The look on Council member Bryan Freeborn‘s face said it all. A scant hour after it had appeared he would fend off his closest challengers and preserve the progressive voting bloc on City Council, the world turned upside down. As supporters kept their eyes glued to a computer screen showing the latest results and Freeborn’s wife sat mutely in a corner of the Westville Pub, he reared his head back slowly, hands over his eyes in quiet disbelief as political neophyte Bill Russell slipped past him by 84 votes to claim the third and final seat up for grabs. (See box, “Neck and Neck and Neck.”)
For Freeborn—who was appointed to Council in 2005 to fill the seat vacated by Mayor Terry Bellamy—the quest for his first electoral victory died along with the hopes of fellow progressive Elaine Lite, who finished dead last behind moderate Dwight Butner.
“It’s just crazy!” an exasperated Yuri Koslen exclaimed as Freeborn sat stone-faced. “It’s because progressives didn’t come out. … All it took was 80 votes!” said Koslen, Freeborn’s campaign manager.
The next day, the Freeborn camp was clinging to the hope that provisional ballots still needing verification might turn the election in their candidate’s favor. According to Election Services Director Trena Parker, there are 94 such ballots. At press time, the campaign was considering whether to request a recount for the Freeborn/Russell votes, depending on the official results (due Tuesday, Nov. 13). While not ready to concede until those votes are counted, Koslen told Xpress on Nov. 7 that the campaign had been a valiant effort nonetheless.
“We’re really proud of what we accomplished, what Bryan’s accomplished in two years,” noted Koslen. “We had a lot of supporters. We had over 60 people and 225 volunteer hours … and those volunteer hours were competing with a lot of money that was raised by special interests in this election.”
Two days later, Freeborn said, “For me, I don’t live or die based on whether or not I’m on City Council.” But because of Russell’s slim margin of victory, the unverified provisional ballots, and the fact that the campaign has not been able to determine the error rate of the county’s optical-scanning machines, supporters are urging Freeborn not to concede until the official results are released. “There’s a lot of people disgusted by the outcome and putting a lot of pressure on me to ask for the recount,” he said.
Freeborn said he believes he’s had a productive two years, asserting, “This Council has been the most productive Council in a generation.” He added that he would be able to get back to other pressing matters in his life that the demands of government service have forced him to postpone.
“People say I must be really upset [at the outcome], but now I say ‘not really.’ I had to put my master’s degree [in public affairs] on hold. I had to put work on hold. In the last couple of days, I’ve been able to say, ‘Gosh, I can go back to school next semester,’ which is something my wife has been putting a lot of pressure on me to do.”
While Freeborn was watching his prospects dwindle on election night, the damage was already done for Lite, who skipped out early from her party at Scully’s, a downtown watering hole. But the following morning, in remarks published in the blog Scrutiny Hooligans, Lite echoed Koslen’s concern about special-interest money, urging city residents who share her ideals not to lose hope.
“The issues of overdevelopment, lack of planning, unbridled growth, affordable housing, environmental protection, failing infrastructure, diminishing natural resources (i.e. H2O), etc. will not go away—and they will need to be dealt with much sooner than later,” she wrote. “I hope that more folks will choose to get involved now. There’s too much at stake to remain complacent or give up.
“Regardless of how much money the PACs and development interests threw at Russell’s campaign, it doesn’t change the fact that this very nice man is clueless,” she added. “The first City Council meeting he ever attended was in September. I hope he’s a fast learner.”
Moments later, Lite apologized online for slamming Russell, adding, “I hope he will have the strength of character to not allow those who so heavily supported him to call the shots … and will serve with a fair and open mind and make decisions that are in the best interest of all, not just a few.” Many progressives complained that Russell, who owns a State Farm insurance agency, had received a majority of his campaign money from real-estate developers and other business interests (as did Butner and incumbent Jan Davis, the top vote-getter).
After Lite had had a couple of days to relax, she told Xpress that while she was disappointed about how she fared in the election, she was more disturbed that Freeborn had lost after two years of hard work and service on Council.
“I was OK,” she said. “It would have been wonderful to win. For a first-time try, I was very pleased. We didn’t prevail in the final election, but critical issues were raised, and over 5,000 people supported the [progressive] agenda. So I feel very optimistic about it.” Lite added that she believes the low voter turnout (just 21.8 percent of registered city voters, according to the unofficial results) was a key reason only one of the three progressive candidates scored a win: Brownie Newman, whom she said enjoys wider crossover appeal, having served a full four-year term.
Lite called voter apathy “a rampant problem,” evidenced by the paltry turnout (the lowest for a general election in Asheville in 22 years). “I think people feel distracted by a lot of other things. I think they feel kind of disempowered.”
All together now
Although Butner was disappointed with his own showing, he told Xpress he was glad if his presence in the race had helped steer the final results.
“I thought we had several people that were running centrist campaigns and really wanted to work for the good of everybody in the community, and that was very clearly reflected in the voting,” Butner said on election night. “I think Bill [Russell] was running that kind of campaign, I was running that kind of campaign, Jan Davis ran that kind of campaign—and he came in first by a long way. I think that if this election is a referendum on anything, it’s a referendum on people wanting to work together.”
And although the race pitted three progressives against three more conservative candidates, Butner said: “I really have a lot of respect for everybody in the campaign. There was surprisingly little rancor—almost no rancor among the candidates. It was a very issues-oriented campaign. There wasn’t a lot of clever slander thrown around, so I was very pleased to be a part of it.”
For Carl Mumpower, the most conservative member of the current City Council, the outcome was manna. “I have nothing but good wishes for Mr. Freeborn,” Mumpower told Xpress via e-mail. But he added: “The election of Bill Russell re-establishes a balance that has been missing from Asheville’s City Council for two years. This was a victory for those who believe in balance and fairness over power politics.
“It is my hope we will see more maturity and cooperation going forward—not less,” said Mumpower. “I believe Mr. Russell will undertake the demanding struggle of being principle-guided versus politically guided.”
“A political tin ear”?
While politically active progressives were shocked at their defeat in a city whose registered voters are overwhelmingly Democrats, several readers who weighed in on the Xpress Web site said that the other progressives on Council—Vice Mayor Holly Jones and Robin Cape—should be wary when they come up for re-election two years from now.
“The entire gang of four have a political tin ear,” political activist Tim Peck proclaimed about Freeborn, Jones, Cape and successful incumbent Brownie Newman.
“Jones and Cape are indeed in for a serious challenge if they continue to push an agenda that does not reflect the overall desires of the electorate,” wrote “Travelah.” “Politics is local, and chasing foreign green notions when the business at hand is schools, roads and taxes will not be looked upon favorably. … But who knows, one of the fauxprog snakes [Newman] was re-elected.”
“Gotta say I was a bit surprised and dismayed by this outcome,” wrote “Curmudgeon.” “Guess we have to remember that the progressive voice may be louder but is not necessarily stronger in numbers. I don’t think Asheville voters are ‘becoming’ anything. We’re all where we’ve always been. It’s just that the conservatives are more motivated than ever to show up at the polls. Reminds me of the ‘60s. We thought it was a revolution—turned out it was just a fashion trend.”