Of the 12 candidates contending for a seat on City Council, six showed up for a roundtable discussion at the West Asheville Library on Sept. 13 to compete for the endorsement of the Asheville Democratic Socialists of America: Cecil Bothwell, Jan (Howard) Kubiniec, Rich Lee, Kim Roney, Sheneika Smith and Dee Williams. The event was attended by about 100, with late arrivers forced to stand. At the end of the evening, members of the Asheville DSA voted on a ranked ballot to decide whom they would endorse.
More broadly, the candidates are hoping they get the endorsement of voters in the Oct. 10 primary election, which will narrow the field from 12 to six, and in the Nov. 7 general election, when three of those six will be chosen to fill City Council seats.
At the beginning of the forum, the moderators asked the candidates: “Do you consider yourself to be a socialist and what does that mean to you?”
Four of the candidates — Bothwell, Lee, Smith and Williams — said they do indeed consider themselves socialists.
Breaking it down
Lee answered first. “Yes, I do. To me it means government providing a robust network of social services and social goods,” he said. “We’re looking for enhanced bus service, we’re looking for enhanced public housing, places that people can enjoy the outdoors, and we’re looking for a government that is a champion in relieving inequity and narrowing the gap between the people that are doing best in society and the people that are struggling or falling behind in society,” he explained. “In all those senses, yes, I’m a socialist.”
“Yeah, I’m a socialist, clearly, and have been for my entire political life, which goes back into the 1960s, I guess, late ’60s,” responded Bothwell. “It seems to me that we establish governments to provide for the benefit of all the people. And the governments that have worked best for the people across the planet have been democratic socialist governments, places like Germany, where workers are on the boards of all the corporations, and there are limits on the differential between the CEOs and the workers.”
Calling herself “a preacher’s kid” and invoking the Golden Rule, Smith explained her view of socialism: “Making sure that everybody has equal access and everybody is herded towards the best resources. And I think that takes leadership and it also takes what we call servant leadership to be amongst the people and to understand the needs of the people.” In conclusion, Smith said, “I do consider myself a socialist and I like to be among the people. And clearly here in Asheville, we have a disgusting wealth gap where there are clear winners and clear losers — or should I say clear beneficiaries and those who are outcasts.”
“Yes, I am,” declared Williams. “Let me just say that everybody should have health care, everybody should have affordable housing, a decent place to live. Everybody should be able to breathe clean air that’s not full of toxins. Everybody should have access to an education, not owe $100,000 when you get done. And everybody has a right to not be shot down by the police department because you are of color or because you love somebody or you look a certain way.”
Roney took a different tack in responding to the question. “I’m a longtime registered independent because I’m an anti-war advocate,” she said. At the same time, she said, “I share socialist values around wage, workers’ rights, access to health care, education and housing as a human right and I do believe it is time for us to represent people and planet over profit and party, which is why I’m asking folks to come together right now and address issues and dismantle systems of oppression so that we can start building a resilient community together.”
Kubiniec said she is unaffiliated, although she thought she could be considered a “militant moderate.”
Affordability’s effect on diversity
The high cost of living in Asheville wove through the discussion as a common thread.
“The diversity of people in Asheville is under threat,” Lee said. “Asheville is … losing its population of color. … Twenty years ago you could rent an apartment on Charlotte Street for 200 bucks. The idea now that you could get anywhere close to that as a service industry worker … is unbelievable.”
Smith runs an organization dedicated to enhancing black cultural identity in Western North Carolina called Date My City. She pointed to de facto segregation as one of the biggest problems facing Asheville. “When we shore up on housing to make sure there is access for people of color and people who are low-income, then I think we will see better outcomes across the board,” she said.
Smith said she favors a density bonus, inclusionary zoning and rent controls — all mechanisms that she believes could help ensure affordable housing for Asheville residents by encouraging developers to create more units for low- and moderate-income workers.
Williams, a local business owner and political activist, said it’s time to invest in local businesses, and she pointed to the community land trust model as an effective means of providing affordable housing. “The other thing we can do is start paying people a living wage,” she said. “Affordability is based on income. We all know that. … We need to stop inviting hoteliers and other people to pay our people subservient and slave-labor wages.”
