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Riding high

Progressives roll in round one, but critical election runoffs remain

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Let's all take a moment to savor the election results in Wake County last Tuesday. Good-guy Russ Stephenson joins the Raleigh City Council by winning at-large, which is just about enough all by itself to curb our cynicism about politics, isn't it? And the Rev. Paul Anderson comes within an eyelash of winning in District A, heretofore a North Raleigh Republican stronghold.

A couple hundred more votes for Anderson, and all four of the candidates who graced the cover of our Independent endorsement issue (the others: Mayor Charles Meeker and at-large Councilor Joyce Kekas) would've won. When, the mayor's wife Ann McLaurin asked me as the winners gathered at Tir na Nog, was the last time that happened? I'm thinking the answer is, never.

She didn't say it (and wouldn't), but lots of other people did: Meeker's the man. Yes, he is. The smart, shy, but very competitive and results-driven Meeker has won Raleigh over to his style of leadership, which is the moderate, one-step-at-a-time pursuit of progressive goals. It's not a style that endears him to the neighborhood activists I know who want to push back harder and on more fronts against the forces of outer-loop sprawl and in-town decay. But on election night, these same activists were loving it that Meeker had stumped so hard with Stephenson, Kekas and Anderson even though his own re-election was never in doubt.

Speaking of never in doubt, District D Councilor Thomas Crowder was also taking quiet--anyway, not loud--satisfaction in Stephenson's victory. Crowder was unopposed for re-election, but he campaigned all over his Southwest Raleigh district for fellow architect Stephenson and for Kekas. And don't forget that it was Crowder who proposed Stephenson for appointment to the council last year to the vacant seat ultimately filled by Kekas.

In the intra-Democratic rivalry between Crowder and District B Councilor Jessie Taliaferro, who refused to endorse Stephenson and was a no-show at Tir na Nog, this was a big win for Crowder.

So now there are six Democrats, counting Taliaferro, on the eight-member council, which gives Meeker a solid working majority for, among other things, his proposal to increase Raleigh's ultra-low impact fees on developers. The fee issue is important in its own right--for the money it would raise--but it's also a proxy for the larger battle that goes on year after year between the pro-planning activists and the developers-are-never-wrong conservatives. With this election, planning took a giant leap forward, thanks to our one-step-at-a-time mayor.

And if the pro-planning Democrats were the winners, what does that make the conservative Republicans? That's right, embarrassed. They couldn't even find an opponent for Meeker, which left it to the hapless Joe Ross to carry the Republican colors. Ross will be remembered for his stated view that "flying buses"--he said it on TV--will come along soon to solve our traffic-congestion problems, making the TTA commuter-rail project unnecessary.

Also, the conservative candidates for Wake school board ran far behind in three of the four district races.

So the TTA project is safe, and so is the school board, right?

No, not exactly. Time to stop savoring and go back to work. The school board runoff That was an unbelievably bad headline The News & Observer splashed across the top of its front page the day after the election. "Wake's majority for busing teeters," it blared. Oh my Gawd--for busing?

First of all, the school board elections were, if anything, a victory for the pro-integration majority, not the near-disaster that headline suggests, though it's not over 'til it's over.

But second, and more important (and The N&O's editors know this better than anyone, or should), to shorthand the school system's intricate mix of magnet schools, year-round schools and student assignments as "busing" is to hand its right-wing critics a huge stick with which to beat it. "Busing" is a Jesse Helms word, a Tom Fetzer word, a word long used to belittle the policy that has kept all of Wake County's schools racially and economically balanced while most other urban districts in the country (and, for exhibits A & B, see Durham and Charlotte-Mecklenburg) have been allowed to drift back to the days of segregation. It is, in short, a code word with the worst possible racial connotations.

That said, however, the elections aren't over--two critical runoffs remain. And while progressives ran ahead the first time, there's no guarantee they'll win again--win the seat, that is--in round two.

