Kleinschmidt wins Chapel Hill mayoral race

Staff writerNovember 3, 2009 

Mark Kleinschmidt, left, and Matt Czajkowski

— The liberal establishment held off a band of businessmen trying to change the town's course.

Two-term councilman Mark Kleinschmidt, a death-penalty defense lawyer and gay rights activist, narrowly defeated colleague Matt Czajkowski to take the reins as mayor. Kleinschmidt had just 49 percent of the vote in the four-person mayoral race.

"We have a divided community right now, and that's got to be job No. 1 to address that," Kleinschmidt said. "The first thing is to talk to Matt. ... Matt and I agree about a lot more than we disagree about."

Czajkowski, a former investment banker and retired corporate finance officer, tried to lead three other finance experts onto the council to recruit new businesses downtown, cut taxes and reduce panhandling. Czajkowski has two years remaining on his council seat, but only corporate executive Gene Pease was able to join him in the race for four available council seats.

"They were being influenced heavily by a specific group of developers, and I think in the end that backfired on them," said Sierra Club-endorsed challenger Penny Rich, who led the field of Town Council candidates with 15 percent of the votes. "The people of Chapel Hill know what they care about."

Czajkowski said his 47 percent reflects an important constituency.

"I look forward to working with Mark," Czajkowski told WCHL. "[There] are challenges that aren't going to solve themselves."

Kleinschmidt said he, Czajkowski and the rest of the council will have to wait for a report from a citizen task force to decide how to manage growth over the next 10 years.

Czajkowski has criticized the status quo of strict development guidelines funneling large mixed-use projects onto transit corridors, and Kleinschmidt has acknowledged the 600,000-square-foot East 54 project - one of Czajkowski's favorite targets - appears out of place in Chapel Hill.

"Neither one of us knows what to do because we're still in process," Kleinschmidt said.

Kleinschmidt and Rich were the only candidates to use the town's new public campaign financing program, which Czajkowski and many of his supporters opposed.

"It feels like the voter-owned election program really worked," said Rich. "We engaged the citizens, and they gave it back."

Incumbent Ed Harrison took 14.8 percent and Laurin Easthom 14.4 percent. Pease topped 13.6 percent to take the last seat, edging challenger Matt Pohlman and incumbent Jim Merritt, appointed last year to replace the late Bill Thorpe as the only African American on the council.

The council now faces another appointment with the resignation of three-time councilman Bill Strom this summer.

Kleinschmidt said he wants to hear from new council members Rich and Pease but having at least one African American on the council is important to him.

"It's certainly something that will enter my thoughts," he said.

jesse.deconto@newsobserver.com. or 919-932-8760

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