But what effect will three new members (or two new members plus one incumbent) have on the way Asheville governs itself and does business? Not much, political observers and even some insiders are saying. In fact, they say, it would take a fundamental shift in the city’s political process to alter the track the city has been on for nearly a decade.
Depending on who’s doing the talking, that track is either one of enlightened growth, inclusiveness and sound fiscal management or municipal prostitution, self-serving elitism and tax-and-spend irresponsibility.
“This bunch of socialists have got a choke hold on city government,” says former vice mayor Chris Peterson, a vocal critic of council’s ever- leftward drift over the past several administrations. “They hand pick who they want to run and it doesn’t matter who else runs, their people are going to win because, first, they’ll make sure their people get the money and, second, they’ll make sure the right people vote.
“You have to hand it to them,” Peterson says. “They’re organized. They’ve got a solid bunch of obedient foot soldiers in town that they can count on to vote. And since hardly anybody else bothers to vote, their people get elected over and over. The faces may change but their politics don’t.”
“They,” to Peterson and other conservatives, include Mayor Esther Manheimer, the entire city council as presently constituted, and Asheville’s chief operating officer, City Manager Gary Jackson. Two council members, Gordon Smith and Cecil Bothwell, are not seeking re-election; instead they have announced their candidacy for Buncombe County Commission in next year’s general election. A third incumbent. Vice Mayor Marc Hunt, is running again.
Hunt is an unabashed champion of property development at a time when the city is grappling with growth-versus-preservation issues. Some, including councilor Cecil Bothwell, who supported him in the 2013 elections (see below) have criticized what they see as Hunt’s cozy relationship with developers. Others have viewed with a jaundiced eye Hunt’s leading role in the city’s dubiously legal takeover of Pack Place Arts and Cultural Center, a factor which did not prevent him from picking up a Sierra Club endorsement.
Besides Hunt, the other candidates for council include:
Julie Mayfield, a director of the environmental nonprofit MountainTrue. Mayfield came to Asheville from Atlanta and served on former Gov. Bev Perdue’s Mountain Resources Commission. Mayfield has been endorsed by the Sierra Club. Her campaign has raised the most money – even more than the incumbent Hunt – among the crop of candidates.
Rich Lee, a West Asheville financial advisor framed as a “neighborhood activist.” Lee, who has garnered an endorsement from the regional AFL-CIO affiliate, leveraged his entrance into politics through leadership in the East West Asheville Neighborhood Association and his community liaison work on behalf of New Belgium Brewery, with whom he became closely identified. He also achieved social media notoriety as a founder and acid-tongued commentator of the Facebook page Asheville Politics. Councilor Bothwell has heartily endorsed him.
Brian Haynes, Assistant Manager of Habitat for Humanity, a native Ashevillian and brother of music superstar Warren Haynes. The Haynes brothers cofounded the annual charity Christmas Jam, which benefits Habitat. In a curiously timed pre-election development, Brian Haynes’ son, Austin, has been indicted for possession with intent to sell marijuana, a charge which one legal analyst has called “wildly circumstantial” and which political observers say us unlikely to impact Haynes’ campaign significantly.
Keith Young Assistant Clerk of Superior Court, another Asheville native and the only African American among the surviving candidates. Young has positioned himself as the voice for a virtually unrepresented segment of Asheville population and as being genuinely concerned with issues he says are of supreme importance to that segment, especially affordable housing and improved city transit. His campaign has spent the least amount of money in the race, but he is considered by many to be a front-runner nevertheless. He has also received an AFL-CIO endorsement.
Lindsey Simerly, an LGBT (lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender) activist, has managed to pick up endorsements from both the Sierra Club and the AFL-CIO. Running largely on a platform of being a voice for the city’s burgeoning LGBT community, Simerly is backed by councilor Smith. A high school basketball star in Spartanburg, she went to Western Carolina University on a basketball scholarship, but dropped out of college and off the grid, later resurfacing in Asheville. She, too, espouses affordable housing and social justice.
Altogether the candidate field seems to reflect Asheville’s vaunted diversity, but critics say none of that matters a whit. One naysayer to emerge in the run-up to the election is none other than Bothwell, the perennial maverick.
“There’s a lot of back room dealing going on, folks,” Bothwell posted on the Asheville Politics page in September. “Time to vote Mr. Hunt off Council … and let’s not elect his close allies, Mayfield and Simerly … Developers are running the table and two law firms are pulling the levers.”
The law firms Bothwell was referring to are Van Winkle, for whom Manheimer works, and McGuire, Wood and Bissette, of which former mayor Lou Bissette is a senior partner. Bissette, who is alleged to have represented more developers before city council than any other local attorney, has endorsed Hunt.
“Asheville has become a Van Winkle and McGuire/Wood/Bissette company town,” says Asheville political activist Davyne Dial.
Bothwell actively supported Hunt in 2013, but when Hunt emerged as a fan of intense development – or of developers anyway – Bothwell denounced him in a cold fury. “You make me want to puke,” he famously told Hunt.
Bothwell has now gone after the Sierra Club itself, particularly with regard to contributions made by its PAC to local campaigns. In an October 26 press release, he said the Sierra Club, through the Raleigh-based PAC, has “poured more than $10,000 into the current Asheville city council race” at a time when no compelling environmental issue is at stake.
“Do donors to the Raleigh PAC know how their money is being spent and why?” Bothwell asked.
Last week the Asheville Citizen-Times, in a lead editorial, formally endorsed Hunt, Mayfield and Young, a move which, observers say, must have dismayed Smith/Simerly and Bothwell/Lee.
“None of it makes any difference,” Peterson maintains. “Whoever get elected, they either are owned by the machine already or they will be very soon. Everybody who could have stood up to them and made a difference got weeded out in the primary.”
(A total of 14 candidates ran in the October 6 primary election, including former mayor Ken Michalove, Black political activist Dee Williams and former city risk manager John Miall.)
“The people better start getting out their pocketbooks,” says Peterson. “This city is somewhere between 12 and 15 million dollars in debt and that’s only going to get worse for at least the next five years.”