Raleigh city politics are getting more party-centered. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
But Raleigh Democrats may be heading in a direction that is plenty wrong.
An important test will come next Tuesday. The City Council is scheduled to appoint two new members of the Planning Commission then.
The appointments have become the battleground between two Democratic camps:
· A faction on the Council led by Thomas Crowder and Russ Stephenson, which is close to being anti-growth;
· A faction led by Jessie Taliaferro and Joyce Kekas that is being condemned by the Crowder-Stephenson crowd as too pro-growth.
I’m siding with Jessie and Joyce.
I believe they are on the right side of a battle that could mark Raleigh politics for the next two years – through fall 2007 municipal elections.
It also happens to be the right side of a battle for the Democratic Party’s political survival.
Some see the battle as the “purists” versus the “pragmatists.” That’s how the purists, like supporters of Crowder and Stephenson, see it. Many of them flooded into the state Democratic Party last year as Howard Dean-inspired antiwar voters.
I see the battle as the “elitists” versus the “commoners.”
The elitists gave the Democratic Party Mondale, Dukakis, Kerry, Dean and never-ending defeats.
The commoners gave us Clinton, Hunt and political hope.
Raleigh’s growth is an ideal cultural battleground for these two groups.
The elitists see growth in terms of Greedy Developers and Big Real Estate.
The commoners see growth in terms of jobs and opportunities for people who work – or would like to work – for a living.
The elitists – at bottom – don’t like most of Raleigh – at least, that part of Raleigh outside the downtown-N.C. State-Five Points axis.. They think we should all live near downtown and ride a bicycle or take a train to work. They really want to live in Manhattan.
The commoners know that we like where we live and live where we like. We like our suburban neighborhoods. We like driving to work and going home when we please, not when the train comes.
The Planning Commission appointments are the first skirmish in this civil war between Democrats.
The elitists have been assailing Kekas and Taliaferro for supporting Charles Walker over Renee Bethea.
Now, I don’t know either candidate. But my understanding is that Walker is in the development business and has served on the commission before. Bethea is a community activist from the Method Road community. She’s supported by Crowder and Stephenson.
The elitists argue that Kekas, Taliaferro and Councilman James West should vote for Bethea because she’s a woman, an African-American and a Democrat.
In other words, identity trumps experience and balance.
The Jessie-Joyce-James group apparently wants more balance. And all three support Paul Anderson, the African-American Democrat who nearly beat Councilman Tommy Craven last fall in his heavily Republican district.
I know almost nothing about the Planning Commission or growth issues.
What I know is politics.
And the elitists are making the classic political mistake of overreaching.
Flush with success in last fall’s elections, they appear determined to impose an anti-growth label on the City Council and the Planning Commission.
They are trying to write the only scenario that can elect a Republican mayor – the way Democratic miscues helped elect Tom Fetzer a few years ago.
Here is how Democrats could make that happen:
· Polarize city politics between those living inside the Beltline and those living outside, which drives the fast-growing outside-the-Beltline voters away from Democrats;
· Pursue costly and controversial projects like the downtown Convention Center and the TTA light-rail project;
· Drive away African-American voters, who are the most pro-growth and pro-job voters in the city;
Voila, you have a Republican mayor again.
There is a better way for Democrats: Support jobs and economic opportunities for all Raleigh residents, balanced by sensible environmental regulation. Invest in better roads and less crowded schools. Stop wasteful spending, like the Marriott Hotel subsidy downtown.
Voila, you have an enduring Democratic majority in Raleigh. And an object lesson for Democrats across the state and nation.