On a rainy primary Tuesday, Asheville voters came out in record-low numbers, handing candidates Marc Hunt, Chris Pelly and Lael Gray the most votes while eliminating Tim Peck and TJ Thomasson from the City Council race.
Only 10.07 percent of the city's 64,989 registered voters — a new low — showed up at the polls Oct. 11, but Hunt, Pelly and Gray opened up considerable leads. Incumbent Jan Davis finished fourth, about 500 votes behind Gray. Mark Cates came in fifth, with Saul Chase a distant sixth.
Hunt did well in the downtown and western precincts; Pelly, a longtime east Asheville community leader and activist, had his strongest showing there. Gray carried Montford, her home neighborhood, while Davis won precincts on the outskirts of the city and Cates took part of south Asheville.
In a relatively unusual development for city races, the Sierra Club and People Advocating Real Conservancy not only endorsed Hunt, Pelly and Gray but actively campaigned for them. PARC also launched an attack ad against Cates, highlighting his past connections with the Asheville tea party.
After visiting 25 precincts during that soggy day, Hunt met with supporters and volunteers in the evening at Asheville Pizza and Brewing on Coxe Avenue to watch the votes roll in. Despite receiving the most votes of any candidate (22.37 percent of the total), he told Xpress that it guarantees nothing.
“It’s not over,” said Hunt. “We’ve seen in past City Council elections that things can change dramatically from the primary to the general election. I think there is a challenge, and I feel challenged to work really hard to make sure my message continues to flow.”
He believes his message of finding commonalities instead of differences is what's resonating with voters. "I’ve continually said that, with the variety of political interests in our community, we have more in common than meets the eye. We can start with what we agree on, what we know to be good for this community … and build from there," Hunt pointed out. "I’d like to think that we can move forward with electing three great members of City Council [who] can work together."
Reached by phone, Pelly touted his showing in east Asheville and said his campaign's themes had found broad appeal.
"It's always good when you're strongest where they know you best," noted Pelly. "The campaign theme of 'Neighborhoods United,' of people working together to articulate a vision, is something that I've tried to do, and I think that message resonated pretty well. Some of the other candidates didn't really put forward a vision of the future, of what they wanted to do."
He added that his emphasis on sidewalks and infrastructure improvements tapped a citywide concern.
Later that evening, Gray, surrounded by a knot of supporters at Asheville Pizza and Brewing on Merrimon Avenue, said that despite having been up since 4 a.m., she was excited about the results.
"I'm so happy," she exclaimed. "I'm just thinking about the possibilities of the future; it's very thrilling."
Going into the general election, said Gray, "I'm going to be working like crazy to communicate the things I care about, get to as many voters as I can." She added, however, that she was troubled by the low turnout, vowing, "We can do better.”
Davis, too, was dismayed by the poor turnout, saying, "I suspect the weather had a lot to do with it — probably apathy." He also reported said he was "a little disappointed, but not terribly surprised," by his fourth-place showing.
"I thought that the slate that was put forward, which was the three candidates that were in front of me, had some momentum that I didn't have," Davis explained. "I think I was pretty squarely in the cross hairs of PARC — they took an ad out in the newspaper and did some things like that. They may have cost me some votes."
Heading into the Nov. 8 general election, he acknowledged, "I'm going to have to work a little harder to get out the votes that we obviously didn't get out. … We'll probably do more mailers, more media. Just being a little more engaged." But ultimately, as an incumbent, Davis says he'll be running on his record, which “might appeal to some people, and it may not to others. … It will be up to me to resonate well with the people that come out to vote. I'm not sure there's a magic to it."
Cates, meanwhile, brushed off the impact of PARC's campaign to portray him as a tea-party Republican. "Detractors are always going to do their thing; I'm not worried about it. For me, it's about jobs," he said. "It's jobs before anything else: That is what the next month is going to be about."
And despite having collected only 352 votes — the lowest total of any candidate — Thomasson said he was happy with the results, considering it was his first bid for elective office.
“I'm glad I was able to get as many votes as I did with one of the smallest budgets of anyone running," he pointed out, adding that he’s now endorsing Hunt, Pelly and Gray. "I think we really need to get behind those three, and I hope all of my supporters will go out and vote for them in November. I plan on volunteering, attending the forums and doing what I can to help those three candidates get elected."