Monday, October 23, 2017

Gary Jackson names Cathy Ball, "Acting City Manager"

Cathy Deyton Ball
A Profile

In the October 24, 2017 council meeting agenda, there is an oddball resolution in the Consent Agenda designating an Acting City Manager. The resolution was put forth by City Manager Gary Jackson in which he goes through the legal requirements to designate an "Acting City Manager" and in this case, he is designating Assistant Manager Cathy Ball.  There will be no discussion of this as it is on the Consent Agenda.

Assistant City Manager Cathy  Ball has been the "Acting City Manager"  4 or 5 times in the last few years during such times Mr. Jackson was absent for those meetings.  Notably, she was the Acting City Manager when the RADTIP budget $26 million miscalculation was discussed with City Council.  However, according to our search, there has not ever been such a resolution put forth before (although Mr. Jackson has been City Manager for 12 years).

The resolution references N.C. General Statute 160A-149 which states:
§ 160A-149. Acting city manager. By letter filed with the city clerk, the manager may designate, subject to the approval of the council, a qualified person to exercise the powers and perform the duties of manager during his temporary absence or disability. During this absence or disability, the council may revoke that designation at any time and appoint another to serve until the manager returns or his disability ceases. (1971, c. 698, s. 1.)
Gary Jackson's letter dated October 16, 2017 makes such designation (click on each image to enlarge for viewing):

So, who is Cathy Ball?

In the event of a longer term absence, Cathy Ball would be the Acting City Manager.  She is the 3rd highest paid employee, earning $219,178 in salary and benefits.  She has been with the City since 1997. Prior to that she worked for the City of Greenville, SC.  She is married to Jeffrey Long who also works for the City in the Facility Maintenance department. Her niece, Amy Deyton, works in the Stormwater Services department as Interim Stormwater Services Manager.

According to her Linkedin profile, Mrs. Ball has had two main roles - Public Works and Assistant City Manager:
  • She began working for the City in 1997 as a City Engineer.  
  • She became the City's Director of Public Works and Engineering in 2009.  
  • At some point she became the Executive Director of Strategic Planning and Multimodal Development
  • In July 2013, that position title was changed to "Assistant City Manager." However, those two roles were still being performed by Mrs. Ball, "She’ll continue to oversee the planning, development services, economic development/U.S. Cellular Center, transportation and public works departments."  (Source: Mountain Express, July 31, 2013, "As Richardson departs, more changes in city management"). She held this dual position until May 2014 when the City hired a new Public Works Director, Greg Shuler.
  • It does appear she continued on as the Executive Director of Strategic Planning and Multimodal Development until July 2016. 
Mrs. Ball holds a bachelor's degree in Civil Engineering from Tennessee Technological University and a Masters of Public Affairs from WCU (2003).

The City Manager's Office - Turnover and Control Issues
Asheville operates on a Manager-Council format. The City Manager position is hired and fired by the City Council only, an elected body.  Mr. Jackson has been with the City since 2005. His starting pay was $140,000. Today he is the top earner in the City, making $260,367 in salary and benefits. Prior to his hiring the City had one Assistant City Manager.  Mr. Jackson has added a second Assistant City Manager but it's been a rough ride due to turn over.

Mr. Jackson used to have 2 full-time assistant city  managers. But this past June 2017, Paul Fetherston, the other Assistant City Manager left for a job in Illinois.  He seemed quite eager to leave his position as he had been aggressively seeking other positions across the nation for at least a year. Shortly thereafter, in June 2017, Jade Dundas was named "Interim Assistant City Manager."  Looks like the Public Works department is a popular track for City Manager positions. Mr. Dundas had been hired in June 2015 as the City's Water Resources Director. Prior to that he had been the Assistant City Manager and Public Works Director in Iowa.

The turnover hasn't been the only problem.  According to the Asheville Blade, over the years, the City Manager's office has been steadily consolidating control.  In their article, "March of the Bureaucrats" (March 3, 2017 by David Forbes), he notes:
Jackson asserted that Council’s policy-making in the last year had caused difficulties for senior staff “making the trains run on time.” He later changed trains to buses. Ironically enough, buses failing to run on time was actually a major controversy last year, though advocates put the blame on staff for ignoring community concerns.
Jackson wasn’t through, saying that he wanted to remind boards that they didn’t get to decide.
In short, Mr. Forbes noted:
The results of the retreat potentially transfer a large amount of power to senior city staff, a group that already has an outsize influence.
For those interested, Mr. Jackson's original Employment Agreement (click on each image to enlarge for viewing):

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Will the City of Asheville learn from the lessons of Buncombe County?

