When I interviewed Kay Crowder, I had two main concerns. One, is she an effective representative for District D on the Raleigh City Council? And two, is being on the council—in place of her late husband, Thomas Crowder—a good idea for her?
Given my friendship with both of them, the second question is as important to me as the first. Or perhaps the questions are inseparable, because I know how much work is required to be an effective council member, as opposed to just being a rubberstamp. If the work isn't a joy, you won't be any good at it.
I should say also that Thomas, before he died in October, made last requests of everyone who visited, meaning that hundreds of us (I'm not kidding) were given tasks—if you knew Thomas, you know he used every last minute thinking about what would make Raleigh great.
Thomas asked that I check in with Kay in six months and find out whether she's going to run for a council term of her own. He thought the answer should be yes.
It is yes. Councilor Kay Crowder will be a candidate this fall in District D—my home district, incidentally.
As for my first question, I don't know anyone in the district who isn't impressed with the job Kay is doing. That explains why no one is running against her—as yet, anyway.
But is stepping into Thomas' shoes good for her? When I raised that subject, she teared up momentarily. She and Thomas used to joke, she said, about who should replace him if the cancer beat him, never thinking it would. But finally, when they knew he was dying, he said she should do it, because she was his apprentice—and remember, Thomas Crowder became a licensed architect by apprenticing.
She was very well qualified, is what he meant.
For a while, Kay hesitated, because their styles were so different—he was the ramrod, she's got a lighter touch—and because saying yes meant accepting his diagnosis. But she knew that they shared the same values and positions on important issues. A unanimous council appointed her to complete his term when he died.
But does serving on City Council, I asked, remind her of Thomas in a good way or a sad way?
"A good way," she answered, smiling. "It keeps me close to him every day. It kind of grounds me."
It's true that Kay Crowder was her husband's sounding board and closest advisor through his 11 years on the council and four years prior on the Planning Commission. She shares his passion for detailed analysis and diving deep into city government decisions, from where the buses should stop (and how often) to how tall the buildings should be in any given place.
She heard herself channeling Thomas recently when someone suggested putting an electronic billboard with coming events in front of Memorial Auditorium. "I would consider that visual clutter," Kay said. Or was it Thomas?
Kay, too, is a strong advocate for citizen participation. She insists that development enhance adjoining neighborhoods, not detract from or overwhelm them. This puts her firmly in her husband's pro-neighborhoods camp, on a council that, unfortunately, still divides along developers-versus-neighborhood lines.
"Being aware of what we build and where we put it and how that effects our quality of life, that's definitely Thomas' [influence] and being married to him for 30 years. We're intertwined," Kay says.
They did differ on tactics, though. Thomas pushed his views aggressively and uncompromisingly. "Strike and let the chaos happen," as Kay put it. Her preferred approach: "Work behind the scenes." Call out your opponents if it comes to that. But first, see if they're willing to talk—and if compromise is possible. Thomas heeded her advice sometimes. But it wasn't his usual method.
It wouldn't have been mine, either. But I will say that times have changed. When Thomas Crowder started rabble-rousing for "urban design guidelines" and against oversized buildings in the wrong places, Raleigh was still predominantly suburban, and he was often a lone voice warning against always taking the path of least resistance—i.e., letting developers have their way.
Today, urban-scale infill is happening all over Raleigh, but especially in District D—West Raleigh—where no small building is safe from the wrecking ball and a future high-rise with parking deck. Even some pro-development council members occasionally recognize that while tall buildings have their place, it's not every place—and rezoning should be done with care.
I think, too, the outpouring of appreciation and, yes, love from citizens for Thomas Crowder when he died must've shocked his council adversaries—in a good way. Early in her tenure, Kay Crowder spoke out at a council retreat against the "loathing" and "disdain" inside the council. She didn't need to say that her husband, because he fought for what he thought was right, was its No. 1 target.
Since then, intra-council relations are much improved.
For six months, I've watched Kay Crowder work hard, behind the scenes and in public, on a host of rezoning cases, transit plans, the reconstruction of Hillsborough Street and other thorny issues where Raleigh needs to balance its desire to grow with protecting what's already here.
Is she doing a good job? I'd say so. Is it a good job for her? Yes, it is.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Torchbearer."