NEWS AND ANALYSIS
ASHEVILLE — These days, it seems, a conservative candidate has about as much chance of winning a seat on Asheville’s City Council as a minimum-wage worker has of affording downtown housing. It’s been 10 years since a registered Republican was elected to Council, and the only such candidate in this year’s race didn’t make it past the primary.
But former Council member and Vice Mayor Jan Davis remembers a time when city government looked dramatically different. Back in 2004, the seven-member body included two conservative Republicans (Vice Mayor Carl Mumpower and Joe Dunn) and two progressive Democrats (Holly Jones and Brownie Newman). “And then,” says Davis, “there was [Mayor Charles Worley], Terry [Bellamy] and myself, who were more moderate with leanings one direction or another.”
Those “moderates” were all registered Democrats, but all three might have trouble getting elected today. A few years later, Cecil Bothwell, who served on City Council alongside Davis, would describe him as “a Republican in Dem clothing”; Bellamy, meanwhile, would come up short in her bid for Congress, failing to garner strong support even in Asheville. Both Jones and Newman moved up the ladder to the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, and at the other end of the spectrum, the two conservatives were cast aside. Bellamy defeated Dunn in the 2005 mayoral race, and four years later, Mumpower was unseated in a clean sweep by progressives.
“As time passed,” says Davis, “the political will of the community became a little more polar, and the progressive community became a larger part of a more conservative Democratic organization. I think there were a good many more moderate Democrats at the time, and then the progressive faction of the party became a little more established.”
Asheville has long been a liberal bastion in a right-leaning region, a tendency that Davis traces back to the Depression era. But what’s changed in recent years to make it so unlikely that a right-wing candidate — or even one who, not so long ago, would have been considered a moderate — could get elected?
The Newman arc
Newman, who currently chairs the Board of Commissioners, didn’t get elected the first time he ran for City Council, or even the second. But his subsequent rise to power closely parallels Asheville’s political shift over the last two decades. Newman began his political career as an activist working on air-quality issues and opposition to logging in national forests. He eventually became executive director of the Western North Carolina Alliance (now MountainTrue), a nonprofit environmental advocacy group.
That activism, Newman says now, ranged from public demonstrations to lobbying legislators to legally challenging timber sales. Gradually, says Newman, “I started thinking, ‘In addition to writing letters and urging other elected officials to do stuff, we need to just get good people elected.’ So I started also working with other people’s campaigns.”
In 1999, Newman ran as an environmentally focused candidate and came within 53 votes of claiming a City Council seat. “A lot of people were very surprised that I almost won,” he recalls, adding that although he thought he had a chance at the time, he didn’t yet know what he was doing politically. Being perceived as a single-issue candidate may have both helped and hurt him, Newman says now, conceding that some voters may have wanted a more balanced approach. But, “There were also some people who said, ‘We need somebody on City Council who brings that kind of background.’” He also notes that he knocked on literally thousands of doors, a tactic that was rare at the time but has since been employed by many successful local campaigns.
Newman didn’t fare as well in his next attempt, two years later. The tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, he says, “created an environment where being this progressive environmental activist was not what people were looking for.” He finished fifth, behind Jones and three more conservative candidates.
The third time proved to be the charm, however: Newman had more experience, better funding and was coming off a legislative victory thanks to his involvement in the 2002 push to pass North Carolina’s landmark Clean Smokestacks Act.
It was during his seven years on City Council that the shift to the left played out. “The 2003 election,” says Newman, “was the first of basically the progressive community getting more politically organized. … The following election, the progressive community got a lot of new voices on City Council and really never looked back from there. It’s been a progressive majority ever since. Which was great, because it opened up all these opportunities to actually do a lot of the things that I was interested in and that made me want to run for City Council in the first place.”
The growing support for Newman and other candidates of his kind would eventually create the opportunity for someone like him to assume the mantle of leadership at the county level, which had long been reserved for moderates such as David Gantt, Newman’s predecessor as board chair.
Part of it, Davis maintains, had to do with the different strengths the various City Council candidates brought to the table. “I think Brownie’s election made a lot of difference because he became a great spokesman for [environmental and social equality] causes … just as I was a small-business person with a history of working on planning, zoning and those things that I felt were important to the city; just as Holly brought social concerns to it. And Terry brought her social concerns to it, and Carl was probably not nearly as far right then as he is today.”
