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The Meeker File: His Friends Are Fidgety
Memo: To the File
Date: March 25
Re: Turning Cheek(s)

Mayor Meeker just passed the 100-day mark in office. Grade on substance: Too early to tell. Intentions good, some progress, but goals are complex and long-term. Raleigh's to-do list goes back eight years at a minimum; the pent-up demand after four terms of Fetzer and Coble is enormous, but money's short, and Meeker's keeping his promise not to raise property taxes.

Grade on the politics: Not good.

The Republican attack-machine is firing away nonstop, charging--among other things--that Meeker's raising property taxes. Nice-guy Charles Meeker keeps turning the other cheek. Some days, both cheeks. (See below.)

A group of his closest supporters are paying him a visit tomorrow to say, "Charles, we know you hate this political stuff, but you've got to crank up the Meeker Message ... boil those 34 points of yours (tree conservation, citizen participation, Chavis Park, etcetera, etcetera) down to a 1-2-3-point sound bite ... and it wouldn't hurt, when Kieran Shanahan is lying about you, to say so. And please notice: When you did that favor for Shanahan's ally, Philip Isley, that Isley repaid it by calling you a hypocrite and a coward. These guys don't play nice.

One friend says, well, the way Charles refuses to dignify Councilor Shanahan's abuse with any response at all is "almost disarming." Not almost, it is disarming--if you actually see it. Trouble is, says another Friend of Charles, most people don't see it, because they aren't at City Hall. And all they're hearing, second- or third-hand, is the steady bang, bang, bang on the Republican drum: Meeker's a liar, Meeker's making back-room deals, Meeker's anti-progress. What does Meeker say? "Thank you, Mr. Shanahan. Next on the agenda is ..."

Item: Wayward Farm. New Lead Mine Road and Strickland Road, up near the Outer Loop. Meeker's first big development case. He got elected promising to listen to neighborhoods, not just developers. So when 150 neighbors show up at City Hall to object to the rezoning, it should be bad news for Shanahan, the developers' friend, and good news for Meeker. So why, at the end of the night, were they cheering for Shanahan?

Answer: Meeker proposes mediation in the case before it starts through the usual, developer-friendly planning commission process. The neighbors are afraid of mediation, fearing that it gives away their basic position that the 56-acre farm is already properly zoned (it's R-4 now, which usually translates to two or three houses per acre). Shanahan, the developers' favorite council member, rips the mediation idea, calling it "extraordinarily dangerous" and hinting that Meeker has "unilaterally" gone outside of the usual process for the purpose of selling the neighbors out in a back-room deal.

Shanahan, a combative lawyer-type, is good on the attack, never letting the facts get in his way. When he's done, the neighbors are clapping heartily, while a third friend of Meeker's observes: "That might have been 1,000 votes lost tonight"--lost because a lot of the neighbors are non-political folks who've never laid eyes on Meeker or Shanahan before and may never again. But they leave thinking Shanahan is on their side, and they never hear Meeker's response, which is to the effect that mediation might "enhance all the stakeholders" in a process that otherwise is stacked in favor of the developer.

Something to that effect. Meeker says it so quickly--and to Shanahan, not into the microphone--that it's hard to make out what he said even from a short distance away.

Item: Bickett Place. Near Five Points, inside the Beltline. [See "Bickering Over Bickett Place," March 20]. Meeker's on the neighbors' side here, and when the project first came up for a vote, Meeker and his three Democratic allies (Cowell, Kirkman and West) were ready to defeat it, 4-3. However, Isley, the eighth council member, was laid up at home with a bad back and asked Meeker to postpone the vote. The project's not in Isley's district, nor would Isley's vote in favor of the project have made a difference (4-4 still rejects it). But as a courtesy, Meeker did postpone the decision, which forced all the neighbors who'd turned out for the 1 p.m. Tuesday meeting earlier in March to come back for another 1 p.m. Tuesday meeting last week.

So what happens? This meeting, the neighbor-hood contingent is predictably smaller, but Raleigh developers--who do this for a living, after all--have turned out in force to cheer for Isley, who delivers a rambling eight-page, 20-minute oration on leadership, courage, the Greek city-states (no kidding) and the importance of doing the right thing. Isley says it would be sheer hypocrisy for someone who ran for office promising to curb sprawl to be against Bickett Place, which seeks to put 21 three-story townhomes on a two-acre lot that stretches across the backs of a string of one-story bungalows.

Just to make sure everyone knows which hypocrite he has in mind, Isley delivers this speech from the public's microphone, which means he is standing directly in front of--and facing--Meeker. (Isley's reason: He's uncomfortable sitting at the council table because of his back.)

When Isley is done sharing the wisdom of his three months in office, Meeker thanks him. "There's a difference of opinion here," he adds crisply. "The challenge is to have infill that fits in."

And the next item on the agenda is ...

Meeker, according to his friends, trusts that by re-election time in 2003, people will see that he's been doing his job and minding his manners, too, in good olde (sic) Raleigh fashion ... and Shanahan & Co. will have shown themselves clearly too.

And remember, Meeker needs at least one Republican vote to get anything done, and so far Councilor Neal Hunt, a Republican, has helped him with a vote or two, as has Isley, for that matter. Isley voted to renew city funding for the downtown Contemporary Art Museum, cut off in the Fetzer-Coble years, even while Shanahan was calling it "a failing proposition" in a nasty fundraising letter.

Which leads to Meeker's real problem: fundraising. Meeker's big goals require more than one two-year term, or even two. But he's still saddled with $60,000 in debt left over from the '01 campaign (big Meeker fundraiser April 10), and developer money is already rattling into the Republican's can for '03. GOP candidates for mayor routinely raise $700k-plus these days, while Democrats like Meeker are lucky--with a good, aggressive campaign--to raise half that money.

Emphasis on aggressive.

--Bob Geary

Send all digs, ribs, jabs, barbs and tips to: madison@indyweek.com or call David Madison at 286-1972 ext. 154.

Trotline is illustrated by V.C. Rogers.

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