The first face-off: Mayoral candidates debate issues affecting the city

Voicing different ideas about funding the Asheville Art Museum, adopting the living wage ordinance and deciding downtown development, the trio of political candidates vying to be Asheville’s next mayor debated with one another for the first time on Wednesday while also revealing a shared consensus among them about the perceived relationship between the General Assembly and the City of Asheville.

More than 100 people attended the forum hosted by Leadership Asheville at the Asheville Country Club. Fielding questions written by attendees on 3×5 notecards, former vice mayor and current vice president of Leadership Asheville Edward Hay served as moderator for the event. When Hay asked candidates how they would handle Asheville’s relationship with a hostile state legislature in the first question of the forum, Vice Mayor Esther Manheimer, former city Risk Management Director John Miall and downtown waiter and community activist Martin Ramsey all said that Asheville was being targeted by the sate General Assembly.

“A hostile legislature is what we have on our hands,” Manheimer said.  “I don’t think any one person can be effective in leading this community unless you’re able to work collaboratively with others. You have got to create partnerships if you are going to be effective, and especially in dealing with our legislature.” She specifically referenced when City Council wrote a League of Municipalities resolution written in support of Asheville’s efforts to keep its water system. Manheimer said that 50 cities in total signed the resolution when all was said and done.

Miall said he applauded the resolution, but urged that more could have been done if council members had tried to mobilize their constituents to vote certain legislators out of office.

“We need to galvanize the support that puts our local people in office and grow that out into the community around us,” he said.

Echoing his opening statements about the importance of reaching out to voters, Ramsey said that the General Assembly could change within the next two years.

“For the time being, let’s try to keep them from burning the place down as fast as they can,” Ramsey told forum attendees.

When asked about the funding of the Asheville Art Museum, Ramsey used the decision as an example for why his campaign is advocating for the city to adopt participatory budgeting, a process by which local taxpayers and citizens can directly decide how to spend part of a public budget.

“That is going to require us to have discussions about what it is that we actually want to do with limited money and abilities to implement those things,” he said, saying that when the power lies with five or six people to make decisions “that’s fundamentally undemocratic and I don’t support that.”

Miall, however, said he is “1,000 percent opposed” to the $2 million City Council allocated for renovations and repair work to the Asheville Art Museum.
“Where are the metrics?” he asked. “Where are the objective measurable outcomes that the 9,000 paying visitors who passed through the art museum last year — even if that number doubled — where’s the numbers that tell us that was an economic development? I’m really turned off with the sacred cows in the city budget.”

But Manheimer defended the decision. She said that cities like Asheville depend on property taxes for its main revenue source.

“When you have a robust art museum in your downtown, it raises the property values in the entire surrounding area. We will get a return on this investment very soon and it is a wise investment and it is in keeping with this growing stability of our revenue base going forward,” she said. Manheimer also said that the $2 million represents about 10 percent of the funds necessary to cover the repairs needed at the Asheville Art Museum. Until the museum can privately fundraise the rest of the necessary capital, Manheimer said the Asheville Art Museum will not receive the $2 million.

After taking questions submitted by members of the audience, Hay asked the candidates to write their own question to ask their fellow candidates. Referencing the nearly 10,000 in attendance at the Mountain Moral Monday demonstration this summer, Ramsey asked Manheimer and Miall whether they would be willing to get behind some of the ideas represented there, including worker’s rights and a living wage.

Manheimer cited the city’s adoption of a living wage, which requires that contractors with Asheville pay their workers a living wage. However, on Friday the state passed a bill that essentially voids these living wage ordinances not only in Asheville but across the state. For Miall, he told the audience that, “On the issue of living wage, my personal jury is still out on that. I’ve read studies where those types of things typically can drive inflation. If landlords and merchants realize that people in the community have more disposable income, the cost of rent and everything else goes up accordingly. I’m not sure to what end we achieve with living wages if that’s true. I would think that we need to study that.”

Miall also said that more dialogue is needed regarding the property in front of St. Lawrence Basilica, which the City of Asheville sold to McKibbon Hotel Group to build a hotel and plaza on the city-owned property across from the St. Lawrence Basilica.

Ramsey called the decision to sell the property “a poor use of public space.” However, he said he was torn in some ways about it, too, since money earned from the sale may go to help build more public housing. He asked, “Is tourism working for Asheville, or is Asheville working for tourism?”

Manheimer said the Downtown Master Plan guided Council’s decision to sell the property.

“There were several committees, hundreds of people that volunteered time to determine how our community sees the vision for downtown,” Manheimer said of the creation of the master plan.  “It’s that basis that we have now to make all decisions concerning downtown; and that foundation is very important to help guide the city council in making decisions about land in the downtown area.”

Throughout the event, applause levels varied for each candidate. However, the sound of support did not indicate a clear crowd favorite.

At the end of the nearly 45-minute forum, Hay addressed the people in attendance, saying, “I know you’ll agree with me that we’ve got a very interesting mayor’s race on our hands.”

Caitlin Byrd can be reached at or 251-1333, ext. 140.


Thanks for reading through to the end…

We share your inclination to get the whole story. For the past 25 years, Xpress has been committed to in-depth, balanced reporting about the greater Asheville area. We want everyone to have access to our stories. That’s a big part of why we've never charged for the paper or put up a paywall.

We’re pretty sure that you know journalism faces big challenges these days. Advertising no longer pays the whole cost. Media outlets around the country are asking their readers to chip in. Xpress needs help, too. We hope you’ll consider signing up to be a member of Xpress. For as little as $5 a month — the cost of a craft beer or kombucha — you can help keep local journalism strong. It only takes a moment.

