The Meeker era is ending. For 10 years, Mayor Charles Meeker has overseen a dramatic remaking of downtown Raleigh. Meeker and the city councils he led will be remembered for reopening Fayetteville Street, building the Raleigh Convention Center and awakening the central business district from its decades-long nap. They also get good marks for expanding services citywidefrom water and sewer to greenways and parksto keep pace with Raleigh's growth. Thus, they reversed the disinvestment for which Raleigh councils were known in the '90s under mayors Tom Fetzer and Paul Coble. Today, Raleigh is on every "best of" list when it comes to cities with a high quality of lifeand adding jobs against the economic tide.
Meeker is stepping down, but the core of the council will remain in place. Three of the five district councilors—John Odom in District B, Thomas Crowder in District D and Bonner Gaylord in District E—will be re-elected without opposition. Interestingly, the trio spans the political spectrum from Republican (Odom) to Democrat (Crowder) to independent (Gaylord). The Raleigh Council is nominally nonpartisan. And though it sometimes splits and scraps, the splits are usually not along party lines, which is good, because there's nothing partisan about the issues ahead.
Raleigh's next mayor faces three big, interrelated challenges. The first is to manage the transition, already under way, from a city of sprawling suburbs to one that is urban at its center and along major transit corridors. The second is to target capital investments so they produce the biggest bang, in terms of economic development and "placemaking," for the taxpayers' bucks. The third is the not-so-glamorous job of governing, by policy and budget, the city employees who provide services to 400,000 Raleigh residents.
City Councilor Nancy McFarlane, we believe, is up to these challenges, and we endorse her for mayor to succeed Meeker. McFarlane has represented District A on the council for four years. She's shown herself to be a hard worker, a good listener and, as she underscores, a key part of the Meeker team that's made Raleigh so successful. No need to try out a novice.
Politically, McFarlane's not easy to pigeonhole. She's an unaffiliated voter but closest on the council to Meeker and at-large Councilor Russ Stephenson, both Democrats. On development issues, she's more like Meeker, who doesn't usually question what developers propose, than like Stephenson, who frequently rolls up his sleeves on the neighborhoods' behalf. Still, the three were instrumental, with Crowder, when the council adopted a strong new comprehensive plan in 2009 to guide Raleigh's growth. The task now is to implement it with an equally strong zoning code—the new Unified Development Ordinance (UDO) that the council will take up in a few weeks. And McFarlane's long been an advocate, going back to the days when she was a neighborhood leader in North Raleigh, for holding developers to tougher stormwater management rules—protections every downstream neighborhood appreciates.
Meeker and Stephenson are backing McFarlane, as is the pro-environment Sierra Club. She is also endorsed by the Wake Democratic Party.
The one question McFarlane needed to answer coming into this race was whether she has the force of personality needed to be an effective mayor. Remember, the job pays $15,000 a year with no staff and just one vote among eight on the council. Only the city manager, attorney and clerk report to the council; everyone else in city government reports to one of those three. The upshot is, being mayor is a job you make up yourself.
In her first term on council, McFarlane was quiet, deferring to Meeker or City Manager Russell Allen. But in her second term, and especially since she began her mayoral campaign, she's stepped up to be a force in her own right, speaking out in support of the investments Raleigh and the Triangle have been making—and must continue to make to be an attractive place for people and businesses to locate. She's pro-transit. She supports the arts. She gets it that smart public investments—like the money spent to redo Fayetteville Street—pay dividends in the form of more private investments, more jobs and lower tax rates.
The other two mayoral candidates, both Republicans, are also first-rate folks with glittering résumés in business and medicine, respectively.
Billie Redmond, the owner-president of Coldwell Banker Commercial TradeMark Properties, a real estate firm, has served on a slew of business and nonprofit boards, including WakeMed for 10 years. An accomplished deal maker, she clearly has the personality to be mayor. What she doesn't have is any experience in city government. Her politics seem centrist, not unlike McFarlane's. But absent any record in office, it's hard to know. Then, too, her work as a commercial real estate broker could be in conflict with her mayoral job of pushing through a strong UDO and holding the real estate industry—i.e., developers—to it.
Redmond has the Wake Republican Party endorsement, and is also—no surprise—backed by the Raleigh Regional Association of Realtors.
Likewise, Dr. Randall Williams, a surgeon-obstetrician, has no experience in city government. But he doesn't need any, he says, because the city manager runs the government. True, but it's the job of the mayor and council to be sure it's run well, from trash pickup to enforcing the building codes. As mayor, Williams wants to be an inspirational leader, doing good works—as he's done in operating rooms from Haiti to Iraq—while calling on Raleigh citizens to do some too. That's great. But being mayor is also about rezoning fights, streets that need paving and a lot of minutia that citizens call you about at night. They don't call the manager.
