John Bryant, the chairman of the Wake County Republican Party, has a discreet office on Salisbury Street filled with books and case files. A black rescue dog named Pepper romps around while Bryant, in his requisite leather lawyer's chair, contemplates the possibility—actually, the probability—of a Raleigh City Council without a single Republican for the first time in more than two decades.
"These are de-politicized races," he says, so he doesn't look at this new reality as a repudiation of Republicanism. On the other hand, "of course we want to encourage people who believe as we do and in the fundamental values we espouse."
In District A, that person is Eddie Woodhouse.
On Tuesday, Woodhouse—having inched out Democrat JB Buxton for second place in the October election—will square off against clear favorite Dickie Thompson, a Democrat who is expected to reap most of Buxton's support. With Wayne Maiorano declining to seek re-election and John Odom losing earlier this month, Council will likely soon consist of only registered Democrats and left-leaning independents.
In one sense, this is an entirely predictable trend. As with many cities, as Raleigh grows and urbanizes, it will also become more progressive. And even after Republicans, led by Jesse Helms, amassed power by capitalizing on Dixiecrats' disenfranchisement, the local GOP never had an easy time on Council. Sure, Raleigh has never been a liberal bastion like Chapel Hill, but Democrats have nonetheless dominated city leadership.
In 1993, Republicans fought back. Tom Fetzer was elected mayor, and Republicans reigned until 2001, when Charles Meeker took office, though they've held seats on Council ever since. Until now, that is.
While Bryant sees Woodhouse—with his concerns about lowering the city's debt and his calls for fiscal responsibility—as an asset to the council, his counterpart, Wake County Democratic Party chairman Brian Fitzsimmons, contends that Woodhouse would introduce "hyper-partisan politics" into an ostensibly nonpartisan body.
"The Republicans currently on Council don't adopt a rigid ideological stance," Fitzsimmons says, noting that Odom and Maiorano both supported an equality ordinance for LGBTQ city employees. "The fear is when you see someone like Eddie Woodhouse, it's indicative of how hard we have to push to make sure Dickie Thompson is elected. We don't need that hyper-partisan tilt. He would bring it, and it would be hard to argue otherwise. The company you keep is very telling."
That company includes far-right state legislators Chad Barefoot and Paul Stam, as well as U.S. Rep. George Holding, who've all hosted fundraisers for him. There's also the fact that Woodhouse worked for Helms, a polarizing figure if ever there was one.
For his part, Woodhouse told the INDY that the District A race "is less about being a Republican than it is about governing," though he declined to answer follow-up questions. His campaign sent a statement urging voters to back Woodhouse to "ensure diversity. ... If not, the new Council becomes a membership with little thought diversity, little debate and little ideas. Members will be expected to vote the same, express the same opinions and not challenge or question any legislation. That is unhealthy to the decision-making process."
Bryant argues that Woodhouse's big issue—the city's $1.6 billion debt—is legitimate. "We want the city to spend to get our money's worth when we pay taxes," he says. "I don't know how long the debt has been accumulating, but our kids and grandkids will be saddled with paying it off."
In any event, he says that if Raleigh Republicans see the City Council moving in a fiscally irresponsible direction, they'll rise up again, just as they did in '93.
That's a possibility, says Andrea Benjamin, an assistant professor of political science at UNC-Chapel Hill.
"The biggest cities in our country do tend to be more liberal. That's just the way it is," Benjamin says. "Historically, restrictions on the right to vote being lifted meant that minorities and liberal whites built coalitions to get more liberals and Democrats in office. This could be a similar situation, where liberal-minded people spurred mobilization. Next election, we might see Republicans mobilize to try to get the City Council back."
But as the city grows—and grows younger and more diverse—such a conservative mobilization becomes less and less feasible. The city's population grew by 59 percent between 2001 and 2014, and people between the ages of 25 and 34—a generally progressive cohort—comprised its fastest-growing demographic.
In other words, it's possible Republican ideology will soon be left in the dust.
Still, the issues Council votes on don't divide neatly along partisan lines. As Fitzsimmons points out, finding the balance between allowing new development and protecting neighborhoods has been the biggest issue the city has had to reckon with recently, and he doesn't see that becoming partisan any time soon.
"The pro-neighborhood dynamic is maybe seen as being the 'Democratic' ideal," he says. "But there are Democrats on the council on either side of that issue. There are Democrats who are development-focused, and there was a Republican who ran for Council on a pro-neighborhood platform."
And while Fitzsimmons—who himself ran for Council two years ago and lost to Odom—wants a more progressive Council, he doesn't believe a lack of party parity should threaten the local GOP.
"More than anything," he says, "the council craves pragmatism in decision making. Partisanship means more before an election than after."
This article appeared in print with the headline "The last Republican standing"