It was only this past June that the City Council were “shocked” and “surprised” by the City staff’s notification of a $26 million budgeting miscalculation.

Oversight issues don't just plague Buncombe County government but also the City of Asheville.

The RADTIP, a $50 million project covering 2.2 miles along the French Broad River in the River Arts District was now going to cost $76 million.  This budget miscalculation forced the City to cut back on the original plans - $20 million worth.  Having just passed the new City budget for FY17-18 only weeks earlier, the City Council were instructed by staff that had to approve $6 million of debt, bringing the total cost to $56 million in order to save the $14 million grant from the Federal Government.  

The RADTIP is the largest city funded municipal development project Asheville has seen in decades. With millions involved, there is opportunity for people (contractors, staff, consultants, etc.) to take advantage of all that money swirling around.  It requires strong leadership and oversight to ensure that the $31 million to be paid by taxpayer dollars is not misused or misappropriated. With the announcement of this massive budget miscalculation one would think City staff would have been more than merely reprimanded but that was not the case.

As with Buncombe County, people tried to alert the City of the impending financial disaster, but as in the case with Buncombe County, these warnings were dismissed, and actually even put down by other leaders and our local media.

Parallel Stories

Payroll Issues
Wanda Greene
Buncombe County Manager
$26 Million RADTIP Budget Over Run
Gary Jackson
City of Asheville
The Questioning Begins

In 2012 Mike Fryar was elected to the Buncombe County Commission. He immediately began doing what he had always been doing, asking questions especially about the budget and salaries.“From his early days in office, he acted differently from other commissioners, coming into staff offices and talking for hours, Greene said” (Citizen-Times, October 9, 2016 article, “Grievances, political discord simmer in Buncombe County”).
The Questioning Begins

In 2015, Chris Peterson (also well known for questioning the City’s budget and salaries). As a property owner losing his property through eminent domain to the City, he started to do some digging into the City’s riverfront project responsible for the property taking.

“In February 2012, Gary Jackson stated that the construction funds needed for the RADTIP section of the RiverWay could cost $50 million dollars, whereas all of the City’s capital improvement fund availability for the next 5 years is about $40 million dollars.”*

*He startedwww.AshevilleRivergate.comquestioning the then budgeted $50 million project now known as RADTIP.
A Year Ago

Citizen-Times writes negative article about commission, Mike Fryar

In October 2016, just before the Buncombe County Commission Election (Nov 2016), The Citizen Times ran a story that ran negatively against then incumbent, MIke Fryar.

They described an alleged encounter where Ms. Greene accused Mr. Fryar of almost hitting her in the head with a phone. The incident was supposedly submitted as an HR complaint. Mr. Fryar was not aware of the complaint until asked about it by the paper.

The phone story came out as part of an article written by the paper about Ms. Greene giving herself a compensation boost of $34,000 in that year’s budget. Ms. Greene explained that this was due to all the overtime hours she spent answering Mike Fryar’s questions.

Needless to say, the phone complaint never went anywhere as it was unfounded but the article, written just before election time, painted Mr. Fryar in a very negative light.
A Year Ago

Mayor Manheimer ejects citizen Chris Peterson from City Council Meeting following his warnings about construction costs

In May 2016, during the public comment meeting to discuss the City’s proposed budget, local citizen and former Councilman, Mr. Chris Peterson, warned the City Council and Mr. Gary Jackson of the impending construction costs.

“You also, Gary, in your CIP, you say 60 million that you’re gonna spend on the River. I might add a river that floods. Makes no sense. But you have got to be a genius as far as construction. Now I’m in the construction business. If you think your number 60 million is going to hold up in a construction business that annually goes up 10%”...

Instead of saying they would look into it, the Mayor, Esther Manheimer, threw him out of the meeting. The first and only time a person has been ejected from a public city council meeting by Ms. Manheimer.
A Year Later...

