Welcome to Orange County, where a recent arrest may be more of a campaign boost than a campaign killer.
A few candidates—including Maria Palmer and Sammy Slade—seem proud of their Moral Monday arrests for protesting the ultra-right-wing N.C. General Assembly. That's no surprise. Orange County is a progressive bastion, where only the left, the moderately left and the far left wage any meaningful war at election time.
This year's election includes:
- four seats on the Chapel Hill Town Council;
- three seats on the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Board of Education;
- three seats on the Carrboro Board of Aldermen;
- and two seats on the Hillsborough Board of Commissioners.
There are mayoral races in Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Hillsborough, although Mark Kleinschmidt, Lydia Lavelle and Tom Stevens, respectively, are running unopposed.
This year's crop of candidates, particularly in Chapel Hill, are strong. Many bring excellent backgrounds worthy of a local government official. They are smart and confident. And their platforms broadcast one obvious reality: Orange County is growing.
It will take dedicated, intelligent, passionate and creative public servants to guide that growth. These are our picks for the job.
Chapel Hill Town Council
You could do a lot worse than the two incumbents and seven challengers vying for the Chapel Hill Town Council this year. Many are deserving, intelligent leaders, and in a less bustling crop, they could nab our endorsement. But there are only four seats.
First, we endorse incumbents Sally Greene and Ed Harrison. It was welcome news this year when Greene, a UNC English lecturer and former associate director of the school's Center for the Study of the American South, returned to the council to replace the departing Penny Rich, now an Orange County Commissioner.
Greene previously served with distinction on the council from 2003 to 2011, pushing affordable housing and environmental preservation in a growing town that needs both. We expect no less of Greene in 2013. Affordable housing remains a banner issue for Chapel Hill. And handling the town's seeming rush for development—key to meeting the ever-increasing costs of Chapel Hill's outstanding but expensive services—will be a must for any candidate. Greene is up for the challenge.
Likewise for current Mayor Pro Tem Harrison, a longtime council member and public transit advocate behind the town's push for light rail service between Chapel Hill and Durham. Such advocacy is needed, and Harrison brings the know-how to continue leading that charge.
Among the challengers, there are worthy candidates aplenty. Amy Ryan, a member of the town Planning Board and numerous other town committees, breaks with many in town leadership when she blasts the high-density, commercial slant of recent development. She would be a voice for many of the longtime town residents who feel Chapel Hill's ever-changing direction is one they do not wish to pursue.
Loren Hintz, a former science teacher and member of the town's transportation advisory board, supports a proactive town board that does not simply wait for complaints to arise. And D.C. Swinton, a 25-year-old with obvious long-term political aspirations, may be a formidable candidate someday in Chapel Hill, but not today. Gary Kahn is also running, but the answers on his questionnaire did not seem well-formed.
Our final two endorsements go to Maria Palmer and George Cianciolo, two supremely qualified candidates with knowledge, skill and passion to spare. Cianciolo, a Duke University pathologist, is perhaps best known for co-chairing the town's development of its comprehensive plan, Chapel Hill 2020.
But Cianciolo's service to the town predates that tome, serving on Chapel Hill's Planning Board, Community Design Commission and Transportation Board, among others, since 1999. His knowledge of Chapel Hill is extensive, and it will be needed if the Town Council is to implement the development initiatives in Chapel Hill 2020. The document is not perfect. Cianciolo acknowledges that, telling the INDY that one of its chief shortfalls is in failing to prescribe how leaders pay for the plan. But few things are worse or more frustrating than a long-term plan that does little more than gather dust on a bookshelf. Who better to guide its implementation than one of its principal architects?
Palmer, a former educator and member of the N.C. State Board of Education, is a fervent social justice advocate who would provide a welcome shot of diversity. Palmer is the founding pastor of Chapel Hill's Iglesia Unida de Cristo, a Spanish-language congregation. She's a strong, knowledgeable candidate who would represent all of Chapel Hill's residents, rich or poor. And there is always a great need for social justice advocates at a time when small towns plan extensive development. Ask the historic neighborhoods north of downtown Chapel Hill, squeezed out of their homes by encroaching condos. Palmer is the woman for the job.
Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools Board of Education
More than ever, strong school leaders are a must. Republican leadership at the state level seems increasingly keen to pay for their tax cuts on the backs of public schools. And while school funding can be a shell game in which leaders deceptively shuttle cash back and forth between accounts, schools say the damage is incalculable when overzealous lawmakers with a core constituency to please start slicing and dicing. They make no bones about defunding so-called "socialist" laptop giveaways in public schools. No doubt they are willfully ignorant to the benefits a kid with a laptop has over another one with no laptop.
