It’s a little more than two years since Terry Bellamy moved from an Asheville City Council seat to the mayor’s chair after besting fellow Council member Joe Dunn in a run for the city’s top job. The victory made the 33-year-old Asheville native the city’s first black mayor—and the youngest mayor then serving in the state.
Affordable housing was the central plank in Bellamy’s platform, building on ideas she’d honed while working for the locally based nonprofit Mountain Housing Opportunities. And once in office, Bellamy quickly established her own style for managing Council meetings and public comment. Now, with her first term half over and a reconfigured City Council in the wake of the November election, Xpress decided it was time to check in with Asheville’s top elected official.
“I think, for the last two years, it’s been a big learning curve,” she says from her City Hall office. “Being a member of Council and being mayor are two different things. I’ve become a generalist in a lot of different ways.”
Beyond affordable housing
In order to effectively represent a growing city with more than 70,000 people, says Bellamy, she’s had to broaden her focus.
“I think that affordable housing was my bailiwick. Everything was about affordable housing, affordable housing, how does affordable housing play into the city’s plans?” she says. “If a development is coming forward, how is affordable housing included? Now, it has to be what is the public-safety aspect of it? It’s going to be served by what fire station? How are water lines? How are sewer lines? I can’t just focus on one particular issue—I’ve had to expand on that.”
At the same time, however, when Bellamy left Mountain Housing Opportunities last July, she said it would free her from conflicts of interest (she had previously recused herself from any vote involving the nonprofit) and strengthen her ability to push affordable-housing initiatives on Council.
The mayor also says she values her role as Asheville’s official representative. She recently brokered a compromise with Staples to modify the office-supply retailer’s controversial Merrimon Avenue store, traveling to Massachusetts to meet with company officials when they didn’t respond to the city’s written requests. And on the day after President Bush’s Jan. 23 State of the Union address, Bellamy took part in an invitation-only phone conference with other mayors around the country, giving her assessment of the speech.
On the other hand, she recently took heat for having given Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick‘s name to the selection committee for this year’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Prayer Breakfast as a potential keynote speaker. Days after the event, the Detroit press reported that Kilpatrick had spent that weekend with a woman who wasn’t his wife. Bellamy, however, says that although she was unaware of Kilpatrick’s prior brushes with scandal, “Google is my new best friend.”
The challenge of trying to juggle so many roles has made Bellamy a fan of Asheville’s city-manager system of government, which critics say distances the mayor and Council members from day-to-day operations.
“The mayor’s position is not part-time. That’s just the reality of it,” she says, ranking the June 2005 hiring of City Manager Gary Jackson high on the list of accomplishments since she’s been on Council (Bellamy was vice mayor at the time).
Day to day, the mayor’s schedule is filled with official visits and meetings with fellow mayors, legislators and others, including an array of advisers whom she consults regularly. Although Bellamy is reluctant to reveal their names, she says these people help keep her in line and are not afraid to point out what they see as a misstep. “They wouldn’t be true friends or confidants if they could not tell me the good and the bad,” she maintains. “They are not shy about saying, ‘You didn’t handle this correctly,’ or ‘You went too far on this,’ or too long, or ‘You should have let that go or learned from this mistake.’”
Bellamy also makes short work of her status as a young, black, female mayor. “I am all those,” she says simply, “And what: Can you do the job? Are you getting the job done? If not, then someone else should be there, and if you are then you keep moving forward. The titles, or the things that people choose to label you as, those are things they have to overcome as individuals, but I shouldn’t allow them to hinder me and the things I hope to accomplish.”
One thing the mayor says she values highly is her Christian faith. She attends the River of Life Full Gospel Outreach Church in West Asheville, where she also teaches children’s church.
Recently, Bellamy addressed students at Leicester Elementary School, giving a sort of pep talk and answering questions. One student asked how she arrives at decisions that will affect the entire city. “It’s very hard,” Bellamy replied. “I could make half of you happy and the other half of you mad, even though you all want the same thing.”
