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Growing ‘us-vs.-them’ mindset marks upcoming city elections

drum circle RS

New age rhythms at Asheville’s Frday night drum circle.

Grassroots movements focus on fighting city “machine”

“And yet, they spend millions upon millions for their hotelier friends, every brewery that comes along and an art museum. The river front they rave about is in a flood plain. Asheville’s leaders have literally and figuratively sold us down the river.”

This recent salvo was fired by John Miall, former longtime risk management director for the City of Asheville who now seeks to fill one of three upcoming vacancies on Asheville City Council. The fact that it came from the normally laid-back Miall is perhaps significant: it illustrates the hard edge that this year’s city election campaign has taken on. For the first time in recent memory battle lines are being drawn between those in political power in Asheville and an increasingly vocal number of pitchfork-wielding villagers who say they are ready to storm the castle and “take our city back” and have formed at least two clusters of citizens intent on doing exactly that, though they acknowledge it will be a long-haul undertaking.

City elections are nonpartisan and in the recent past have been fairly tepid affairs, amounting to not much more than polite, non-negative popularity contests, with seats going to candidates who were able to achieve simple name recognition, usually through yard signs and bumper stickers. The rise of social media has added to the mix a powerful new recognition tool – one that became dominated early on by a youngish and technology-savvy group of liberal, self-proclaimed “progressives.”

Left in the dust raised by the progressive bandwagon were “conservatives” of one degree or another, Democrat as well as Republican, who say they value fiscal responsibility, social stability, smaller government and above all lower taxes.

Having seized the communications high ground, these small-p progressives have come to dominate city politics by building an informal organization that embraces all of the present city council, the city manager and register of deeds, leaders of various “neighborhood associations” and a base of several thousand foot soldiers who can be counted on to show up and vote.

“Voter turnout in Asheville is abysmal,” says Tim Peck, a local activist who says his party status is “unaffiliated.” We have around 15 per cent of the electorate deciding leadership and policy for 87,000 citizens. It’s no wonder that partisan progressives are manipulating a handful of voters in Asheville to continue electing their pals, donors and cronies to public office. And now they want to export their ideas for political dominance to the county. And, yes, the progressive voters will take their marching orders”(City voter turnout for the 2013 municipal election was 18.3 per cent overall, according to the Buncombe County Board of Elections.)

The progressives posit that it’s necessary to spend money to make money, particularly when it comes to attracting business; that if the city continues to invest in tourism-related ventures and to offer incentives and tax breaks to attract businesses, the revenue to fund core city services and to repair and update infrastructure will materialize. Also, they believe, the city should take advantage of the fact that its credit rating was recently upped from AA to AAA and use strategic borrowing to fund additional new business development.

The biggest challenges the city faces in going forward with this program, the progressives say, are (1) dealing with a segment of the taxpaying public — apparently consisting of non-progressives – that “needs educating” and (2) contending with a hostile, Republican-dominated North Carolina General Assembly which, as city-retained lobbyist Jack Cozort told city council members at last year’s retreat, sees them as “a bunch of liberal crazies who don’t know what you’re doing and [are] not doing a very good job running your city.”

Crazies or not, the present city administration is certainly viewed by a growing number outside of its charmed circle as the ruling clique of Asheville’s legions of bicycling, craft beer-guzzling incomers; as a cadre of self-serving lightweights who prioritize bike paths and greenways over sidewalk repair and leaf collection; and whose governance, its critics say, has been marked by cronyism, nepotism, a chronic lack of transparency and rampant conflict of interest.

Furthermore, conservatives (or, more appropriately, anti-progressives) say, the progressive machine has already made inroads into county government with the election to county commission, in 2013, of two progressive city councilors, Brownie Newman and Holly Jones. This year progressive chieftain Gordon Smith and perennial gadfly Cecil Bothwell have followed suit and thrown their hats into the county race. Back at the reinforcement depot, Lindsay Simerly has been endorsed by Smith, who is campaigning hard for her, and Bothwell has passed his baton to Rich Lee. The rest of the crowded 15-candidate slate is heavily larded with progressives and progressive wannabes, from Vice Mayor Marc Hunt, up for reelection, to newcomers Julie Mayfield and Grant Millin. Mayfield and Hunt have drawn heavy support from the Sierra Club (currently under investigation for its political activity as a nonprofit).

In fact, the Sierra Club donated $1,878 worth of in-kind services to Mayfield to pay for a mailing for her. Lee has touted his endorsement by the Western North Carolina Central Labor Council, the regional affiliate of the AFL-CIO. None of this sits well with anti-progressives because it smacks of “big” – big connections, big money, big influence. (Miall garnered a comparatively humble endorsement from the Police Benevolent Assocuation more locally involved as well as germane to an important election issue, the overall reshaping of the Asheville Police Department.)

The campaign has pulled two seasoned locals in off the sidelines: black businesswoman and neighborhood activist Dee Williams and old warrior, former mayor and city manager Ken Michalove, Williams decried the city’s lip-service response to black Asheville’s concerns; Michalove has frequently castigated city government for backroom dealing and abuse of power, particularly with regard to its takeover of the Pack Place complex.

The anti-progressives’ hostility towards the existing administration and those candidates already earmarked as its inheritors, is simply that it is made up of non-natives who have no emotional stake in Asheville – who have come to Asheville from somewhere else and are busily turning it into something shallow, glitzy and able to produce quick bucks; a combination hipster vortex and theme park, where any local history or culture that can’t be exploited is kicked aside, and where those who object are referred to by a new pejorative: “nativists.”

Well, the nativists are restless and have decided that, as with the natives in British-ruled India, the time has come to throw off the yoke of the Progressive Raj. “We want our home town back,” has become their mantra, and informal but energized groups have been meeting for several months, planning how to make that happen. “This won’t happen in this election cycle,” one organizer said, speaking on condition of strict anonymity. “I predict it may take ten years to reverse all this damage. But if that’s what it takes we’re here for the long haul. If they don’t notice us, or if they pooh-pooh us, that’s great. We want them to forget about us until we’re good and ready.”

A good indicator of the take-Asheville-back faction’s progress to date, of course, will be the hard numbers in next week’s primary. A glance at the “win” column will reveal how well its passive-aggressive dissatisfaction has translated into boots-on-the-ground action at the polls.

Meanwhile, Shelia Surrett, a vocal critic of the present city government and of the progressives waiting in the wings, says she speaks for a lot of people. “This is my hometown where I grew up.” She says. “[I’m] tired of wasteful spending, we have Moe, Larry, and Curly who can’t make a decision without hiring a consultant … let’s get leadership on Asheville City Council, get out and vote for [Repulican and former Vice Mayor] Carl Mumpower, John Miall, and Dee Williams..a voice for We the People.”

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