Newly Reelected Mayor Nancy McFarlane Grapples with the Fact That Large Swaths of Raleigh Feel Left Behind | Wake County | Indy Week
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Newly Reelected Mayor Nancy McFarlane Grapples with the Fact That Large Swaths of Raleigh Feel Left Behind 

On election night, Mayor Nancy McFarlane got a call from Charles Francis, her Democratic challenger.

From the time the first precincts reported that night, it was obvious McFarlane had prevailed over Francis. Unofficial totals showed the mayor, who is unaffiliated politically, with roughly 58 percent of the vote.

"He told me he was calling to congratulate me," McFarlane told the INDY. "Then he said it was not the end for him."

Nor was it the end for the issues that Francis had raised, especially economic inequity. Precinct results revealed a tale of two cities, with the prosperous west side choosing McFarlane and the mostly lower-income east side overwhelmingly picking Francis.

"I don't recall using exactly those words," Francis says. "What I intended to say was that I hoped the campaign would lead to discussion of some of the issues I raised. My campaign was about including people that have been left out, it was about increasing access to housing, it was about treating city workers more fairly, it was about including everyone in growth."

With the hard-fought election over, McFarlane will begin her fourth term on December 1. She'll be presiding over a city council with two new, younger members, Nicole Stewart and Stefanie Mendell, both with a neighborhood-friendly orientation.

Meanwhile, the city McFarlane represents has had a new light cast on it—both on the shining edifices of downtown and on the areas where Raleigh's booming growth can create problems, not wealth. In one example, older neighborhoods near downtown are rapidly being replaced by apartment towers and renovated or replaced homes.

"I think what we took away from the election is what we already knew—people don't feel included," McFarlane says. "You obviously have a section of the city that is disengaged."

McFarlane and the current council had worked on the issues that Francis raised, from passing a penny sales tax increase to fund affordable housing, to instituting—after a glitch—a raise and increased benefits for city workers, to expanded transit opportunities. But especially early in the campaign, McFarlane had focused on points of pride: most Raleigh residents' apparent approval of the way things are going, the development of Dix Park, the near-completion of Union Station and its effect on the western edge of downtown, and increased private investment throughout the city.

As Francis's relative success in October—earning enough votes to force a runoff—showed, not everyone feels that way.

Zainab Baloch, a twenty-six-year-old candidate who made an unsuccessful bid for an at-large seat on the city council, says the election helped energize a segment of the population.

"I think after this election we are going to see more people engaged in the issues and being more vocal, more involved in the citizens advisory councils, thinking of other ways to be involved," says Baloch, who backed Francis. "I'm definitely disappointed but very proud of what Charles Francis accomplished. I think, regardless of how the election went, we all have the same goal. That comes down to looking at issues with affordable housing and public transportation, to just being aware that the city has these issues."

Francis says his campaign should have several lasting effects: helping change the city's approach to citizen engagement, highlighting the effects of displacement of longtime residents through gentrification, pointing out the lack of diversity in city leadership, and shifting Raleigh's focus from "constant self-congratulation" about growth to questions about its overall effect.

Francis notes that his campaign reached voters all over the city. But McFarlane's support also defied stereotypes. Indicative of an emerging, more diverse Raleigh were the nearly even votes at Brier Creek Country Club—McFarlane, 353, and Francis, 333. And at Powell Elementary, in a growing, diverse east Raleigh neighborhood, Francis outpolled McFarlane by only 26 votes, 437–411.

City council member Corey Branch, who represents southeast Raleigh's District C, says a voice came out of the election that represents concerns about fairness in the city.

"It says that we have been marginalized and ignored," Branch says. "I think you're going to see us really try to develop realistic approaches to affordable housing and focusing on the environment around universities and making sure that there's growth there." (Branch's district includes St. Augustine, Shaw, and William Peace universities.)

In line with the growing focus on community engagement, Branch will start a series of monthly District C meetings in January.

"It's for the community to develop a plan on what it wants," he says. "You can't fix a problem if you don't recognize that it exists."

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