After a slow start, this year’s Asheville City Council race is heating up, with nine contenders vying for three seats.
With the mid-July filing deadline looming, a number of candidates jumped into the race, including longtime activists, political newbies and bloggers. In the end, incumbents Jan Davis and Bill Russell opted to seek another term, while Vice Mayor Brownie Newman is bowing out of politics (at least for now) to focus on his work at FLS Energy.
An Oct. 11 primary will narrow the field to six; the top three vote-getters in the Nov. 8 general election will win places at the Council table.
But City Council candidates don't just emerge from nowhere. Who are they? Why are they running? What do they hope to achieve?
Asheville residents will have a number of chances to listen to and question the candidates at upcoming events (see campaign calendar); voters can also check candidates’ websites and social media presence.
In the meantime, here's an overview of the folks hoping to claim a seat on City Council.
Local engineer Mark Cates was the first out the gate, dramatically announcing his candidacy at the Buncombe County Republican Party’s convention in March. “We live in the heart of enemy territory,” he declared. “We have to strike a blow from the inside.” Cates remains the lone Republican in the race; the rest are either Democrats or unaffiliated.
The candidate has since spoken at several Council meetings, usually decrying steps he sees as unnecessarily hindering businesses.
Now striking a more moderate tone, Cates notes: “There's a lot of challenges the city faces. We need to focus on the core services and do those really well. My platform is about working on economic development and bringing quality jobs to Asheville. My focus is going to be on helping businesses help their employees to pay their bills. … We need to make it easier to do business in Asheville so each person, during these economic times, can make ends meet."
People should vote for him, says Cates, because "I'll bring that focus, with my background as an engineer, to Council." A survey earlier this year that rated Asheville the seventh-worst metropolitan area in the country for hunger illustrates the need for the policies he advocates, Cates maintains.
Before moving to Asheville, Saul Chase served on Boone's Town Council for eight years. He boils his candidacy down to a single key issue: infrastructure.
“It's simple: I'm concerned about the deteriorating condition of the streets and sidewalks in Asheville,” Chase explains. “I ride my bike around Asheville, and I saw how bad they are. It was time to correct it long before now: It's almost 80 years of neglect. Asheville went on a decline after the Great Depression, and infrastructure got hit hard by that. It's time to fix it.”
Chase has released a flier listing six solutions to Asheville's infrastructure issues. They include: bumping up the fee for Bele Chere wristbands to $5, selling 30-year bonds to pay for sidewalk construction, and backing "Beautiful Block Parties" that would enlist residents in helping clean up their neighborhood.
Chase says he’s also concerned about Asheville's lack of political clout.
“We're under an onslaught from the state Legislature, and the thing we can do to combat that is to get bigger and tougher: That means registering more voters,” Chase maintains. “In my campaign, I want to register as many voters as possible.”
Davis, who owns a downtown tire store, has a long history of civic involvement and has served on Council since 2003.
A centrist with a focus on economic development, he’s opposed raising taxes or pushing for a hotel-occupancy tax for fear of hurting local businesses and has supported new development, including the 51 Biltmore parking deck.
Davis won his last campaign decisively, breaking ranks with most of his Council colleagues in opposing a switch to partisan City Council elections.
After initially voting against domestic-partner benefits, Davis reversed his stance, supporting both the benefits and the LGBT equality resolution approved in February, which he said wasn’t about religion but “rights for people.”
The candidate says he’d been tempted to step down, but that with pet projects such as Civic Center renovations and River District redevelopment now coming to fruition, “I felt I had to be there.” If he and Newman left at the same time, notes Davis, “It would leave a pretty big gap.”
Davis says he’s running on his record, citing his support of 51 Biltmore and the Downtown Master Plan as cases where he's listened to differing viewpoints and then done what he feels is best for the city.
With a history of activism on causes such as education and racial equality, graphic designer Lael Gray believes this is the right time to accomplish cherished goals.
“We're at a really exciting point in our city where we have a lot of great plans in place, and I want to be a part of seeing that through,” she explains. “I'm really excited about our plans on greenways, sidewalks, affordable housing and density.”
The candidate describes herself as “an incredibly driven and hard-working individual. I've been a small-business owner, I've worked in education, in nonprofit management. I've worked as an advocate for young children and on anti-racism and social-justice issues. I'm entirely dedicated to Asheville and my core beliefs and issues.”
Gray adds that her No. 1 goal is “environmental protection,” including “getting cars off the road.” Her platform embraces a broad array of progressive goals, including "retirees as vested participants in our community." Other objectives include "reliable, affordable and inviting public transit for travel" and "well-planned, neighborhood-sensitive, affordable housing."
Unlike some of his competitors, Marc Hunt jumped into the campaign early, announcing his run back in April. Hunt has served on the city's Greenway Commission for six years (two-and-a-half as chair). An avid cyclist, he frames his goals as balancing economic development and environmental preservation. Since 2005, he's worked for the Open Space Institute, a nonprofit land-conservation organization.