Buncombe County has more than 188,000 registered voters, and Asheville accounts for only about 70,000 of them, so clearly there are limits to progressive city residents’ ability to sway county elections. But even with an expanded Board of Commissioners and district elections — both imposed on Buncombe County by the Republican-dominated General Assembly — Newman was able to claim the chairmanship of a still narrowly Democratic-majority board, and progressive candidates have also prevailed in the races for sheriff, district attorney and clerk of court. In 2008, 2012 and 2016, Democrats managed a clean sweep of all the countywide contests.
Thus, Newman’s electoral success mirrors a broader local political trend that’s played out over decades.
“All public politics is driven by people that are called entrepreneurs,” says Bill Sabo, professor emeritus of political science at UNC Asheville. These political actors, he says, use whatever tools they have to drive their various causes forward, whether the goal is enacting policy or controlling elections.
This political dynamic, notes Sabo, has a long history in Asheville, “going way back to Weldon Weir [the powerful city manager from 1950-68] and all the people in that ilk; politics was dominated by this inner core. As they passed from the scene, they were replaced by a group of issue entrepreneurs, and this became characteristic of United States politics as a whole.” In the 1970s and ’80s, he says, a new breed of amateurs with specific agendas became increasingly influential in getting their ideas before the public. “The goal of the issue activists,” Sabo maintains, “is less to win elections than it is to sort of purify politics to the point where ‘good things’ happen — however they define good things.”
The phenomenon, he points out, isn’t limited to one end of the political spectrum. Notable local issue entrepreneurs run the gamut from Bothwell, the progressive incumbent who lost in this year’s Council primary, to Mumpower, who’s parlayed his recent unsuccessful bids for office into chairing the local Republican Party. Both of those radically opposed figures, says Sabo, rose to prominence by expressing their views through letters to the editor and other widely accessible platforms. That’s typical of the modern amateur politician, he says: “Issue-oriented entrepreneurs play that game in the public realm; the old party politicians played it behind closed doors.”
The watershed event, Sabo believes, was the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, where populist liberals clashed with police and there was a widespread rejection of backroom deals. The fallout from that, he maintains, launched a general opening up of politics in both parties. Previously, the party leadership had chosen the candidates, based more on a belief that they could win than on their adherence to a particular political litmus test, says Sabo. But these days, voters in the primaries “want someone who is issue-pure, who is committed to the agenda, whatever that agenda is. And thus issue purity replaces the ability to compromise as the primary drive or motivation for politicians.”
According to the volumes of available data, says Sabo, these issue entrepreneurs/activists have three things in common: Regardless of their political positions, they’re well-educated; their financial situation enables them to devote time and energy to politics; and they “have been involved in organizations for a long time,” with some degree of success. “So they learn that it pays to get involved. … They think that what they do matters.” And that feeling of accomplishment creates an incentive for continued political involvement.
Buncombe County Commissioner Jasmine Beach-Ferrara has another name for these active politicos: organizer. Political action, she believes, should be undertaken in relationship with others to achieve a shared dream.
She grew up being involved in Democratic politics with her mother during presidential campaigns and got more involved with issue work in college. After moving to Asheville in 2002, Beach-Ferrara jumped into the local political arena, promoting the Democratic slate in 2004 largely because she opposed the Iraq War. Another motivation, she says, was that this was when Republicans began using bans on same-sex marriage as a political tactic.
It was a tough year for Democrats in the region. National-level candidates went down in defeat, from presidential contender John Kerry to Patsy Keever, who was seeking to unseat Charles Taylor in the 11th Congressional District. Meanwhile, at the county level, the results were mixed: Democrats carried the Board of Commissioners seats, but Republican Nathan Ramsey retained the chairmanship.
The following year, Beach-Ferrara focused on city politics, lending a hand with field operations in Robin Cape’s successful City Council bid. “We’d had the opportunity to organize together during the 2004 cycle, and at the time, she was running as a grassroots candidate who was calling really clearly for the progressive agenda,” Beach-Ferrara recalls. “I admired the way she was approaching politics.”
Those back-to-back campaigns reignited Beach-Ferrara’s passion for electoral politics, she says. “It definitely was when I really fell in love with organizing, and in the years after that I started thinking about the possibility of running for office at some point.”
