City races may not heat up

Raleigh council lacks challengers

Staff WritersAugust 21, 2005 

This year, politics in Raleigh is facing a historic level of apathy.

No one can remember a time when so few candidates ran for office -- not even Gail Smith, a city clerk since 1971.

Four of eight City Council members will be swept into office without a challenger, a rarity that crosses geographic, racial and economic lines.

So voters are left wondering how a city of 330,000 people, a state capital ringed with universities and high-tech jobs, could find itself so short on political activity.

Just 30 miles to the west, in Durham, politics is a contact sport with a long line of contestants.

"It is almost pathetic," Geoff Elting, a former councilman, said of the scarcity in Raleigh.

In four of five city districts, the race has ended long before the Oct. 11 election. Barring a lastminute write-in campaign, those members -- Jessie Taliaferro in District B, James West in District C, Thomas Crowder in District D and Philip Isley in District E -- are guaranteed a seat.

West's shoo-in will be his third in a row.

"I like him," Jeff DeBellis, a leader in the South Central Citizens Advisory Council, said of West. "I'm not complaining about the guy. I just think we ought to have races, not just automatically decreeing people elected."

It may be that the council is pleasing voters rather than turning them off. It is notable, Isley said, that a council with a majority of Democrats would vote to keep the city's Republican lobbyist in Washington.

"There's been plenty of compromise," he said of the current council.

Time and money

The explanation for the thin field breaks down into three categories, say the citizens who are still paying attention.

Mostly, running a race takes more time and money than most people can spare; once they are elected, the pay is paltry and the headaches plentiful. A council member earns $10,000 a year; a mayor pro tem, $12,000; Raleigh's mayor, $15,000.

Barbara Ann Hughes, who sits on the city's Human Relations Commission, thought about challenging Isley in District E -- Raleigh's northwest neighborhoods.

But she got scared off by the price of jumping in.

"It was my understanding that Mr. Isley had said that it would take him $150,000 to win the race," she said. "I, frankly, didn't think it was my year."

Between January and June -- very early in the election cycle -- Isley had already raised nearly $25,000.

For Susan Vick, who gave serious thought to a run against Taliaferro in the northeast B district, time proved too short.

Vick, sister of former Mayor Tom Fetzer, figured that she would spend a minimum of 20 or 30 hours a month on the job -- not counting the time spent attending neighborhood events or returning calls and e-mail messages.

"I've got two smaller children," she said. "From the look-see I gave it, it was going to be a juggle. Something is going to suffer, and you don't want it to be the people you've made a commitment to."

Of the four unopposed candidates, Isley is a lawyer, Crowder an architect, Taliaferro a part-time school librarian and West a retiree with a part-time consulting business.

Lack of discontent

A second explanation, though, is the tranquil political scene in Raleigh.

There is hardly any controversy this year, partly because the council has already made its tough decisions and moved into a wait-and-see period.

The $192 million convention center is under construction, as is the $10 million Fayetteville Street Mall project. The city moved into a new system for trash collection and passed new rules for landlords.

Compared with the Wake County School Board, which has seen a flurry of candidates fueled by anger over school reassignment and a fraud scandal, Raleigh has seen nothing but calm seas. Taxes are comparatively low.

"We haven't had a 'lightning' issue," West said.

In 2001, 22 candidates filed to run for council, some outraged over the large-scale Coker Towers development proposed for Wade Avenue and Oberlin Street.

But there is nothing so gripping this year, Elting said.

"People recognize the traffic situation isn't as bad as it has been or could be," he said. "The Outer Loop has helped people in North Raleigh a lot."

A third explanation is plain old indifference.

"I'm not sure that people are as excited about politics as they used to be," West said.

In many ways, observers said, political activism springs from discontent.

Scott Cutler, a possible future candidate and a member of the city's Planning Commission, wondered aloud what platform a candidate would run on this year. It may take some time for new dissent to sink in.

"You've got all these big jobs that are under way," he said. "In two years, you'll have quite a lot to run on."

(Staff writer Janell Ross contributed to this report.)

Staff writer Josh Shaffer can be reached at 829-4818 or jshaffer@newsobserver.com.

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