In Chapel Hill mayoral race, conservatives try to upend the liberal front-runner | The Election Page | Indy Week
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In Chapel Hill mayoral race, conservatives try to upend the liberal front-runner 

Insiders and outliers

Hey slacker, have you voted? Time's running out.

As of Monday at 5 p.m., just 453 of 139,378 voters had cast ballots in the Durham city primary—a minuscule three-tenths of 1 percent. (Download PDF of Durham voter registration stats)

And in Wake County, where there are elections for school board, Cary Town Council and Raleigh City Council and mayor, just 424 people have voted in person. (The turnout percentage isn't available because the votes haven't been broken out by contest; however, 253,350 people are eligible to vote in the Raleigh mayoral race.) (Download PDF of Wake voter registration stats)

Are these elections as sexy as last year's presidential contest? No, but these city and county officials are the people crafting policy on your schools, your garbage pickup, your streets, even the future of your neighborhoods.

Early voting ends Saturday, Oct. 3, for Wake County School Board, Raleigh City Council and mayor and Durham City Council and mayor. Election Day is Tuesday, Oct. 6.

If you don't vote and your town goes to hell in a handbasket, don't blame us.

Go to our Elections section for our endorsements and take-along voting guides, plus all the info we've gathered on the candidates.

An openly gay politician. The lone dissenter. The invisible man. The No. 1 enemy of the ACLU.

Those are the candidates in a Chapel Hill mayoral race pitted against one another on issues including downtown revitalization, development and the town's permit application process. As the candidates spar on the issues, each also must defend his previous political experience and ideologies.

Mark Kleinschmidt, who has served two terms on Town Council, is the most like incumbent Mayor Kevin Foy, who is not running for re-election. Kleinschmidt, the only registered Democrat in the nonpartisan race, has been central to the town's deliberate pace on business and on the front lines of social justice issues.

His competition comes from two Republicans and an unaffiliated fiscal conservative looking to upend Chapel Hill's liberal establishment: Kevin Wolff, who twice lost to Foy, the first time after moving to the town only four months before the election; hopeful Matt Czajkowski, who hadn't attended a council meeting prior to winning a council seat in 2007; and Augustus Cho, a failed Republican candidate for U.S. Congress.

Each has to own up to his record. Fairly or unfairly, Kleinschmidt has been labeled by his opponents as antibusiness. Cho, who lost to B.J Lawson in the 2008 Republican primary for the Fourth Congressional District, refuses to discuss his conservative platform and the often explosive comments he made on the stump. Czajkowski, though on the council, has distanced himself from his colleagues through his votes and his campaign. Wolff, meanwhile, has been an enigma in this and previous mayoral races.

Though the race is nonpartisan, Kleinschmidt is highlighting his political affiliation and says his experience at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation shows he has a strong social justice background that's the most representative of Chapel Hill ideals.

"I'm a Democrat. I'll tell everyone who will hear that," he said. "To a lot of people, that will have some meaning."

He hopes his eight years on the council—he was the youngest person on council when he was elected the first time, and at 39 is still the youngest—have meaning, too.

"I certainly have with my claim of being most experienced. It comes with the burden of having the longest record," said Kleinschmidt, whose council history is on the town's Web site via video. "It's a good thing, and it can be a challenging thing."

Part of that record includes voting against the Starbucks at Eastgate due to traffic concerns. Rivals have pointed to that vote as a sign that Kleinschmidt makes it difficult for business to locate here. Kleinschmidt says he has approved other small-business proposals and that he's sensitive to small-business concerns. (His partner was a small-business owner in Raleigh.) He is the only candidate to both support and accept voter-owned election funds.

The movement for change comes from conservatives like Czajkowski, who is unaffiliated. He has trumpeted a different tune since being elected to the council in 2007.

"There's a country song they wrote about me," he said. "I'm the lone dissenter."

As such, he has found himself on the opposite side of the council majority on experimenting with voter-owned elections, extending health care benefits to town council members and pushing for an ordinance that would ban panhandling downtown.

By any analysis, Czajkowski does not come from traditional Chapel Hill political circles. He admits he didn't follow town government until shortly before he decided to run in 2007. That year, he cast his first local vote for himself and made his maiden Town Hall voyage during election forum season.

"Two years ago, one of my other neighbors, Dennis Howell, said if you can run and just get a decent showing, that's going to encourage other people, and maybe over time we can change things," he said. "I can say, nobody thought I was going to win."

Czajkowski said he was confident because of the brewing dissatisfaction with the council on issues of the tax base and development. His election—he eclipsed Chapel Hill native and incumbent Cam Hill by a mere 60 votes—marked a sudden shift, breaking a powerful incumbent bloc.

Some political observers attribute Czajkowski's victory to the town needing a new voice. Others say it was the amount that Czajkowski spent, including an $18,000 loan to himself, that enabled him to, in effect, buy the seat. He's already raised more than $15,000 this election cycle.

