When Charles Francis announced he was running for Raleigh mayor, political observers speculated that he was actually setting himself up to be the frontrunner to succeed Mayor Nancy McFarlane in 2019. Otherwise, challenging the mayor didn’t make sense. She is popular, has an effective record during a time of growth and prosperity in Raleigh and, if reelected, likely would make her fourth two-year term her final one.
But Tuesday’s results now force Francis, a Raleigh attorney, to make a new calculation. McFarlane, with 48.45 percent of the vote, fell just short of the 50 percent plus one level needed to win outright. Francis, who finished second with a 36.67 percent of the vote, can call for a runoff election on Nov. 7.
Francis is entitled to take on McFarlane head-to-head, but doing so would not serve him or the city well. Francis has shown his appeal in predominately African-American districts, but he is unlikely to defeat the mayor citywide. Presumably, the majority of votes cast for Republican Paul Fitts, who finished with 14.76 of the vote, will go to McFarlane, an independent, rather than to Francis, who was endorsed by the Wake County Democratic Party in what is ostensibly a nonpartisan race.
Francis can concede gracefully and position himself as a frontrunner to succeed McFarlane. Or he can attempt to unseat her in a low-turnout runoff. To win, he will have to energize his base with a campaign that will divide the city between those who support its robust but managed growth and those who feel left out or left behind.
Certainly the equity of how Raleigh’s gains are being distributed is worth a debate, especially as it regards gentrification in Southeast Raleigh and the loss of affordable housing in much of the city. But that debate will go on without making it a haves vs. have-nots issue that splits the city.
McFarlane and the City Council members, most notably Russ Stephenson, have acknowledged and are addressing the need for Raleigh to move forward together. The council dedicated one penny of the city’s property tax toward affordable housing, a levy that has generated $6 million annually and will generate more as the city’s tax base grows.
A runoff election should sort out crowded races where the public’s will isn’t clear. But the three-way race for mayor produced a clear-cut result with McFarlane leading the runner up by nearly 12 percentage points. Francis can force the city through a fight for the mayor’s office, or he can use his runner-up status to position himself for the next election. What he chooses to do as a candidate will tell a lot about how he would lead as a mayor.
Francis has his chance to make his case. He outspent the incumbent and ran an aggressive campaign that became increasingly negative and personal. But he failed to define his priorities beyond vague pledges to increase “affordable housing” and a theme of “Raleigh can do better.” Francis can turn his audition into an encore, but he risks losing for good any shot at landing the role of Raleigh’s mayor.