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.
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.”
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?
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.”