A year later and Ms. Greene, having suddenly retired as Buncombe County Manager is now under FBI investigation. Her sister demoted herself and her son also resigned.

Ms. Wanda Greene’s pay, acts of nepotism, bonuses, retention incentives paid paid out in lump sums to herself, a family member and other top county leaders have dominated headlines in recent weeks.

The latest article by the Citizen-Times, having made an about-face, released an article just this week questioning the oversight of the Buncombe County commissioners. They have yet to retract or apologize to Mr. Fryar.
A Year Later….

The City of Asheville passed its coming year budget this past summer - June 16, 2017. Not before or during the budget discussions was any mention made of budget problems concerning RADTIP.

Within days, however and just a little over a year after Mr. Peterson’s ejection from City Council meeting, top City staff announced that the construction bids for the RADTIP project were $26 million over estimated. The new cost would be $76 million. The City was forced to cut back many of the project’s plans infuriating cycling and greenway groups. On top of that, the City would need $6 million from debt in order to save the $14 million Federal Grant.

Buncombe County and the City of Asheville both have the same kind of management - the County Manager and the City Manager are only accountable to their elected leadership The County Commissioners and City Council are the only ones that can fire the County Manager or City Manager. Yet, in both cases, the Council and Commissioners are a part-time elected body. It is therefore incumbent upon the leadership to ask questions, dive into issues and hold their managers accountable.  Longevity in a position does not imbue trust and it should not be assumed by leadership.

In both of these examples, when hard questions were being asked, there was pushback instead of praise which were both backed up by local media. Ms. Greene is gone and Buncombe County is making dramatic, sweeping changes in its organizational structure, compensation and oversight. Will the City follow their example or allow its City staff to continue going unchecked?

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Bond Lawsuit Update: Lawsuit moves forward, a portion dismissed

Partial Dismissal

The request that the Court set aside the referendum results because the City used the term "may" instead of "shall" on the ballot as to whether property tax increases would be required to pay for the $76 million bond issue was denied.

Other Legal Challenges Move Forward

However, the Court held that the plaintiffs, Chris Peterson and Sidney Bach have the legal right to challenge the proposed $76 million bond indebtedness and the means by which the bonds are to be financed (i.e. the new property taxes imposed in June by the City Council). There remains at issue before the Court a very important financial issue that impacts the City's ability to issue and pay for the proposed bonds:

A required public notice was given by the City prior to the November 2016 referendum to the effect that a new property tax would be levied only IF the November 2016 referendum bonds are issued. Although none of the referendum bonds have been issued, the City Council nevertheless went ahead and imposed a new property tax to pay for the principal and interest on the yet-to-be issued referendum bonds. The new tax levied is also being challenged in the pending lawsuit and the Court has been asked to declare that the new tax levied is illegal based upon the City's public notice to the contrary as to whether and when new property taxes would be levied to pay for the bonds.

The financial underwriters and potential investors in municipal bonds require that the City and its legal counsel sign off on a "Certificate of Non-Litigation" which states that there is no litigation pending that could affect the bonds' validity or any tax levied for the annual interest and principle payments due on the bonds. Without such a certification, the bonds cannot be issued and marketed and as long as there are pending unresolved legal challenges to the bonds or the taxes imposed to finance them.

So, any crowing at this time by City Hall would at best be rather premature for as Yogi Berra
once famously said: "It ain't over 'til its over!"

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Walk right in. Sit right down. Mayor, let your term roll on.

“Manheimer Steamroller” is working just fine.
By Roger McCredie
It’s been a noisy election season in Asheville this year, what with a dozen people running to fill three seats on city council and promising to do everything from tearing down the Vance monument to pushing for driverless buses to maybe doing something to create affordable housing and help disenfranchised people.
Oh, and there’s also been a mayoral election campaign going on. But it’s been a remarkably quiet one because the outcome has been a foregone conclusion for months or at least based on the silence of the Mayor and the lack of any community debates: On November 7, Esther Elizabeth Manheimer will become mayor of Asheville for another four years.