Now Czajkowski is in the peculiar position of running to reform a group of which he's a member. Competitors Cho and Wolff say Czajkowski has demonstrated he doesn't have the allies to make change happen and that his history as the lone vote on the issues shows he is divisive. (However, neither Cho, who ran an angry, heated campaign against Lawson, nor Wolff, who has raged against the machine at several public meetings, has proven they are consensus builders.)

"Mr. Czajkowski has issues with working with other council members," Cho said. "If he has trouble getting along with council members now, how can he lead as a mayor?"

But Czajkowski says his council election, along with economic factors outside of anyone's control, are leading to a shift in Chapel Hill politics, with more conservative business-driven candidates signing up to serve.

Other candidates and political observers say he that hasn't been effective enough in his two years of service to assume to top office.

To that criticism, Czjakowski says most of the work is "common sense."

"Two years on council is in my view at least utterly sufficient to understand 90 percent of workings of council and town," he said. "I'll also say does that mean it makes you totally prepared to be mayor. There is a part of being mayor that you have to learn on the job."

Wolff is eager for that opportunity. He said he's taking this year's race far more seriously than his failed 2005 and 2007 campaigns, adding that this is the first race he's expecting to win.

He called his first attempt a "nonevent," explaining that after moving from Virginia and seeing that Foy was running unopposed, he felt compelled to give voters a choice. Two years later, he ran again, because panhandling, street lighting and sidewalk improvements and the town's approval process had not improved, he said. He earned 29.2 percent of the vote that year, an 8- percentage-point increase.

"The point is that I'm confident I can win," Wolff said. "Last time I got 30 percent. ... All I have to do is get 5 more percent."

He's hopeful that being more visible this go-round will make the difference. However, at a recent forum for council candidates, Wolff stayed just long enough to raise his hand when the mayoral candidates in the audience were introduced. Then he immediately left. He has been selective in attending forums in past races (he hasn't missed one this season) and responding to candidate questionnaires (he didn't fill out an Indy questionnaire), forums saying the election events schedule did not mesh with his previous commitments and that the forums aren't well attended by the public anyway.

However, the public has become aware of Wolff through bad press. Residents said they received a push poll from Wolff's campaign that asked if they would vote for him if he was the only "moral" candidate. Wolff has denied such a poll, but won't comment further. "As far as I'm concerned, it's a red herring," he said. "It's a waste of time."

Wolff is by far the most guarded of the candidates. He's the only one with a campaign manager who schedules his interviews, which he records. He also is hesitant to share any information that borders on campaign strategy. Asked if he had plans to create a Web site (he's the only one of the four without one), he replied, "That's a strategic matter that I won't talk about in detail, but it certainly would be to my benefit."

He also was one of the few vocal opponents to the town's voter-owned elections, and then he decided to sign up for the program.

If elected, he says he'll reform the program so that it's only available to those with financial need—and not to incumbents. He says he may donate the money he receives from a voter-owned fund rather than spend it on his race.

Cho opposed the program from the outset and says he hasn't raised any money for the mayoral race because citizens are already paying for elections via the voter-owned system. He's as adamant about that as he steadfast on refusing to discuss his 2008 race against Lawson.

During a primary forum for All Interested Republicans, Cho said, "Mr. (David) Price, as most of you know, has a 100 percent approval rating from your favorite organization by the acronym of ACLU. That's an honor that I want to stay away from; in fact, from their point of view, I want to be their worst enemy."

Asked for clarification, Cho said, "I'm running for mayor of Chapel Hill, and that's an irrelevant question." Pressed on the town's history of defending civil liberties (Chapel Hill and Orange County leaders read the Bill of Rights in front of the U.S. Post Office on Franklin Street each December) and how that statement would affect his governance, he replied, "I think you are comparing apples and oranges. I'm running for mayor of Chapel Hill, so that question is beyond the capacity of mayor for Chapel Hill."

He would rather talk about the fact that he's the chairman of the transportation board, which he says makes him the best candidate. (Ironically, he has also received a ticket for obstructing traffic in Chapel Hill.)

"I think the primary difference between myself and other candidates is that I actually have served the community before running," he said, noting that Kleinschmidt and Czajkowski didn't serve on boards before they were elected.

There are few places in North Carolina where an openly gay, unabashed liberal could be considered the mainstream candidate. But this is Chapel Hill, and the voters will decide if they want the lone dissenter, the invisible man or the No. 1 enemy of the ACLU.

Early voting runs Oct. 15-31. Election Day is Nov. 3. Go to our Elections section for our endorsements and take-along voting guides, plus all the info we've gathered on the candidates on each ballot.

  • As the candidates spar on the issues, each also must defend his previous political experience and ideologies.

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