In a Raleigh election short on new faces and new ideas, Lee Sartain offers both in his quest for an at-large seat on City Council, along with a fresh perspective on such well-worn subjects as growth, transit planning and impact fees.
What the 28-year old Sartain doesn't offer, though, is experience with city government, either on its many advisory boards or as a leader in any citizen or community group.
His inexperience is reflected in his campaign. A meet-and-greet held last week in Boylan Heights, a neighborhood adjacent to downtown that might be receptive to his proposals for economic development in the city's core, was attended by fewer than a dozen neighbors and supporters.
Such events are staples of city elections, especially for little-known challengers like Sartain, a Democrat. Yet with just six weeks left until election day, Oct. 6, and three weeks until early voting begins Sept. 17, no more are scheduled.
What Sartain does have is a quick mind, a grasp of Raleigh's history and a progressive view of how the city should grow: It emphasizes environmental and economic sustainability, untethered to the political consensus.
In sum, Sartain wants the city to step up its economic recruitment efforts downtown with new incentives to attract small entrepreneurial companies and improved public transit to support them.
Sartain says he is disdainful of Triangle Transit's "sorry excuses for plans," adding that Raleigh should divorce itself from the regional bus system. He says the city should recruit nationally for a transit chief who can transform Raleigh's CAT service—Capital Area Transit—from a sketchy bunch of bus lines into a regional, Raleigh-centric transit system.
"If TTA's feelings need to be hurt because we need a transit system, then they need to be hurt," he says flatly. "Raleigh can apply for federal funding on its own."
To do so would break sharply with city policy, which is to link CAT service to a regional transit system organized and operated by Triangle Transit.
Last year for the first time, in fact, Raleigh filled one of its two seats on the Triangle Transit board with a City Council member, first-termer Mary-Ann Baldwin, a Democrat who holds one of the two at-large seats for which Sartain is running. The other at-large incumbent is Democrat Russ Stephenson, a two-term member and a progressive stalwart on the Council. The fourth candidate for the two seats, Champ Claris, is a Republican Realtor who's also considered a long shot.
It is difficult to see how Sartain might break through against the incumbents, but if elected, Sartain would be the Council's first openly gay member, a fact he thinks has little relevance to the job. "It doesn't affect people," Sartain explains, "the way jobs and transit do."
"It's not like I'm in the closet or ever was," he goes on. "But the fact of the matter is, I led with economic development and transportation. I didn't lead with being the openly gay candidate."
Consequently, he says, the media has largely ignored him. Had he chosen to emphasize his sexual orientation, he believes, his campaign would be attracting more attention, but not the kind that would boost his electability.
Sartain envisions Raleigh's future as a large metro area—a picture that was shaped by his growing up in the Lake Norman suburbs of Charlotte, where the sprawl was much worse, he argues, than anything Raleigh's seen.
His vision is also influenced by his background in information technology. (He says he started his own company when he was 15.) He works as an education technology and policy analyst at the Friday Institute on N.C. State University's Centennial Campus and has a self-professed bent for "compiling data" and poring over the region's economic development strategies—some successful, others not—since the Research Triangle was invented.
A decade or two ahead of Raleigh, he says, Charlotte's leaders ditched sprawl and embraced transit, which has proven so successful and popular that the old naysayers, "all those transit critics, they don't even come out of the woodwork any more."
While Charlotte was listening to the likes of Hugh McColl, the visionary banker, Raleigh in the '90s was enthralled by the "anti-Raleighisms" of Republican mayors Tom Fetzer and Paul Coble, Sartain says.
"It's kind of sad that we elected mayors who were almost anti-Raleigh in a way."
Today, Sartain says, Raleigh can still choose between becoming a bedroom city of 650,000—the projected population in 20 years—or a vibrant destination city served by a robust transit system, good land-use planning to support it and a strong identity as an arts, cultural and business center.
"It will be a cultural shift for Raleigh away from being a successful small-to-medium-sized city," he adds. "If our mindset doesn't keep up, though, our quality of life is really in danger. Without good planning, quality of life deteriorates, and then people start to move away."
Sartain started college at Campbell University and finished at N.C. State University, earning a degree in religion. At the time, he planned to attend divinity school. After working at a Baptist Church in Sanford, he shifted gears and used his tech know-how to land a job at the Friday Institute, a temporary position that he quickly converted to full-time.
The constant in his life is his ideas. His friends call him an "ideas machine," flexible enough to adapt them to be politically realistic. He speaks his mind, says Trey Davis, a Duke University graduate and fellow wonk who works for the Urban Land Institute in Washington, D.C., "but he's Southern enough to know how to put a little sugar on it, too."
Sartain's friend Emily Iverson, a staffer with the N.C. Sheriffs Association, has known him since his first days in Raleigh, when both were members of a nascent young adult group at Pullen Memorial Baptist Church. They still belong to that group, which is much larger today, Iverson says, largely because of Sartain's leadership abilities.
His goals have changed from divinity school to education, Iverson says, "but he is still very spiritually oriented, generous and good at reaching out."