“I've put a lot of energy in over the years as an advocate, and I came to embrace the view that we need good people elected,” Hunt explains. “While on the commission, I also engaged on storm water, bike paths and the density bonus for development along transit corridors.”
Hunt says he's running on “environment and sustainability, well-planned growth, economic and social justice and strong neighborhoods. Tying all those things together is economic development: It's driven by livability.” A key component of sustainability, the candidate maintains, is more living-wage jobs.
“It's important that the people who sit on City Council have a perspective that enables them to accomplish the things they want to see," he notes.
Libertarian activist Tim Peck has spoken out against what he sees as unjust government intrusion for years. Active online, Peck regularly comments on local sites and Twitter, as well as his own blog.
Peck has seen his share of controversy. He was banned from Scrutiny Hooligans (the political blog founded by activist Gordon Smith, who now serves on City Council) for violating the site's comment policy; Peck maintained that he was being excluded due to his political views. Peck also triggered a furor by placing insulting captions on photos, via Twitter, from a Drinks and Dialogue event spotlighting de facto racial segregation in Asheville. More recently, he's advocated allowing food trucks downtown and has criticized the recently announced economic incentives for the Linamar Corp., which he sees as corporate welfare.
“I'm running for City Council mainly to give the citizens of Asheville a choice. I would represent balance in City Hall," Peck wrote in an email to Xpress. "I'm running primarily on the issues of overregulation and the growth of government. Overregulation hampers economic activity and job creation, and we need to liberalize our rules and regulations."
Peck also favors “restructuring local government to take advantage of the proven efficiencies of private industry.”
Longtime community activist Chris Pelly has previously mounted Council campaigns in 2003 and ’05. The former head of the Coalition of Asheville Neighborhoods, Pelly is president of the Haw Creek Community Association, and he recently led a public push for more sidewalks and parks in east Asheville. His slogan is “Neighborhoods United,” bolstered by a promise to fix “unmet needs.”
“I've been working in my community for many years to bring in some basic infrastructure and to bring people together, and felt like it's not just in east Asheville: The needs are citywide, whether it's sidewalks or parks or better planning," he maintains. “I've taken the initiative: I've proven I can bring various parties to the table to get real solutions. I want to do that on Council."
Pelly specifically cites his role in defeating a proposed 102-unit apartment complex and instead bringing Haw Creek Park to the site. He’s also highlighted issues such as 51 Biltmore, on which he says he would have voted differently than incumbents Russell and Davis did. In addition, he wants to scale back some Downtown Master Plan changes that have restricted Council’s say in proposed downtown development.
Russell, who runs a State Farm Insurance office in south Asheville, leaped into city politics in 2007, narrowly defeating incumbent Bryan Freeborn.
Since Carl Mumpower’s departure, Russell has been the most conservative Council member, voting against annexation, advocating budget cuts and adamantly opposing tax and fee increases (which led him to reject this year's budget). Last summer, Council’s lone Republican publicly split with the party, saying its “political games” had become a distraction from serving the city.
Now unaffiliated, Russell calls himself a “reformed Republican” who focuses on progress and “fiscal responsibility” while considering all sides of the issues.
Absent from two key Council meetings, Russell missed controversial votes on both domestic-partner benefits and the LGBT equality resolution. But he recently contributed to a Twitter-driven push to raise money for Blue Ridge Pride, a local LGBT rights group. Russell’s campaign manager, former Xpress reporter Michael Muller, coordinated the drive to pay the nonprofit’s Chamber of Commerce membership dues.
Russell says he’s running out of “total passion for the city — I feel my work is not done.” To date, he says, that work has included "avoiding tax increases and helping trim $5 million off the budget."
Those cuts, he believes, will "hopefully, when the economy recovers, result in us being on far more solid financial ground, to do some of these other initiatives we want to take part in."
TJ Thomasson, an LGBT activist and avid runner, is making his favorite form of exercise a centerpiece of his campaign, promising to literally run down every street in Asheville as a form of public outreach.
Thomasson says his “openly gay campaign” aims to spur the city to quickly implement an anti-bullying ordinance promised back in February.
Thomasson specifically takes aim at incumbents Russell and Davis, asserting, “They've sided with big developers more often than not.” The challenger wants more action from the city on issues such as digital billboards and the Caledonia Apartments, a project Council initially rejected that was divided into two smaller projects, thus removing it from Council’s purview. In the end, Council members split over how to best deal with the situation.
Active on Twitter, Thomasson has also weighed in during Council meetings. He recently supported Council member Cecil Bothwell's vote against economic incentives for Linamar; Thomasson also criticized Mayor Terry Bellamy, calling her "anti-LGBT" and "anti-recycling."
In a city as diverse as Asheville, he maintains, “There needs to be an LGBT candidate to truly represent them.” As a runner, says Thomasson, he also wants better infrastructure.
— David Forbes can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 137, or at email@example.com.