Endorsements in this year's Raleigh mayoral elections have been crossing paths all over the electoral map, because of an unusual blend of partisan loyalties and unexpected twists.
In the first round of balloting October 10, Democratic voters turned out both for unaffiliated incumbent Nancy McFarlane and Democratic challenger Charles Francis. In three previous successful runs for mayor, McFarlane had no significant Democratic opposition, allowing her to attract voters from both parties.
It’s officially a
Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane addresses comments by challenger Charles Frances on Oct. 16, 2017
nonpartisan race, but the leadership of the Wake County Democratic Party endorsed Francis in July as the party’s only candidate in the mayor’s race. The state party seemed to waver, proclaiming both Francis and McFarlane to be good candidates.
This was the Election Day advice the party gave Dem voters:
- Learn more about Francis (with website)
- Find your early voting site (with website)
- Vote for Raleigh mayor
That’s a ringing endorsement of voting for … someone.
A third candidate, Republican Paul Fitts, ended up in third place and upended matters further by endorsing Francis. Fitts, a mortgage broker, said he didn't agree with Francis on all issues but approved of policies such as his stance against building a new municipal building.
Fitts based his campaign on fiscal conservatism but drew accusations of racism for a September Facebook post in which he criticized National Football League players who kneeled or otherwise protested injustice during the pre-game national anthem.
On Monday, Francis lost his half of the dual endorsement of the Equality NC Action Fund PAC, an LGBTQ advocacy group that had backed both candidates. The main reason? Francis had received the backing of antigay Johnston County politician Fred Smith, in the form of a $5,200 campaign contribution
. The relationship resurfaced to tag Francis this week, at least among the traditionally Democratic LGBTQ community leadership.
McFarlane didn't hesitate to spread the news.
"It is an honor to receive the sole endorsement of Equality NC," she said in a statement. "Their advocacy has been instrumental in pushing forward and securing equal rights and justice for LGBTQ North Carolinians. Raleigh's diversity makes us stronger, and I stand committed to continuing the work of ensuring every person is treated with the fairness, respect, and dignity they deserve."
The statement seemed to contain a jab at Francis because both candidates have been emphasizing that they represent "all" residents of Raleigh.
After the first round of voting, which left McFarlane short of the ballots she needed to win without a runoff, the candidates were asked to address a Wake County Republican Party meeting. Francis accepted the GOP invitation and spoke, bringing a charge from McFarlane that linked Francis to Republican leaders who support "Donald Trump and his American First policies." Francis says he told the GOP, which didn’t endorse either candidate, that he was a loyal Democrat.
From the start, the usual party dynamics didn't hold sway because of McFarlane's unaffiliated status, even though she has received the backing of many Democrats and the endorsement of the county Democratic Party in past elections.
On the surface, that put McFarlane at a disadvantage against Francis, a registered Democrat who's spent some time in the party trenches. However, Francis's party cred was muted from the start because much of his early funding came from GOP members, including some with notably conservative agendas.
Francis had made no secret of his relationship with Smith, for whom he campaigned in a previous election year. Saying it had received new information, the Equality NC Action Fund rescinded its endorsement of Francis Monday, citing Smith's record as a champion of the 2012 anti-same-sex-marriage Amendment 1. (The referendum passed by a wide margin but was nullified by the federal courts.)
In an August interview with the INDY
, Francis cited a long business relationship with Smith—both were among founders of North State Bank—saying, “I am proud to have Fred as a colleague and friend.” However, he disclaimed Smith's political past in matters of sexual identity: “I am a strong supporter of the LBGTQ movement, and I am going to use the bully pulpit to speak on LBGTQ issues.”
Smith, also interviewed in August, didn't want to discuss the politics of his backing of Francis but recounted some electoral history.
“When I ran for Senate about eighteen years ago, right around 2000, I really worked hard to get the African-American vote in Johnston County," Smith said. "Charles, despite the fact that he’s a Democrat, despite the fact that he's from Wake, he came down and spoke for
me. He is an outstanding man and a man of character.”
It’s always hard to tell how much punch an endorsement will have. McFarlane’s biggest get has been former Governor Jim Hunt, a beloved figure after whom Francis had said he modeled his philosophy. But do the much-pursued younger voters remember Hunt clearly enough to follow his lead? Voters who are eighteen now were two years old when Hunt ended his fourth term in office—and that’s not including all of the people who’ve moved here since.
On the other hand, will the predominantly African-American voters of southeast Raleigh be moved by the recommendation of Paul Fitts? Francis has the endorsements of the Raleigh-Wake County Citizens Association and the Wake County Voter Education Coalition, organizations tied to southeast Raleigh, where he already racked up significant margins over McFarlane.
McFarlane has a list of endorsements that runs from Hunt and state Attorney General Josh Stein to the Muslim American Public Affairs Council.
In the end, it’s an odd spectacle, as many longtime Democrats are sticking with independent McFarlane and her string of accomplishments as mayor. Some Dems on the left side of the spectrum say Francis is their man.
Francis will have to draw some Republican voters, in addition to independents and Democrats, to get the job of taking a “good city” and making it great.
It’s hard to get a read on a race where just two of the seven incoming city council members, who will have to work with the winner for two years, would express a preference. (They were Stefanie Mendell for Francis and Dickie Anderson for McFarlane, by the way.)
So plan to vote early, or go to the polls November 7, for the chance to show more decisiveness than five-sevenths of the city council.