True, she will have first faced two opponents in a primary and the surviving one in the general election, but those are formalities.  The mayor will gain her second term with hardly a hair out of place, having had to exert very little effort.  Not even to defend the blotchy record she’s running – or coasting – on.
About that record …
First, a disclaimer.  Asheville employs the “weak mayor” form of city government.  Under that arrangement the business of the city is actually run by City Manager Gary Jackson and his staff.  The manager’s office – usually with little, if any, prior discussion – presents to city council any business that is deemed to require council’s approval, which is usually forthcoming.  The mayor in these cases is only one voting member out of seven.  She can speak for or against, choose issues to champion or denounce, but her record as mayor is essentially the record of what has occurred on her watch.
She took pride last year in selling city taxpayers on $74 million worth of general obligation bonds. She has positioned herself as the defender of city sovereignty against continuing “Raleigh overreach” and has called for and gotten a municipal referendum which she hopes will show Raleigh that Ashevillians are opposed to dividing the city into voting districts as a basis for choosing council members, so there.
The flip side
But dodgy ballot language has tied the much-touted GO bonds up in court for at least two years.  And the General Assembly has already passed a law creating the city voter districts, thus making the referendum an expensive moot point that will also probably have to be resolved in court to the tune of still more lawyer fees.  Now, the mayor is a land developer and eminent domain lawyer herself, and on her watch the City’s legal department in staff has doubled, at a cost to taxpayers of $1 million a year to operate. And yet the City also relies heavily on outside counsel (at least 11 other law firms recently).
Gaming the system

With her land use/foreclosure experience, the mayor has also from time to time displayed a lawyerly talent for bending the rules.  When Jackson and former councilman Marc Hunt engineered the city’s questionable takeover of the Pack Place building, Manheimer helped see to it that they had ex post facto authority to do so.  And when the Asheville Art Museum tried to sell State Employees’ Credit Union “naming rights” to the forecourt of the Pack Place property – in direct violation of the original Pack bequest – Manheimer acquiesced in giving the Art Museum authority to do that as well, two weeks after the fact.  (SECU backed off from that deal when it heard about the museum’s shenanigans.)
The devil is in the details
There have also been times when the mayor has seemed less than duly informed in money matters.  Stumping for the GO bonds last year, she claimed the city was carrying a per capita debt of only $274, which would result in a highly favorable bond rating and cause little taxpayer impact by way of debt service when the bonds were adopted.  When Asheville Unreported  pointed out that the $274 figure was a year old and the 2016 per capita debt had soared to $947, more than triple the 2015 figure, the mayor first said she hadn’t been furnished with the later figure, then said $947 was “still very low.”
“What’s a boondoggle?”
And of course, this past June, Manheimer was saddled with fielding the fallout after council was blindsided by the news that the planned development of RADTIP – the city’s sacred-cow River Arts District Transportation Improvement Project – was going to cost $76 million instead of the projected $50 million,  and also that, oh-by-the-way, the city needed to come up with $6 million in cash then and there in order to save a $14.6 million federal TIGER VI grant for the same project.  Within hours the situation was being called the biggest financial boondoggle in recent Asheville history.
“I was shocked to hear what these bids came in at,” Manheimer said.  Then, since the overrun had produced a massive scaling back of RADTIP, she added gamely,“These projects [the eliminated ones] have not dropped off the list, they are now further down the list – but they’re without specific funding designations and that’s not always a good thing.”

Mayor by process of elimination

On paper Asheville’s mayoral race, like its council elections, is nonpartisan.  Nevertheless it usually follows that at least both major parties will present candidates; or, put another way, that some political entity will undertake to make a showing against the progressive Democrat machine that has dominated city politics for nearly two decades.  This has certainly been true in the individual councilor races, where, despite the election’s nominal nonpartisanship, several candidates declared themselves Socialists and sought the endorsement of the local chapter of Democratic Socialists of America; and one candidate was officially endorsed by the Green Party.  But the local GOP has been AWOL across the electoral board this year and no Republican-backed candidates have emerged.

So it was thought for awhile that Manheimer might actually run unopposed.  In June  Jonathon Glover, a civic heavyweight who seemed he might offer a serious challenge, entered the race but dropped out shortly afterwards citing a lack of financial support.  This has left the mayor facing unsuccessful former council candidate Jonathan Wainscott, who had announced earlier, and Martin Ramsey, who forced the holding of a primary with his eleventh-hour entry, just as he did in 2013.

