Chapel Hill and Carrboro, towns known for their informed and opinionated citizens, made some tough decisions in municipal elections last week. But not all of the decisions have been made--in Carrboro, a seat on the town board of alderman will soon be up for grabs.
A newcomer, Laurin Easthom, was the top vote-getter in Chapel Hill's town council race, even ahead of favored incumbent Mark Kleinschmidt. That same scenario played out in 2003 when Sally Greene won slightly ahead of incumbent Bill Strom.
It was no surprise that Mayor Kevin Foy won re-election. But the fact that his challenger, Kevin Wolff, managed to get 21 percent of the vote did surprise some. Wolff moved to town about four months ago and is a registered Republican. He ran almost no campaign until the last few days, when he visited one-stop voting sites and campaigned with the help of the local Republican party.
"I wouldn't draw anything meaningful from that," says former mayor Ken Broun. "You know how many people forgot which Kevin was which? I believe that that's true." A protest vote of about 20 percent is typical, Broun says. "If you're doing your job in public office, somebody isn't going to like you no matter who you are."
The biggest drama in Chapel Hill was the victory of Ed Harrison, who did not gain key endorsements but managed to come in third. Harrison did not win the endorsement of the Orange-Chatham chapter of the Sierra Club, despite the fact that Harrison has been a very active member for many years and his wife is on its state board of directors. An internal debate simmered between state-level and local leaders, but the decision stood.
"Ed should feel pretty satisfied," says Aaron Nelson, executive director of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce. "People were really writing him off. Endorsements don't mean everything in an election. Personal relationships and a commitment to work on all issues carried the day for Ed."
In years past, representatives of the university who are active in town-gown politics have put their verbal and financial support behind candidates. But not this year, as least as far as public statements and current campaign finance reports indicate.
Nelson, who works closely with the university on many issues, says Harrison didn't get any push from the university. "I'm not aware of any organized effort or even any disorganized effort, and I think I would know. Nobody tried to activate any sort of secondary campaign."
He says Harrison spoke to those who believe the town needs a pro-active economic development strategy. "We at the chamber believe that it's a false dichotomy that the interests of the business community are antithetical to the progressive community. Ed really believes in the triple bottom line of community sustainability and environmental protection, social equity and economic prosperity. He's incredibly accessible and that contributed greatly to his reelection."
Tom Jensen, a UNC-Chapel Hill senior, was an active figure this fall, campaigning for four of the seven town council candidates and organizing a forum in Carrboro with the local Sierra Club. Just before the election, Harrison posted signs throughout town touting his long record of service with the Sierra Club. Jensen says that might have caused confusion among voters by implying that the Sierra Club had endorsed him. Ultimately, Jensen attributes Harrison's victory to tenacious one-on-one campaigning.
"The main thing he seemed to have pushed during his campaign was that he was a hard worker; he didn't have a lot of accomplishments to point to, and that's what got him elected, was being a hard worker.
"But," Jensen adds, "I think the fact that Mark and Laurin finished so far ahead of him does show that a lot of people are unhappy with a lot of his votes and preferred the incumbent who had shown much stronger leadership."
Three of the candidates Jensen backed--Kleinschmidt, Easthom and Thorpe--won seats; the other, Raymond, came in fifth. "I think the difference between the three who won and the one who lost was definitely an ability to fund-raise," Jensen said.
Easthom, though not an incumbent, has been active on a variety of political committees and had the web of connections available to Kleinschmidt and Thorpe. Without that network, Jensen said, Raymond had a hard time raising cash to pay for critical and expensive newspaper ads that would have gotten his name out to more voters.
But Jensen says money isn't always what talks in Chapel Hill. In 2003, Dianne Bachman came in last despite raising and spending more than any other town council candidate. Overall, Jensen adds, 2005 will probably turn out to be one of the least expensive city elections in two decades, with candidates spending about $5,000 on average, as compared the more typical figure of $7,000. Final campaign finance reports will not be available until January. Raymond has made all of his campaign finance data available and current on his campaign Web site, which he says he hopes will "set a new standard for transparency" in town politics.
In Carrboro, the most pressing political issue is who will succeed newly elected Mayor Mark Chilton when he leaves the town's board of aldermen. Incumbents Jacquie Gist and John Herrera won reelection, and Randee Haven-O'Donnell also won a seat. Katrina Ryan, who came in fourth, wants Chilton's seat. In online forums like Orangepolitics.org and media interviews, Ryan has argued that her fourth place showing has earned her the seat.
But state law leaves the decision up to the incoming board, and they announced this week that they plan to take applications for the position and make a decision early next year.
Ryan lives in a recently annexed area north of the town, and her campaign tapped into frustration among residents who say the annexation was unfair, creating higher property taxes without providing essential town services and representation. Ryan won 35 percent of the votes in her precinct, a higher proportion than any other candidate won in a single precinct.
Chilton and other aldermen say they'd like to wait until the next annexation takes effect, in January, before making a decision, and they say they will open the candidate pool to residents of the annexed areas. Ryan and another candidate, Catherine DeVine, both plan to apply. With that decision still up in the air, Carrboro's political season isn't over yet.
Hillsborough has a new mayor thanks to low voter turnout and some old-fashioned door-to-door campaigning. First-time candidate Tom Stevens upset Joe Phelps by 43 votes, as Phelps ran a low-key, almost invisible race and failed to energize his supporters to come to the polls. Though the mayor only votes to break ties, a rare occurrence, Stevens is philosophically in sync with the majority of the town Board of Commissioners and can use his position to push for a strategic plan and other municipal upgrades that have been simmering on the back burner for several years.
Voters showed confidence in the current Board of Commissioners, returning incumbents Mike Gering and Frances Dancy to office by a comfortable margin. Challenger Paul Newton, who spent more on his campaign than the other two candidates combined, did not convince the majority of voters that downtown interests were ignoring residents who live outside the historic district, as he has consistently maintained.
The board and mayor will need to reach out to residents throughout Hillsborough in coming months in order to build consensus and chart a clear and intelligent course for the future, but the primary obstacles have been cleared.