Wake County

Challenger sees Southeast Raleigh as key to unseating incumbent mayor

Mayoral candidate Charles Francis greets a supporter as he and about 75 other people march from Shaw University to the Wake County Board of Elections to vote on Thursday, Oct. 5, 2017.
Mayoral candidate Charles Francis greets a supporter as he and about 75 other people march from Shaw University to the Wake County Board of Elections to vote on Thursday, Oct. 5, 2017. hgargan@newsobserver.com

Turia Virgil has lived in Southeast Raleigh all her life, but she said she never voted in the city’s mayoral elections until this week.

She cast her ballot for Charles Francis, a Raleigh native who is challenging three-term incumbent Mayor Nancy McFarlane. Paul Fitts is also running.

“Even your middle-aged folks, 40 and beyond, this is their first time voting in all their years in Raleigh,” Virgil said Thursday during an early-voting event. “My grandmother, my aunts and uncles, I told them who I was campaigning for, and they’re going to be voting this week and Tuesday. (Francis) has got Southeast Raleigh. We’re going to turn up for him.”

Francis, an attorney and businessman, grew up in Southeast Raleigh, a predominantly African-American part of the city. He’s urging black voters to go to the polls for Tuesday’s election, and some people say he has rejuvenated voters who have ignored the mayoral race in the past.

On Thursday, Francis attended a “march-to-the-polls” event sponsored by Shaw University and Common Cause, a nonpartisan voter advocacy group.

“If only a quarter of African-American voters vote – and vote the right way – we’re going to win,” said Francis, who would be the city’s second black mayor. Clarence Lightner served from 1973 to 1975.

Turnout for municipal elections is typically low. In 2015, 13.3 percent of registered voters in Raleigh cast ballots, down from 15.3 percent two years prior and 21.2 percent in 2011, when McFarlane was first elected mayor.

African-Americans make up more than one-fourth of the Raleigh electorate, but only 7 percent cast ballots in 2015 for mayor.

Many of the roughly 75 people at the march Thursday wore gray “Francis for Mayor” shirts.

U.S. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey is set to appear at a rally for Francis at Southeast Raleigh High School on Saturday. Booker will be in town for the annual NAACP state convention.

Mayor Nancy McFarlane Chris Seward cseward@newsobserver.com

Despite enthusiasm for Francis, McFarlane isn’t giving up hope on winning support in Southeast Raleigh, said campaign spokesman Perry Woods.

“We’re campaigning in every part of town, and we’re not conceding Southeast Raleigh,” he said. “It’s a low-turnout race, but we’re confident we’re going to get our share, and that includes voters in Southeast Raleigh.”

On Thursday, some people at the march said they knew Francis long ago or they trust he will address the most pressing problems facing Raleigh’s black community. Francis has said the city needs to focus more on affordable housing.

“People feel like they have a choice,” said Wanda Hunter, a bookkeeper who lives in Southeast Raleigh. “When you talk about the issues that affect everyday people, that’s when you gain momentum. They start to believe in you, have faith in you. And I feel like my vote may count this time because I have someone who will stand up for what I need them to stand up for.”

Jessica Signal and Angel Jarman said they hoped Francis would focus on policies that affect people with criminal records, who often struggle to find work and secure housing. Signal said she once heard Francis speak to a nonprofit she runs to help ex-convicts get back on their feet.

Both cast their ballots for Francis on Thursday.

“When I walked out of there, I felt so good knowing I voted for someone that cares about the community, about me and my community,” Jarman said.

Virgil said she didn’t expect Francis or anyone else to solve her community’s problems overnight. Race will continue to play a role in society, she said, regardless of how many minority candidates are elected to office.

“It comes down to the color factor,” Virgil said. “It’s always in there somewhere, and it needs to blow over. But no matter how many people you put in this office, no matter how many presidents we put in office, it’s not going to blow over.”

Gargan: 919-829-4807; @hgargan