Wainscott ran for city council in 2013 as a sort of anti-New Belgium populist and became a neighborhood spokesperson for those adversely affected by the brewery’s construction, but he dropped off the political radar until this season.  The same went for Ramsey, a passionate self-declared Socialist who has repeatedly called for candidates to debate city issues publicly and in depth.

There has been, in fact, virtually no public exchange of views by the mayoral candidates.  Hatch, the Asheville business startup organization, held a city candidates’ forum in September and Manheimer attended, but observers said candidates were given a minute to state their cases, plus three minutes to take questions.  There was a meet-and-greet event at Deerfield Retirement Community where the three-minute limit was also imposed.  The Asheville-Buncombe League of Women Voters had scheduled a candidates’ forum, but abruptly cancelled it.  So much for debate.

Such a situation, of course, favors the incumbent.  The conventional wisdom is, keep your head down, say as little as possible as positively as possible, and let nature take its course.  Mayor Manheimer has stuck to the playbook, which is obviously working for her.  To date she has reported just under $8,600 in campaign contributions – a third of what she raised as a challenger – and has money in the bank with a month to go.  Ramsey shows no contributions at all in Board of Elections reports; only his filing paperwork.  Nothing at all shows for Wainscott.  
So walk right in …
This piece is being written on Primary Day, which will see one of Manheimer’s on-paper opponents eliminated, leaving her to face the other in November.  But the stark fact is that, barring an asteroid strike and no matter who voters choose to fill the other council seats that are up for grabs, the chair in the middle – where the mayor sits – is spoken for.
# # # # #

Saturday, October 7, 2017

How to win friends and influence [Asheville] people: City of Asheville edition

The Unofficial Guide to Power and Influence in Asheville
Manual to Boards and Commissions
or the Taxpayer's Guide to Nepotism and Cronyism

Some data first..

6 out of the 7 members of City Council are Democrats (Haynes is Unaffiliated)
 ZERO Members of Council reside in East or South Asheville
Of the known members of the City's boards and commissions, we found:
  • 61% are Democrats
  • 9% registered Republicans and
  • 30% Unaffiliated** (note: of the registered Unaffiliated members, 71% voted Democrat)
Book Note - "How to Win Friends and Influence People" is a popular self-help book written by Dale Carnegie and first published in 1936.  It's a timeless classic. The below steps follow this timeless 1936 book's section titles with a bit of our take based on the Asheville political environment.

So, how did we get this way? How did we shift to a far left Council? After closely observing our City, how it functions and the boards and commissions, we've seen this strategy develop over time.

Step 1: Fundamental Techniques in Handling People
Control the Rules

If you're at the top of the Influence Game and in control, you need to stay in control and that means control the rules so you stay there.

Our City Council is unbalanced in its representation.  All City Council members are either from North Asheville, downtown or West Asheville.  There is NO representation from East or South Asheville. Politically, six out of seven council members are democrats (and one of them identifies as Democrat Socialist). It appears our Council leadership leans to the far left.

State legislatures have attempted to rebalance representation with the passing in June of Senate Bill 285, Equal Representation in Asheville, that will be in effect for the 2019 city elections. Of course, city council is against S.B.285 and for that reason is putting the question before the voters in the form of a voter referendum that appears on this year's ballot.  This local referendum is NON-BINDING and will have NO LEGAL FORCE. No matter the election results, the matter of district elections in Asheville is law and will still be in effect.

So, instead of following the law, city council will once again hire an army of lawyers to challenge state law in court, hoping to only use the anticipated negative results of the referendum as evidence of local opposition to the law. The referendum is meant to serve as a general survey of public sentiment and not the approval or disapproval of a legitimate city action. 

But make no mistake, this is City Council's attempt to maintain control in spite of overwhelming evidence.

Step 2: How to Make People Like You
The role of the Boards and Commissions 

The top "influencers" in the City are, of course, City Council. But to get to City Council, where do you start?  The real influence begins BELOW the Council leadership - on the 32 boards and commissions (give or take a few) that meet monthly on a variety of topics and make recommendations to the City Council.  There are a few heavily influential boards - Planning & Zoning, Multi-modal Transportation, Asheville Area Riverfront Redevelopment Commission (AARRC), Downtown Commission, and the Tourism Development Authority.

Is it any wonder that these same groups produced many of this year's election candidates?

