politicsFast forward to the Nov. 6 mayoral contest in Raleigh. Challenger Charles Meeker is making an impressive showing in northern Raleigh where incumbent mayor Paul Coble and like-minded conservatives have traditionally dominated the vote. Similar to the October primary, a substantial number of northern Raleigh voters are rejecting the incumbent's development-at-all-cost policies in favor of the planned-growth, pro-citizen-involvement agenda of Meeker. This is largely due to disenchantment over developer Neal Coker's failed plan for a mixed-use development between Wade Avenue and Oberlin Road that many neighborhood residents opposed.
Given the challenger's strong performance in the northern section of the city, and the solid turnout of white Democrats and progressives inside the Beltline, a decent turnout among voters in the predominantly black southeastern section of the city should ensure a Meeker victory. In the 1999 runoff between Coble and Democratic challenger Stephanie Fanjul, close to 86 percent of voters in Southeast's majority-black precincts chose Fanjul.
By day's end, despite the fact that district councilman James West ran unopposed, returns from Southeast's precincts show that a solid number of area voters have, in fact, gone to the polls.
And once again, Coble wins.
Sound implausible? Think again. Though Meeker will certainly carry a majority of the votes from Southeast's predominantly black communities, his support may be less than overwhelming. This year, unlike previous ones, these traditionally Democratic votes are far from being a given.
Meeker's main problem is Coble and West's initiation of the Southeast Raleigh Assembly (SERA) this past summer. The 45-member group of business and civic representatives appointed by the city to facilitate development in Southeast has challenged the traditionally Democratic mayoral allegiance of area leaders (see "On the Fence," The Independent, Sept. 19). SERA's formation was based on a city-sponsored feasibility study done last spring that highlighted the potential of the stagnant Southeast economy. A substantial cross-section of Southeast leaders--Democrats, Republicans and Independents--participates in the assembly.
While SERA is not a political vehicle, some of its participants are also members of the influential Raleigh Wake Citizens Association (RWCA). Though the association's concerns and membership extend throughout Wake County, Southeast's leaders dominate this African-American interest group. And in this traditional-Democratic stronghold, the group's lack of a mayoral endorsement--its members split their vote prior to the primary and decided not to endorse either candidate--speaks volumes.
"As far back as I can recall, we've always supported Democratic candidates," says Alfred Perry, president of the RWCA. A mayoral non-endorsement, he adds, would be "the first in a long time."
"I want to be present at any table where folks are talking about improving my community," says Yvonne Lewis Holley, a member of RWCA and SERA. The former City Council candidate supports Meeker but feels Coble's facilitation of SERA is a step in the right direction. Referring to the split vote, Holley stresses that, while hardly anyone in the RWCA is a Coble enthusiast, a substantial number of members want to stay the course.
Last Tuesday, the RWCA met at Martin Street Baptist Church to discuss whether or not they will remain neutral. According to Perry, the group will leave the door open for a possible endorsement up until a day prior to the election. That same evening, Coble met with SERA at the Wake County Commons Building and announced plans to move forward with proposed revitalization projects, one near St. Augustine's College, the other at a large industrial area on Garner Road.
"Coble has started a process that others will have to follow," says RWCA member and former Raleigh Planning Commission chair Marshall Harvey. A Meeker supporter and a Democrat, Harvey feels that, given the area's history of neglect, the mayor's development initiatives are something "Meeker has got to deal with."
"He needs to talk more about what he's done in Southeast and what he'll bring to the community," says Harvey, pointing to various projects Meeker advanced as a councilman and citizen, like the rehabilitation of abandoned neighborhood houses and the construction of Martin Luther King Boulevard.
Holley, too, credits Meeker for his "long-standing commitment to Southeast." She says she believes that if Meeker is elected, he'll build on such initiatives as SERA. She adds that Coble--while initiating a framework for development--has yet to deliver. "There's been dialogue," she says, emphasizing SERA's lack of decision-making authority. "But I haven't seen much being built."
These RWCA members agree that an eleventh-hour endorsement from their group could well determine which candidate gets the authority to develop these initiatives.
"We commonly act as a yardstick for folks to measure candidates by," offers Harvey. On election day, the organization passes out its choices for office to incoming voters at area polling sites. In what likely will be a close race (the two candidates were separated by 600 votes in the primary), throwing the organization's support behind a candidate could make all the difference.
Perry's assessment of a potential RWCA endorsement reflects the pivotal role Southeast Raleigh might well play on Nov. 6.
Says Perry: "We are to be reckoned with."
Two years ago, Coble's razor-thin victory over Fanjul confirmed that for the sake of their own political ambitions, he and his conservative backers had to reckon with those well outside of their traditional base. A number of observers, including Raleigh's African-American newspaper The Carolinian, largely credited Coble's 264-vote victory to a key pre-election alliance made with former mayoral candidate and Southeast Democrat Venita Peyton.
While consistently pledging to revitalize Southeast throughout his term, the mayor has made a number of moves to bring its leaders on board, the most notable being the initiation of SERA and the feasibility study that preceded it.
"His visibility has been good and he's been clear about his plans for economic development," says Coble supporter Dwight Spencer.
Spencer, a registered Democrat, is the political liaison for First Baptist Church on Wilmington Street, which has over 900 parishioners. A past Meeker supporter who acknowledges the challenger has been a presence in the community much longer than the mayor, he nonetheless feels Coble has, so far, "stuck to his promises" in pushing to revitalize Southeast. Spencer believes Coble to be "a man of his word," and feels a second term would enable Southeast to hold the mayor accountable for his promises. In other words, current proposals like the St. Augustine's and Garner Road projects will have to reach fruition.
Two months ago, Meeker proposed a Southeast agenda that prioritized improving city services, but hasn't yet attempted to trump his opponent's pledges of revitalization. "He hasn't promised and committed to the kind of economic development that Coble has," says Spencer.
For Meeker, that's the point. He feels that the kind of development the mayor is proposing is inadequate. Coble's approach is "focused on suburban development outside the Beltline," says Meeker, who is "as concerned with redevelopment in the older, inner-Beltline neighborhoods" of Southeast.
"The outer parts of the area will develop regardless of who the next mayor is," says community activist and SERA member Octavia Rainey, agreeing the same can't be said for inner Southeast. Rainey is well aware that its cheap tracts of land, accessibility to the Beltline and the decreasing availability of land elsewhere in the city make development in outer Southeast inevitable. While maintaining her neutrality, the registered Independent admits that though Coble might effectively develop these outer sections, Meeker's pro-neighborhood approach could bring about a type of development more sensitive to her inner-city community.
"That's where the hard work has got to be done," agrees Harvey, insisting that "Meeker will best serve" this purpose.
Even so, Rainey acknowledges the mayor has made his mark on the area. On election day, she predicts that "Coble is going to do better in Southeast than most people think." To see that the mayor has made political inroads into this African-American Democratic stronghold, says Rainey, just look around.
"There are a good number of Coble campaign signs up in Southeast Raleigh," she says, noting that in the past, most conservative candidates wouldn't advertise in an area so far removed from their traditional base.
"And no one," she adds, "is taking them down."