Before you comment

The comments section is here to provide a platform for civil dialogue on the issues we face together as a local community. Xpress is committed to offering this platform for all voices, but when the tone of the discussion gets nasty or strays off topic, we believe many people choose not to participate. Xpress editors are determined to moderate comments to ensure a constructive interchange is maintained. All comments judged not to be in keeping with the spirit of civil discourse will be removed and repeat violators will be banned. See here for our terms of service. Thank you for being part of this effort to promote respectful discussion.

8 thoughts on “The first face-off: Mayoral candidates debate issues affecting the city

    • Martin Ramsey

      I’d like to take this opportunity to speak to my voting record, which has been a topic brought up recently and worthy of discussion.

      I first registered to vote in the election of 2000 for Al Gore, an uninspiring campaign at best. Then in a fascinating, gut-wrenching putsch, the Supreme Court stopped a Florida recount, invalidated lawsuits over voter suppression and awarded the presidency to George W. Bush. A decision that Al Gore and the Democratic Party meekly accepted. This was devastating to witness as a young voter. The 2004 election was marred by similar accusations of computerized voter fraud including congressional expert testimony regarding Ohio. George W. Bush went on to preside over a raft of egregious war crimes and the largest transfer of wealth to the rich in the history of our country.

      In 2008, Obama was swept into office by a historically broad coalition of voters, young and old, white, black and brown, of which I was a critical supporter. My brother was stationed at the time in Afghanistan not far from the Iranian border and I feared the intemperate saber-rattling of a McCain/Palin presidency. While the Democrats under the Obama presidency have been not quite as socially conservative as their Republican adversaries, they have shown themselves to be equally beholden to the

  1. Jon

    Do you really think we will break the power of organized money by participating in an electoral system wholly financed by the corporate state? Voting in our current system as it stands in NC is a shell game. Republicans and Democrats are merely employees of the corporate state. They organize and commiserate with corporate lobbyists to pen nearly every piece of legislation that hits the floor. They serve their paymasters, and in turn receive the funds necessary to compete in the electoral process. North Carolina offers no ballot access to third party candidates, via the collusion of these parties. As an NC native, born and raised by an NC elementary school teacher, I’ve not forgotten how we’ve arrived here. 100 years of Democratic majority in the state legislature, and yet we’ve experienced criminally low teacher pay, we’re a right to work state, our educational statistics have never broken the national mean, and let us not forget the handful of Democrats who voted to override the governor’s veto, opening up our water table to the plundering, poisoning, and utter destruction of Hydro-fracking.

    Your claim, that simply voting, rather than direct action and grass-roots organization, as the only “opportunity” to express power and political will in a supposed democracy rings a bit hollow.

  2. 9-volt

    I didn’t attend the debate, but appreciate Manheimer’s comments on the Art Museum and her understanding of Asheville’s revenue stream. Asking for metrics on an art museum seems inherently challenging.

    Asheville is a destination for art and culture and our local museum has been in need of major improvements. Supporting art can have a ripple affect on tourism, quality of life and yes, tax revenue. I think it is in the City’s interest to support this part of our community financially.

  3. Cecil Bothwell

    Editorial blunder: it is Edward Hay, not Hays.

    Factual blunder: money from sale of the property across from the Civic Center CAN NOT be diverted to affordable housing.

    The property was purchased with money from the transit/parking fund, and sale proceeds must return to that fund. Period. No exceptions.

  4. sharpleycladd

    The City’s total property tax levy is just about $47 million, so the gift to the Museum represents a pretty significant portion of those revenues. It’s unlikely to pay off in any meaningful way. There are no metrics to demonstrate a payoff because there is no payoff that warrants this kind of investment.

    Mr Ramsey’s defense of his non-voting record is heartfelt, and I applaud him for that. Given the legislature we’re saddled with these days, I do think it’s fair to say that ideological purity is the enemy of the good, both in the case of a Randian fascist like Tim Moffitt and people-powered purist like Mr Ramsey. Folks who didn’t vote in 2010 are, in fact, responsible for the mess we’re in right now.

  5. Politics Watcher

    One easily determined metric for the Art Museum is attendance. What are the figures for paid attendance (excluding school groups)? What are the figures for memberships? And where are people coming from who visit the museum? Zip codes are taken when a visitor buys a ticket or shows a membership card precisely so the museum (and other entities that ask for your zip code) can know where the customers are located. An enterprising reporter could ask these questions. And ow do those figures compare to other “attractions” in Asheville? One comment says, “Asheville is a destination for art and culture.” Is it? What kind of art, what kind of culture? Pop music? Classical music? What do surveys of hotel guests show as the activities they participate in when they are here? Surely the Chamber has this information. The metrics are there (or can be obtained). They just need to be asked for.

  6. Keith

    The $2 million “to the Art Museum” is to be spent on infrastructure improvements to a city-owned building. The $20 million to be spent by the Art Museum will improve this *city-owned building* and improve the facility that lead the way over the last 25 years to making downtown an engine of employment, sales and property tax collection, and for attracting more people to downtown on a slow day or night than used to come to a big day during Bele Chere.

    Folks who have moved here after these changes were made to downtown cannot imagine how the streets were rolled up at 5:00 PM every day and no one came to downtown. Even the Hot Dog King was slow on Friday nights.

    Sales taxes and property tax collected on this vastly improved, thriving downtown are shared with the state of NC, Buncombe County, Asheville City and Buncombe County schools, all 5 sister municipalities in Buncombe County, and rural fire districts.

Leave a Reply

To leave a reply you may Login with your Mountain Xpress account, connect socially or enter your name and e-mail. Your e-mail address will not be published. All fields are required.