Lee agreed with Williams that affordable housing is related to the need for a living wage. “We need to diversify the kinds of jobs we have here, make sure they’re jobs that have professional career tracks and that lead to high wages, and I think we need to do it by growing businesses that already have a presence here and industries that already have a presence here,” he said.
An active member of her community in Kenilworth, Kubiniec said one of the barriers to affordability appears to be the influx of people rushing into Asheville. “There seems to be this pitter-patter about affordable housing,” she said. “We should be putting the brakes on the advertising to send the entire globe here.”
Bothwell, the only incumbent at the roundtable, said the solution to the problem could lie in providing fare-free transit, which would allow people to get to work without spending money on their commute. “That really affects affordability and is within the reach of the city to do,” he said.
Bothwell believes the city should continue to use federal money dedicated to affordable housing but said he isn’t sure if the city should continue to use local tax money to incentivize developers to build new affordable units.
Roney, who was one of the founding members of 103.3 Asheville FM and helped start a news program at the station, said housing is becoming less affordable because of increases in property taxes, a trend she says will negatively impact renters.
“We’re going to have to do courageous work around housing,” Roney said. “That’s going to include land trusts, land banking, limited equity cooperative ownership, but I also realize that we need to stand up to the development that we don’t want so that we can stand up for the development policies that we do want.”
A member of the city’s Multimodal Transportation Commission, Roney is also an advocate for fair and free public transit.
Differing views on policing
Criminal justice proved a point of contention at the forum. In one question, the moderators referenced data showing that 18 percent of traffic stops in Asheville involve black drivers, even though black people only make up 13 percent of the city’s population.
“I know everybody hates the police,” Kubiniec said, “but if you watch some of the things that go on in my neighborhood and some of the things in juvenile court, you realize that you actually need a police department.”
In answering the question, three of the candidates at the roundtable made reference to work done by Williams, who chairs the Criminal Justice Reform Committee of the local chapter of the NAACP, to alleviate racial inequities.
“We don’t hate the police,” Williams said. “That’s our police department. We just want it to be a world-class, fair police department and want folks on both sides — civilians and police — to go home every day.”
Williams helped bring data in front of City Council showing that black residents of Asheville were subject to a disproportionate number of traffic stops by city police.
Roney believes the city missed an opportunity to adopt policies that could have started to rectify that imbalance. “We did nothing in the end,” she said. “We need courageous leaders who can do better.”
Bothwell, however, defended some of the recent actions taken by the city. “I think it’s easy for people who have come lately to the table to argue that they have picked up the ball that someone else dropped,” he said, “but I started in 2009 when I ran for City Council the first time advocating for Asheville to become a sanctuary city.”
In 2013, City Council unanimously passed a resolution brought forward by Bothwell making it clear that employers could not discriminate based on race, gender, gender identification, national origin, etc. Bothwell said as chair of the Public Safety Committee, he has also been pushing for improvements in police behavior. “Yes, there’s deeply seated racism,” he said. “Anyone who denies that is nuts, but we’ve been working on that. We’ve been working on that hard, and we will continue to do that.”
And the winner is
Late Thursday afternoon, the Asheville DSA announced its members’ pick for the organization’s endorsement: Dee Williams.
According to the organization’s announcement:
The endorsement ballot utilized the Borda count method with each member able to choose and rank their top three choices. First choice received three points, second received two, and third received one. Then, the points for each candidate were totaled, and the endorsed candidate was the one that received the most points. Dee Williams finished first, followed by Rich Lee in second and Kim Roney in third.
A video recording of the forum is available at https://www.pscp.tv/w/1nAKEeZvQzbKL.
The national Democratic Socialists of America, according to a statement on the organization’s website, “is a political and activist organization, not a party.” Further, “Democratic Socialists believe that both the economy and society should be run democratically to meet human needs, not to make profits for a few.”
Editor’s note: This article was updated at 6:28 p.m. on Sept. 16 to include more of the candidates’ own words from their responses to the opening question of the forum.