Will the makeup of Raleigh's political leadership be any different as a result of the Oct. 9 elections?
It might not look like it, what with Mayor Charles Meeker and three of the five district representatives on the city council all unopposed for re-election. And even in the citywide race for the council's two at-large seats, where six candidates are competing, if incumbent Russ Stephenson is re-elected and voters pick a like-minded replacement for outgoing member Joyce Kekas, it'll be the status quo there, too.
A major realignment could happen, nonetheless, depending on the two contested district elections. In each, incumbents aligned with the development interests in Raleigh face stiff challenges from the left—and one of the two, Councilor Jessie Taliaferro, has a challenger on her right as well. If the two progressive challengers win, it could turn the eight-member body upside down, resulting in tighter planning, higher impact fees on developers and more curbs on sprawl.
The two races to watch:
- In District A, neighborhood leader Nancy McFarlane, a registered independent ("unaffiliated") whose views are on the progressive side, is running hard against Republican Tommy Craven, himself a developer. The district takes in the geographic center of North Raleigh. Craven won it narrowly two years ago against Democrat Paul Anderson in a quiet campaign marked by very low voter turnout.
- In District B, a pair of ex-military men, progressive Democrat Rodger Koopman and conservative Republican Angel Menendez, could squeeze out Taliaferro, a Democrat who's lost favor with many in her party by backing developers. She captured this seat in a runoff four years ago after a similar three-way election, against much weaker opponents. Two years ago, she was unopposed.
Here's the math, and it's a bit complicated. On this nonpartisan body—no party designations are listed on the ballot—Mayor Meeker leads an ostensible 6-2 Democratic majority. But on many development issues, Taliaferro, Kekas and District C member James West (Southeast Raleigh) join the two Republicans to create their own five-member majority, outvoting Stephenson and District D (Southwest Raleigh) member Thomas Crowder. Meeker, trying to "govern from the middle," as he says, sometimes votes with the one side, sometimes the other.
On downtown development spending and the city budget as a whole, however, Taliaferro, Kekas and West generally return to Meeker's fold, rejoining Crowder and Stephenson. Budget votes have been tricky, though. Crowder, Stephenson and Meeker support higher impact fees to cut the property tax rate, but on the current council, they've been outvoted 5-3. And since the two Republicans, Craven and District E's Philip Isley (Northwest Raleigh), always vote no on the budget, Meeker can't get it passed if both Crowder and Stephenson hold out for their position and vote no also—so the last two years, one of them held out, but the other didn't.
The bottom line: On some issues, there's a Meeker majority. But on growth questions, Taliaferro's usually seen as the majority leader.
So who's out to topple her majority? We asked the three challengers to tell us about themselves and the changes they'd like to see Raleigh make.
Nancy McFarlane: "Better balance" in District A
McFarlane's been out knocking on doors. She says a lot of people "think their concerns are not being met, nobody's listening, nobody's representing them—the special interests are the only ones represented."
What concerns? One is the chronic stormwater problem in District A. As a longtime leader—now president—in the Greystone neighborhood association, the soft-spoken McFarlane, 51, knows all too well about that one: Heavy rains can wash the dirt off upstream developments, and it stops down in Greystone's lakes, forcing residents there to spend "hundreds of thousands of dollars" over the years dredging them out. The city's improved its stormwater rules lately, but that didn't help a couple of months ago when developers of the 50-acre Wayward Farm tract essentially clear-cut it before installing their erosion controls, she said. A big rain followed—and another big mudslide.
A second issue is traffic congestion, McFarlane says. It points up the lack of balance between the city's all-out development policies and its inadequate investments in roads and other infrastructure. "We need a better balance in our policies."
But the biggest issue on the voters' minds is crowded schools, McFarlane says. It reminds her of an early foray she made into city politics, as a PTA leader, when her part of Raleigh had no schools and the city council rezoned for a big apartment complex anyway. "I asked, Where will the kids go to school?," she recalls. "Their answer was, We don't care—that's the county's problem."
