Republicans have a super-majority in the Legislative Building on Jones Street, but they no longer have a seat on the Raleigh City Council, which meets less than a mile away.
For the first time since 1991, Raleigh voters this year elected a City Council without Republicans.
The nonpartisan council – at one time run by Republican mayors Paul Coble, nephew of the late GOP firebrand Sen. Jesse Helms, and Tom Fetzer, who later helped usher a Republican majority into the North Carolina General Assembly – now consists of five Democrats and three unaffiliated members.
The council lost two Republicans. Voters in District A replaced Wayne Maiorano, who didn’t seek re-election, with Democrat Dickie Thompson. Voters in District B replaced John Odom with unaffiliated neighborhood activist David Cox. Three other Republican challengers fell short of gaining seats.
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Most major American cities are run by Democrats, and those in North Carolina are no exception. Democrats are the majority on councils in Asheville, Chapel Hill, Charlotte, Durham, Greensboro and Winston-Salem.
But Raleigh is now one of only three major N.C. cities, along with Durham and Chapel Hill, with no no Republicans council members. And the change comes amid fears that state lawmakers may attempt to add conservative voices to the City Council by redrawing the council districts, as it did earlier this year with the maps for the Greensboro City Council and Wake County Board of Commissioners.
Last November, voters in the capital county flipped the political leanings of the Wake Board of Commissioners by voting out all four Republicans. The legislature in April then changed the election rules by doing away with at-large voting, adding two new districts and redrawing others in a way that would have preserved the Republican majority had they been in place during the 2014 election.
However, an imminent push to redraw Raleigh’s districts seems unlikely for several reasons.
State leaders say they have a good relationship with Mayor Nancy McFarlane, who’s unaffiliated. And there seems to be future for Republicans – albeit a small number – to make their way back onto the council.
“I’m not sure it was so much a demographic switchover so much as Republicans had a bad election,” said Carter Wrenn, a Republican political consultant.
State Sen. Chad Barefoot, a Raleigh Republican who led the effort to redraw Wake County’s lines, said his only issue with the Raleigh City Council is its practice of holding elections in October on odd-numbered years when turnout is traditionally low.
“They should look at that,” Barefoot said.
State legislators also have a relationship with McFarlane that they don’t have with Wake commissioners or other mayors, said Sen. Tom Apodaca, the Senate Rules Committee chairman.
“I have a lot of respect for Mayor McFarlane. She's a great mayor and a great lady,” the Hendersonville Republican said.
McFarlane was the only mayor who called Apodaca after he decided to retire from the legislature and not seek a second term, he said.
“She’s by far the best metro mayor I’ve encountered, excluding my good friend Dan Clodfelter,” Apodaca said, referring to Charlotte’s mayor. “She’s very easy to communicate with.”
While Democrats soundly beat Republicans in the Wake commissioners elections – by about 30,000 votes – by promising more spending on schools and transit, Raleigh’s races were closer and the issues more varied.
Cox beat Odom, a eight-term incumbent, by 261 votes in central North Raleigh on a neighborhood preservation platform. Cox gained popularity earlier this year by successfully leading an opposition group against a proposed Publix grocery store. Cox and his supporters said Odom appeared more aligned with developers than neighbors.
Eddie Woodhouse, an agriculture expert, tried to preserve the Republican voice in Maiorano’s district. He forced a runoff with Thompson, a developer, in the general election before losing by 1,205 votes.
Though Democrats out-number Republicans 128,000 to 60,000 in Raleigh, their numbers are slipping based on percentage. The percentage of Democrats in Raleigh has dropped from 48 percent in 2010 to 46 percent in 2015, while the number of unaffiliated voters rose from 26 percent to 31 percent over that time.
Meanwhile, districts outside the Beltline remain winnable for Republicans who stay away from partisan rhetoric and focus on non-social issues ‘ike spending and transparency, said Claude Pope, former chairman of the Wake County and North Carolina Republican Party.
While Maiorano and Odom are moderates who ran issue-based campaigns, Woodhouse talked about national issues like immigration on the campaign trail. He mailed pamphlets showing black and white images of supposed immigrants and accused other candidates of wanting to make Raleigh a sanctuary city.
“It was a non-issue, but he was trying to make it an issue,” Pope said. “It appeals to a lot of Republicans, but they’re not the 8 or 9 percent of people who show up to vote in Raleigh.”