She subsequently did field work on Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign and opposing Proposition 8 (a California same-sex marriage ban that became a national rallying cry for pro-marriage equality groups). After completing divinity school, Beach-Ferrara returned to Asheville and formed the nonprofit Campaign for Southern Equality to advocate for equal rights for the LGBTQ community. Years of intense public issue work and legal challenges were vindicated by the 2015 U.S. Supreme Court ruling legalized same-sex marriage; the group has continued its social justice work on other fronts.
Meanwhile, in 2016, she decided to seek the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners seat left open when Holly Jones mounted an unsuccessful bid for lieutenant governor. “A lot had to do with the policy issues that you get to work on, specifically around education and public health, pre-K issues, the human welfare side of things,” Beach-Ferrara explains. The seat is easily winnable by a progressive because most of the district overlaps with Asheville. She only faced opposition in the primary and ran unopposed in the general election.
As a candidate, notes Newman, Beach-Ferrara “had a clear issue-activist background on an issue that’s strongly supported by progressives in the community. So, in many ways, that was a big asset to her: All these people who agree with her on those issues were predisposed to support her. But I think if you’re coming from an issue-activist background,” he continues, “the burden is on you to demonstrate that you’re not just a one-trick pony: You’re going to have to represent a lot of other concerns. And I think Jasmine did a good job of that.”
And while Beach-Ferrara broke ground last year as the county’s first openly gay elected official (thanks mainly to the support of city voters), she’s only one in a line of recent issue operatives who’ve fared well in local politics. After two unsuccessful City Council bids, for example, Chris Pelly won a Council seat when he made sidewalks an inescapable campaign issue in 2011. Pelly says he’d worked as a community organizer almost all his adult life, whether paid or as a volunteer, and after having some success in bringing projects and infrastructure to East Asheville, other activists recruited him to run again. “If you’re going to be successful at this,” says Pelly, “you need help from other people, and they were ready to help.”
Dictating the conversation
Some of the folks who moved to Asheville in the 1990s held fringe liberal views that would have found little support on City Council at the time, but thanks to the subsequent sea change, they now find themselves ideologically aligned with new establishment Democrats such as Mayor Esther Manheimer.
“What happens,” says Sabo, “is the agenda changes, and the choices change with them. People are very consistent with their views, but the whole spectrum shifts.” According to all the evidence at the national level, he continues, people don’t typically adjust their positions; instead, the public conversation moves either closer to or further away from those firmly held beliefs.
And in Asheville, argues Mumpower, “Progressives have been extraordinarily successful in organizing their voting bloc and asserting their will on our community.”
Sabo, however, says that’s been true selectively rather than across the board. For all practical purposes, he maintains, this is still a conservative community when it comes to economic issues, as evidenced by the deep disparity in incomes and the rapid pace of development. At the same time, he notes, the city has shifted significantly left on social and environmental issues — thanks in part to the rise of issue entrepreneurship.
Asheville, says Sabo, has “grown so fast, and all the markers of community have disappeared.” Consequently, community involvement tends to manifest in niches, such as Asheville on Bikes, the St. Lawrence Green campaign or the person’s particular neighborhood group. “The agenda doesn’t stagnate,” he says. “There’s a constant push, and this is a result of activities by entrepreneurs and activists to control it. … Whoever controls the agenda controls what people think about and controls the choices.” So an issue activist’s constant goal is to keep that concern firmly fixed in the public’s awareness.
Political campaigns give candidates a very public pulpit, though the tactic has its limits, cautions Sabo. Because when someone with a pet issue runs for office, other issue activists will immediately try to push them in all sorts of directions. In order to win, candidates must choose their issues carefully.
Those who use their candidacy to promote a particular issue, he says, often burn out in the course of the campaign if the public doesn’t buy into their agenda. Others, however, pick their issues based on what they think voters will support. “The difference between politicians and issue activists,” says Sabo, “is that politicians have a clear, distinct and well-defined goal: to win the election.”
A subjugated minority?
According to Newman, local politics’ leftward shift “reflects the community’s political values; the demographics of the city have gone in that direction.”
But even as Newman, Beach-Ferrara and neighborhood organizers like Pelly, former Vice Mayor Marc Hunt and, more recently, Vijay Kapoor have leveraged hyperlocal issue activism to gain political power, Mumpower has taken a different tack in the wake of his electoral losses.
Mumpower began his political career by opposing what he calls “progressive intrusions on our community’s traditional values. It seemed important to resist that slide — and thus my step toward political engagement as a reluctant candidate.” But since losing his City Council seat and a subsequent bid for Congress, Mumpower says he’s become much more of an activist, “mostly because we do not have many creative and persistent conservative activists in our community. I would love to step aside, but most Asheville conservatives go about their business quietly — and, regrettably, many have just surrendered.”