Step 3: Winning People to Your Way of Thinking
The power of Subcommittees

Another detail you may not know is that each board or commission can also create as many sub committees as it wishes. These subcommittees are not "official" members of the main committee and this is where the influence vetting begins.  This is where the main groups identify potential people to put into the greater-influence pipeline. Call it "influence boot camp."

Why the subcommittees? Because they can add whoever they want and there is no public vetting except that which is done by the main committee.  They do not require public announcement, public approval or even public listing of the subcommittees and who is on them.  Example - last year we attended a Tree Commission meeting where SEVEN new subcommittees were created.  See how easy that was to add people and spread the bureaucracy?

Ensuring Your Way of Thinking

The subcommittees function as a way for the main board members to unofficially locate, test, review and vet potential new main board members, all without anyone noticing.

Often, members of the ad hoc committee eventually become permanent members of the main committee, having proven their agreeable position and merit of what they can offer. We witnessed this on the Asheville Area Riverfront Commission.

Step 4: Be a Leader 
The Neighborhood Advisory Committee

In Carnegie's original 1936 book, Section IV is entitled, "Be a Leader: How to Change People without Giving Offense or Raising Resentement."  This is precisely your role on the Neighborhood Advisory Committee.

If you truly want to get started with the City of Asheville government, you need to become an avid, active member of your neighborhood's advisory committee.  However, if you're a Republican, you may want to hide that fact because you will not make it far.

Step 5: Network with Important People
Become a cyclist

If neighborhood meetings aren't your thang, then become a cyclist.  The golf course used to be where deals were made with private conversations and unseen handshakes between executives and deal makers on manicured soft greens.  In Asheville, golf is out and cycling is in, especially if you add craft beer.  So, invest in a $10,000 professional bike, cycling tights and a helmet and join Asheville on Bikes or other cycling group in town. Within these small cycling groups you can pedal along with top city officials (like City Manager, Gary Jackson), council and even local journalists as members.  If you're really serious, join a professional cycling team.  At the end of the day, instead of eating fancy meals at the Country Club, you can finish off your ride or take a break at a craft brewery like New Belgium, which donates their Asheville summer concert monies to Asheville on Bikes.

Final Result
Keep Your People in Power

If you wondered how we got this way... now you know. The top influencers are working hard to keep "their" people in the pipeline and control the rules.  Elect different people and when those people get on the boards and commissions, they can begin to change who becomes else becomes a member.

Reward your friends, family, coworkers

Congratulations! Once you are a member of the boards and commissions and/or are lucky enough to make it to Council chamber, you can also then reap the benefits.
  • You get an additional salary hike (if you're Council)
  • You can hire your friends and family and coworkers - Councilwoman, Julie Mayfield, Councilman Gordon Smith, Vice-Mayor Gwen Wisler, Mayor Manheimer (NOTE: she recuses herself from her law firms handling of eminent domain cases involving city takings)
  • You can stay on council even if you have DWI charges like the Chair of Public Safety and Councilman, Cecil Bothwell or get discrepancies in residence overlooked (Councilman Keith Young) 
If you're a member of an important board, you can reap the benefits for your organization - get insider knowledge about activities and protect your business interests. One great example of this is how many of the members of the Asheville Area Riverfront Redevelopment Commission (AARRC) have benefited from the RADTIP project (that $76 million project on the French Broad River):  Click here to read that story

*Data for the Boards and Commissions political affiliation was gathered from all available data from the City's website and from emails to boards and commissions groups.  This is a snapshot in time as the membership of these boards and commissions change.

Percentages based on:
286 estimated board members
174 known party affiliation
106 Ds (61%)
15 Rs (9%)
53 UN (30%)** Note that out of the 53 Unaffiliated, 38 voted Democrat straight tickets. None voted Republican. If you include the 38 Unaffiliated voting Democrat, then the real percentage of Democrats on boards is 82%

Monday, October 2, 2017

Four of 12 Council Candidates Say They Identify as Socialists

Williams emerges with DSA endorsement

By Roger McCredie

"... I have consistenly acted as a socialist in my personal life and as an elected official" Councilman, Cecil Bothwell
Election quote from candidate and current City Council member, Cecil Bothwell. Consider this the parting shot as Mr. Bothwell loses the Democratic Socialists of America endorsement and attempts to discredit another candidate.  

