In a rare televised debate, Raleigh’s contenders for mayor sparred Friday over affordable housing, Dorothea Dix Park and the prospect of a $165 million government complex – visions that split on whether the city needs to build on its success or help those it left behind.
In a sometimes testy exchange, Mayor Nancy McFarlane described Raleigh as a success story, requiring experienced leadership as its population approaches 600,000 people by 2035.
“People want to move here because of the work we’ve done,” McFarlane said. “It’s our job to manage that growth.”
Her challenger Charles Francis, a Raleigh native and longtime attorney, countered with this characterization: “The people of Raleigh are great. The city of Raleigh is good but not great. ... Too many people are being left out.”
Spectrum taped the debate live at 3 p.m. Friday afternoon, moderated by political reporter and anchor Tim Boyum. It broadcast at 7:30 p.m. Friday on channel 14 for Spectrum customers and will air again at 10 a.m. Sunday.
During the debate, McFarlane made the case for her fourth term by touting Raleigh’s new moves to create economical neighborhoods, most recently the redevelopment of Washington Terrace east of downtown – a project financed partially by a 4 percent tax credit.
“This council has done more for affordable housing than any other council,” she said.
Francis said Raleigh faces a “creeping affordability crisis” that threatens to displace residents, describing the city’s effort “too little, too late.” He stressed the need to save Southeast Raleigh’s Wintershaven, a federally subsidized, 60-unit complex mostly for senior citizens and those with disabilities. An investment group from Texas recently bought the building and plans to upfit the apartments for traditional renters.
Another spending criticism came from Francis in his objection to a new city government complex, which has been estimated at costing $165 million. The challenger said this money could be better spent on affordable housing or letting taxpayers keep the cash and use it to take vacations.
McFarlane, who has said city workers would be more productive working in a new, single campus, described Francis’ argument as “misleading” because the two are not related.
“You can’t say, ‘I’m not going to spend money on City Hall, I’m going to give it to people on vacation,’ ” she told reporters afterward. “That’s a false choice.”
The candidates have about two and a half weeks of campaigning before a Nov. 7 runoff election. After McFarlane, an unaffiliated candidate, took 48.45 percent of the vote in a three-way contest earlier this month, Francis, a Democrat, called for the second vote – his right because no candidate took a 50 percent majority. Francis finished with 36.7 percent of the vote, while Republican Paul Fitts finished with 14.76.
McFarlane pledged to seek nonpartisan support in her re-election bid, but Francis said his opponent had declined to meet Republicans and was talking “out of both sides of her mouth.”
Francis, who has frequently accused McFarlane of being disconnected from residents and their concerns, said her lack of response to calls for a televised debate earlier in the campaign proved his point.
Raleigh’s mayoral candidates do not typically participate in televised debates.
On Monday, McFarlane said she had in fact debated Francis at various candidate forums the two had attended. But she agreed to work with Francis and area networks to schedule a one-on-one, televised event. It’s the first one-on-one televised mayoral debate since before McFarlane first ran for the office in 2011.
During Friday’s debate, McFarlane praised the city’s support for Dix Park, purchased from the state during her time as mayor, predicting it will be “an economic driver for this city for generations.” Francis, who has taken issue with the roughly $50 million spent on Dix, stated his support for it Friday – an endorsement McFarlane characterized as a switch in position.
The mayor also defended making the city’s bike lanes a priority – “Bike lanes save lives,” she said – addressing another criticism from Francis’ campaign. Francis, though, noted that while parks in Raleigh are important, “It’s not right that there are parks in Southeast Raleigh that still don’t have air conditioning in the gym.”
Both candidates offered this final hope: Heavy voter turnout in November.