Editor's note: This is the first of three profiles of Raleigh's mayoral candidates. Look for profiles of Billie Redmond and Randall Williams in coming Monday editions.
RALEIGH -- Long before she helped devise stormwater policies and development regulations on the Raleigh City Council, Nancy McFarlane served as room mother for her daughter's kindergarten class.
It was an unlikely starting point for an ascent into city politics. But for McFarlane, chaperoning field trips and setting up classroom art stations marked the first steps on a path that would lead to higher pursuits.
More than two decades later, McFarlane finds herself as the political veteran in a mayoral race that pits her against a pair of first-time candidates, real estate firm CEO Billie Redmond and physician Randall Williams.
Count McFarlane among those most surprised by the evolution. The pharmacist and mother of three says she didn't set out to pursue elected office, much less the city's top job.
"The more involved I became, the more I realized how important it was for people to take responsibility," she said. "I didn't think that was anything I could step away from."
The role in daughter Katie's class at Brooks Elementary blossomed into leadership posts with the PTA and, later, a four-year stint as president of the homeowners' association at Greystone, a 2,000-resident development in North Raleigh.
In 2007, McFarlane made her official entry into Raleigh politics, unseating City Council District A incumbent Tommy Craven by a 55-to-45 percent margin.
Now, in her pursuit of the mayor's office, McFarlane points to her work as a school and neighborhood volunteer, saying she learned how to be a good listener at the grassroots level, where people are more concerned with solving problems than notching political victories.
An eye on growth
McFarlane says her views on development were shaped by her experiences growing up in Arlington, Va., a Washington, D.C., suburb known for its congested roads and severe sprawl.
"I know what large, poorly planned growth can do to an area," she told a forum audience of 150 people last week.
After joining the Greystone HOA, McFarland went to work convincing Raleigh to impose tighter rules on development. Neighbors in Greystone were upset about silt washing into their backyards from nearby construction sites and newly developed areas.
"The lakes were getting to the point where the geese were walking across them in some parts," McFarlane said.
"I felt it wasn't fair for all this private development to be taking place, and for the residents to bear the brunt of the cleanup," she said. "Our roads were getting washed out. It was just this unending cycle."
McFarlane kept a low profile as she worked to address neighbors' concerns, said Gordon Archambault, a member of the lakes and grounds committee on the Greystone board.
"Unless you hung the title 'mayor' around her neck, most people would think she was just one of the people there," he said. "She's not going to come in and give a fiery oratory. She's going to listen to you."
A progressive record
McFarlane took office in 2007 as part of the "Meeker majority," a group of progressive-minded newcomers who supported Mayor Charles Meeker and pledged to change how Raleigh pays for growth.
With McFarlane's support, the City Council quickly increased the impact fees Raleigh charges developers for new building projects. They imposed tighter rules on stormwater.
McFarlane has generally supported Meeker's progressive agenda, centered on downtown revitalization, mass transit, parks and greenways and environmental protection.
Meeker earned praise for revitalizing downtown as a hub for business, nightlife and restaurants. But some critics said he paid too little attention to other parts of Raleigh.
McFarlane is quick to praise Meeker as a "great leader," but said she would spend more time reaching out to various constituencies and broadening the city's focus beyond downtown.
In that effort, McFarlane's background as a neighborhood advocate will be valuable, said Roxie Cash, a longtime friend and former Wake County school board member.
"I don't believe she will get caught up in talking to only large groups of people," Cash said.
Life as CEO
An interest in science pushed McFarlane toward a career in the health care field. She earned a degree from Virginia Commonwealth University's pharmacy school at the Medical College of Virginia.
McFarlane spent 15 years at Raleigh Community Hospital before launching MedPro Rx, a company that provides infusion medications and services to clients with chronic illnesses.
The business fills a niche in the industry, providing treatments for rare blood disorders such as hemophilia, autoimmune neuro-muscular and rheumatologic disorders and Hepatitis C.
McFarlane's husband, Ron, also works for MedPro Rx, helping run the business while his wife tends to campaign duties.
On a recent weekday afternoon, McFarlane was accompanied by a reporter as she drove around the city with a campaign aide, visiting the owners of a coffee shop, auto repair garage and barber shop.
Known for her quiet, soft-spoken demeanor, McFarlane says she's grown more comfortable speaking in front of big groups. But she likes to convene people in smaller, more intimate settings to learn about their concerns.
"I spend a lot of time researching and analyzing issues before the meetings," McFarlane told The News & Observer in a 2008 interview. "If I can get my questions answered beforehand, I will. A lot of what I do at the table is listen."
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