Raleigh voters choose to stay the course

Raleigh mayor Nancy McFarlane looks over returns during an election night party.
Raleigh mayor Nancy McFarlane looks over returns during an election night party. tlong@newsobserver.com

It was certainly one of the more interesting Raleigh elections in recent times, even though only 11 percent of registered voters thought it was interesting enough to move them to vote. Of course, had the Republican-run General Assembly not switched the Wake County school board election to even-numbered years, the turnout might have been twice what it was.

Nevertheless, a contentious confrontation between downtown bar owners who want to maintain their access to public sidewalks until 2 a.m. and downtown residents and council members who wanted to curb that access by a modest one hour, stirred interest. But the results didn’t bring any comfort for those bar owners.

Young newcomers Ashton Smith, 28, with the Citrix corporation, and Matt Tomasulo, 33, an entrepreneur who has backed alternative transportation including the walking routes he’s turned into a nationwide online business, made the race interesting. Smith was soundly defeated by appointed incumbent Kay Crowder, who did a good job for Southwest Raleigh’s District D, following the death of her husband, Thomas Crowder. Tomasulo lost to two incumbent at-large members.

Crowder was heartily endorsed by her constituents, and she’s a strong ally of Mayor Nancy McFarlane, who got a third term in a landslide. Both Crowder and at-large incumbent Russ Stephenson, who won a sixth term, supported the mayor in shortening those sidewalk hours for downtown bars. So did Dickie Thompson, headed for a runoff for the open seat in District A, central-North Raleigh. And so did David Cox, who unseated long-time Northeast Raleigh District B council member John Odom.

So the mayor will go into her third term with a strong base of support.

Mary-Ann Baldwin, who topped the voter-getters as an at-large candidate seeking a fifth term, favored the bar owners and seemed to be grouped with several candidates supported by the owners. That strategy appears to have fallen short and may prove troublesome. Baldwin is going into a new term with few allies, given the loss of Eugene Weeks, who was defeated by strong newcomer Corey Branch in Southeast Raleigh’s District C.

Baldwin, of course, hopes to run for mayor in two years, likely facing District E’s re-elected incumbent, Bonner Gaylord, who won a third term. But the bad news for Gaylord is that an underfunded, lesser-known opponent, Edie Jeffreys, got nearly 37 percent of the vote in the Northwest Raleigh district. That’s a signal to Gaylord to mend fences and pay closer attention to the outlying areas of his North Raleigh district.

And McFarlane, riding a strong endorsement from the voters, may run for re-election again, which given her popularity would take Baldwin and Gaylord (he also was supported by bar owners) out of contention.

It’s going to be a challenging year or two for a new council. Odom was a strong, thoughtful council member (eight terms total) and his conciliatory voice will be missed. Cox would do well to seek his counsel. Southeast Raleigh is liable to have a more vocal representative in Branch, and Crowder will likely have a leadership role, given her strong showing and her allegiance to McFarlane.

The council’s big issues will be orderly growth, maintenance of infrastructure, affordable housing and transportation. Those haven’t changed much, and this council and those all over North Carolina will be hindered by a legislature not inclined to help urban areas. McFarlane and her allies have dealt with challenges as well as they could, and they’ll have to be creative over these next two years as well.

In addition, proposed changes in zoning to thousands of properties to facilitate “mixed use” structures favored by developers will be on the table. The new council appears to be inclined to be guarded about change and neighborhood-centric. The changes could be a tussle, and it should be something that the new council, not the current one, acts upon.

Overall, though, this election presented a healthy airing of views, some change, and some comfort in stability as well.