Kay Crowder lived city politics for 15 years, dining at a thousand events and meeting an endless stream of people alongside her husband, the late councilman Thomas Crowder.
She was his companion and his counselor, helping him sort through the debates that he was always starting, with gusto, in his years as an elected leader of Raleigh.
She now thinks of those years as an apprenticeship, preparation to take his spot at the curved city council table beneath the city’s huge oak emblem. But it wasn’t always so obvious.
“When Thomas first got sick, he said, ‘If something happens to me and I don’t survive, I want you to take my seat,’” she recalled this week, sitting in the modernist home he designed for them.
Thomas Crowder was diagnosed with testicular cancer in March 2013. Local politics was furthest from his wife’s mind.
“I said, ‘We’re not going to think about that. This is curable,’” she said.
Thomas died last October at age 58, just weeks after resigning his council seat in the face of advancing illness. The council appointed his widow to the seat soon afterward. The couple’s 30th anniversary passed last month.
Kay Crowder started showing up, and then speaking up, at city council meetings.
This week, six months to the week after his passing, she announced that she would run for election to the seat as their term concludes this year. No challenger has yet emerged.
A new platform
Like her husband did, Kay Crowder puts her priority on the city’s existing neighborhoods. Her District D already is carpeted with West Raleigh’s residential neighborhoods, and it faces intense developer interest along Hillsborough Street.
“It was always, just like myself, protection of neighborhoods, and keeping the character of our history, so we don’t forget who we are,” she said. “How do the two harmonize? How can we protect our neighborhoods and also have development that our city needs to grow?”
Still, she plans a different approach than her husband took. Former Mayor Charles Meeker called Thomas Crowder a bulldog, and others would say he was bullheaded.
“He would throw his ideas out there – lob them and throw them and let happen what happened, the fury around it,” Crowder said.
She describes herself as a consensus builder. A graduate of Cary High School, she worked for decades in marketing and television advertising – the business of persuading – even selling ad time for the Super Bowl.
Crowder has some natural allies on the council and beyond. Phil Poe, a longtime presence in political circles, will be part of her campaign team.
Thomas Crowder “asked me to help Kay anyway I could, particularly with the (Unified Development Ordinance),” Poe said. “He gave a lot of assignments to a lot of people.”
Crowder also counts Councilman Russ Stephenson – a detail-oriented architect, like Thomas Crowder was – among her close friends.
“She’s been totally impressive,” Stephenson said. “What I didn’t know was the extent to which she really embraced the role. You look across the landscape, and there’s not a whole lot of people who have the commitment to give that much of their time, their effort.”
She has seemed at ease at the council table, building a rapport with her husband’s one-time sparring partners such as Councilwoman Mary-Ann Baldwin. She and Baldwin often can be seen joking and talking before meetings.
If elected, Crowder says she would leverage those relationships toward a few specific policy goals.
She wants to rework the Unified Development Ordinance to allow for more council review of some details of development proposals, especially questions about traffic impact.
She also plans to look at stricter stream protections, and to bring more residents downtown. Complaints about noise and trash will fade, she thinks, as more daytime businesses come downtown.
She wants to see more affordable housing – she calls it workforce housing – and she figures that buses are the city’s strongest form of transportation.
“We have to change the experience,” she said. “It has to be clean and safe and on time. Fifteen-minute (frequency), WiFi, a way to buy a pass ... on your smart phone.”
A new path
Crowder, 59, and her late husband both have deep roots in the city. She is a direct descendant of Isaac Hunter, and he was a direct descendant of the Lane family – two parties deeply involved in the creation of Raleigh as the state capital in the late 1700s.
Kay and Thomas, though, didn’t meet until they were both 30, in 1985. There’s a huge photo of him on the wall of their home, posing in an open white shirt, mullet down the back of his neck and sunglasses in hand, a different image from his final days with cancer.
“He was so honest and trustworthy,” Crowder said. “I think that’s what I loved about him – we didn’t have drama. We were both 30. We’d kind of done the wild drama things.”
She lives now with Leo, their miniature 11-year-old schnauzer. Their two children are grown.
“After Thomas died, and I got past the initial shock, I looked at my life,” she said. “I had this path planned, and all of a sudden the path has changed.”