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Democratic mayors get their chance to make the Triangle's trains run on time

Don't look now, but the Triangle's three big towns all have Democratic mayors for the next two years. Male Democratic mayors, if you're keeping score: Charles Meeker in Raleigh, Bill Bell in Durham, Kevin Foy in Chapel Hill.

There may well be a future mayor among the handful of women elected to local councils last week: Janet Cowell in Raleigh? Dorothy Verkerk in Chapel Hill? Cora Cole-McFadden in Durham? Julie Robison in Cary? But with Chapel Hill Mayor Rosemary Waldorf stepping down, the ranks of women at the top are noticeably thin. There's Pittsboro Mayor Nancy May to the west and Wake Forest Mayor-elect Vivian Jones to the east, and in between ... testosterone still rules. (John Herrera's win for Carrboro Board of Alderman did give the region our first elected Latino).

Also thinned considerably: the GOP bench. With Paul Coble out in Raleigh and Nick Tennyson losing in Durham, the rising Republicans are--whom again? Not that the party didn't try to save their main guys. The Wake County Republicans, for instance, reminded Coble contributors in a letter that, while state law prohibited them from giving him more than $4,000 each, they were free to give the party as much as they wanted to spend on his campaign.

This allowed Meeker, known for his clipped, no-nonsense phraseology, to fashion the only good line of the campaign. Coble, he noted, liked being seen in TV commercials as a regular guy who does his own wash, hence his nickname, "The Laundry Man." But with Coble's party telling people how to avoid campaign-contribution limits, perhaps clothes weren't the only thing the mayor was laundering?

Still, Perry Woods, Meeker's campaign manager, thinks the big money never showed up. The state's antiquated campaign reporting laws don't call for a full accounting until the end of the year. But Woods thinks, given the TV ads, Coble's side spent between $500,000 and $600,000--little more than former Mayor Tom Fetzer spent four years ago vanquishing Venita Peyton and her $4,000 campaign. Meeker, Woods says, spent about $250,000.

Meeker's election, by the way, is a tribute to persistence: He won on his third try after falling short in 1989 and 1999. He hasn't changed much over the years. He's still for better planning, against strip malls and for rail and bus transit. It's Raleigh that's changed, and especially North Raleigh, where Coble's margins weren't enough to offset Meeker's big inside-the-Beltline edge.

Peyton's inconsistent persistence, on the other hand, was not rewarded. A loser in the runoff for at-large council seats, Peyton has been a Republican, a Democrat, and this year a Democrat running on a Republican-backed slate. She's now 0-for-3 in mayoral and council campaigns.

What else did the 2001 elections show?

First-Responders First:
When you win 51-49 percent like Meeker did, lots of groups can say they made the difference. But imagine if the Police Benevolent Association and the Raleigh Professional Firefighters had not endorsed Meeker and stuck with the incumbent instead. Would Coble have failed, in the wake of Sept. 11, to paint Meeker as a weak-minded lib'rul? Instead, Meeker's yard signs sported the crucial 11th-hour sticker: Endorsed by Police and Firefighters.

Partisanship Works:
Since most Durham voters are Democrats, Bell's strategy was simple: Remind them that Tennyson, in case they'd forgotten--and they might have, since the race is nonpartisan and Nick never mentioned it--is a Republican. Partisanship works best, however, if the party people you summon are popular. Bell used Bill Clinton's recorded voice to advantage. Meeker used Al Gore's--briefly--and it just reminded Raleigh folks why they never liked Gore.

Bipartisanship Works:
Meeker, though, declined to use the Democratic party indicia on his mailings, even though political parties get a 20 percent discount at the post office. Meeker campaigned a lot with fellow Democrat Cowell, but he made no secret of his preference for Republican Neal Hunt over Democrat Mort Congleton for the second council seat--which Hunt won.

