Whatever your political or ideological bent, you could probably find something to get your attention in this year’s bumper crop of 15 City Council contenders—candidates to love, to loathe, to snicker at or to be utterly ambivalent about.
Despite an incredibly panoramic political lineup, however, a scant 13 percent of voters—the lowest turnout in the 12 years Buncombe County Election Services has tracked local primary voting stats—went to the polls on Oct. 9. Still, this self-selected group gave the rest of Asheville six candidates to consider on Nov. 6, when the anointed half-dozen will be whittled down to three victors. (According to election officials, only 7,617 of the city’s 57,018 registered voters cast ballots).
And just what did they decide? Well, for starters, says Council member Bryan Freeborn, those voters seem quite comfortable with the status quo, as the top three vote getters turned out to be the three incumbents—Freeborn, Brownie Newman and Jan Davis. The other three office-seekers are Critter Magazine publisher Elaine Lite, insurance-company owner Bill Russell and downtown restaurant owner Dwight Butner (see box). Freeborn added that he sees the low voter turnout as another sign that city residents are comfortable with the current leadership. But he and Newman both indicated that in order to win, they’ll need to focus efforts on getting out the vote next month.
If the recent past is any indication, Newman, Freeborn and especially Davis—who scored the most votes of any candidate (3,622)—appear to be sitting pretty. In every City Council election since 1999, the three top vote getters in the primary have gone on to win the general election. But Council member Robin Cape points to the narrow margin separating Freeborn from fourth-place finisher Lite (who trailed by just 174 votes) and fifth-place finisher Russell (127 votes behind Lite). Freeborn has yet to win a general election; City Council appointed him to fill the seat vacated by Terry Bellamy when she was elected mayor two years ago.
Other factors, however, may influence the outcome next month as well. Voters will also be deciding whether the city will switch to partisan Council elections after this year, and it’s unclear how that hotly contested issue might affect both total turnout and which voters go to the polls. Freeborn supports partisan elections, and Newman led the effort on Council to adopt the voting change before a successful petition drive forced a November referendum on the issue. Davis, on the other hand, staunchly opposes partisan elections. (All three are Democrats.) The city has held nonpartisan contests since 1994, and the Let Asheville Vote petition drive found support across the political spectrum.
The November election could significantly affect the direction City Council takes. In effect, the race pits three progressives (Newman, Freeborn and Lite) against three relative moderates in Davis, Butner and Russell.
On the day of the primary, however, Cape—one of four progressives on the current seven-member City Council—endorsed all three incumbents in a get-out-the-vote e-mail sent to constituents on her e-mail list and the press, causing consternation in progressive circles. Many progressives are hoping to replace Davis with a more left-leaning Council member.
“Robin Cape threw her endorsement to Jan Davis on the morning of the election, leading this Hooligan to question her commitment to a progressive City Council,” popular liberal blogger Gordon Smith wrote on his blog Scrutiny Hooligans. “What sort of deal is being struck there, I wonder?”
There was no deal, according to Cape, who also supports partisan elections. Nonpartisan primaries, she maintains, typically boil down to personalities and likability. “For me, it was who do I like to work with? And I like working with those three more than anyone else [running],” she told Xpress, adding that the current Council has been productive, and Davis has been part of that success.
Freeborn, meanwhile, says Davis brings balance to Council. “We don’t want to sink into groupthink,” he reports—which can happen when everyone has the same ideology. “I think we have a Council now that truly represents all of Asheville.” Nonetheless, Freeborn stopped short of endorsing Davis, saying that he hasn’t championed major progressive causes. Freeborn also asserts that Davis’ refusal to support Freeborn’s appointment to Council in 2005 even though he was the next-highest vote getter ignored the will of the people.
Cape, on the other hand, says Davis has been open to the ideas and arguments put forth by his progressive colleagues. And Davis’ wide popularity, she maintains, often builds bridges between the progressive bloc and more conservative or moderate interests who might otherwise oppose those measures.
In the general election, however, Cape says her ideals might trump her fondness for Davis and lead her to support Lite out of sheer pragmatism. It’s important, she says, that the vote not be split between Lite and Freeborn, which could help elect the more conservative Russell. “I called Jan [on election night] and said, ‘Don’t expect me to support you in the general election.’ I can’t, because of the issues I care about.”
“I think there’s two natural slates here,” Lite campaign worker Jake Quinn observed while watching the returns at Board of Elections headquarters. … We’ve got three progressive candidates, and we have three candidates who are not as progressive. They’ll be more inclined to maintain the status quo with respect to development in the city.”
Davis, meanwhile, voiced satisfaction with the results on election night. “I’m grateful, and I think it speaks well for the community to come out and pick a person who’s truly a moderate,” he said. “I think a lot of people in the community have great liberal leanings at moments and great conservative leanings at moments, and I think most people have an appreciation that this community takes a lot of [moderation] to move things forward.
“I think that people naturally build slates [of candidates] and want to see slates,” added Davis. “I’ve been pleased to serve with who I have [on Council] and can serve with anyone. It would be good, from a business standpoint, to have … fellow businesspeople. … I like a balanced Council. I think we’ve had a bit of an imbalance, with a really hard left and a really hard right. … I’m not looking to form a slate; I’m just looking to serve and do the best job I can.”
Russell, a political neophyte who bills himself as “the nonpolitical guy in this group,” says he hopes it doesn’t turn into three vs. three. “I think the less agenda-driven candidates—me, for example—don’t want to be paired up with anyone,” he notes.
Lite says she doesn’t think it will turn out to be a progressives-versus-moderates campaign, despite the political affinities shared by those in the two divergent camps. “I think there’s enough distinction between us,” she observes. “Obviously, Brownie, Bryan and I philosophically are more aligned, but we also have our differences. And then Jan, Dwight and Bill—again, maybe overarching [they] are more moderate, but I’m sure there are differences between them too.”