By Carolyn Morrisroe, Able Allen and Virginia Daffron
ASHEVILLE — Rain didn’t keep Asheville voters away from the polls on Tuesday, Nov. 7, as they turned out in relatively high numbers to re-elect two incumbents and increase the diversity of City Council.
Mayor Esther Manheimer easily secured a second term with 80.8 percent of the vote, while challenger Martin Ramsey garnered 18.6 percent. Vijay Kapoor and Sheneika Smith racked up enough votes to snag two of three open spots on Asheville City Council, and incumbent Gwen Wisler held onto her seat. Kim Roney, Rich Lee and Dee Williams ran vibrant campaigns for Council but ultimately fell short at the polls.
Even before all the votes were tallied, it was clear that voter turnout was high for a municipal election, Manheimer observed from a gathering at Well Played on Wall Street. “It’s really exciting. I feel like people have really gotten engaged since the presidential election. And engagement is good,” she said. “We’ve got people who’ve never participated in municipal elections before, and they’re here, they’re volunteering on campaigns and they’re voting. And that’s a different experience than I’ve previously experienced.”
Voter turnout this year ran higher than in the past two municipal general elections, at 19,633 out of 84,814 registered voters in Buncombe County municipalities, or 23 percent. In the 2015 general election, 14,080 registered voters cast ballots, or 17 percent. In 2013, 15,791 people voted, or 19.27 percent.
Manheimer, an attorney who first joined City Council in 2009 before becoming mayor in 2013, tentatively thanked those who voted for her as early returns gave her a sizable lead. “I’m feeling flattered that the people of Asheville overwhelmingly seem to be re-electing me,” she said.
Coming out on top
First-time candidate Kapoor drew voters from his own neighborhood of South Asheville but displayed broad appeal to take 22.8 percent of the votes for City Council. A municipal budget consultant of Indian and Polish descent, Kapoor becomes one of three people of color on the city’s top board.
At a gathering at Rocky’s Hot Chicken Shack in South Asheville on election night, Kapoor said, “I’m feeling very good, humbled, thrilled to be joined by all the volunteers, my family. They worked really hard to try and get our message out throughout the city. It’s rewarding that it actually seems to be working.”
Earlier in the campaign, Kapoor endorsed Smith and Wisler, whom he’ll now join on Council after a Dec. 5 swearing-in ceremony. Getting there was at times a damp prospect, though. “I was standing in the rain with a sign that said, ‘Vote today,’ in South Asheville,” Kapoor said of his Election Day. “And then I was standing in the rain in Montford. Then the sun came out, and I was greeting voters up in Montford.”
Coming in second place with 19.9 percent of the votes and winning a spot on City Council, Smith said she came into this race looking to shift power in Asheville. “I’ve been inspired by a lot of social movements that are going on and were going on in the last four to five years: Occupy, definitely movements around environmental justice, Black Lives Matter,” she said on election night at the Arthur R. Edington Education & Career Center. “I decided to step forward because you can’t just be a community organizer forever and not move forward to influence policy.”
Smith, a first-time candidate and community engagement coordinator at Green Opportunities, ran on a platform of equity and inclusion. “I took a step forward [to] represent my community that has been underrepresented on a City Council level for some time,” she said. “I’m glad to share the space with Mr. Keith Young, the first time two African-Americans have served on Council in 30 years. So, we’re history makers.”
The themes of collaboration and coalition-building resonated throughout Smith’s campaign, and she attributed that intersectionality with helping build momentum and broaden her base. “The African-American community, we don’t have enough numbers to pull an entire election,” she said. “But I believe the message of hope for community and family sustainability and suppressing gentrification actually pulled enough numbers and supporters that we were actually able to pull second place.”
Wisler, former CEO of the Coleman Co., was first elected to Council four years ago and was named vice mayor in 2015. She took the third spot, with 18.2 percent of votes, a 1,586-vote margin above fourth-place finisher Roney. She believes voters were drawn to her experience. “I think some folks got nervous that it would be a completely brand-new group on the Council. And I think people think I voted the right way on most things.”
Her inclination to rein in short-term rentals in accessory dwelling units inspired a little pushback for the incumbent, but Wisler is looking ahead and said she would accept the vice mayoral title if it comes her way again at the Council’s organizational meeting on Dec. 5. On election night at Pack’s Tavern, cheering broke out as supporters watched Wisler’s vote tally increase. “Thank you, everyone, I couldn’t have done it without you,” she said. “I’m really excited to move forward and continue the work.”
Coming up short
Roney, a piano teacher, bartender and alternative transportation advocate, said on election night the she felt “really, really, really encouraged” by her finish, even though she narrowly missed winning a seat on Asheville City Council. “We came in fourth place out of 12 candidates this season,” she said, alluding to the 12 candidates who were whittled to six after an October primary.
