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Fresh Start

This fall's Raleigh elections could breathe new life into the City Council


Let's give it up for her campaign slogan: "Raleigh needs a breath of fresh air!" Janet Cowell, running hard since spring for an at-large seat on the Raleigh City Council, wants the voters to think about the Triangle's dirty air--"Our air quality is worse than New York City," she points out at every stop--and also her own impact as a (gasp) progressive candidate who's not at all bashful about taking on the conservatives.

There's also a bracing gust of youth and feminism in Cowell's candidacy. At 32, she is the youngest candidate running for the council thus far and the only woman. That's right, there are eight seats on the City Council including the mayor, and with Councilor Julie Shea Graw declining to seek re-election, the only woman running for any of them--so far, at least--is Cowell.

Officially, the filing period for council races doesn't start until July 23. But with the Oct. 9 election little more than three months away, if you're not running now, you're a little late. The mayor's race between incumbent Paul Coble and challenger Charles Meeker has been underway for months and amounts to a showdown between the conservative Republicans who have dominated city government for the last eight years and the Democrats they supplanted.

The issues in the Coble-Meeker race aren't complicated. Coble, in his first two-year term, has kept the tax rate steady and also kept the laissez-faire policy of his friend and predecessor, Tom Fetzer, toward developers. "Market forces" are allowed to determine where, and how, Raleigh grows. Coble backs what the developers want to do, and they make up his campaign committee.

Meeker, who served four terms on the council between 1985 and '95, is backed by neighborhood advocates and, like them, wants development to follow land-use plans adopted with citizen participation. He is for "slowing down sprawl and strip development" and "really following the comprehensive plan," he tells supporters.

That, in a nutshell, is what city politics is about. Over the last year, it has played out most dramatically in two rezoning cases. In one case, a developer wanted to put up office buildings on 13 acres that fell within the Falls Lake watershed area in North Raleigh. That's supposed to be a no-no on environmental grounds, but the council voted 5-3 to allow it.

The second case is "The Oberlin," a massive mixed-use project in central Raleigh that neighborhood opponents (disclosure: the writer is one) have dubbed Coker Towers, after developer Neal Coker. The comprehensive plan calls for less intensive development on the Coker site, and for projects of that scale--almost 1 million square feet on just 15 acres--to be located downtown near the planned Triangle Transit Authority commuter rail line. The Coker case has been front-page news for nine months. It's expected to be decided in July, perhaps as soon as the July 3 council meeting.

Meeker opposed the watershed rezoning and has backed the neighborhood forces in the Coker fight. Coble's gone the other way.

Even if Meeker is able to unseat Coble, though, that won't by itself shift control of the council, which right now is split 4-4 between the mayor and his allies--Councilors Marc Scruggs, Kieran Shanahan and John Odom--and a group of Democrats who have a habit of not sticking together. In the watershed case, for example, Councilor James West broke ranks and voted with the Coble side. In the Coker case, West is on the fence. So is Councilor Mort Congleton, but he has indicated that he's prepared to vote for it if West does. (Because enough neighbors signed protest petitions, the Coker rezoning needs six votes to win, so if West votes no--joining Graw and Benson Kirkman--Congleton's vote won't matter.)

West, the only African-American member of the council, says his priority is economic development in his own Southeast Raleigh district. He's worked with Coble to get that done. If Meeker wins, and assuming West is elected to a second term (no opposition has surfaced so far), West will work with Meeker. So will Kirkman, who looks like he'll be running without serious opposition in his central Raleigh district.

But where will two more pro-Meeker councilors come from? Maybe one will emerge from Scruggs' district in West Raleigh. Scruggs isn't running again, and one of the leading candidates to succeed him is former Councilor Geoff Elting, who describes himself as a pro-neighborhoods conservative. A decade ago, Elting ousted Congleton in a North Raleigh district race--Elting has since moved--after Congleton voted in favor of several unpopular shopping centers.

In that North Raleigh district, Kieran Shanahan faces a serious challenge from another neighborhood leader, Tom Slater. Slater, too, is a Republican, which you pretty much have to be any more to get elected up there, but says he's "not right-wing" and either "moderately conservative" or, sometimes, "progressively conservative." Shanahan, he says, "is more to the right." Slater is a civil engineer who specializes in transportation planning--he's a consultant now, mainly on airport facilities, and worked previously for the Tennessee Department of Transportation. That's a handy trade out where Interstate 540 construction is racing sprawl development.

Slater chairs his neighborhood Citizens Advisory Council as well as the Raleigh CAC, which is made up of representatives of all 18 neighborhood CACs. He plans to make "initiatives that invite citizen participation in city government" the centerpiece of his campaign--fighting words to the pro-developers' side. "I'm not a person who's against development, but I also value smart growth and I'm against development at all costs," he says.

Still, the best chance for a progressive, pro-neighborhoods candidate--or candidates--is in the at-large race. There, with Graw stepping down and Congleton under fire over his stance on the Coker project, the race is wide open for both seats. The neighborhood groups are interested in the potential candidacy of Esther Hall, the executive director of Arts Together and wife of state Sen. Brad Miller. But Hall has held back so far from joining the race, and while she does, progressive eyes have been on Cowell.

Formerly a consultant with Sibson & Co., one of the Fortune 500 management firms, Cowell brings to the campaign an unusual combination of skills. She's an MBA from the Wharton School of Business who says Raleigh should "model our practices after those of America's best-run companies," and "I believe in the philosophy of continuous improvement." She's also been one of the leaders of the Sierra Club in Raleigh for the last five years, heading its campaign against sprawl development. And a year ago, she left Sibson and went to work for the Common Sense Foundation, the leading progressive organization on state policy issues, as its development director.

A Cowell campaign fundraiser last week drew some 50 of the city's progressive leaders, including its organizer, Gerda Stein, a lawyer at the Center for Death Penalty Litigation in Durham, state Sen. Eric Reeves, and Cowell's boss, Chris Fitzsimon. Cowell ripped into the conservatives, accusing Coble, in particular, of "striving for mediocrity." Her campaign platform: Planning new development, instead of just letting it happen wherever developers want it; linking it to transportation planning, with sidewalks and bike lanes as well as public transit options; and investing in older neighborhoods along with the new ones.

Other cities--she points to Austin, Texas, as an example--have taken charge of land-use planning and "score" development proposals according to whether they follow the plans or don't, support public transit or don't, provide affordable housing or don't, and so on. They also encourage citizens' involvement. "While Raleigh has a diverse, highly educated population," Cowell says, "we do little to tap this vast resource of talent and ideas. Many of my friends and neighbors who have volunteered their free time to help make Raleigh a better place have told me they don't feel like their ideas are valued or listened to. What a waste." EndBlock

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