What's this all about? Who are the Democratic Socialists of America?

There is no organized Socialist Party in Asheville or Buncombe County, but there is a growing “small-s” socialist presence. That became clear last month, when a full third of the candidate field heading into the October 10 city council primary self-identified as socialists.

Those revelations took place at a meeting sponsored by the Asheville chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America ("DSA"). The four candidates who witnessed were Cecil Bothwell, Rich Lee, Sheneika Smith, and Dee Williams. And according to political analysts, the emergence of that many self-proclaimed socialists in a nonpartisan municipal election in a small Southern city reflects a spreading national trend.

How the Fire Started

DSA, which is careful to point out that it is a political organization and no respect a political party, was founded in 1982. Early on election night 2016 its membership stood at about 8,000. Within 24 hours, as the nation absorbed the news that it had elected Donald Trump its President, membership in the DSA had rocketed to 25,000. Current estimates put membership at about 28,200.

The new recruits were overwhelmingly young, deeply shaken by the mere fact of Trump’s election and enraged at a Democratic Party establishment whose machinations, they felt, had robbed them of Sen. Bernie Sanders, the avowed democratic socialist who had become their standard bearer.

On August 17, the recalibrated DSA – it had severed ties earlier in the year with Socialist International over philosophical differences -- held its first national convention, in Chicago. It took less than a month for its Asheville chapter to enter the local political lists by holding a candidates’ forum, on September 14 at the West Asheville branch library, to which all 12 candidates for city council were invited.

Who showed up …

Of those 12, six candidates attended: Bothwell (an incumbent), Lee, Smith, Williams, and fellow candidates Kim Roney and Jan Kubiniec. Roney and Kubiniec stopped short of calling themselves socialists, though each said there were certain aspects of socialism that dovetail with their own political views.

… and who didn’t.

Absent was the other council incumbent, Vice Mayor Gwen Wisler, who is running for a second term. Also not appearing were candidates Pratik Bhatka, Andrew Fletcher, Jeremy Goldstein, Vijay Kapoor, and Adrian Vassallo. (The mayoral candidates, incumbent Esther Manheimer and challengers Martin Ramsey and Jonathan Wainscott, weren’t invited.)

Hold that thought. We’ll revisit who was and wasn’t there below.

Exactly What IS Socialism?

Asking a question that basic in an article like this one usually invites condescending comments from both left and right wings of the political spectrum along the lines of, “If you don’t know, why are you writing about it?” But the fact is that many Americans, even the condescenders, have a less-than-secure grasp of socialism’s meaning. And like most “isms” its interpretation usually depends on the political stance of who is being asked.

 The website puts it this way:
… socialism is now often used to mean everything from "fascism" to "progressivism." But in its purest form, socialism was a political, social, and economic system meant to empower the working class. In the U.S. today, though, it's often used as shorthand for "the services that government provides and which are paid for by taxes."
Marx saw socialism as an imperfect transitional stage between capitalism, where goods and services are privately owned and circulated for profit in a free market, and a Utopian communism where everything produced by the workers is taken by the state and distributed to the people according to their needs. That idea, of course, is directly repugnant to capitalism, which involves private ownership of goods and services and participation in a free market for profit.

So socialists denounce capitalism as being self-serving to the point of evil, creating vast social and economic inequality, and government by the rich, powerful, and corrupt. Capitalists are quick to point out numerous failed experiments in socialism that have ultimately resulted in revolution, the rise of dictatorships … and government by the rich, powerful, and corrupt.

In this country, capitalists, especially those who can remember the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, see socialism as striking at the heart of America’s founding principles, and socialists see those principles as broken and outmoded, if indeed they ever worked at all. The resulting tension has produced a full-scale cultural and class war – a populist crusade that resonates with the young, hip, and extremely vocal segment of the Asheville electorate who renounce the mainstream Democratic Party that has owned liberal politics for generations.

“As we are unlikely to see an immediate end to capitalism tomorrow,” its website says, “ DSA fights for reforms today that will weaken the power of corporations and increase the power of working people … We are socialists because we reject an international economic order sustained by private profit, alienated labor, race and gender discrimination, environmental destruction, and brutality and violence in defense of the status quo.’

So how do this month’s socialists measure up?

