A look at the issues as incumbent Nancy McFarlane and her challenger, Charles Francis, battle it out for the top seat in Raleigh.
Raleigh’s gearing up for a mayoral showdown November 7, four weeks after Mayor Nancy McFarlane failed to secure 50 percent of the votes she needed to win re-election outright. Things have gotten heated with the mayor and her opponent, Democrat Charles Francis, sparring in televised interviews—McFarlane has called Francis partisan and has tried to link him to Trump for his outreach to local Republicans, while Francis says the mayor is aloof and disengaged. Their respective supporters argue about whether or not the runoff Francis called is divisive for the city.
In some ways, the October election was like elections past. Turnout was low, with 17 percent of registered voters in Raleigh casting ballots in the mayor’s race. According to data from the Wake County Board of Elections, 52,868 voters cast ballots for mayor, out of a total 305,271 registered voters in the city. In other words, less than a fifth of all eligible voters showed up to the polls. In the district and at-large races, most of the incumbents easily held onto their seats, but there was an upset in District E, which few had predicted.
Raleigh is not at the point, as in some cities, where the candidates who raise the most money are all but guaranteed a win. Outside the mayor’s race, the top fundraisers—District E’s Bonner Gaylord and at-large candidate Stacy Miller—didn’t hold the most sway with the voters. Doing the groundwork, knocking on doors and connecting with residents still seems to matter most on Election Day.
This election was unusual in that the mayor’s race was competitive for the first time since 2001, when Charles Meeker narrowly beat incumbent mayor Paul Coble in a runoff race, after Coble won the primary election but didn’t clear 50 percent. McFarlane has cruised with large majorities of the vote since 2011. Though she won the primary vote by 12 percentage points, this year is different; as Francis points out, a majority of voters in Raleigh cast votes for someone other than Mayor McFarlane (see box).
Does Charles Francis, an attorney and Raleigh native, have the momentum to keep voters energized and get them to the polls for a second time to unseat a popular incumbent? Will Raleigh Republicans—who gave candidate Paul Fitts 14 percent of the vote—turn out for Francis, or for unaffiliated McFarlane, or will they even turn out at all? Can McFarlane keep her formidable base loyal?
We don’t have a crystal ball, but here, we take a look at four major issues we believe will affect the race for mayor in November.
Affordable Housing and Gentrification
Francis has made this the cornerstone of his campaign. You need only look at the map of election night results, where he carried precincts in the eastern part of the city where gentrification is occurring most rapidly, to infer that it’s an issue that resonates with the voters there.
McFarlane says her council has done more for affordable housing than any other council in history, and she touts the penny sales tax increase passed this year will generate $60 million for affordable housing over the next decade.
“This Council has made housing affordability a priority and has committed increasing resources and staff time to address this issue,” McFarlane said.
Francis says the money the tax will raise, some $6 million a year, won’t even be enough to replace affordable housing units that have been demolished recently. He calls the penny-for-housing tax “regressive.”
“A lot of people in Raleigh are land rich but cash poor, especially seniors,” Francis says. “[The tax] is not only inadequate to meet the need but you’re taxing people who themselves may be stretched to pay for housing for other people who are having a difficult time.”
Francis suggests preserving affordable housing through loan initiatives, where the city provides a low or no-interest loan to landlords to fix up their property in exchange for keeping it affordable to renters for a period of time. He also suggests tax credits to developers who take out loans to build affordable units and selling city land at a discount to developers who agree to build affordable housing.
McFarlane says the city already has some of these measures in place, including a partnership with housing nonprofit DHIC to renovate Washington Terrace and the Capital Towers apartments for seniors on Six Forks Road.
Transportation and Transit
Whether your across-town commute to work takes two hours by bus or you’re sitting in traffic daily on I-540, Raleigh’s transit and transportation infrastructure is lacking.
“We are currently expanding transit extensively as well as building a new Union Station that will serve as an effective hub for decades,” said Mayor McFarlane. “We’ll be utilizing a transportation bond that just passed overwhelmingly to address the issue of traffic.”
But are things moving quickly enough?
“The biggest thing with transit as I look at the data is, historically, our transit system has provided poor service,” says Council member David Cox who was re-elected to his second term serving District B. Cox says it’s time for the city to start showing results from last year’s countywide transit referendum. “Get the bus routes figured out, get them purchased, get them online and making a difference.”
Francis has called for “concrete steps” to improving bus transit, including adding more buses and better shelters, better routes and faster service, and giving free bus passes to students.
Diversity and Economic Equality
As with the affordable housing issue, this one, too, may explain Francis’ dominance in east Raleigh, which has a large African American population. Francis has made diversity in city government another central issue in his campaign and says the city “must do much more to include all people in our city government and the way that it functions.” Francis says the city has neglected economic development in some areas and points to city parks such as Chavis, Biltmore Hills and other community centers as examples.
“It’s not acceptable to put all of our focus on Dix Park to the neglect of other parks,” Francis says. “Chavis renovations have been underfunded, neglected and haven’t gotten the attention from this mayor in terms of recruiting private sponsors that Dix has. Equity requires we put just as much attention on other parks as we do on Dix Park.”
McFarlane, who often describes securing the Dix property as her greatest accomplishment, says Dix Park will be “an economic driver for generations to come.” She argues her other economic development achievements are also substantial.
“We set a record in tourism for three years in a row,” McFarlane says. “We’ve secured over $80 million in private investment that’s creating jobs, we’re protecting our clean air and watersheds, we’re building green buildings. And we’ve added greenways and parks across Raleigh, all while maintaining a AAA bond rating and keeping our cost of services to taxpayers among the lowest in the state.”
Still, Francis says, Raleigh needs to attract more jobs that pay people a living wage.
A small but vocal—and civically engaged—contingent of neighborhood activists who attend their district citizen advisory committee (CAC) meetings has criticized Mayor McFarlane for championing a proposal to change the model of the grassroots, citizen-directed meetings to a Citizen Engagement Board.
This summer’s proposed CEB model came about because some council members felt CACs weren’t doing enough to engage the average citizen, while critics said the proposal would minimize residents’ voices. Under the proposed model, the council would appoint a board that would then create individual committees in each district. The committees would meet less frequently than once a month, mainly to discuss rezoning proposals, and city staff would run the meetings.
Following backlash from CAC proponents, McFarlane went on the record stating she supported CACs. And, though she voted in favor of the Citizen Engagement Board, it’s unclear how the issue will play out. Francis, who says he also supports CACs, criticized McFarlane for her vote. Though he hasn’t made CACs out to be as big an issue as other ones, Francis is likely to pick off voters who support the CAC model as is.
In District E, communications specialist Stef Mendell, who will take over incumbent council member Bonner Gaylord’s seat, says she thinks Gaylord’s stance on CACs helped contribute to her win (Gaylord voted with the mayor and three other council members in favor of the CEB).
“We have had CACs in place since the 70s, and they’re not perfect but we’ve had them in place for a long time,” Mendell says. “That is how we’ve had our voices heard and getting rid of CACs, I think, is the wrong approach, totally.”
Early voting for the runoff mayoral race runs through November 4, at various locations in Raleigh. Election Day is November 7. For more information, visit wakegov.com/elections/info.