Williams and Redmond have each raised the non-issue of the city's debt in an attempt to cast doubts on Meeker and, by extension, McFarlane. The fact is, Raleigh's debt is low compared with its population and total budget, which is why Raleigh has a rock-solid AAA bond rating. To their credit, the two Republicans understand this very well, which causes them to swallow their tongues whenever they're invited—on the campaign trail—to let loose with some red-hot anti-spending rhetoric. If only their printed materials were as forthcoming.
But they're right to criticize Meeker and McFarlane for pushing—and voting for—a proposed 17-story, $205 million public safety center on Nash Square. It was, as the Republicans say, too expensive and would've given Raleigh a great big target for attack with all the city's fire, police and emergency operations officials in one place. Meeker still insists it was a great idea. McFarlane, though, shows better sense when she says she's ready to "re-evaluate" and look for other ways to provide the facilities that all the candidates agree are long overdue.
Two council members are elected at-large. The two incumbents, both Democrats, are seeking re-election against a single Republican challenger. The incumbents are the clear choices here.
In his six years on council, Russ Stephenson has epitomized what it means to be a good public servant. As chairman of the public works committee, he wrestles with issues big and small, from whether parking should be allowed—or banned—on your street to the design of major corridors like Falls of Neuse Road and Capital Boulevard. A talented architect and urban planner in private life, he spends countless hours (for the $11,000-a-year council salary) working with developers, neighbors and city staff to assure that Raleigh's growth is—his favorite word—"sustainable."
Stephenson was the prime mover in Raleigh's stronger water conservation rules (including tiered pricing). He got the Lightner center right, opposing it with a detailed critique of its security shortcomings but also pointing to options—including a separate, hardened structure for emergency operations—that would work better and save money.
Mary-Ann Baldwin, the other at-large councilor, got Lightner wrong and, unlike McFarlane, continues to get it wrong. And unlike Stephenson, who carefully weighs developers' plans with neighborhood concerns, Baldwin is a reliable yes vote for almost every development plan. So it's no surprise that she's endorsed by the Realtors association but not by the Sierra Club.
The Sierra Club, in fact, endorsed only Stephenson, and that's an approach progressive-minded voters may want to consider. You can cast two votes in this at-large race, but you don't have to, and single-shot votes for Stephenson would help to ensure that he's re-elected without needing a runoff.
Still, most voters will want to cast two votes, and Baldwin is clearly preferable to the third candidate, Republican Paul Fitts. Baldwin is pro-transit, supports the arts, is progressive on social issues and, if she's not the workhorse that Stephenson is, she nonetheless showed some mettle by dragging Raleigh kicking and screaming to an ordinance allowing food trucks in town—albeit not in many places.
Fitts, a mortgage broker, comes off as a poorly informed Republican of the tea-party variety. He likes sprawl, doesn't support transit, and thinks it's fine if people have to drive 80 or 100 miles a day to work—that's their choice, right? To drive up gas prices and pollute the air? Fitts has the Realtors' support, with Baldwin.
In the District A (North Raleigh) race, we endorse Randy Stagner, McFarlane's choice to succeed her and, like her, an unaffiliated voter. Stagner is a retired Army colonel with 28 years of military service, much of it in North Carolina. His goal is to maintain the city's quality of life—and he strikes us as a quick study on the things that will require, like the need for better transit and protecting our water supplies from encroaching development.
Gale Wilkins, a Republican, is the other candidate in District A. She's a conservative who says her main interest is social services. Generally, social services are the province of county government, not the city.
The other contested race is in District C (Southeast Raleigh). We think incumbent Eugene Weeks has done a good job since being appointed to this seat when James West was chosen to fill a vacancy on the county commission. That's unfortunately the way things have gone in Southeast Raleigh for years. Members of the so-called old guard stay in office past their prime.
Still, the 70-year-old Weeks, a retired teacher, earned his turn as a worker-leader on citizens advisory committees, neighborhood groups, Democratic Party organizations and on the city's parks and recreation board. Put it this way, he's got a lot more energy than West did, and he's not to blame for Southeast Raleigh's failure to nurture young talent.
Conservative Republican Paul Terrell has little appeal for progressive voters. The others, Democrats Shelia Jones and Corey Branch and independent Racquel Williams, all have strengths, but they've yet to prove themselves as civic leaders. That's not to say they won't, but at least for this election, we think Weeks should be given a two-year term and see how he fares. Southeast Raleigh has tremendous needs and huge potential for economic growth. It would help to have a forceful advocate on council. Weeks may be that man. If not, the others have two years to demonstrate how they'd be better.
The City Council is proposing two bond issues for transportation projects ($40 million) and affordable housing ($16 million) over the next four to five years. Both are modest in scale given the needs and the size of previous bond issues. The transportation bond would pay for a specific list of projects, including sidewalks (new and repairs); bike lanes; greenways, and for widening and resurfacing streets. Money is also set aside as a match for potential federal funding of a new Amtrak station ($3 million). The housing bonds would support ongoing programs for first-time homebuyers and low-interest loans to private developers of affordable apartments. We recommend a YES vote for both.
To learn about the candidates' stances on the issues, read their 2011 Candidate Questionnaires.