Cultivating Future Leaders

Mary-Ann Baldwin shares why it’s time to leave City Council and her hopes for Raleigh’s future

She’s been called blunt and polarizing, but Mary-Ann Baldwin has inarguably been one of the most effective members Raleigh has seen on its city council in the last ten years. That’s why, when she announced she wouldn’t seek re-election for a sixth term to her at-large seat this fall, some were glad, some were disappointed, and many were surprised.

In an interview in early August, Baldwin said she’s comfortable not running again because, with “two good candidates,” Stacy Miller and Nicole Stewart, running for two at-large seats, she feels she’ll be “leaving the city in good hands.”

“I came to the conclusion that I could maybe be more effective outside the system than inside,” Baldwin says. “I want to be able to move things along quicker, and it’s somebody else’s turn. We don’t do enough to cultivate future leaders, and I didn’t want to be standing in the way.”

The Party Line

Baldwin also supports some of the council’s current members. One of five registered Democrats on an ostensibly non-partisan council, she says she was miffed when the Wake County Democratic Party endorsed Democratic attorney, Charles Francis, over the unaffiliated, longtime incumbent Mayor Nancy McFarlane, whom it had always supported in the past.

“I understand why they felt they had to do that, on the principle of their bylaws,” she says. “But I have to shake my head. Here is a woman they’ve embraced as a candidate for ten years. How can they leave her out in the cold because someone else puts a D behind their name? It concerns me for the future of the party.”

The local Democratic party also endorsed registered Democrat Stefanie Mendell in District E, who is running against incumbent Bonner Gaylord. Gaylord is unaffiliated, and the party has supported him, too, in the past. Baldwin says these endorsements could affect their respective races, if they go to a runoff for instance, as happened in District A in 2015.

“I have to ask, ‘is this really how we want to choose candidates?,’ and I don’t know the answer,” she says.

Looking Back

Baldwin does know she has achieved what she wanted to achieve and won the respect of her colleagues—even those she clashed with over her perceived friendliness to businesses and developers.

“Regarding the issue of development, we have often disagreed,” wrote council member David Cox of Baldwin on his District B Facebook page. “That said, Mary-Ann was true to her positions. I respect that and I respect her many years of service to Raleigh.”

Baldwin began her service to Raleigh as one of six candidates in the at-large race in the fall of 2007, during the run-up to the Great Recession.

“I ran on a pro-transit, pro-public art platform, and I wanted to improve communication with the legislature,” Baldwin says. “I looked at where I started, what I had accomplished, and what we as a city have accomplished. I’d gotten done most of the things I had set out to do. That was liberating.”

Indeed, the Wake County transit referendum passed easily last fall and will expand bus services in Raleigh significantly. Union Station will open soon, and it’s hard to turn around in downtown Raleigh without catching sight of a colorful mural or mobile sculpture. As for improving communication with the legislature, it’s safe to say Raleigh would never have secured the Dix Park property if relations with state leaders had remained as frosty as they were in 2011.

Baldwin credits Mayor McFarlane’s skillful negotiations, and her status as an Independent, with that Dix Park victory, but she has a slew of victories of her own, the most meaningful of which was likely opening the Oak City Outreach Center to serve Raleigh’s homeless population.

Four years ago, city police threatened to arrest local pastors for handing out biscuits and coffee to homeless people in Moore Square Park. Angry letters from all over the country flooded council members’ inboxes, criticizing them, and the city generally, for lacking compassion. The debacle became known as “Biscuitgate,” and Raleigh looked bad on the national stage—but not for long.

Baldwin, chair of the council’s Law and Public Safety committee, organized a series of community meetings where hundreds of stakeholders came together to discuss better ways of assisting the city’s homeless residents. They came up with a short-term solution, to use a vacant Salvation Army warehouse the city had just purchased to provide meals, restrooms and a gathering space on the weekends when shelters are closed.

Last winter, in partnership with Wake County, the city agreed to spend $3.1 million to renovate an unused, 30,000-square-foot building on S. Wilmington Street that will serve as a permanent, one-stop services center for homeless and impoverished people. Expected to open in 2019, Baldwin envisions the new center as a place where people can take a shower, receive mail, use a computer, practice interview skills, and, of course, get a meal.

“That was the heartstrings part,” Baldwin says. “It’s important for the city and county to work together. [The city] doesn’t do human services, per se, but we have to help the people who live here as well. It’s our responsibility.”

Other accomplishments she’s proud of, she says, are her roles in bringing software company Citrix—which purchased Raleigh startup ShareFile—to downtown’s Warehouse district, as well as nurturing the city’s emerging entrepreneurs and startup community through Innovate Raleigh, the nonprofit she co-founded in 2011. It wasn’t long before Raleigh began ranking high on lists of best U.S. cities for businesses, Millennials and tech workers.

Overall, Baldwin says, she doesn’t have many disappointments. But she does believe the city could be bolder, and points to the council’s nearly three years of inaction on regulating short-term rentals, such as AirBnB, as an example.

“We say we’re bold, but we need to be willing to act on it,” she says. “We have to let things go and move forward. To some extent, we suffer from ‘analysis paralysis.’ It doesn’t have to be a perfect decision; we can look at it again in six months.”

Baldwin says it will be crucial in the next few years for the council to address three areas. The first is continuing to invest in city infrastructure, including broadband, smart technology, and transit and transportation—a $200 million transportation bond appears on the ballot this fall.

The second area, Baldwin says, is continuing to invest in innovation and economic development. That includes investing in businesses and entrepreneurs—startups and downtown retailers, for instance—but it also includes investing in parks, greenways, and other civic spaces such as the Dorothea Dix property and the Neuse River trails. To that end, she’d like the city to find a way to engage citizens better, to find out what is most important to them and what they’d like to see happen in Raleigh.

Finally, Baldwin says, the city needs to be compassionate.

“Young people, people of color, they have real concerns about their ability to continue to live here,” Baldwin says.

Though the city and county have taken initial steps—the city raised property taxes by a cent to pay for affordable housing, and Wake County will invest more than $20 million in a new school that will go up alongside affordable housing and a YMCA in southeast Raleigh—there’s a lot more work to be done.

“We also have to engage our development community; that’s something the new council will grapple with,” Baldwin says. “If there’s one thing I could get done in the next four months, it would be helping to deal with issues of generational poverty. We have a lot of children and families who are hungry, who live in substandard housing, which in turn impacts their ability to do well in school. It’s a vicious cycle.”

The Future

As for what she’ll do next, Baldwin says she is looking forward to reclaiming an active role at Innovate Raleigh and pursuing passions outside of government. Maybe, she says, she’ll work on bringing a Major League Soccer team to downtown.

“I’m not a soccer fan, never played it, but I went to the rally and the passion I saw, I was blown away,” she says.

More than a thousand people showed up to a July rally to support bringing professional soccer to an underused stretch of parking decks and aging state buildings near downtown’s northern gateway. Baldwin says new amenities and walkable connections would revitalize an area where dense private development is already planned, and that soccer could foster community connection in ways the city has never seen before.

“It was newborns to 70-year-olds, every shade of brown, white, and what-not,” Baldwin continues. “I heard people speaking so many different languages, and I became a convert. We need to figure out a way to do this. We can make it happen if we just have to have the will.”

If soccer in Raleigh becomes her next passion project, look forward to going to North Carolina F.C. games in a couple of years. Baldwin is in the major leagues of getting things done.

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