Even within the city limits, says Mumpower, he’s “not convinced that progressives are in the majority.” Instead, he maintains, voter turnout reveals “indifference as the majority position.”
“There are a lot of conservatives in Asheville as surely as in Buncombe County,” Mumpower wrote in a recent local Republican Party newsletter. “Amidst all this hostility, conservatives tend to operate on a low-profile basis. We call that being ‘quietly conservative.’” But, “Quiet and passive,” he argued, “are not the same thing. Ponder the power of a Marine sniper for clarity.” Thus, being in the minority should be considered a blessing: “We are in a target-rich environment providing much opportunity for mischief and conservative activism.”
Mumpower attributes the left’s success in setting the agenda to three things. “The progressive approach promises something for nothing, robs Peter to pay the Paul of their choice, and offers opportunity without responsibility. None of those governance models will work over time,” he predicts, “but in the short term, they are sexy and seductive.”
The will of the people
Voter turnout is one subject on which Sabo and Mumpower seem to agree. “First of all, it gets really contorted, because the will of the voters is pretty much nonexistent in a place like Asheville,” Sabo declares. “I mean, you know, nobody votes. It’s a joke.”
And indeed, with turnout hovering around 18-24 percent of eligible voters, it’s hard to argue that the current City Council has a clear mandate. These elections may tell us more about what voters don’t want than about what they actually believe. Mayor Manheimer, for example, won more than 80 percent of the vote this fall, but her 13,000-plus votes still represented only about 19 percent of the number of registered voters in the growing city.
Most Asheville voters today are white and female, but that hasn’t changed much over the last dozen years. Meanwhile, the city now has about 15,000 more registered voters than there were in 2005, the last year Mumpower was elected, and that’s in addition to the natural turnover due to death and relocation.
Newman, at least, believes those newcomers have had a lot to do with the progressive rise. “Asheville as a community is much more liberal than it was when I first ran for City Council,” he maintains. “We see this all around the country now, where people move to areas that are aligned with their political thinking. So progressive people tend to move to the Asheville area. Henderson County is a growing part of Western North Carolina, too. It’s still very conservative. So I think people who are moving to our area select the neighborhoods and communities that they feel comfortable in.”
It’s difficult to compare city voter turnout in 2005 and 2017 because there’s no public source for that information. But judging by Buncombe County data, the numbers appear to be way down. Although there are 14,853 more registered city voters now, fewer people voted in 2017 than in 2005. There were mayoral contests in both years, and this year’s district elections referendum gave voters an additional reason to cast ballots in 2017. Yet the total turnout in Asheville was about 24 percent. Based on the available data, 2005’s total turnout may have been as high as 35 percent.
To some extent, however, voter registration does seem to reflect the progressive trend. Between 2005 and 2017, Asheville lost more than 2,700 registered Republicans and gained almost twice as many Democrats. But it also added more than 12,000 unaffiliated voters, whose positions may be more likely to differ from issue to issue, perhaps creating space for candidates unlike those we’ve seen before.
In the most recent election cycle, for example, outspoken activist Dee Williams managed to inspire support from opposition voices at both ends of the political spectrum. Endorsements by conservative iconoclasts Chris Peterson and Tim Peck as well as the local Green Party chapter enabled her to survive the primary and capture more votes than she had in previous campaigns. Meanwhile, a well-established Democrat, Jeremy Goldstein, raised the most money of any candidate yet failed to make it through the primary even as more progressive but less well-funded contenders breezed by him.
So while the liberal trend in Asheville politics may seem insurmountable to conservative candidates, it could be that whatever messages might inspire more city residents to turn out on Election Day simply haven’t been presented yet. And with the latest election results still ripe for interpretation, analysts and campaigners across the political spectrum can only hypothesize what might constitute a winning platform in the next cycle.
But whatever truly characterizes Asheville’s political environment, Davis maintains, the most important thing is why someone chooses to run for office. “The right reasons,” he says, “are to improve the community and to have concerns and desires and passions and want to be able to help put your fingerprints somewhat onto the policies that make those things happen. The wrong reasons are to be there for self-fulfillment, to champion a cause that may not necessarily be a good one, and to exact a pound of flesh. I’ve seen that done, too.”