Ned Barnett

Young Raleigh seeks a voice on the City Council

Before The News & Observer endorsed candidates for Raleigh mayor and City Council, each of the 18 hopefuls came by the newspaper for a half-hour interview. Talking to all of them provided more than a sense of who they are. It also revealed the themes running through the city’s politics.

Common themes, of course, were coping with growth and developing transit. But a new thread was a divide between generations. It is not the generation gap that baby boomers knew. There isn’t hostility or alienation. The younger candidates appreciate the way Raleigh has been governed and the way it has grown. The older ones value the vitality and creativity young people are bringing to the city’s downtown.

This divide is about questions of timing and pace. When is it time for a younger generation to assert itself, to have a role in the city’s leadership? Raleigh is growing fast, but is its leadership keeping up?

Matt Tomasulo, 33, may not win an at-large seat, but he already represents the rising, younger Raleigh. He grew up in Hartford, Conn., and came to Raleigh to study design at N.C. State and stayed.

A few years ago, he started an informal campaign to promote walking in the city by posting signs listing how many minutes it takes to walk to places in Raleigh. The postings ran afoul of city rules, but the city decided to embrace the idea as a pilot program. Tomasulo has since made a successful consulting business out of telling other cities how to promote their “walkability.”

Tomasulo said he represents “voices that haven’t been heard.” He said the city’s leaders have done “a great job up to this point,” but they now are struggling to keep up with growth, the city’s changing demographics and the culture of a generation shaped by digital communication and drawn to urban living.

Tomasulo has worked with city officials and with young entrepreneurs who are part of downtown Raleigh’s revival. He said, “I like to think I could be a bridge between these two generations.”

Other young candidates said it was time for younger leadership on a council where six of the seven members seeking too stay on are over 55. Running in Southwest Raleigh’s District D, Ashton Smith, 28, has connections to the old and the new Raleigh. She grew up in Raleigh and is an employee of Citrix, the software company that contributed to downtown’s boom by building its headquarters in the Warehouse District. She thinks it’s time to tap “the energy of people who want to be involved.”

In Southeast Raleigh’s District C, Corey Branch, 37, is trying to unseat Eugene Weeks, 75. Branch, a Southeast Raleigh native, said it’s time for a candidate with a “vision of the future” who can bring the benefits of growth that have bypassed much of Southeast Raleigh. It’s time, he said, for the old guard of the city’s African-American leaders to let go. “There has been a generation of individuals who have held on to power,” he said.

In District E, covering much of North Raleigh, DeAntony Collins, 31, doesn’t stress generational change. The district’s incumbent, Bonner Gaylord, is, after all, the council’s youngest member at 37. But Collins does make a complaint that resonates with younger people. He thinks the council is detached from residents’ concerns. “Officials should be more responsive,” he said. “People want to be heard.”

Unfortunately, the youth movement in city politics has become entangled with the issue of how to handle bars that have sidewalk seating for patrons. Where one stands on limiting sidewalk drinking supposedly has become the dividing line between people who support the “vitality” of downtown and those who “don’t get” how the city is changing.

It’s a false test. Middle-age leaders such as former Mayor Charles Meeker and current Mayor Nancy McFarlane, along with middle-age investors, restauranteurs and, yes, bar owners, are the ones who opened the way for downtown’s rebirth.

But the debate over the late-night character of downtown – or, as a full-page ad put it, “drunktown” – does expose an emerging divide between people focused on Raleigh’s urban quality and those who value the quiet, leafy character of the City of Oaks. The city’s new comprehensive plan offers blueprints for enhancing the former and preserving the latter, but city leaders are having trouble translating the plan into zoning through a unified development ordinance, or UDO.

That difficulty, as much as late-night rowdiness, suggests that the council has either lost its focus or is being outrun by growth. Though it likely won’t happen this election, it’s clear that the city’s leadership needs to engage and include one of the forces behind that growth – young Raleigh.

Barnett: 919-829-4512, nbarnett@newsobserver.com

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