Asheville City Politics Primer by Michael MullerBy
I got to know Michael Muller during the Congressional primaries when he was managing Carl Mumpower’s campaign. He’s patently conservative, and I’m a progressive Democrat. But we got along so well that we’ve been able to forge a friendship that transcends the political. Muller and Mumpower parted ways after the primary, and Muller managed the campaign of County Commission Chair Nathan Ramsey. Michael’s taken some photos for my City council campaign while doling out a heaping helping of political insight. He’s sharp as a tack, and I’m happy to have the opportunity to post this piece. Michael left this as a comment in a previous thread. It’s too informative to leave languishing, so here it is in full:
A note to my readers: I’m pasting portions of a report I composed for a client a while back. Much of it is self-evident to political types, but was written as a primer for the uninitiated on the city races. Parts have been redacted (I hope all of them!) to protect confidentiality, so it won’t flow very well. Maybe some of you will find it interesting or useful, maybe not. I’ve sworn off politics this cycle, so here ya go…
P.S. I have enormous respect for anyone, of any political party, who decides to throw his or her hat into the ring. It is a grueling, thankless process that often ends up in disappointment and regret. It takes a lot of guts.
Basic Facts (as of May 2009)
- There are 63,261 registered voters in Asheville.
- 32,657 (52%) are Democrats, 11,930 (19%) are Republicans, and 18,592 (29%) are Unaffiliated. The number of registered Democrats alone exceeds the combined number of Republicans and Unaffiliated voters by 2,135. The ratio of Democrats to Republicans is 2.5 to 1.
- Self-identified liberals and self-identified conservatives are the most likely to vote; moderate and unaffiliated voters are less likely to vote. (In other words, the more ideological you are, the more likely you are to vote). Older voters are more likely to vote than younger voters. The more educated you are, the more likely you are to vote. Regular churchgoers are more likely to vote than people who do not attend church. In Asheville’s city elections, blacks are historically less inclined to vote than whites, even when black candidates are put forth. (Blacks as a group reached parity for the first time with whites nationally in terms of turnout percentages in the 2008 general election. It is undoubtedly anomalous).
- Municipal elections are held every odd year. Turnout for municipal elections is relatively low, averaging around 30%, although the mayoral race increases participation. A record low turnout for city council primaries occurred in 2007 at only 13%. Although voter turnout in the 2008 presidential election was at a record high (71%), it is not known if this by itself will significantly affect voter turnout in the 2009 municipal race, although it could be well argued that a newfound sense of enfranchisement among progressives or a backlash among conservatives and Republicans could be anticipated.
- Mean Age of all voters is 47 years.
- Mean Age of Democrats is 49 years. Mean Age of Republicans is 52 years. Mean Age of Unaffiliated voters is 45 years.
- Median Age of Democrats is 48 years. Median Age of Republicans is 51 years. Median Age of Unaffiliated voters is 41.
- Of all registered voters: 55% are Female. 44% are Male. 82% are White. 12% are Black. 1% are Hispanic. (the difference is uncategorized)
- Of the 7,724 Black voters in Asheville: 6,439 are Democrats; 1,042 are Unaffiliated; only 243 are Republicans.
Owing to higher than average educational levels and per-capita wealth, Asheville voters as a group tend to be more liberal, politically engaged, culturally aware, and technologically advanced than in any other part of Western North Carolina.
Elections in the City of Asheville are non-partisan in nature, meaning that candidates’ party registrations are not identified on the printed ballot as they are in county, state and national races. This can provide a viable Republican or Unaffiliated candidate with an artificial advantage they would not otherwise enjoy. In the city council election, for instance, a crowded electoral field can necessitate a split in the Democratic vote and allow for a Republican or unaffiliated candidate to emerge. Such was the case in the 2005 election, when Republican Carl Mumpower was seated precisely because the progressive vote was divided among too many candidates (Jones, Cape, Freeborn, Pelly, and Thompson).
There was an attempt in 2007 by four controlling liberal Democrats on city council (the so-called Fab Four: Brownie Newman, Holly Jones, Robin Cape, and Bryan Freeborn) to prevent this from happening again by changing the law, to require that a candidate’s political affiliation be identified on the printed ballot. The issue was effectively spun in terms of populist voting rights by opponents of the move (“Let Asheville Vote”) and seen by the media largely as a power-grab to shut out unaffiliated and third party candidates. It was defeated overwhelmingly in an unprecedented city-wide referendum and acknowledged as a political misstep by its chief perpetrators.
Non-partisan elections typically favor more moderate candidates by diminishing the influence of political parties in the primary process, which are usually dominated by a party’s more ideological (and active) base. This is why, for example, progressives generally favor partisan elections in the city and, by extension, conservatives favor closed primaries in statewide Republican races.
Under-funded candidates traditionally rely on the party to make up for any deficits in positive name ID, and since the influence of political parties is necessarily diminished, non-partisan elections also skew in favor of better-funded candidates, who win 80% of the time in American elections.
Electoral dynamics in the municipal races allow the electoral map to be effectively redrawn by reframing issues and blurring traditional lines between Democrats and Republicans, if not in some cases erasing them entirely. In terms of policy, distinctions such as Progressive/Conservative, Radical/Moderate, Pro-environment/Pro-Development, Pro-Business/Anti-Growth in Asheville’s elections come in to play more often than do party affiliation.