Either way, school leaders must be creative with the money they have these days, and ever-vigilant to decrease schools' troubling achievement gap. The INDY believes incumbents James Barrett and Michelle Brownstein are solid leaders with the right priorities. Both Barrett and Brownstein cite closing the achievement gap as a top goal, and rightfully so. Low-income children have long lagged behind their more financially stable peers in the classroom. Solutions require creativity, passion and knowledge. Republicans may have the occasional point that simply pouring funds into schools isn't a cure-all for these societal ails, but cutting those funds certainly does not help. Expect Brownstein and Barrett to speak audibly for these children.
Of the newcomers seeking the final seat open on the board, we endorse Andrew Davidson, an information technology adviser who, predictably, cites technology as a means for improving classroom performance. The job will take attention and effort, which is why we give Davidson the nod over challenger Ignacio Tzoumas.
Tzoumas, a first generation Mexican-American, rightly points out today's school board is in need of diversity. Almost 15 percent of Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools' student population identifies as Hispanic, and that number only figures to grow. This population must be represented. He also touts the value of person-to-person interaction with students, something that cannot be excluded as schools roll out expanded technology programs. But his relatively slight campaign—largely quiet until days before the election—is disconcerting.
Davidson, however, is clearly committed. He has served on a school improvement team for Frank Porter Graham Elementary since 2010 and on the school system's Technology Advisory Council since last summer. Tzoumas has something to offer, but we're going with Davidson.
Carrboro Board of Aldermen
It's a curiosity that two towns within shouting distance can be so similar and yet so different. Consider that Chapel Hill's residents perpetually clamor for additional parking, key to revitalizing their downtown. Chapel Hill's neighbor, the dazzlingly liberal Carrboro, has a candidate in Sammy Slade, who actually advocates for decreasing the town's parking options as an impetus to encourage more walking, biking and public transit.
Such is Carrboro, a little town with big issues and a big heart. If Chapel Hill is a young, progressive idealist with a fresh diploma, Carrboro is its older, slightly hairier cousin who thinks it's lame that Chapel Hill isn't composting.
Like the rest of Orange County, Carrboro is growing, but its footprint is considerably smaller. Carrboro leaders must weigh means of growing, while retaining the small-town, quirky charm that makes it distinct. Recent years' kerfluffle over a downtown CVS Pharmacy is evidence of this struggle. This board will require planning and an ability to bring together differing viewpoints on Carrboro's future.
Three seats are available. For all three, we endorse incumbents Randee Haven-O'Donnell, Jacquelyn Gist and Sammy Slade.
Haven-O'Donnell, an area science teacher who has served on the board since 2005, is committed to retaining Carrboro's cultural and—most importantly—economic diversity. As in Chapel Hill, affordable housing remains a pivotal concern. Haven-O'Donnell advocates for the town to support progressive efforts such as the Community Home Trust, a nonprofit providing affordable housing for locals, and EmPOWERment Inc., another nonprofit that sprang up as Chapel Hill's gentrification leeched diversity from its historic neighborhoods. Carrboro needs leaders such as Haven-O'Donnell, leaders who will not blithely approve developments without an eye toward their overarching impacts.
Gist is a leader of the same mold. An alderwoman for more than 20 years in Carrboro, Gist is well-known for her outspokenness when the owners of the former Abbey Court instituted a towing policy that seemed to target low-income African-Americans and Latino residents. She does not shy from controversy either, advocating for lesbian and gay rights early in her first term. If there is a worthy cause, expect Gist to rally for it.
Slade, a relative newcomer, joined the board in 2009. One of many progressive activists arrested during this year's protests at the General Assembly, Slade's leftist politics are appropriate for this town and its residents. While he is not above the occasional quixotic dalliance—consider his recent push for a letter to oppose missile strikes in Syria—he is also capable of pushing real-world advances. Of late, he's a proponent for local composting programs. And, like Haven-O'Donnell and Gist, he's an advocate for maintaining affordable housing.
Challengers Kurt Stolka and Al Vickers are not without their charms. Both have a history of public service; Stolka on the town's transportation advisory board and Vickers on the county solid waste advisory board. But neither presents a clear reason to unseat the incumbents.