The Carrboro mayor’s race has been like the Triangle’s own little California recall. While the ballot will offer voters only one name rather than a roster of opportunistic celebrities, it belies the drama that’s ensued since the August filing deadline for would-be candidates.

Robert Glosson, an OWASA warden who looks after University Lake, had hoped to challenge incumbent Mayor Mike Nelson, but found out he technically lived outside the town’s limits and was thus ineligible (despite the fact that he’s voted in Carrboro elections for years). Later that month, verified resident Jeff Vanke filed paperwork with the Orange County Board of Elections to run as a write-in candidate. Vanke, an assistant professor of history at Guilford College, said he waited until after the deadline because he had to arrange a reduced teaching schedule.

What drew both challengers into the race was the uproar last summer over a painting of the American flag with the stars arranged into the shape of a swastika, hung in the Town Hall as part of a juried Fourth of July art show. Both argued that the larger issue was not the painting’s content but its placement in Town Hall. Underlying the mayor’s handling of it all, they charged, was an arrogance they say extends to many other town issues.

Nelson says what he found weirdest and most telling about the flag flap was the way e-mail and letter writers attacked him personally, often invoking the fact that he is gay. “What does my sexual orientation have to do with the decision to allow an artist to express herself?” he said in a recent interview. “When people are combining the two issues, you just have to wonder if there’s not a hidden agenda.”

But the hottest issue in town isn’t public art or the mayor’s sexuality. It’s the same as it’s always been: growth. Scrambling to formulate positions on complex issues, Vanke has awkwardly tried to differentiate himself as a candidate. He says he’s for smart growth but against adding density downtown. His main beef is the way citizen input on proposed development is handled.

Vanke has toned down his rhetoric a lot since he entered the fray with an Aug. 19 letter to the editor of The Chapel Hill Herald. “Nelson dishonors his constituents and violates the spirit of the Carrboro town goals,” he wrote. “He seems afraid of democracy,” he continued, concluding the letter by insisting that Nelson withdraw from the race and re-file, to give Vanke the chance to be on the ballot. “If Nelson refuses to open up the race now, he will be evading responsibility for his public action of anti-consensus turmoil.”

Vanke isn’t a crank, nor are his stated values far afield from most Carrboro voters’: He expresses support for gay rights and opposition to the war on Iraq, for instance. But Nelson is a seasoned politician making his fifth run for the office. His last two challengers didn’t fare well. Stacy Smith lost by 16 points in 2001, and another write-in, Joel Zimmerman, won only 76 votes in 1999. Vanke’s giving this a go, but he’s not a realistic contender.

Still, he was invited by the local political group Community Action Network to sit next to Nelson at its forum earlier this month. Dressed in a crisp, black suit with purple shirt and tie, the mayor looked carefully composed next to Vanke, who looked pale under the lights and People’s Channel cameras of Chapel Hill Town Hall.

Moderator Fred Black asked Nelson how he has dealt with the harsh criticism he’s faced. Nelson smiled affably and replied, “Honestly, the last two months have been a little hard. There’s been a lot of vitriolic venting that’s taken place. You just focus on the good things. I just try to pay attention to the job that the voters elected me to do.”

Nelson listened to his opponent’s comments with a political poker face even as Vanke complained about the perception that the Nelson-led Carrboro government is “closed minded.” Unable to cite much in the way of evidence, he came across like an awkward amateur next to the confident Nelson–but an amateur who won’t stop trying.

At the end, Black thanked the panel for “disagreeing in such an agreeable manner.” As the candidates stood up, Vanke and Nelson faced each other and shook hands. Vanke let out a small, nervous laugh as he said, “Nice to meet you.” Nelson turned to walk out, and smiled. EndBlock