Wake County

The quiet evolution of Nancy McFarlane, Raleigh’s not-so-controversial mayor

Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane talks during a City Council meeting on June 21, 2016.
Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane talks during a City Council meeting on June 21, 2016. ehyman@newsobserver.com

Nancy McFarlane feels misunderstood.

The mayor of Raleigh, one of the fastest-growing cities in the nation, knows what her critics are saying about her: She’s out of touch and aloof. She doesn’t smile enough. She’s not very friendly.

McFarlane, 61, insists she’s not being rude. She describes herself as an introvert who prefers to sit back and observe instead of taking charge of a conversation.

“I really try to process and understand and take in the dynamics,” McFarlane said recently in her City Hall office, where the walls are covered in artwork and photos – a ballerina, a personalized cartoon, a picture of her posing with former President Barack Obama.

On Tuesday, voters will decide whether to elect McFarlane to a fourth two-year term as mayor. She won easily the past three election cycles as an unaffiliated candidate with left-leaning ideas, but for the first time she’s facing a formidable Democratic candidate in Raleigh lawyer Charles Francis. The Wake County Democratic Party has supported McFarlane in the past but is now backing Francis, who has raised more money than McFarlane.

A third candidate, Republican Paul Fitts, could get support from the city’s most-conservative voters.

McFarlane says she worries voters won’t go to the polls because they like what’s happening in Raleigh and don’t want a change in leadership.

“I take nothing for granted,” McFarlane said. “Complacency is the problem.”

Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts lost the Democratic primary last month in a bid to keep her seat. Some thought Roberts was divisive, as she battled the General Assembly over LGBT rights and the “bathroom bill” that prompted athletic tournaments and entertainers to cancel events in North Carolina.

In Raleigh, McFarlane took a quieter approach. She issued a statement in support of the transgender community, saying Raleigh treats all “businesses, citizens and visitors with the utmost respect,” regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

“There’s a way to let people know you’re angry without standing in the middle of the street yelling,” said Mary-Ann Baldwin, a City Council member who is not seeking re-election this year.

“I think Nancy handled it right,” Baldwin said, describing McFarlane’s leadership style as “patient” and “deliberate.”

McFarlane said a big part of being mayor is working with state lawmakers on everything from funding for Raleigh-Durham International Airport to cleaning up Falls Lake. It wasn’t in the city’s best interest, she said, to cause a scene over the controversial House Bill 2.

“If I yell, Raleigh is the one that hurts,” McFarlane said.

Touting growth

The mayor says the city of nearly 460,000 people needs stability as big projects get off the ground. She’s most proud of her negotiations with the state to buy Dix Park, a roughly 300-acre site near downtown. It will likely take two more years to plan the park’s future. The Wake Transit Plan, a countywide initiative that Raleigh is helping to implement, is ramping up bus service, and the Union Station transit hub is set to open next year.

McFarlane has supported these projects and more, showing up at public events and touting Raleigh’s growth and success. But who is the mayor, really?

She’s creative, for one thing. At home, she likes to play classical music on the piano, quilt and make art with stained glass. She enjoys sewing and used to make her kids’ Halloween costumes. (Her daughter once dressed up as Vincent van Gogh.) She spends a lot of time with her 3-year-old granddaughter.

“One thing I don’t think people realize is how funny she is,” Baldwin said. “She has a great sense of humor.”

But that doesn’t always come across to some people, who say McFarlane has become out of touch. Some of her biggest critics seem to be leaders of the city’s citizen advisory councils, resident-led groups that meet regularly and vote on development proposals before they go to the planning commission and City Council. Last year, a task force launched by the city recommended several changes that some said would de-emphasize the groups.

“A great city has great neighborhoods, and if you destroy those neighborhoods you have destroyed the city,” said Donna Bailey, who co-chairs the Wade CAC and is supporting Francis.

Developers are building new projects, including student-housing complexes on Hillsborough Street, “and we’re the ones left living with those impacts,” Bailey said.

McFarlane said it was never her intention to dismantle the CACs. She just wanted to make them better and get more residents involved as Raleigh continues to grow.

She got her start in local politics after advocating for her own North Raleigh neighborhood more than a decade ago. As president of the Greystone subdivision homeowners association, McFarlane regularly came downtown “fussing at the City Council” about stormwater runoff. The council listened, eventually putting in place new regulations.

“I get it,” McFarlane said. “I love all of these neighborhoods. ... But I’ve also got a million people coming (to Raleigh). Where am I going to put them? Where are they going to shop?”

Affordable housing

Francis, 54, has sharply criticized McFarlane for not doing enough to help Raleigh’s poorest communities. The city should be focusing more on building affordable housing, Francis has said.

McFarlane agrees families need more reasonably priced places to live. Last year, the City Council approved a 2-cent property-tax increase, half of which is allocated for more affordable housing. But McFarlane said the council is limited by state laws that prevent local governments from requiring developers to include affordable units in new construction.

“I can’t control the market,” McFarlane said. “I can’t tell people that own property that they can’t sell it.”

She said she would like the city to be allowed to require developers who demolish affordable-housing units to pay into a special fund, but “I don’t have the legal power to do that.”

Then there are some residents who push back against plans for affordable housing near their homes.

“Everybody says they want affordable housing, but do they want it next to them?” McFarlane said. “If you don’t want it in your district, then you don’t support affordable housing.”

In the past year, the council has navigated another polarizing issue: wages for the city’s police officers and firefighters, who earned among the lowest pay for first responders in Wake County. The city bumped up their pay and put in place a new wage structure for all Raleigh employees, but there were hurt feelings along the way.

“The current mayor has done a good job overall, but it feels at times that public safety is put on the back burner,” said Shawn Burns, president of the Raleigh Professional Fire Fighters Association.

Burns said the city has been quick to spend money on parks and bike lanes, while some firefighters are still trying to figure out what the new pay structure means for them.

“We want to be treated fairly,” he said.

In the end, McFarlane seemed pleased with the way it all turned out.

Meanwhile, McFarlane says she is trying to step out of her comfort zone and talk to people on a more personal level. On a recent day, she said, she overheard two women on the street say they thought she was the mayor.

“I perked up and said, “Did you say ‘mayor?’ ” McFarlane recalled.

In the past, McFarlane probably wouldn’t have stopped to talk. But she said she was glad she did.

Sarah Nagem: 919-829-4635, @sarah_nagem

Nancy McFarlane

Bio: McFarlane, 61, grew up near Washington, D.C., earned a degree in pharmacy and moved to Raleigh more than 35 years ago. She and her husband have three children. In 2014 she sold her pharmacy business. McFarlane was first elected to the Raleigh City Council in 2007 and has served as mayor since 2011.

Issues: McFarlane wants to continue working on the master plan for Dix Park, a sprawling green space off of Western Boulevard near downtown. She said she wants to continue to focus on public transportation and affordable housing.

Endorsements/affiliations: McFarlane is an unaffiliated voter. She has been endorsed by several state leaders, including N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein and former Gov. Jim Hunt. She has been endorsed by several Wake County elected leaders and also the Sierra Club and Equality NC.

Fundraising: McFarlane’s campaign has raised about $202,000. That includes a $50,000 loan from her to the campaign.