Here's the problem. In District 1 (East Wake), where Indy-endorsed candidate Lori Millberg got 49 percent of the vote in a three-way race, she still must face the conservative Tillie Turlington in a runoff on Nov. 8. And unlike the first round, when there were no other local elections being contested, every municipality in District 1 (Wake Forest, Rolesville, Knightdale, Wendell and Zebulon) will be voting on Nov. 8. In other words, it's a brand new, and much bigger, election.

And in District 9 (Cary), while there is no such complication, and Indy-endorsed candidate Eleanor Goettee won 48 percent the first time against two opponents (including pro-integration incumbent Bill Fletcher, who got 22 percent), she too faces a runoff against the conservative Curt Stangler. Remember two years ago, when Democrats Julie Robison and incumbent Glen Lang got a combined 60 percent of the vote in the Cary mayor's race and everybody assumed that Robison would easily defeat Republican Ernie McAlister in the runoff? But she didn't--and Goettee's not a lock either if the progressives goes to sleep and the Republicans wake up.

Is the majority for integration teetering? Board Chair Patti Head's easy re-election in District 7 (North Raleigh) says it isn't, and even if Turlington and Stangler somehow win their races, and join busing foes Ron Margiotta and the newly elected District 2 member Horace Tart (Garner, Fuquay-Varina) in a conservative bloc, they'd still need a fifth vote from Carol Parker, who doesn't seem to be in either camp just yet.

But teetering or not, it would be a whole lot more stable majority if Goettee and Millberg prevail, which is why Wake Democratic Chair Keith Karlsson is rallying his troops on their behalf, and why Stan Norwalk, the progressive Cary activist, is pointing with alarm to the "all-star cast of conservatives" (e.g., Called2Action, Assignment By Choice, Russell Capps) lined up behind their opponents. Friends of transit, unite A follow-up on our earlier reports about TTA rail: Yes, the new model passed muster with the feds, and yes, the TTA got its "New Starts" application in on time. That's the good news. The bad news is, the model slashed the agency's ridership projections to bits--just 7,000 riders a day to start with, down from the old model's 10,000; and just 10,000 riders by the year 2030, down from almost 22,000.

These numbers, TTA leaders argue--and I agree--are pretty meaningless, because they're derived (per the model) from some hopefully wrong-headed assumptions. The main one is that the Triangle's pattern of sprawl development won't change--though changing it is, of course, the whole idea behind the TTA. Another is that the region's entire, hoped-for plan of highway construction will be completed on time, notwithstanding the current $8-10 billion shortfall for doing it. A third: That the TTA rail project will be done on time.

Oh, yes. Says TTA General Manager John Claflin, shaking his head, the model projects no traffic congestion in the Triangle in the year 2030 because we'll have all the highways we need, and we'll also have the rail project the model is telling us is only a "low-medium" need.

"Low-medium" was good enough to get federal funding until this year, but now a "medium" rating is required by the Bush Administration, except that some other transit projects were recently exempted from the higher requirement thanks to the legislative interventions of their U.S. Senate sponsors.

TTA officials are hoping Sen. Liddy Dole, R-N.C., will come through for them--us--the way Sen. John Warner, R-Va., came through for his Northern Virginia project, for example. But they're beginning to realize that before she does, she's got to hear from some "Friends of Transit"--and not just Democrat Mayors Meeker and Bill Bell of Durham, either.

So TTA Chair Carter Worthy is intent on creating a "Friends of Transit" group--it needs a name, by the way--that would network potential riders with developers and business folks interested in setting up shop around the TTA stations.

Riders like architect Tim Reed, who lives in Raleigh but works in Durham and who dropped by the TTA's open house--they were showing a wooden model of the front third of the rail car they hope to use--on Sunday. "I'd love to take the train to work," Reed exclaimed with just a little prompting. When he studied in Belgium, he said, he "fell in love with transit," and in fact took the CAT bus downtown from his Five Points home to get to the Dillon Supply Co., where the TTA's key Raleigh station is supposed to be.

By the way, there was absolutely nobody on the streets there Sunday afternoon when I arrived. But there's construction all around, and between Charles Meeker and the TTA, I trust that situation will change very soon. We'll need better CAT service, too, however. Reed's bus was 30 minutes late.

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