Raleigh voters tossed aside one incumbent on Tuesday and pushed another to the brink of removal as they nudged the City Council's center of political gravity toward the progressive side. Mayor Charles Meeker, who was re-elected without opposition to a fourth two-year term, said the net result is a shift in Raleigh politics from control by a moderate-conservative coalition to control by a moderate-progressive group.
"I can't wait to show up at a council meeting and be the most conservative person there," Meeker told a crowd gathered at Firebirds, a North Hills restaurant, once the returns were in.
It was a joke, but a telling one: Meeker, who says his role is to lead from the center of the Council, wherever that is, now finds himself allied on the eight-member body with a three- or four-person progressive bloc: A couple of moderate Democrats are in the middle, and only Councilor Philip Isley still represents the conservative Republican majority that controlled the council in the '90s.
On the current council, Meeker has often found himself on the short side of that 5-3 conservative-moderate majority; other times, he's chosen to vote with the majority rather than buck it.
The exact composition of the new council will depend on the outcome of the runoff election in District B, assuming that Councilor Jessie Taliaferro calls for one. (She said last night that she will.)
But Taliaferro's the one on the brink; she captured just 33 percent of the vote, a dismal showing for a two-term incumbent. She trailed progressive challenger Rodger Koopman, who led with 44 percent—short of the 50 percent needed to win outright.
The remaining 22 percent of the vote went to Republican Angel Menendez.
The District B runoff would be held Nov. 6. It would be Raleigh's only municipal election that day.
Thursday, Oct. 11, update: District B incumbent Jessie Taliaferro has called Rodger Koopman to concede defeat. Koopman says Taliaferro was gracious when she called. He's looking forward to joining a Council that now will have a clear progressive majority behind Mayor Charles Meeker. Taliaferro, meanwhile, told The News & Observer she'll take some time off and then look at other opportunities—presumably meaning political ones.
A Koopman win would add a fourth progressive to the council, along with incumbents Russ Stephenson, Thomas Crowder and District A winner Nancy McFarlane, who ousted conservative incumbent Tommy Craven.
Crowder was re-elected without opposition in District D.
Meanwhile, Stephenson was the leading vote getter in the at-large race, winning a second term with 29 percent of the total vote. The at-large runner-up, Mary-Ann Baldwin, was also elected outright with 27 percent—above the required 25 percent to avoid a runoff.
(Voters were allowed to cast ballots for two candidates.)
Baldwin ran as a moderate, albeit with a lot of financial support from the city's real estate interests, who helped make her Raleigh's leading fundraiser, with $84,000 as of the Oct. 2 campaign finance report.
Paul Anderson, who drew significant real-estate funding at the end of the campaign, finished third in the six-person field.
The results clearly delighted Meeker, who co-hosted the crowd at Firebirds with McFarlane, and later welcomed Stephenson, Crowder, Koopman and Helen Tart, who finished fifth in the at-large race. Shedding his tie and climbing onto a stair step to be heard over the 150 or so folks packed into the tavern, Meeker declared that "a new generation of leadership" had come to power in Raleigh.
Indeed, it's been coming to power since Meeker's first mayoral win in 2001. Crowder joined him in '03, Stephenson in '05, and now McFarlane—and perhaps Koopman—will complete a transition away from the '90s leadership of Republican mayors Tom Fetzer and Paul Coble.
Turnout citywide was extremely light—only 10 percent of the nearly 250,000 registered voters came to the polls. Two notes about the turnout: One, it was terrible for Republicans. In the at-large race, for example, four of the six candidates were Democrats, and a fifth, Will Best, was unaffiliated. Still, the lone Republican, David Williams, attracted just 12 percent of the voters citywide.
Similarly in District B, which a few years ago was held by Republican John Odom, the one Republican running was Angel Menendez, and he earned less than a quarter of the vote.
Second, turnout was light in part because Meeker had no opposition, nor did the incumbents in Districts C, D, and E—Councilors James West, Crowder and Isley, respectively.
Turnout was higher in District A, where about 16 percent of registered voters came out for the McFarlane-Craven contest. But it was terrible in the contested District B race, where the three candidates combined managed to draw less than 10 percent of the registered voters to the polls.
The news wasn't Koopman's big vote total, it was Taliaferro's small one—her 1,786 votes in District B were only slightly more than half of fellow incumbent Craven's losing total in District A.
The new council will likely take on issues that the current one didn't. The first immediate priority is to consider sharply increasing impact fees on new developments in Raleigh. The current group raised impact fees 72 percent, but that increase followed 20 years during which fees were never raised at all, and it left them far below what Raleigh's allowed to charge under state law—and below all of its neighboring communities. Meeker wants the new fees doubled; Crowder and Koopman say they should be tripled, which would still leave them below the legal limit.
The second priority will be to quietly bury North Hills developer John Kane's request for a $75 million subsidy from the city for his North Hills East project. Kane's ambitious plans include parking decks with a total of 5,500 spaces; he was asking the city to pay for them directly, with tax-increment financing (TIF for short), or indirectly by cutting his future property taxes with what's known as "a synthetic TIF."
Beyond those two issues, the impact of the new council could be felt most in the rewrite of the city's comprehensive plan, the first time that's been attempted in 20 years. City Planning Director Mitchell Silver's timeline calls for that job to be finished in the next 18 months, with Council approval the final step.
The 1989 comprehensive plan was a loose guide to the suburban-style sprawl that Raleigh's developers wanted and city leaders allowed. With Raleigh hitting its outer limits in every direction, however, the new plan must regulate the city's transformation from suburban to urban, with greater densities downtown, in transit-friendly corridors, and in many existing neighborhoods. That's a job progressive planners like Crowder and Stephenson relish: Both are architects, and Stephenson's part of a consulting group that works on planning issues in other jurisdictions. The current council, with Taliaferro and Craven as part of a majority bloc, has taken a more laissez-faire approach to planning, essentially letting developers do what they wanted.
One thing to keep an eye on: The new council's appointments to the Raleigh Planning Commission. That advisory body is dominated now by development-industry representatives all named by the 5-3 majority of Taliaferro, Craven, West, Isley and the departing at-large member, Joyce Kekas.
Meeker, Stephenson and Crowder have been unable to get their nominees onto the commission. Now, with McFarlane, they'll have bargaining power. If Koopman joins them, they'll be in the 5-3 majority.
Or it could be a 6-2 or 7-1 majority. West, a Democrat who represents Southeast Raleigh, makes his district's needs his sole priority. He may well choose to align with the new controlling bloc, just as he did with the old one, to accomplish projects for the Southeast. Baldwin, too, promised to be "balanced" in her approach to growth issues. How she lines up—with Meeker, in the center, or with Isley in the minority—will be something to watch.
Raleigh voters also approved the $88.6 million Parks, Recreation & Greenways bond issue by a wide margin, 18,404 to 7,125. The bond had broad support and no organized opposition.