This year’s race for Raleigh mayor has highlighted divides among Democrats, a departure from the liberal city’s recent history of cordial and calm local elections.
Much of the conflict in the nonpartisan race has stemmed from endorsements, donors and relationships with Republicans.
Voters on Tuesday will choose between three-term incumbent Mayor Nancy McFarlane, who has led Raleigh through years of major growth, and Charles Francis, an attorney and businessman who says it’s time for a change in leadership.
McFarlane said the tone of this year’s election has been regrettably divisive, with Francis criticizing her style and accusing her of not doing enough to help the city’s poorest residents. But Francis said it’s been a welcome disruption of a political status quo that tends to sweep difficult conversations about race and social equity under the rug.
The Wake County Democratic Party is endorsing Francis, the first formidable Democrat to challenge McFarlane since she was first elected mayor in 2011. In previous elections, the party endorsed McFarlane, an unaffiliated candidate with left-leaning ideas.
Local Democratic leaders were “well aware that the decision to endorse in this race would not be universally praised,” said Rebecca Llewellyn, chairwoman of the group.
“While it is our mission to support and elect Democrats, we would not have supported just anyone who happened to have a ‘D’ behind their name,” she said. “Mr. Francis is a strong, qualified candidate who is inspiring a lot of folks with this campaign.”
An endorsement from the local Democratic party isn’t the only thing that has sparked controversy. Here’s a rundown:
▪ The Wake County Republican Party is not endorsing either candidate. But over the weekend the group called McFarlane a “hypocrite” for attacking Francis’ decision to speak during a GOP meeting.
“They’re trying to shave off liberal voters from Charles (Francis) by saying he’s sucking up to the Republican party,” said Charles Hellwig, chairman of the Wake GOP. “She’s got a strong base among Democrats in Raleigh, and when Charles cut into that some, and as he reaches out for our votes, they made the choice to attack him for reaching out to us.”
▪ The former chairman of the Wake County GOP is backing Francis. So is Paul Fitts, a Republican who came in third place in the Oct. 10 general election.
▪ The former chairman of the Wake County Democratic Party, Brian Fitzsimmons, is backing McFarlane. He said this election has been uniquely divisive for candidates and voters.
“We’ve never had a situation with a strong, viable Democratic candidate for mayor and also an obviously viable and worthy incumbent,” he said. “That’s a first.”
▪ Equality NC, a group that advocates for LGBTQ rights, backed both Francis and McFarlane in the general election. But the group has revoked its endorsement of Francis, citing his ties to “anti-LGBTQ” politicians and donors. Among them is Fred Smith, a Republican former gubernatorial candidate who served in the General Assembly. Smith was among the architects of Amendment One, which in 2012 constitutionally banned gay marriage in North Carolina.
▪ Former N.C. Gov. Jim Hunt, a Democrat, has endorsed McFarlane. On Saturday, the African-American Caucus of the North Carolina Democratic Party criticized Hunt’s decision, calling it a “resounding slap across the face of every African American Democratic voter that shows up faithfully to support Democratic candidates endorsed by the Party.” Francis, who is black, has described himself as a “Jim Hunt Democrat.”
Linda Wilkins-Daniels, president of the caucus, said she was also fed up with other Democratic lawmakers backing McFarlane. She said Francis has been “mistreated” by the party establishment.
“Hunt always talks about how important Democratic unity is,” Wilkins-Daniels said. “But here he is standing behind an unaffiliated person. African-American Democratic voters are really outraged with those people.”
A different tone
More than 44 percent of Raleigh voters are registered Democrats, and 34 percent are registered as unaffiliated. The city hasn’t elected a Republican mayor since 1999.
Francis, who grew up in Southeast Raleigh and has made affordable housing central to his campaign, clearly wants to shake things up.
“Part of the problem in Raleigh, in my opinion, is people take honest criticism and engagement as rudeness,” Francis said. “It’s not rude. What is rude is leaving people in the situation they’re in because you don’t want to deal with issues frankly.”
McFarlane says Francis is misleading voters about what the city’s mayor can and can’t do – and what she’s already done.
“For someone to come in and run against the success we’ve had, the only way to do it is to try to convince people that we’re not doing the things we’re doing,” she said. “I will tell you, it has been very frustrating.”
As for party affiliation, McFarlane says her status as an unaffiliated voter is helpful when she deals with state lawmakers. She helped lead Raleigh’s purchase of the roughly 300-acre Dix Park property from the state for $52 million.
Francis said his support from some prominent Republicans, including Smith and Kieran Shanahan, secretary of public safety under former Gov. Pat McCrory, was evidence of his ability to find common ground across the political spectrum.
“It’s a sign of the problems of our times that people think Democrats and Republicans can’t work well together in business and civics and politics,” Francis said. “Many people who don’t agree with me on specific issues support me because they trust my character. They believe that I’m competent, and they believe I have leadership ability. That’s more important to them than whether we agree on one or more specific issues.”
Gargan: 919-829-4807; @hgargan
Election is Today
Polls will be open from 6:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.
A run-off will be held to elect a Raleigh mayor, and municipal elections are scheduled for Angier, Apex, Durham, Fuquay Varina, Garner, Holly Springs, Knightdale, Morrisville, Rolesville, Wake Forest, Wendell and Zebulon.
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