Dissent doesn’t always mean competition in mayor’s races

tgrubb@newsobserver.com August 20, 2013 

Opposition to Amendment One united the current candidates for mayor in 2012. Current candidates Tom Stevens of Hillsborough (left) and Lydia Lavelle of Carrboro applaud as Carrboro Mayor Mark Chilton, red jacket, hugs Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt after the latter's remarks against the state constitiutional ban on gay marriage.

MARK SCHULTZ — mschultz@newsobserver.com

— Residents and town officials agree this year’s mayoral elections stand out most for what’s missing – competition.

The candidates in all three towns – Carrboro, Chapel Hill and Hillsborough – are unopposed, and only Carrboro will have a new mayor next year, when Alderwoman Lydia Lavelle should succeed outgoing Mayor Mark Chilton.

Chilton said he was surprised there weren’t more candidates.

“On the other hand, maybe it indicates that people are pretty happy with the broader direction that Carrboro government is headed in,” he said.

Lavelle, a two-term member of the Board of Aldermen, would be the first mayor elected from the northern part of Carrboro, which was annexed in 2006. She also expected competition after Chilton announced his retirement. Carrboro residents are active on advisory boards and committees, and public hearings regularly attract a crowd, she said.

“(Citizens) add a lot to the whole process, but I think they look at our board and see seven hardworking aldermen,” she said.

Similar races are playing out across the state, with nearly two-thirds of the more than 350 mayoral races this year going uncontested. The biggest races to lead local municipalities are in New Bern, where seven candidates have filed to run for mayor, and in Charlotte and Hickory, each of which has six candidates for mayor.

In Orange County, residents and town officials have their share of disagreements – about taxes, development and other issues – but it doesn’t necessarily add up to a crowded political field, they said. Hillsborough Mayor Tom Stevens is unopposed after eight years in office.

Former Chapel Hill Mayor Rosemary Waldorf and residents Mark Zimmerman and Maria Palmer, a candidate for Town Council, pointed out that a mayoral race, particularly against a well-liked incumbent, can be time-consuming and expensive – without a guaranteed victory.

“When you’ve got popular incumbents, and I think that’s true of both Mark Kleinschmidt and Tom Stevens, people acknowledge it’s an uphill battle to unseat a popular incumbent,” Waldorf said.

Outgoing Town Council member Laurin Easthom said she heard rumblings from people who were considering challenging Kleinschmidt. There could be many reasons why no one did, from being satisfied enough with the mayor’s performance to the difficulty of stepping into the job without Town Council experience or a track record of policy decisions, she said.

Three recent mayors – Kleinschmidt, Waldorf and Kevin Foy – served first on the council. Former Mayor Ken Broun was not a council member when he became mayor in 1991, but he had been a well-known community member and UNC professor for some time, Waldorf said.

Zimmerman, who writes a monthly column for The Chapel Hill News, said Orange County’s legacy of one-party politics also can curtail challenges, because the starkest contrasts typically arise from opposite sides of the aisle.

Foy noted there also might not be the same interest in unseating an incumbent mayor as there may be in defeating a U.S. senator, for instance. Since mayoral elections are held every two years, opponents might wait for the incumbent mayor to step aside after a few years instead of mounting a costly challenge, he said.

It would be nice to think most people are happy with his leadership, but Kleinschmidt said he knows that’s not the case.

“It’s hard to be in office 12 years without ruffling some feathers,” he said.

The mayor faced challengers in 2011 and in his first run for mayor in 2009. That year, he beat fellow candidates Kevin Wolff, Augustus Cho and Matt Czajkowski, who trailed him by 246 votes. Waldorf faced at least one challenger in two of her three mayoral races, and Foy overcame two challengers in 2001.

Palmer said in recent years, potential challengers have seen Kleinschmidt deal with some high-profile and difficult issues, including the raid on the Yates Motor Co. building in 2011 and the effects of the nation’s economy and state and federal cuts on local budgets. While she hasn’t always agreed with Kleinschmidt, Palmer said she respects his leadership style and thinks those tough situations made people realize how hard the job really is.

“I think people are very vocal, and I have watched him bend over backward to let people be heard and to be fair,” she said.

Kleinschmidt, Stevens and Chilton agree their biggest role is to create a welcoming atmosphere where everyone feels heard, even if they don’t agree. They also push their board members to get involved in issues for which they have an expertise or passion, Kleinschmidt said. The mayor may not have any real authority, but he ultimately is held accountable for the town’s successes and failures, they said.

The campaign season is a valuable opportunity to share that information, the candidates said. Lavelle said her job will be to help people feel comfortable about the town’s future, whereas Stevens wants to put the focus on a “significant” change facing Hillsborough’s town board. The same group has served on the board for at least 10 years, he said.

Kleinschmidt said he also sees a need to engage the Town Council candidates over the next few months.

“We have an extraordinary array of council candidates. These are some of the most accomplished people and qualified candidates I’ve seen for some time,” he said.

Grubb: 919-932-8746

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