In that light, it’s interesting to consider the attendees and the non-attendees at the Asheville DSA forum, according to background.

  • Bothwell, the perennial council gadfly, law unto himself, and, at age 61, the oldest candidate, describes himself as a lifelong socialist. (He successfully overcame the legacy of his father, who was a prominent Florida Republican.) He has in his time been a builder, an author, and an editor of Asheville’s Mountain Xpress.
  • Lee, as a socialist, would seem to be an anomaly. He is a financial advisor for Edward Jones Investments, a field which is concerned entirely with protecting and enhancing income derived from capitalist activity. Nevertheless, according to Xpress, he told the audience, “To me [socialism] means government providing a robust network of social services and social goods.”
  • Smith, one of two black candidates, is the present Tzedek Social Justice Fellow at Asheville’s Green Opportunities and a board member of the Center for Participatory Change. The child of a minister and a missionary, she’s a fourth-generation Ashevillian who says she would work to remedy the city’s “disgusting wealth gap.”
  • Williams, the other black candidate, is a successful businesswoman (construction and real estate) who nevertheless embraces the socialist label. She is a longtime city political activist who has denounced the 1980’s urban renewal that destroyed Black Asheville’s core and says she’s dedicated to rooting out the “paternalism” with which she says city government treats its black community.

At the end of the day it was Williams who came away with the DSA of Asheville endorsement.

And what about the no-shows?

It’s interesting to view them through the same socio-economic lens.

  • Bhatka is a hotelier (Days Inn) and is on the City Board of Adjustments.
  • Fletcher is by profession a jazz pianist. He has worked with the city in drafting rules governing street musicians and one of his major concerns is “getting a handle on short term rentals.”
  • Goldstein is a commercial real estate broker, a principal of G/M Property Group. A member and past chairman of the city’s powerful Planning and Zoning Commission, he has so far raised more campaign funds than any other candidate.
  • Kapoor owns a financial consulting firm. He has a law degree and gained notoriety in helping resolve a potential South Asheville neighborhood problem with a proposed apartment complex.
  • Vassallo is a business development executive with Asheville CPA firm Dixon Hughes Goodman. He has served on the Asheville Downtown Association and the Downtown Commission.
  • Wisler is past CEO of Coleman Company, one of the nation’s leading manufacturers of camping and outdoor equipment. Wisler serves or has served on 13 city governmental boards and currently chairs the Finance Committee and Planning and Economic Development Committee.

So … not a lot of political philosophizing but a great deal of moving and shaking going on among those who skipped the DSA forum.

Is socialism becoming a viable force in local politics?

Analysts emphasize that not all Asheville-dwelling socialists-at-heart are members of DSA, which, for that matter, represents only a single set of positions within a broad political spectrum. 

Nevertheless, they say, there are many more socialists of one stripe or another on the political radar than there used to be.  In 2011, then State Senator James Forrester ( sponsor of a proposed state constitution amendment to ban gay marriage) coined the now famous phrase to describe Asheville as the "Cesspool of Sin." Many will tell you Asheville is the liberal enclave surrounded by a conservative beltway. The City Council has supported every non-conservative state legislative action - it flew a gay pride flag from City Hall when the courts struck down the ban on same sex marriage last October. Over the last few years it has called itself a "sanctuary city" although in name only (not having formalized this legally).  Any local will tell you, Asheville has become a very progressive city whose progressive boundaries are now leaking into the surrounding areas.

It remains to be seen, they say, whether organizations such as DSA will be strengthened over the long haul, or whether they will serve for a time as a clubhouse for disaffected traditional liberals and then retreat to the shadows or meld with a more viable movement.

The latest word, as it often does, belongs to Bothwell, who told Asheville Unreported,
“I would call myself a Democratic Socialist in the same sense that Bernie Sanders uses the term. I think capitalism works best when workers have a voice. In Germany labor has a seat on corporate boards, for example, and when unions were strong in the U.S. they forced companies to do better by workers.  
“Socialism, per se, is pretty much irrelevant at the municipal level, particularly in North Carolina. Cities have no power to make taxation more progressive, to change the minimum wage, to permit unionization of workers, etc. and etc. So what a Council member might favor at the state or national level in terms of better treatment of the working class is locally moot,” Bothwell said.  

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