On Oct. 6, Asheville voters, or at least some of them, narrowed the field of candidates to six council and two mayoral hopefuls who will advance to the general election on Nov. 3. Vote-count leaders Cecil Bothwell, Gordon Smith and Esther Manheimer quickly called the primary results a victory for newcomers over incumbents. Three days later, the field shrunk even more: Kelly Miller, who finished fourth, announced he was bowing out of the race in order to care for his wife, who was recently diagnosed with cancer.
A total of 7,113 voters (around 10 percent of the city's population) cast ballots in the primary. According to the Buncombe County Board of Elections, that's the lowest primary turnout since the city switched to nonpartisan elections in 1994. And when all was said and done, Bothwell, Smith and Manheimer had each rounded up more votes than incumbents Miller and Carl Mumpower. Newcomer J. Neal Jackson garnered the last spot on the November ballot.
In the mayoral race, current Mayor Terry Bellamy won easily, pulling in 5,150 votes. She will run against Robert W. Edwards, who got 1,157 votes in the primary.
For Bothwell, who pulled in the most votes with 3,718, and Smith, who earned 3,573, the night marked the success of their community-based campaigns. Both candidates announced their candidacy early and got campaigns on the ground in time to build strong community support.
Bothwell, who gathered with supporters at the Early Girl restaurant on Wall Street, took an early lead in the vote count and maintained it through the end of the night. "This really establishes what grassroots politics is all about," Bothwell said. "We had the largest organization, and it worked."
Smith attributed his strong showing to his campaign's organization and strategy. "This was very targeted. We have a strong in-the-field organization," Smith said from his primary party at the Westville Pub on Haywood Road. "It was a relentless effort that allowed us to do the things we have."
With her election party behind her, Manheimer sat in The Usual Suspects on Merrimon Avenue with supporters, including former Council member Bryan Freeborn and current Council member Brownie Newman, and said she was glad to see the primary results. But she already had her sights on the upcoming month of campaigning for the general election.
"We've got a lot of work ahead of us," she said, adding that she understood a big piece of that work is to get more voters engaged.
"It's our job to reach people to get them to the polls by any means necessary," she said.
Miller, who mingled with family and friends in the Capitol Center downtown, called the voter turnout "disappointing."
"It's surprising, with as much effort as we put into getting out the vote," he said. Miller said he was nevertheless not distressed by his fourth-place showing, noting that he remained optimistic. "I'm satisfied with making the cut."
But on Friday, Miller would announce his withdrawal from the race at a press conference on the steps of Asheville City Hall, explaining that his wife Kate had been diagnosed with cancer in June and had been undergoing chemotherapy treatments. "The most important place for me is not on the campaign trail. It is by my wife's side," Miller told a gathering of reporters, campaign organizers and Chamber of Commerce colleagues. Miller said he would not endorse any other candidate, but called for more voters to participate in the process during the general election.
In an e-mail sent on the day after the primary, Mumpower said the primary results were defined by the low voter turnout. "The election was realistically decided by the 90 percent who stayed home," he wrote.
The two-term Council member, who has been a go-to option for Asheville conservatives, landed in fifth place, but nonetheless says he plans to continue spending no money and making limited outreach to voters.
And while progressives cheered the outcome of the primary, seventh-place conservative Ryan Croft had another take. "I am … horrified that the most radical candidates received the highest voter turnout. We are in real trouble," he wrote in an e-mail to supporters.
As candidates charted their rankings and thanked their supporters on election night, current Council member Robin Cape held forth at the Wedge Brewery in the River Arts District along with a crowd of her supporters, touting her write-in campaign. She said she shares the message of sustainability that she believes launched Smith and Bothwell into the top two slots.
"Gordon and Cecil are running on my same platform, but I have the experience," Cape said.
Cape, who announced her candidacy after the filing deadline expired, does not appear on either ballot, and there was no place to write her in as a choice in the primary. But her supporters will have that option in the general election.
That means, says Cape's campaign manager Ellen Pfirrmann, that the campaign will have to educate voters about how to successfully execute a write-in.
With Miller pulling out, Cape's bid keeps it a six-person race. What remains to be seen is how the write-in option will affect the totals. A look back at past Council races in Asheville indicates that the top three vote-getters in a primary usually win Council seats in the general election. But Cape's campaign could rearrange the results by pulling votes from other candidates, and there is no telling yet how Miller's withdrawal could potentially affect the vote count. Then there is the issue of voter turnout. Local primary elections in years without Presidential races have notoriously low turnouts, but voters tend to come out in larger numbers for the general election.
To help drive up those numbers, Asheville City Council in September approved four new early voting locations, which will open on Oct. 24: the North Asheville Library, the South Buncombe Library, the West Asheville Library and the Parks, Recreation and Cultural Arts Department on Gashes Creek Road. Early voting at the Buncombe Board of Elections will take place beginning on Oct. 15.
Note: Miller has withdrawn from the race.