That said, party dynamics still contribute to non-partisan races, as no American election is entirely non-partisan, although in a city dominated by Democrats, the Democratic Party has substantially more influence in Asheville than does that of the Republican Party.
In terms of party structure, Democrats in Buncombe County and the City of Asheville are well organized and tend to have a reliable funding base. Progressive interest groups (e.g. Asheville’s Democracy for America) are especially influential in framing the debate and advocacy weblogs (e.g. Scrutiny Hooligans) have come to dominate Asheville’s virtual landscape.
As a group, Progressives tend to be very vocal, politically active, technologically savvy, and networked socially through active participation in the unique cultural life that characterizes downtown Asheville. Progressives and conservatives within the Democratic Party have learned, at least publicly, to get along with one another: they showed tremendous cooperation last fall, culminating not only in a landslide victory for Barack Obama in the city of Asheville but a Democratic sweep throughout Buncombe County. It is important to understand that the formidable technological infrastructure built up by local progressives (and enhanced by the Obama campaign with paid volunteers) remains in place in Asheville and will be activated come election time.
By contrast, the Buncombe County Republican Party has been characterized over the last several years more by its own infighting and proving itself relatively ineffective at get-out-the-vote efforts (GoTV). Although a recent influx of younger libertarians to the GOP are an exception, Republican activists are much older than their Democratic counterparts, and tend to consider party involvement more as a social outlet for its own sake rather than as a vehicle for political action. Republicans (social conservatives, particularly) also tend to be more isolated from the cultural life of downtown Asheville, many holding it in open contempt.
There is a virulent strain of isolationism and bigotry in the local Republican Party. The primary issue around which the base coalesces is a visceral fear of immigration (legal and otherwise) and those fears are used for propaganda purposes by many Republican officials (though, arguably, it has largely backfired). Conservatives, especially, feel that their traditional way of life is threatened by what they see as an invasion by immigrants from the south and rapidly changing cultural mores regarding tolerance of homosexuality.
Republicans also lag far behind progressives in the effective utilization of modern technology, especially in the area of social networking tools. No comparable infrastructure exists in the GOP, and what efforts have been accomplished in terms of technology, it is more gloss than substance.
Since 2006, the local GOP has been crippled by intraparty ideological battles (between its social conservative and libertarian factions) and a recent spate of unviable candidates… from the perennial to the polarizing to the incompetent. All this has had a marginalizing effect on moderate Republicans and has seriously hampered the Republican Party’s local fundraising abilities.
The situation shows no signs of improving over the short-term for the local GOP as the two factions have made peace, at least ostensibly. Ron Paul supporters, who several years ago planned to take over local Republican organizations, have been successful in Buncombe County, with the entire apparatus now controlled by them. Several self-appointed “principled” Republicans (Mumpower) and outspoken, controversial and politically inept leaders the local GOP (Don Yelton and Chad Nesbitt, both former Democrats, it’s worth noting) continue to have a stranglehold on the dialogue, continuing to alienate and divide the party.
It should be noted that a grassroots effort has been undertaken in Buncombe County over the last few months under the auspices of the Tea Party movement, largely in protest of what they see as “socialist” bailouts, higher tax rates, and President Obama’s expansion of government. While ostensibly non-partisan, it has been largely a movement organized by local libertarians and Republicans and has tapped in to an undercurrent of Republican resentment at recent electoral defeat.
Generally, the city tends to vote for Democrats over Republicans, but past elections have shown voters are willing to vote for Republicans either when the Democratic alternative can be linked to a radical anti-business agenda, possess sufficient character flaws, or if the Republican downplays his party ties.
Unaffiliated voters comprise 29% of registered voters in Asheville, and as in other parts of North Carolina, constitutes the fastest growing voting bloc. Democrats outnumber Republicans by over 2.5 :1 (52% are Democrats and 19% are Republicans). Democrats are better organized and more active, generally, as well — although it remains to be seen whether the solidarity shown by its progressive and conservative wings of the Democrat party in the last cycle can be maintained. Those divisions tend to be more pronounced (and therefore more easily exploited) at the local level.
While unaffiliated voters significantly outnumber Republicans, to date no unaffiliated candidate has secured victory in a municipal election. Despite running a fairly anemic campaign however, Dwight Butner, an unaffiliated candidate for City Council in 2007, came within striking distance due largely to his pro-business and moderate social positions, decent name recognition and good record of civic involvement.
This situation reached is apex at the county level in 2008, when no Republicans in running in Buncombe County even came close to being elected (with the exception of NC State House candidate Tim Moffitt, who narrowly lost to Jane Whilden) who ran in a district more heavily Republican than is typical in the county). Factors on the national level largely determined the Democratic sweep locally (including a brilliant campaign by Barack Obama and a disastrous campaign by local Republican congressional candidate Carl Mumpower) and any potentially mitigating GOP GoTV efforts on the local level were ineffective, and often non-existent.
A more useful delineation in analyzing Asheville voters this cycle is the progressive/conservative distinction and, to put a finer point on it, the anti-development/pro-business camps. If the economy does not improve, returning viable development projects to downtown, this divide will no longer be exploitable.