Much has been said and written about this year’s elections. The campaign was a vigorous one, and we are grateful to all who ran this year, win or lose.
We see two valuable lessons in this year’s elections: First, Chapel Hill voters continue to be divided on some important development questions. The new council will reflect the balance of those perspectives, much like the previous one did. Second, the significant involvement of PAC money in our local elections is a troubling development to watch closely.
In the Chapel Hill Town Council race, some residents felt Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt and incumbent council members had not voted to reflect their preferences about development. These residents and others showed up and voted, resulting in an incumbent mayor and two incumbent council members losing reelection bids.
Some observers have said the election of Pam Hemminger as mayor, along with Jessica Anderson and Nancy Oates to the Town Council, shows recent council decisions were not aligned with the desires of the community at large. We disagree.
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Hemminger and her supporters dedicated significant resources to her campaign, including time and, importantly, money. While it is true that having the support of a political action committee, Chapel Hill Alliance for a Livable Town, was an asset to Hemminger, her campaign infrastructure was greater than the support of a single PAC, and the election results reflect this. Without a dedicated volunteer core supporting her outside of that PAC, we wonder whether she would have been able to pull off the upset she did.
Anderson and Oates, also supported by the CHALT PAC, were elected, but so were incumbent Donna Bell and newcomer Michael Parker. Bell, who finished in second place, has been one of the most vocal council members in support of dense, mixed-use development along transit corridors. Parker supported Obey Creek and the implementation of a form-based code in the Ephesus-Fordham district. Overall, the balance of voices on development issues will change little with the new Town Council.
The outcome of November’s election reflects a divided electorate. The newly elected council members face a challenge in governing a town so divided about future development. With their diverse experiences and backgrounds, council members will benefit from working together to move our community forward. Residents of Chapel Hill have a history of reacting negatively to divisiveness and mean-spirited politics. We hope the new and old council members will remember this when they take their seats.
We also can’t help but wonder what effect the major involvement of a PAC in this year’s election will have on future elections. The CHALT PAC spent over $10,000 to support its candidates, with moderate success. Has the community’s attitude toward special interests in our local elections changed? Chapel Hill’s voter-owned elections program, which existed from 2009 until 2011, sought to limit such influence in elections, as does Chapel Hill’s $336 maximum contribution limit to candidates. Now that a local PAC has set a precedent for big spending in town elections, we wonder what the landscape of local elections will look like two years from now – and whether that’s a good thing for the future of Chapel Hill.
Molly De Marco and Travis Crayton are editors of the blog OrangePolitics.org and live in Chapel Hill.