For even more candidate information, see Xpress’ 2005 primary guide.
by Peter Gregutt
Asheville’s upcoming general election could dramatically alter the orientation of city government — or leave it virtually unchanged. Depending on the outcome, there could be only one new face on City Council (the primary results have already ensured that Mayor Charles Worley won’t return), or four — a voting majority. And even one or two newcomers could shift the balance of power on the current sharply divided Council.
Predicting election outcomes is always dicey, and with the turnout so low in the primary (a mere 17 percent of registered voters weighed in), it remains unclear whether the results indeed signal a shift in the mood of the electorate, as some have maintained. (On the other hand, the turnout in both primaries and general elections in Asheville has been consistently low for years — making it unlikely that voters will suddenly show up in droves on Nov. 8.)
But low turnout also amplifies the impact of individual ballots, since Council races are often decided by only a few hundred votes. And together, these facts pose a pointed challenge to those who maintain that there’s no use in voting. With these caveats in mind, here’s a look at what different election outcomes might mean in the bigger picture.
The more things change…
If Joe Dunn becomes mayor and Holly Jones and Carl Mumpower are re-elected, the only new face will be whoever places third in the City Council voting. Terry Bellamy, re-elected in 2003, would still have two more years on Council; and Robin Cape’s strong showing in the primary — second only to Jones’ — would appear to make her a leading contender here. This would yield a City Council with much potential for coalition-building but with no clear faction holding a voting majority.
Cape would probably side with Jones and Brownie Newman on many votes, but they would still need a swing vote to get anything done. Dunn and Mumpower would probably continue to vote in tandem, as they often have, but they would need support from two others to advance their agenda. In both cases, that would leave Jan Davis and Bellamy as the potential swing votes.
So voters who are more or less content with the current Council’s performance might support Dunn for mayor and Mumpower on Council (though they would be unlikely to also vote for Jones, who’s at the opposite end of the political spectrum). To be sure, Dunn has campaigned on a promise to provide stronger leadership. But without the requisite support on Council, even the most forceful leader may have a hard time getting things done.
A whole new ballgame
If, on the other hand, Bellamy is elected mayor and both Jones and Mumpower fall to challengers, the stage will be set for major change. (If Bellamy wins, Dunn — whose current term is about to expire — will be off Council; this could sway undecided voters in the mayoral race.) Since Jones was the top vote-getter in the primary, however, this script also seems unlikely.
Bellamy similarly topped Dunn by a substantial margin, giving her an apparent edge; and with endorsements from both the Sierra Club and the progressive PAC Match Our Mountains, she seems poised to benefit from any leftward shift in the overall election results. But Dunn, the top vote-getter in the 2001 Council race, cannot be counted out.
If Bellamy does become mayor, however, the new City Council will have to appoint someone to serve out her Council term — and who they might choose is anybody’s guess. The last time this happened, in 2001, Council members named the next-highest finisher, but they are not required to do so. (See our election grid, elsewhere in this issue, for the candidates’ own takes on how they would approach this situation.)
The preceding two scenarios highlight the importance of the mayoral race in either preserving the status quo or opening the door to significant change. And regardless of what happens in the Council races, a victory by Bellamy will require appointing someone to fill her vacated seat.
That appointment, of course, would be made by Bellamy, plus Newman and Davis (who aren’t up for re-election) and the three victors in the Council contests. With Dunn gone, Mumpower might find himself more isolated, which could influence the new Council’s choice of a seventh member (though Mumpower might still look to Bellamy and/or Davis — both of whom have voted with him on some major issues in the past — for support).
A crowded field
Complicating the situation is the presence of so many relative unknowns in the Council races, most of whom have taken left-of-center positions on the issues. Both Chris Pelly (who placed fourth in the primary, trailing Mumpower by 854 votes) and Bryan Freeborn (who placed fifth, 381 votes behind Pelly) have run for Council before; Keith Thomson and Robin Cape are making their first run. Many of these challengers are competing for the same sector of the electorate — which could divide the vote (and thus help Mumpower). But if one of those challengers knocks off Mumpower, a more progressive Council appointment will be a virtual certainty.
Odd men out?
Both Mumpower and Dunn have tended to take positions to the right of the other candidates. Thus, citizens favoring either of these men would probably support both — and have a hard time finding other Council candidates to vote for. A strong showing by Dunn in the mayoral race would probably benefit Mumpower. But to pick up new support, both men will have to rely on conservative voters who sat out the primary, since both of the unsuccessful mayoral candidates were well to the left of Dunn, and many of the voters who supported Dwight Butner and/or Matthew Hebb in the primary probably also gave Mumpower the nod.
In recent Council contests, the top three finishers in the primary have had a high success rate in the subsequent general election. On the other hand, in the past two mayoral races, the No. 2 finisher in the primary clipped the leader’s wings in the final tally. That places the responsibility for this year’s outcomes precisely where it should be — in the voters’ hands. How many city residents turn out at the polls on Nov. 8 — and which buttons they push — will go a long way toward determining whether the next City Council blazes new directions or continues along current paths.