Black Votes Count:
In Southeast Raleigh, a lot of voters sat out the mayoral race the first time around. The influential Raleigh-Wake Citizens Association (RWCA), prompted by Wake County Commissioner Vernon Malone and City Councilor James West, was neutral in the primary, and it almost helped Coble get re-elected outright--he got 49 percent to Meeker's 48 percent (a third candidate got the rest). But in the runoff, younger Democrats got busy, forced a Meeker endorsement, and turnout in the community went up by about 2,000 votes. The Southeast Raleigh High School precinct was typical: Meeker won it Oct. 9 by 223-57; on Nov. 6, Meeker won 360-72. Result: about 1,500 more Meeker votes, more than his citywide margin of 1,056.

Black Votes Count II:
The Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People is still a force. It took a chunk out of the vote for the school bond issue--the bond still won with 65 percent support, despite the committee's opposition, but four other bond issues averaged higher percentages. And when the committee decided it had had enough of Councilman Erick Larson, it produced big majorities in black neighborhoods for his conservative, white Republican opponent, John Best Jr., which was the key to Best's upset win.

Green Votes Bloom:
Local Sierra Club chapters backed nothing but winners in Raleigh (Meeker, Cowell and Hunt), Cary (Robison, Robinson and Smith), and Chapel Hill (Foy, Verkerk, Harrison and Kleinschmidt). In Durham, the organization endorsed Tennyson and for council, at-large winners Cheek and Edwards. In Raleigh, Republican Hunt called himself a tree-hugger and won; Coble was on the wrong side of the clear-cutting issue and lost. Meanwhile, the Neighborhood Coalition for Responsible Development in Raleigh (NCRDR), born in the fight over "Coker Towers," turned into a force for Meeker and Cowell, producing a large portion of the 300 block captains claimed by their campaigns.

The Club Loses Out:
Jesse Helms' old gang is out of ammunition now that nephew Coble is sidelined and Fetzer, who once had gubernatorial aspirations, is off in New York playing at tennis. Attack, The Congressional Club handbooks says, and Coble did, accusing Meeker of supporting regional rail service and opposing the I-540 loop a decade ago because a lawyer in Meeker's firm once worked for the Triangle Transit Authority (TTA). But don't laugh. Woods says the attack ads cut a bigger Meeker lead in the polls down to the final 2 percent.

Ride the Rails:
Bell chairs the TTA, and Meeker's election clears a huge impediment--Coble's antipathy--off the tracks of the Durham-Cary-Raleigh commuter rail line. Now the two mayors have a chance to awaken their slumbering downtowns by pushing development around future station stops.

Let's Hear it For Shoe Leather:
In Chapel Hill, mayoral candidate Lee Pavao was hurt by his support for widening Weaver Dairy Road. In Cary, stopping the Cary Parkway extension was the popular position. In Raleigh, Meeker's supporters want to shrink traffic on Hillsborough Street to two lanes, using the rest for bicycles and sidewalks. Wade Avenue will be widened over their prone bodies. Pedestrian-friendly is in. Highways through neighborhoods are out.

Better, Not Slower:
Pleeaze, don't call it "slow growth." (Except in Cary, where the go-go growth days are still a bad memory.) What Meeker, Bell and friends argue is that sprawl is the slow road for the Triangle economy in the long run, because business people look at "quality of life" first. Better planning means better quality and, eventually, more jobs and more housing, not less.

Impact Fees, Yes. Taxes, No:
Meeker refused to sign the conservatives' anti-tax pledge, including opposing a county tax increase even if the schools need it. But he did promise not to ask for a city tax hike. Enter impact fees, which ask developers to kick in more of the costs of local services. Cary's are much higher than Raleigh's after eight years of Fetzer-Cobledom. Meeker's idea: Higher impact fees where development should be discouraged, and lower fees (or none) in town. To pass it, he'll need at least one of the Republicans' votes, and Hunt could be persuadable. He told The News & Observer last week he's against impact fees. But when he answered the NCRDR questionnaire, he left the door open. "Infrastructure for new developments," Hunt said, "should be paid for in impact fees by the developer to the extent that he is adding to the infrastructure cost." EndBlock

  • Democratic mayors get their chance to make the Triangle's trains run on time.

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