks that often spiraled well past thought-out criticism into unfounded allegation. It’s one thing to scrutinize, even condemn, a candidate’s record. That’s part of politics. It’s quite another to accuse them of wholesale corruption.
It was also far from the only such instance in the election. I’ve criticized the “Asheville nice” version of civility that often serves to shut down needed discussion. Plenty of people seeking or holding power deserve harsh criticism of their actions. But it’s worth keeping in mind that refusing to accept the boundaries put in place by gentry and the privileged doesn’t mean there aren’t boundaries. I saw some pretty ugly bigotry, conspiracy theories and stereotypes directed at almost every candidate running. No one, left or center, should want any part of that.
Importantly, the three candidates that failed to secure a Council seat likely aren’t out of local politics: it’s still plenty possible we’ll see one or all of them on the dais after a future election. Indeed, shortly after the election Roney and Williams have already weighed in on gentrification in the River Arts District. It is a sign of the times that elections, while key, are also yet another episode in battles that came before and will continue long after.
The big questions
In the end, despite all their challenges, despite whatever may lurk in the future, the progressives managed to hold their majority.
But the old era of nearly unanimous votes and assumed consensus, already crumbling, is in more disarray than ever. The two returning incumbents, Manheimer and Wisler, have already taken somewhat different courses. Manheimer’s defiantly defended the centrist status quo and, indeed, she does so emerging from a strong election win. Wisler, meanwhile, has taken a markedly less centrist stance on multiple issues since voters weighed in. Notably the two — usually closely aligned over the past four years — recently split over key votes allowing a hotel and a gentrified housing development in the river district (Wisler opposed both). It’s an open question if those differences will last.
Kapoor comes into Council with real support — and dilemmas. His base was partly founded on limiting denser development in South Asheville, but questions of density and the housing crisis will be more key for this Council than any before it. Will he retain the skepticism of senior city staff he displayed at some points in the campaign, or decide that some re-crafted version of the old alliance with the bureaucracy works to get his goals accomplished?
Smith, whose politics and base of support are rooted in social justice activism, now faces a City Hall where caution, jargon and an aversion to institutional change are the order of the day. How she decides to navigate those challenges in the policy battles to come will be a key question, especially if she decides to go outside of City Hall to mobilize public pressure and support.
But there’s a more important question here, reader, and it concerns not what they’ll do, but what you’ll do.
I’ve discussed over a decade of politicians’ actions here, because those matter. The use (and mis-use) of power always does and history is the antidote to spin. But clear in the stories above, in the back-and-forth of 12 years of Asheville’s political life, is the fact that public pressure is often decisive.
It is not politicians who have, in the end, shaken up Asheville’s status quo, it’s the people of this city. It’s your voices, votes, lives, organizing and, yes, anger that has redefined the world every official now has to operate in.
If that world is less certain and less genteel than the facade that preceded it, it is also far less stale. It is a result of realities too long ignored and voices too long silenced. It is louder, it is more chaotic, and it carries with it — finally — the chance that Asheville might finally grow into a city worthy of its people.
If that happens is up to us, because this is our city. Everyone, from the dais to the street, should remember that.
It’s going to be an interesting year.