The Meeker-McFarlane Era of Good Feelings in Raleigh politics ended Tuesday. It had a good run for 16 years, but it’s over.
Not since the days of Tom Fetzer and Paul Coble, who lost to Charles Meeker in 2001, has Raleigh politics been this hot and heavy.
First, race. The contest between Nancy McFarlane and Charles Francis split the city down racial lines. Clearly, many Raleigh residents feel shut out of and shunted aside by Raleigh’s growth and gentrification. They see Dix Park and luxury condos, but they don’t see affordable housing and bus-stop rain shelters.
Second, party. Specifically, the Democratic Party. Democrats split because Francis is a registered Democrat and McFarlane, though she and her husband Ron have been reliable supporters of and donors to Democratic candidates, is registered Unaffiliated.
Some big-name Democrats endorsed McFarlane, and they got an earful from Democrats supporting Francis.
Why is party suddenly so important here?
Like with everything else, blame Trump. He’s made all politics more partisan, polarized and angry. Then add in the Republican legislature. Since 2011, Raleigh has been ground-zero for to the legislature’s power-grabbing, election-rigging and progress-reversing. The reaction naturally is stronger here. When a tribe is threatened, it pulls together, resists invaders and burns heretics.
Another factor: Elections usually come down to Change Versus Status Quo. Francis was change, and McFarlane was status quo. Change voters are always more motivated.
It was all enough to keep McFarlane from winning outright, though she led Francis 48-36 percent.
The party factor probably also hurt City Councilman Bonner Gaylord, who is registered Unaffiliated. Plus, his race against Stef Mendell reflected another, more familiar political divide in Raleigh, one that dates back to the 1970s, between “development” candidates and “neighborhood” candidates. Every so often, Raleigh’s growth spawns a counter-reaction.
If there are runoffs, anything can happen. One thing is certain: Even in prosperous, progressive Raleigh, politics ain’t so polite anymore.