McFarlane, a pharmacist, owns a company that supplies complicated injections, and the nurses to administer them, to patients with diseases like multiple sclerosis. She started it five years ago and it took all of her working hours, precluding her seeking public office. But now it's grown to the point, with 21 employees, that she can devote the time to the council. She and her husband, who is also a pharmacist, have three grown children.
She's got a fairly simple agenda. She supports higher impacts fees, like Meeker, to help pay for roads and parks. She disagrees with Craven that the city's spending too much on downtown. The infrastructure to support development already exists downtown, she says. What's wasteful is that 80 percent of the city's capital budget is spent supporting sprawl "out on the rim," she says.
More balance, and "thoughtful, more foresighted" planning, is what she's got in mind if she wins.
Rodger Koopman: "Ambitious" for District B and Raleigh
In contrast to the soft-spoken McFarlane, Koopman, the "progressive Democrat" running against Taliaferro in District B, is outspoken, funny and often blunt. Without progressive leadership, he says, "the little people get screwed—and it doesn't have to be that way."
Koopman, 47, has lived in Raleigh for just four years, arriving with his veterinarian wife and their 7-year-old son from California to run a local office for Itron, which sells and services utility meters. He left that job after a corporate buyout. Before that, he was a captain in Air Force intelligence who served all over the world, including a stint with the counterterrorism branch of the Southeast Asian command. His military experience bolstered his idealism, he says, but it's not the source of it. That he traces to his paternal grandparents, who were Holocaust survivors—"barely"—in his native Holland. Other family members didn't survive.
"I'm very motivated and informed by a sense of purpose," Koopman says. "I know it sounds corny and cliché, but if you have the means to do something about a problem, no matter how small, and you don't do it, you're complicit in that problem."
Koopman will tell you what he thinks of the war in Iraq (he's "incensed" by the lies) and was preoccupied with national issues before coming to Raleigh, where he decided he could have the greatest impact on issues that matter to the most people by serving in local government. He ran last year for a seat on the Wake County Commissioners, losing to conservative Republican Paul Coble. His objective this year is different, but his message isn't: Raleigh and Wake County are on top now, but they won't stay there unless current policies change.
"Raleigh is a gem of a city," Koopman says, but has lately been living off "the courage and thoughtfulness" of the leaders who 30 years created a merged school system and 50 years ago started the Research Triangle Park.
Today's leaders must be just as ambitious, he says. But in the '90s, Raleigh fell under the sway of conservatives like ex-mayors Coble and Tom Fetzer "who said we could have our cake and eat it too" by enjoying the fruits of those past investments while they cut taxes and failed to invest in the future.
Koopman's investments would include better bus service ("and rail, but that's a 20-year project"), finishing the greenways, protecting the Horseshoe Farm and Durant nature parks and making Dorothea Dix a great destination park. He'd rein in developers, raise impact fees and create a "framework" for smart, sustainable growth within which—he insists—builders would make more money, not less. He'd also push for affordable-housing and living-wage ordinances, saying both would help Raleigh's prosperity by putting money into the pockets of people who'd spend it right back into the local economy.
Angel Menendez: Cut taxes, help District B
Menendez, 44, is also ex-military. A career master sergeant in the Marine Corps, he's a longtime conservative Republican who smiles easily and who agrees with Tommy Craven that Raleigh "doesn't have a revenue problem, it has a spending problem." His prescription: Prioritize spending; pay "careful attention" to development and provide important services; and cut taxes so that the people can choose how more of their money's spent, not government.
"I think our leaders need to be a lot more prudent in the way money's spent," he says. "I do think we're spending too much downtown at the expense of the other parts of Raleigh, especially District B."
Menendez is a New York City native who's lived and worked in Raleigh "on and off" over the last dozen years while posted to recruiting offices and finally to Quantico, Va. After he retired, he went to work for a private employment firm, running the Durham office. It's his first time seeking a public office. Like Koopman, he says it's about his "passion for serving things that are greater than myself."
"I'm a devoted husband and father [of two teenagers]," he says. "I love my country and I love serving my community." One thing he takes very seriously: If elected, he'd be Raleigh's first Hispanic council member. "That would be meaningful, absolutely ... in District B and for the whole city."