How Raleigh’s election was hijacked by questions of vibrancy | Citizen | Indy Week
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How Raleigh’s election was hijacked by questions of vibrancy 

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Photo by Bob Geary

We've had some mindless City Council campaigns in Raleigh in my time, but I'll put the 2015 edition up against any of them. It was so bad, I found myself agreeing with a conservative activist, Joey Stansbury, when he called out his fellow Republicans on Friday.

"Just four short days," Stansbury wrote, "before Wake County Republicans can stop discussing the singular issue that will affect the success of Raleigh—whether or not a 20-something can be inebriated on a sidewalk in downtown Raleigh after 1 a.m."

A lot of Democrats, too, Joey.

By now the election's over. I don't know who won, but I do know that the voters lost. A group operating under the "Keep Raleigh Vibrant" banner managed to portray a change in sidewalk drinking rules as government regulation run amok. Its not-so-subtle message: Don't let city government regulate anything.

Psst: especially not development.

The Republican mayoral candidate toed the anti-regulatory line. So did a half-dozen Democratic and unaffiliated council candidates, including incumbents Mary-Ann Baldwin, Eugene Weeks and Bonner Gaylord. Sad.

Let's not leave this mess behind, however, without trying to learn something from it. Surely there's a lesson here about leadership and systems. Raleigh's got a system, installed by businesses, and it would toot along just fine if the council went away. By that I mean that much of what passes for leadership on Council is simply posturing and going with the flow.

Meanwhile, real efforts at leadership are denigrated, usually as "anti-growth," but the new slur is "anti-vibrant."

What would genuine leadership look like? To address that question, I'm drawing on some recent discussions conducted by the Jamie Kirk Hahn Foundation under the title "Values-Based Leadership." Two themes emerged. The first was equity. The second was purpose—or as facilitator Shorlette Ammons put it, "We need to be about equity, not just talk about it."

With respect to purpose, we focused on systems that exist—and you know this—to further the interests of the people who created them and benefit from them. That's what systems are. They're self-perpetuating. And very often, they're an obstruction to equity.

Nowhere is this more true than in local government, where crucial decisions involve land use, housing, transportation and access to jobs. In a growing city like Raleigh, there are huge profits to be made by acquiring land, getting it up-zoned for apartments or a shopping center, and removing any small houses in the way. If the shops and apartments are expensive, even better—if your values are measured by profits.

Not surprisingly, Raleigh has a system to perpetuate this. It's driven by the real estate industry, which, in the absence of any major corporate headquarters, dominates our business community. City staff assists.

As for City Council, going into this election four of the eight members made a living in real estate development or construction. (Three others were retired.) The majority view on Council: To keep Raleigh "vibrant," we must let the industry do what it wants—while we take credit for creating growth. Credit, and campaign contributions, that is.

The problem with this system is that it keeps producing pricy apartment units for upscale tenants; meanwhile, the housing shortage for working people and the poor grows worse. Public transportation is an afterthought, because "the market" serves people with cars. Downtown continues to gentrify. Southeast Raleigh, historically African-American, continues to be neglected.

Our "leaders," the pro-vibrant ones especially, contend that they're all for affordable housing, transit and Southeast Raleigh. The wonder, then, is that their results are so bad. But criticize them and you're "anti-growth."

Oh, they're practicing their own kind of values-based leadership, I suppose. They value being with the in crowd.

But what if Raleigh actually did want to put equity first? To use the power of local government to serve the poor as well as the rich? To close the gap between the two?

Then, I submit, we would start with affordable housing as our highest priority for land-use regulation. We'd measure the need, set goals and put them ahead of—or at least equal to—the profits that are inevitable as Raleigh develops. We'd tap the gains of high-rise developers; they'd still make money, just not quite as much.

Without waiting for the county, we'd establish Raleigh's first true transit corridors—two or three to start, more as time goes on—and require that high-density developments locate around transit stops. High density would mean affordable and upscale both.

And we'd invest in Southeast Raleigh, where Joey Stansbury lives, by the way, and where he advocates for his neighbors, many of whom ride public transit because they can't afford a car. We'd create bus stops that are nice places to be, not ditches by the roadside. We'd help folks get to their jobs faster, and get to better jobs.

We'd be about equity, instead of just talking. Our leaders would be challenging the system, not propping it up or making excuses for why it can't possibly do better. They'd be leading, in other words, not just tagging along.

In this campaign, I heard a few candidates saying some of these same things with passion and conviction. I'm sorry the "vibrant" side drowned them out. Believe me, it wasn't by accident, and it wasn't about beer.

Hope the good ones were elected anyway.

This article appeared in print with the headline "On leadership"

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