“We definitely have to work more regionally than we are. … It’s not just the city of Asheville.”
— former Council member Barbara Field
“I really enjoy politics,” says former Asheville City Council member Barbara Field, sipping tea from a beautiful hand-crafted mug as she relaxes on a Sunday afternoon. “I like the game of it; I like the complexity of it. I like all of the sort of psychological ins and outs and ups and downs. I was the first woman to ever be elected to the Georgia Tech student council, so I’ve been interested in politics for a really long time.”
These days, Field has time to sit down like this. To read books. To come home and watch TV, if she wants, instead of returning countless phone calls or researching the latest issue before Council. But it wasn’t exactly by choice that she got that freedom: Field lost in the 2001 primary election.
It was a strange turn of events for the 10-year Council veteran and former vice mayor, who’d also served on numerous civic boards and commissions. A semantic dispute over the use of the word “cowardly” in a City Council resolution condemning the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks touched off a local-media firestorm, at least partly — and probably largely — costing Field her Council seat. But it was a trying time for her in more ways than most local folks ever knew. During most of the time leading up to the primary, Field was unable to campaign because her father was dying and she was with him in Atlanta.
“How I feel about politics and me is that the community spoke, and that’s fine. They said what they had to say,” she observes about her election defeat. These days, however, what people have been saying to her is, “You look 10 years younger,” or “I haven’t seen you smile in years.”
“I didn’t realize how much stress that had put me under,” says Field, harking back to her last term in office. “I really feel that City Council’s a team sport. In order to get something done, you’ve got to be able to build a coalition … which means that you’ve got to be able to talk to the people that you’re working with. And that got more and more difficult as time went on, as everybody got more and more polarized.”
The polarization, she feels, was the result of a political fashion-change — a kind of single-mindedness that says, “I’m for the neighborhoods,” “I’m for the business community,” or “I’m for the environment,” rather than, “I’m for what’s best for Asheville.” It also became de rigueur, Field maintains, to stand out as the opposition on Council, thus grabbing headlines that translate into future votes.
“I saw that happening. I just think the whole community got very polarized, and is probably still polarized,” says Field. And she thinks she can pinpoint a catalyst. “Certainly it started with the advent of CIBO [the Council of Independent Business Owners],” she asserts, recalling Asheville’s legendary 1991 election, when CIBO-supported candidates displaced a majority of Council incumbents.
“I think that other segments of the community said, ‘Ah, that’s how you do it,'” Field observes — and thus began the spiral of applying ever-greater amounts of money and influence to the local political arena, she believes.
But does that money buy an elected official’s vote, in the end? Field thinks not — at least not locally. “What you might be buying, if anything, is access. People generally know who gave to their campaign.” But swapping a vote for a campaign donation isn’t that simple in her mind.
“I tried really hard to make my [voting] decisions based on facts, not on emotions; to listen to both sides, even though I had some particular political strengths and positions myself. And I would sit there sometimes, and it would be up to the vote, and I would have to sort of close my eyes and go inside of myself and say, “OK, Barbara, what do YOU think is right?” says Field. Sometimes, she recalls, people who’d expected her to vote a certain way on a particular issue would be angry or disappointed. “And you’ve got to be willing to take that and tell them why, which I tried to do.”
Was she aware of that particular dynamic when she first ran for Council?
“Not at all,” Field responds promptly. Then she recalls something her husband, Christopher Johansen, told her when she first decided to run for office: “The first time you come home from a meeting and you are crying because you had to vote against one of your friends, I want to see that!”
Did it happen?
“Yeah, lots of times,” the veteran admits.
Serving on Council entailed other hard choices as well. Field, an architect with SPACEPLAN in Asheville (and the president-elect of the Asheville section of the American Institute of Architects), lost half her salary, because she found she could put in only about 20 billable hours a week. That initially forced her into heavy personal debt, though she says she eventually managed to retire it.
“It meant that I didn’t put as much energy into my family, or my job, because City Council came first. I tried to be as fair as I could, but what I found was that if it was a choice between going to a concert with Chris or going to a meeting for City Council, I went to the meeting for City Council,” says Field, noting that at least her children were already grown and the people around her supported her choice, so her relationships didn’t suffer.
But there were great rewards, too. “One of the things that is most exciting and attractive to me as a human being is learning. And certainly for the first three terms, that was very powerful for me, because I was learning a whole lot. I was going to National League of Cities meetings and going to workshops and just getting a whole different, new level of concept about how we function in this country,” Field reveals with genuine enthusiasm.
Another positive for her was being able to make things happen, things she believed would benefit the community — lining up the requisite four votes to pass something, and then having a large professional staff available to get it done. “So I guess if I miss anything, it’s just having that ability to get a project out there, implemented, completed. And there are some people in this world who could care less. I mean, that’s not where their focus is.”
Now that she’s on the outside, what does Field see as the city’s greatest needs?
“I think the biggest issue is that we don’t look globally enough. Everybody has got their little piece — more soccer fields, or the Pack Square Renaissance project, or whatever. Nobody’s looking at all the pieces, putting them together, and making sure that we aren’t creating rules, ordinances and so forth that prevent us from getting there.”
The Civic Center issue, says Field, needs resolution, and the local economy needs enlightened attention. “I often hear that we don’t have any industry,” Field observes. “The reality is that there IS no industry anymore. And our whole economy, the whole way that we are dealing with the flow of money is changing.
“We definitely have to work more regionally than we are, and I don’t mean just the Regional Water Authority. I mean [that the whole way] we function is regional now; it’s not just the city of Asheville. Those are the big issues out there.”
At the same time, notes Field, Asheville has to come to grips with the city’s growing national prominence.
“How we take this wonderful popularity that Asheville has [and] grow with that is very important,” she asserts. “Do we end up being a flash in the pan — everybody wants to move to Asheville for this year, and next year it’s some place in Nevada?
“How do we integrate the new ideas, the new people, the young people? How do we make that happen, and at the same time respect our heritage, respect our traditions, respect the elderly — the people with the institutional memory and the knowledge of what this community used to be? That balance (which I’ve always tried to get, ’cause I’m a real Taoist when it comes to balance) … is something that’s very, very important.”
So will Barbara Field be running for office again?
“No,” she says promptly. “Not right now. As I said at the beginning, the community told me that they didn’t want me there anymore — and they were probably right, because I was really stressed. And it will be the community that would have to tell me different. That doesn’t mean I won’t be doing things in the political world, and I haven’t solved all the problems. But right now, I’m just sort of pulling in, getting my energy back. I went through a long session with my father’s death — it really broke me up, because we were good friends. And so I just need to restore who I am.”