Roney says she’ll be honored to serve on the Multimodal Transportation Commission with Smith on Council. “I’m so proud of her as a friend, as a community leader, and we still have a lot of work to do in the city, so I’m about getting back to work. I think the community is ready to do that with me,” she added.
Financial adviser Lee, running for Council a second time, collected 900 more votes than he did in 2015, but with higher voter turnout, those ballots weren’t enough to win him a seat in the competitive race. “I’m excited to see another record-breaking turnout for a city election,” he said. “It shows the larger project of getting people engaged on local issues is working.”
Lee said he’s grateful to his partner, Lindsay Furst, the volunteers and all the voters who supported him. “We stayed focused on issues and brought new ideas to the table. Looking at the field, you see the mayor’s endorsements, the Sierra Club slate, all the usual machinery of local elections, but also a lot of grassroots candidates making great strides,” he said. “All in all, I think we ran a solid race in a qualified field. Congratulations to all the winners.”
Williams, the Green Party candidate and business owner who has put up several unsuccessful bids for elected office in Asheville, struggled to translate her rhetoric into votes, coming in last with 10 percent of the vote.
At an election night gathering at the Charlotte Street Pub, Williams thanked the small room of supporters for believing in her. “I think our message captivated a lot of people,” she said. “It has changed the ground that the Green Party and these candidates will walk on forever.”
“I want to be a trailblazer for other people,” Williams added. “This is something that no matter what happens after tonight, nobody can take away.”
Coming away with a new Council
Current City Council member Julie Mayfield celebrated with Wisler on election night and reflected on why Kapoor nabbed the top spot in the Council votes. “One thing is, if South Asheville actually shows up, that’s a lot of votes,” she said. But she added that she spent Election Day in West Asheville and saw a great amount of support for Kapoor there.
Beyond the geographical aspects, Mayfield said Kapoor was the best campaigner of the field. “He’s very personable on the stump and at those forums,” she said. “He brings a measure of some gravitas and some seriousness and intelligence, and I think people really respond to that.”
Kapoor and Smith will join Young to bring more racial diversity to Asheville City Council, as the newcomers take seats held by white males Gordon Smith, who chose not to run for re-election, and Cecil Bothwell, who did not garner enough votes in October’s primary to continue. With Mayfield, Wisler, Smith and Manheimer, the new Council will also be predominantly female, balanced unevenly by three men: Kapoor, Young and current Council member Brian Haynes.
Like many people watching the City Council race play out this fall, Buncombe County Board of Commissioners Chair Brownie Newman said on election night that it was hard to predict what the outcome would be. “I really didn’t know what was going to happen. People had hard choices to make between them,” he said. “The three folks who won I know are going to do a great job. I look forward to working together where we can between the county and the city.”
As Asheville residents wake up to the prospect of a more varied makeup of City Council, Newman said that diversity has many aspects that reflect a cautiously evolving city. “It’s an interesting mix of new faces on the local political scene as well as people who have served before. I think that’s a good dynamic in terms of experience and new ideas coming in,” he said. “I think that the voters are saying that they want to see some new ideas, but they also appreciate some of the efforts that the veteran elected officials have been making on behalf of the community.”
A referendum to provide for six single-member electoral districts governing the nomination and election of Asheville City Council did not pass, with 75 percent of voters saying no.
Asheville City Council voted in July to amend the city’s charter to create districts for seats on the Council. The new plan would replace the current at-large system, in which all six seats are elected by citywide vote. The change was to go into effect “only on approval by vote of the people,” according to Council’s resolution.
The referendum specifically asked voters to weigh in on a new state law creating election districts in Asheville based on legislation that was introduced by Republican state Sen. Chuck Edwards in March.
In a release on Nov. 8 after Asheville voters rejected the state’s district plan, Edwards points a finger at Asheville City Council for not complying. “Unfortunately, the City Council doesn’t seem to understand what most ordinary citizens do — that following the law isn’t optional,” he states. “For months, they have blatantly ignored the law, then organized and helped defeat a referendum in an attempt to preserve the status quo system from which they personally benefit.”
Edwards claimed Asheville officials wasted taxpayers’ time and money on “a sham of an election” that he says will not change the state law. “Asheville is a city that prides itself on standing apart, but today its leaders are standing out for all the wrong reasons,” he states.
Democratic state Sen. Terry Van Duyn declares in a Nov. 8 release that the failure of the referendum shows that Edwards is out of touch with his constituents. “From its inception, the idea of dividing the city of Asheville into a district-based council has lacked bipartisan support,” she states. “We were elected to serve the people, and Sen. Edwards is choosing to ignore his constituents and instead forcing his personal agenda onto Asheville.”
Van Duyn points to Kapoor’s victory as evidence that the at-large system of council representation is effective. “Yesterday’s election resulted in new representation in South Asheville, with the election of Vijay Kapoor, proof positive that the current system in place is working for the people of Asheville,” she states.