Both the mayor and City Council have taken their share of lumps for assorted high-profile decisions, particularly in connection with downtown development. As longtime Council observer (and former candidate) Bill Branyon points out, development is on the rise in the city center—much to the chagrin of those who’d like to put the brakes on it.
This Council, he charges, has “left a carbon footprint that would make a supersize Bigfoot blush with environmental embarrassment.”
And since Republican Bill Russell‘s defeat of Democrat Bryan Freeborn last fall, antidevelopment activists have worried that Bellamy—long considered a swing vote along with Vice Mayor Jan Davis—might now further undercut the progressives’ voting majority on Council. (In that light, however, it may be worth noting that Council approved The Ellington high-rise—one of the more controversial projects to come down the pipe in years—on a 6-1 vote last October, with Freeborn the lone dissenter.)
In any case, refusing to align herself with a defined voting bloc may have gained the mayor more fans than opponents.
“I think she has had a very nice moderating effect [on City Council]. She has been a good voice of reason,” says Chris Slusher, the former executive director of Neighborhood Housing Services. “She seems to try to bring it to the middle of the road, knowing that there are some extreme factions on Council.”
A key part of the mayor’s job is managing those conflicts when they emerge during City Council meetings. More than her predecessor, Charles Worley, Bellamy has resorted to the power of the gavel to curtail bickering or get the discussion back on topic. She also frequently “calls the question,” a procedural move used to bring an issue to a vote after everyone on Council has had a chance to speak.
Finding a balance
“It has not been as fun,” Bellamy starts out, before pausing a moment to think. “It has been a maturing process for me. I look at it in a sense of, you know, Council members like to talk, they get voted in, and they have a constituent base. And I don’t think it’s my job as mayor to negate what they have to say. It’s just a matter of can we stay on task [and] keep it above the fray of personal attacks. If we are talking about sidewalks, let’s keep it on sidewalks. It’s just enforcing the rules.”
The mayor will also take time at the end of a meeting to make public pleas—such as her recent request for help in stopping littering—or even to call out local media for what she sees as inaccurate reporting.
As for the city’s approach to development, Bellamy points to several initiatives now under way, such as crafting a master plan for downtown and establishing a more effective way to create affordable housing. But she also strongly supports maintaining a range of housing options.
“We can’t get rid of all of the high-end housing that adds to the tax base. You have to have middle-income [residential units] so people can live where they work,” she asserts. “You can’t get rid of all the housing that is provided by public housing or Habitat for Humanity or Mountain Housing Opportunities, for that matter. You have to have a diverse housing stock, so that Asheville is a place where people from different economic backgrounds can live.”
Down the road
As for what lies ahead, Bellamy has an ambitious agenda for the next two years. For starters, she hopes to pull together a city task force on teens and education. In connection with that, she’d like to see North Carolina raise the legal age for dropping out of school from 16 to 18. She also wants to advance the “10-Year Plan to End Homelessness,” noting that Asheville is ahead of other cities that have joined that national initiative.
On yet another front, Bellamy is one of a group of North Carolina mayors chosen to work on a Department of Homeland Security initiative to prepare states to deal with large-scale emergencies. The mayor says she’d like to have Asheville designated as the “orchestration site” for Western North Carolina, meaning it would be the focal point for supplies, technology, and organization.
But when asked what accomplishments she’s proud of in her term so far, the mayor quickly points to the $40 million bond issue to shore up Asheville’s water infrastructure.
And while Bellamy says she plans to run for re-election next year, that’s about as far ahead as she’s prepared to talk about right now. “After that, it will be 14 years on Council,” she notes, adding, “That’s a long time.”
Meanwhile, she finds comfort in inspirational books, many of them biblical-based. A favorite, she says, is From the Hood to the Hill (Thomas Nelson, 2006), Barry Black‘s memoir of his journey from the Baltimore ghetto to becoming the U.S. Senate’s first African-American chaplain.
Reading such stories, says Bellamy, helps keep her on message and on task.
“I’m going to keep trying: Nothing beats a can’t but a try,” she says. “That’s my life, saying I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t try. And I’m just going to keep going. If I listened to all the naysayers, I would never have been on Council at all.”