Change in the weather?

And now, they’re colleagues: New guy Bill Russell (left) and re-elected Asheville City Council member Jan Davis wait for elections results at Magnolia’s. Photo By Jonathan Welch

It was hard to tell whether Bill Russell was more nervous before or after 9:36 p.m. on Election Day. Before that fateful hour, Russell—standing beside his wife, Alison, at Magnolia’s—said, “I’m trying to stay away [from the crowd of supporters monitoring the latest returns] for at least a little while.” Although incumbents Jan Davis and Brownie Newman held comfortable leads from the get-go, the four other candidates all remained in close contention for the third seat.

Then a whoop went up from the huddle around the glowing screen of a laptop computer: Russell had narrowly leapfrogged past Bryan Freeborn to land in the No. 3 slot. At the end of the night, a mere 84 votes separated the two.

Neck and neck and neck

Two incumbents stayed ahead for the long haul, but it was a heated race for third place in the Nov. 6 Asheville City Council election.

At press time, the Buncombe County Board of Elections had not yet confirmed the tally, so the numbers presented below may change. (Bryan Freeborn has said he will await the official results before deciding whether to call for a recount.) But here are the unofficial results:

Voter turnout: 12,491
Percentage of registered voters who cast ballots: 21.8%

Voter breakdown
Democrats: 7,293
Republicans: 2,759
Unaffiliated: 2,439

The results (with winners in bold)
Jan Davis: 7,639 votes 21.34%
Brownie Newman: 6,613 votes 18.47%
Bill Russell: 5,568 votes 15.56%
Bryan Freeborn: 5,484 votes 15.32%
Dwight Butner: 5,367 votes 14.99%
Elaine Lite: 5,009 votes 13.99%

Charter amendment to switch to partisan elections:
Yes: 2,346 votes 19.69%
No: 9,568 votes 80.31%

 

The only Republican in the race, Russell was often vague about where he stands on the issues during the run up to Election Day, sticking mainly to statements like, “I just want to serve.” And with his Council seat secured, he remained vague when speaking to Xpress, emphasizing that he has a lot to learn.

Speaking about his fellow Council members, Russell noted: “They have the experience and years dealing with inside issues that I have not had the privilege to be part of. One thing I’ve learned over the last few months is that there’s so much I need to learn about the city government and how to work with the state legislators and the county government, so I think I have to turn to my peers for help.”

For progressives disappointed about the losses by Elaine Lite and Bryan Freeborn, that vagueness has fed a suspicion that Russell is awaiting marching orders from campaign contributors. But to Davis, who’s now entering his second term on Council, Russell’s arrival augurs a welcome change.

“Tomorrow, we’ll have a balanced Council,” Davis told Xpress. “There will be moderation. There will be the same progressive tendencies, and we’re going to have the same hard-right tendencies, but we’re going to have to have some collaboration to get things done. I think it’s what the mayor’s been looking for, and it’s certainly what I’ve been looking for, and I am elated about the future.”

Back in the saddle: Brownie Newman (right), with his campaign manager, Veronika Gunter, stand outside Jack of the Wood, where Newman celebrated on election night. Photo By Jonathan Welch

While expressing surprise over Freeborn’s loss, Davis said he’s ready for change on a Council where there were sometimes “four votes that were going to slam through, no matter what.”

As for Russell, Davis said: “I have found him to be a person that thinks a whole lot like I do. I’m sure that our opponents will attach the development community to us, and [say] that the end of the world is going to come, but the reality is that good development is good, bad development is terrible. We both look at it that way.”


Balance or backpedaling?

Nonpartisans rule in referendum

by Jon Elliston

After months of heated debate over the Asheville City Council’s June vote to switch to partisan city elections, the issue was finally decided—by the voters, not by elected officials. According to the Buncombe County Board of Elections preliminary count, 9,568 voters (80.31 percent) turned thumbs down on the proposed change, while 2,346 (or 19.69 percent) supported it.

The referendum made it on the ballot after a frenzied petition drive mounted by Let Asheville Vote, an impromptu group cobbled together after Council made the switch. Arguing that voters should decide the matter, LAV gathered 5,022 certified signatures from registered city voters—just over the 5,000 required to prompt the referendum.

“I expected nonpartisan to succeed, but I didn’t know that it would succeed by the margin that it did,” lead LAV organizer Charlie Hume said after the tally came in on election night. “It’s exciting to see that four out of five people opted to keep the system we’ve got.”

And while unaffiliated candidate Dwight Butner failed, by a narrow margin, to win a Council seat, he too was heartened by the referendum results. Opposition to moving to a partisan system was “a center part of my campaign,” he noted. “I wouldn’t have gotten in the race without it, and I don’t think either my or Bill Russell‘s candidacy would have had much traction without it.” Russell also opposed moving to a partisan elections.

The nonpartisan system, argues Butner, makes it easier for independent candidates to get on the ballot, raise campaign funds and get in on the substantial publicity surrounding primary elections. And independent candidates, he says, “are one of the few things that keep the [Democratic and Republican] parties in line.” The two major parties, he says, “tend to become political priesthoods, tend to get a little bit doctrinaire, dogmatic, and separate and distant from the voting public.” And while third-party candidates lose elections more often than not, “they’re always successful at introducing ideas or issues that the big parties are either not aware of or ignoring,” Butner maintains.

And though the debate over partisan/nonpartisan balloting may be over for now, the former Democrat says the party should learn some lessons from the referendum results. “I think the local Democratic Party will do its business in more democratic ways as a result; it’s a real wake-up call for them, in terms of how they go about their business. At least I hope it is.”

Council member Brownie Newman, one of the main architects of Council’s attempted switch to partisan elections, say he’s not at all surprised on how the referendum went. “Because I think the way the issue was framed by the media—as the question of partisan or nonpartisan [was why]. These are terms that have inherently negative and positive definitions in the public mind.” Newman posits that “if the same question were asked were asked differently—like, ‘Should a candidate’s political affiliation be listed on the ballot?’—most voters would say yes.

Newman says he has no plans to reintroduce the matter in Council. “The voters have expressed their will on it so it’s time to move on.”

 

Sitting in Jack of the Wood after his victory party, Newman sounded glum for a man who’d just been re-elected.

“We just got the votes in, so it’s all brand-new information,” Newman told Xpress. “Obviously I appreciate people’s support for my own re-election. I am at the same time disappointed that Bryan Freeborn is not going to be re-elected.”

But Newman said he intends to keep pushing the initiatives he’s championed since his election four years ago. “I hope that Council can continue to go in a direction of trying to be innovative in environmental sustainability and developing a transportation system that is not just about moving cars around, and sticking up for Asheville taxpayers,” he said. As for the new lineup, Newman said, “I think our job might be a little bit tougher after this election, but I am thankful to be part of a Council that will continue to work on these issues.”

Mayor Terry Bellamy, meanwhile, said she thinks fears that the new Council will turn its back on environmental issues will prove unfounded.

“I would hope that that doesn’t happen. I think that there should be more incentive for our development community to show that they are stewards of our community and our environment. So I hope they will prove the naysayers wrong.”

Like Davis, however, the mayor said she’s looking forward to a new atmosphere of cooperation inside the Council chambers. “I think that this will just make the conversation balanced. I think that we’ll all have to listen to one another and make our decisions based on a more comprehensive set of information. I see this as an opportunity for our community to come together on a lot of different issues that make Asheville special.”

Those key issues, said Bellamy, include economic development, preserving existing jobs and revitalizing the River District.

But perhaps the most eager note of the evening was sounded by Russell, who capped off his election-night victory by declaring, “I want to serve, and I’m looking forward to it.”

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