Across the state, this year’s historically crowded municipal elections have drawn new types of candidates.
Young candidates. First time candidates. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender candidates.
And, importantly, many more non-white candidates.
In each of North Carolina’s three largest cities – Charlotte, Greensboro and Raleigh – white female mayors are facing minority challengers.
That does not mean the races are all of one stripe.
In Charlotte, where the mayoral race is on track to be the most expensive in history, Mayor Jennifer Roberts faces two very different black challengers – both Democrats, like Roberts.
Charlotte Mayor Pro Tem Vi Lyles is challenging Roberts with what she calls a “grassroots effort” in which she has emphasized progressive policy positions and won the endorsement of the Black Political Caucus.
In contrast, State Sen. Joel Ford, a conservative Democrat, has criticized Roberts’ handling of the HB2 controversy and accused her of not sufficiently supporting police in the wake of the fatal police shooting of Keith Scott last September. Ford has garnered support – and campaign cash – from Republican lawmakers in Raleigh, with whom he said he’s in a better position to work than Roberts.
In Raleigh, incumbent Mayor Nancy McFarlane faces a challenge from Charles Francis, an attorney and businessman whose campaign casts him as a man of the people and McFarlane as an out-of-touch bureaucrat. His platform includes “affordable housing, living wages for all City employees, increased economic mobility, a transit plan that is reliable.”
McFarlane is unaffiliated and has enjoyed support from the Democratic party when facing challengers in the past. Francis, a Democrat with experience on the council in the early 1990s, was recently endorsed by the Wake County Democratic Party.
Dr. Michael Bitzer, professor of Political Science and History at Catawba College, said the rise of minority candidates makes sense in the current state and national political context.
“We’ve seen a conversation about policing issues, about voting rights, about representation,” Bitzer said. “Generally when you see groups of people feeling threatened, that’s when you see them activate.”
One of the candidates most characteristic of that sort of activation is Irving David Allen, one of fifteen candidates running for just three at-large seats on the Greensboro City Council.
Allen, 30, is making his first run for office this year. But in many ways, he’s part of a political legacy. His uncle, David Richmond, was one of the famed “A&T Four” whose protest at Greensboro’s Woolworth lunch counter helped spark a national sit-in movement. His father, Steve Allen, was a civil rights attorney who became Guilford County’s first black superior court judge.
Allen has spent the last seven years as an activist and community organizer, working with the Beloved Community Center and as a founder of Black Lives Matter’s Gate City chapter. Until recently, he served as the regional coordinator for the progressive organization Ignite NC, part of the Southern Vision Alliance. But he wasn’t thinking about running for office.
“I was definitely one of those folks who had resigned to not running for office,” Allen said in an interview this week. “I’ve been organizing and we’ve made headway by inspiring people and advocating for issues.”
But after becoming part of Greensboro’s Human Relations Commission and seeing the city’s floundering reaction to a series of high profile police controversies , Allen said he was inspired to seek office.
“We’re in a microcosm of the country right now where white folks are seeing that they really have to deal with some issues they haven’t dealt with before, that more and more we’re bringing these issues to the forefront,” Allen said. “I think that’s leading to some rising tension and also to the identity search that I think the [Democratic] party and some other groups are going through now to figure out what is really progressive in this landscape.”
Allen said he hasn’t seen the action he believes to be necessary on any number of issues impacting black people in Greensboro. Not just on police matters, but also in terms of which parts of the city get investment, how historically black neighborhoods and communities in the city are represented and the city’s contentious relationship with the International Civil Rights Center and Museum, which has seen tensions over city funding.
Progressive cities like Greensboro bristle at the Republican majority in the state legislature drawing new district lines and changing how residents are represented, Allen said. But the council’s own redistricting efforts have split historically black communities in Greensboro and diluted their identity and political power, he said.
“When you are born and raised in Greensboro, when your father was born and raised in this community, you know the history,” Allen said. “If you weren’t, you might see the way the city is now and think it’s always been this way.”
Allen said the city also needs to better engage its young people – work Allen said was begun by outgoing City Councilman Jamal Fox, who at a year younger than Allen, was the city’s youngest ever elected official.
“I think that was an inspiration, definitely,” Allen said. “He played a really big part in introducing younger folks and really getting rid of the excuse of age being a factor.”
“I definitely think it’s possible,” Allen said. “I’m running because I thought it was possible and it’s necessary.”