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A progressive shift in Raleigh

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Raleigh voters tossed out a pair of incumbents in the Oct. 9 elections and pushed the city council's center of political gravity strongly to the progressive side on development issues. Mayor Charles Meeker, who was re-elected without opposition to a fourth two-year term, said the effect is to replace the current moderate-conservative majority with a new moderate-progressive one.

"I can't wait to show up at a council meeting and be the most conservative person there," a delighted Meeker quipped to an election night crowd when the outcome was clear.

His joke told the story: Meeker, a Democrat who says his role is to lead from the center of the council, wherever that is, will find himself allied on the eight-member body with a four-person progressive bloc much closer to his own political tastes—and much readier to follow his lead on managing Raleigh's growth.

The "Meeker majority" includes:

  • District A (North Raleigh) independent Nancy McFarlane, who knocked off Republican incumbent Tommy Craven with 54 percent of the vote;

  • District B (Northeast) Democrat Rodger Koopman, a winner over Democratic incumbent Jessie Taliaferro by 44 percent to 33 percent in a three-way contest in which Taliaferro could've called for a runoff but decided against it;

  • District D (Southwest) Democrat Thomas Crowder, elected without opposition to his third term; and

  • Democrat Russ Stephenson, who was the top vote-getter in the six-person at-large race en route to winning his second term.

The Wake school board elections, meanwhile, produced no change in policy direction. Only two seats were contested out of five on the ballot. In District 3 (North Wake), retired principal Kevin Hill was elected with 47 percent of the vote when Martha LaVance, the runner-up, decided against a runoff; both backed current policies. And in District 6 (Central Raleigh), two-term incumbent Beverley Clark won easily over three opponents with 64 percent of the vote.

Meeker, who doesn't issue endorsements in council elections, nonetheless supported McFarlane, joining her on election night to watch the returns at Firebirds, a North Hills restaurant. Later, the two welcomed Stephenson, Koopman and Crowder as they arrived from their own events, with Meeker declaring that "a new generation of leadership" was in place for Raleigh.

The "old" coalition consisted of three Democrats and two Republicans who were generally with the developers on growth issues and opposed anything smacking of "smart growth." But with Taliaferro and Craven beaten and at-large Democrat Joyce Kekas retiring, their ranks are decimated. The only survivors are Republican Philip Isley, unopposed for re-election in District E (Northwest), and Democrat James West, unopposed in District C (Southeast).

Kekas' replacement, meanwhile, is Democrat Mary-Ann Baldwin, who ran second in the at-large race with a promise to be "balanced" on growth. Baldwin's campaign took in more money from development interests than any other candidate. How she lines up—in the center with Meeker or in the minority with Isley—will be something to watch.

Two issues at the center of the campaign will likely be settled quickly when the new council takes over. One is raising impact fees on new developments. Meeker and Stephenson favor doubling them, and Crowder would go even higher. The current council blocked them; McFarlane and Koopman won't.

Second, the council will frustrate developer John Kane's quest for a $75 million subsidy toward his North Hills East project. The "Meeker majority" is staunchly opposed.

Longer term, the impact of the new council could be felt most in the rewrite of the city's comprehensive plan, the first time that's been attempted in 20 years. The existing plan ushered in suburban sprawl. The new one will be urban and more transit- and pedestrian-oriented, Stephenson predicts.

Stephenson says he's been asked whether the new council will try to slow growth in Raleigh.

His answer: No. "Not slow, not fast, but sustainable growth should be our goal," Stephenson says. And sustainable, in the long run, should mean more growth, not less.

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