The race for two at-large seats on the Raleigh City Council is heating up, as candidates and activists decry an ad that attacks longtime Democratic councilwoman Mary-Ann Baldwin.
Baldwin, up for a fifth term, is one of four candidates – including Craig Ralph, Matt Tomasulo and incumbent Russ Stephenson – running for the at-large seats.
The ad was published Wednesday on the back page of the North Raleigh News and Midtown Raleigh News, free community papers owned by The N&O. It was paid for by Wake Citizens for Good Government, a political action committee chaired by prominent liberal activist Dean Debnam, owner of Public Policy Polling.
The ad shows a young, drunken-looking man leaning on a lamp post as if he might vomit and suggests Baldwin wants to turn downtown into “DrunkTown.” It comes nearly two months after a five-member City Council majority approved new restrictions on bars and restaurants in downtown Raleigh.
Baldwin voted against the restrictions. Debnam gave $5,100 in campaign cash to Stephenson, who voted in favor of the rules and is the only at-large candidate who supports them.
The rules aim to reduce the number of people on the sidewalks on and near Fayetteville Street by limiting downtown bars and restaurants to serving one person per 15 square feet of their sidewalk space. The rules also require businesses to stop serving patrons on the sidewalk at midnight Sunday through Thursday. Service that begins on Friday and Saturday nights would have to end at 1 a.m. Saturday and Sunday.
The move drew support from some downtown residents, who said the nightlife crowds were noisy and messy. But it drew harsh criticism from business owners, services workers and patrons who said the rules significantly hurt their profits and tempered Raleigh’s nightlife.
The downtown drinking rules have become a campaign issue, with bar owners contributing to campaigns of candidates who oppose the new rules. The Wake Citizens PAC launched the ad and an associated campaign that will run through Election Day in an attempt to combat what they see as a “disproportionate” amount of influence bar owners and restaurateurs have had on the campaign, said Michael Weisel, a spokesman for the PAC. He declined to provide details about the campaign.
Baldwin said she opposed the rules because the service cutoff times hurt businesses too much and aren’t effective in reducing crowd noise. She thinks the city could have reduced noise and cleared sidewalks through existing rules, which city staff have said they haven’t enforced strongly.
“Some council members” think Raleigh should allow bar and nightclub owners to “define our city’s center,” the ad says, but Baldwin is the only council member mentioned. She said the statements are false. She said she has never said bars should be downtown’s main attraction. She noted that she asked city staff at the May 5 council meeting to form a task force to bring more retail downtown.
The ad suggests Baldwin and other candidates are “trying to reshape the city’s downtown with liberal liquor laws that will make downtown DrunkTown.” Liquor laws are controlled by the state government, and Baldwin said she has never lobbied to change liquor laws and does not plan to. Baldwin said she wants to look at policies that would make streets more attractive and push the sidewalk service cutoff from 1 a.m. to 2 a.m. on weekends.
The ad also suggests Baldwin “pushed” candidates Ashton Mae Smith to run for council in District D and “Mike” Tomasulo to run for an at-large seat so “she can control city hall.” Tomasulo’s first name is Matt. Baldwin, Smith and Tomasulo all deny the allegations.
“It’s really disappointing that the level of conversation has dropped to this,” Smith said. “We had maintained an adultlike and intelligent dialogue up until now.”
Weisel said he and Debnam had no comment on the accuracy of the ads.
“The ad speaks for itself,” Weisel said.
The ad encourages downtown residents to call Baldwin to say they “didn’t sign up to live in a college dorm.”
Democratic activists said they were disturbed by the ad and by fear that Debnam could split the party. Like Baldwin, Stephenson is also a Democrat.
“On the vast majority of issues that could affect us far more than this ever could, we all agree,” Brian Fitzsimmons, chairman of the Wake Democratic Party, said in a statement. “The success of our city is not contingent upon this issue and this issue alone.
Debnam, who owns the Boylan-Pearce building on Fayetteville Street and plans to move there, issued a statement defending the ad.
“The truth is most residents are fed up with public drunkenness and the added late night noise of operating bars on the sidewalks in downtown,” he said.
Stephenson said he doesn’t agree with the allegations in the ad.
“It’s unfortunate,” he said. “It’s a distraction from really important issues particularly related to this once-in-a-lifetime citywide rezoning.”