Asheville welcomed its most diverse City Council in history, as new and re-elected Council members took the oath of office on Dec. 5 at City Hall in front of a packed chamber of family, friends and supporters.
Vijay Kapoor and Sheneika Smith join Keith Young as Council members from minority communities. And for the first time, Asheville City Council is majority female, with the re-election of Gwen Wisler and Mayor Esther Manheimer adding to the ranks of women that also includes Council member Julie Mayfield.
Kapoor and Sheneika Smith replace outgoing Council members Gordon Smith, who did not run for re-election, and Cecil Bothwell, who did not amass enough votes in the primary to continue.
Throughout the evening’s proceedings, speakers celebrated the new diversity of Asheville’s city representation. Council member Brian Haynes welcomed the new members and acknowledged the body’s demographic shift. “It’s not yet proven if this will be a truly progressive Council, but by looking at the makeup of this Council, we certainly have seen progress, because I’m the only white male up here,” he said to applause and laughter from the audience.
Manheimer, who won a landslide re-election for a second term as mayor, said Asheville saw the greatest voter turnout ever in a municipal election. “The people also elected the most diverse Council in the history of this city. And for the first time ever we have a majority woman Council,” she said, prompting cheers.
Manheimer went on to say Council faces a great deal of work in addressing the issues of long-term, sustainable affordability and equity, and encouraged that work to happen through collaboration and respectful disagreement. “This means that this community must exhibit the kind of civil discourse that we are desperately needing today in our city, our state, our nation and our world. Let us lead by example,” she said. “Let’s discard destructive rhetoric and saber rattling to make our community a better place tomorrow than it was yesterday.”
A turning point
Kapoor, a businessman from South Asheville, garnered the most votes in the primary and general elections. He alluded to his Indian and Polish heritage in remarks to the audience at the swearing-in ceremony. “I was the first in my family to be born in this country and I grew up here in Asheville,” he said. “I owe so much to the city and to this country and I’m very thankful to be in a position to be able to give back and to be able to be sitting up here.”
Kapoor acknowledged the broader context of political turmoil and socioeconomic challenges. “This Council takes office at a time that’s very difficult in our nation’s history. Many in Asheville are struggling, and the issues we face are incredibly complex,” he said. “These are not normal times, and I want this Council to be remembered as one that when called upon, didn’t let our community down, didn’t let our nation down, didn’t let our families down.”
Sheneika Smith, an African-American Asheville native, told those in attendance how she’s seen the city’s transformation firsthand. She said as a girl, she would ride the bus downtown past boarded-up buildings and gangs of pigeons, and though the city is now flourishing, “a great fraction of our community is suffering, homeless, children who go to school every day who can’t focus on their learning because they are hungry.”
Sheneika Smith said she’s familiar with the communities who are struggling through her work at Green Opportunities. “Together we can fight for justice, because we’ve been doing it the whole time. We were born fighting, a lot of us, because we were born marginalized and some people a victim of circumstance,” she said. “We will fight for equity and fairness. … We are history makers. We going to make some things happen here.”
As part of the proceedings, Council members unanimously voted in Wisler as vice mayor for another term. Wisler said she looks forward to working with the new faces on Council. “We’ve got a lot of work to do, and I can’t wait to get started,” she said.
Work still to be done
Young apologized for getting emotional as he reflected that it’s been decades since two African-Americans served on Asheville City Council together. “To hear people say that our community is gone, you don’t have jobs, you don’t have homes, there’s a lot of poverty, there’s a lot of violence sometimes, and to see people think the community is dying, I want to say here today that that is not the case,” he said. “This is a new renaissance. This is a new birth.”
Mayfield welcomed the new Council members and addressed her remarks to the two departing members. She recognized the contributions of Bothwell, who was not in attendance at the ceremony, and highlighted the accomplishments of Gordon Smith on transit, food policy and affordable housing. “On each one of those issues, you moved the needle noticeably, and the city is in a fundamentally different place on each one of those issues than we were when you started,” she told him. “If I can be half as effective as you have been, I will be very happy with my tenure on Council.”
Gordon Smith expressed deep gratitude for having had the opportunity to serve on City Council for two terms. He shared sentiments of support to the new Council members, gave thanks to his wife, and recognized the hard work of the press and city staff. He also offered a lighthearted take on the feedback he has received while serving on Council. “There are 90,000 people in this city, and I have heard from most of you. There were three people who called to say nice things — thank you,” he joked.
On a more serious note, Gordon Smith acknowledged community members who are strong advocates for the issues that are most important to them. “I’ve worked with so many people who are really just trying to make a life, to make sure their kids are healthy and safe and getting through school and have enough food and have a good place to live,” he said. “I have run into people who were less than happy with me, and again and again what I’ve been struck with is even to step forward and express that requires so much passion and care for your community.” He thanked those who have brought their hopes, desires and needs to him and said they have helped him grow as a person over his eight years in office.
The new City Council will not have long to rest on its laurels. The next Council meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, Dec. 19 at 5 p.m. at City Hall.