Name as it appears on the ballot: Carissa Johnson
Party affiliation: Democrat (endorsed by Wake County Democratic Party)
Campaign website: www.electcarissa.com
Occupation & employer: Product Marketing Manager, Axcient
Years lived in Cary: 23
1) In 300 words or less, please give us—and our readers—your elevator pitch: Why are you running? Why should voters entrust you with this position? What are your priorities, and what would you want to see the town council do differently or better over the course of your term?
I am compelled to serve! I have a broad range of experience, and I have the knowledge, the drive, and the willingness to learn necessary to be an asset to my community. I want to advocate for practical local solutions to address environmental concerns, housing affordability, and inequity in our community. I am the candidate who will work hard to ensure as many citizens as possible get the same advantages I have had.
I’ve lived in Cary for 23 years and have spent years volunteering to better my community. I am a trained member of Cary’s Community Emergency Response Team (FEMA CERT). In addition, I served on Cary’s Information Services Advisory Board and as Vice-Chair of the Cary150 Commission. Currently, I advocate for abused and neglected children in the Wake County court system as a volunteer Guardian ad Litem and am the Vice-Chair of Democratic Precinct 04-11.
Also, my lived experiences separate me from other candidates. I come from a blended, large, working-class family. I was the first person in my family to attend college, and I earned a Bachelor’s in Sociology/Gerontology from Nazareth College and studied Zoology at NCSU. I am who I am because my parents were principled people who showed me, by their everyday example, that you do for others whenever you can. They would be proud that I am running and trying to be a positive force for my community.
An additional benefit I bring to the council is a background in IT and healthcare technology. This affords me a high level of comfort with modern advances – and our world is swiftly changing, so the experience I bring to topics ranging from public and behavioral health to data security will be a great addition to the other skill sets on the council.
2) Given the direction of Cary’s town government, would you say things are on the right course? If not, for what specific changes will you advocate if elected?
I believe our past councils have done excellent work. We have an exceptionally capable town staff comprised of the best and brightest imaginable; Cary is an incredible place to work and play – and for those lucky enough – to live.
That being said, I think the current challenges faced by the town will require a council that will take a less conservative approach and commits to approaching some challenges creatively to keep Cary wonderful and allow more citizens to thrive.
Many citizens believe that our climate and weather patterns are changing, and I agree. I see many opportunities for our town to embrace forward-thinking approaches to environmental stewardship ranging from intensive stormwater management in the face of regular 100 and potential 500-year rain events to incentivizing the greenest building standards and certifications to curb further ecological deterioration.
Also, we are facing a housing crisis that requires swift action to address the loss of moderately priced naturally-occurring housing stock and affordable rental opportunities. If council prioritizes funding and resources to address this problem while working with private, public, non-profit, and government organizations to ramp up capacity quickly, there can be more citizens able to live in Cary.
And that leads me to equity issues – I believe it is time for our town to adopt a non-discrimination ordinance. Additionally, we have vibrant and diverse communities in Cary that are underrepresented in many areas. I see many opportunities to engage more people from under-involved groups. It will require a council willing to re-examine some processes and, in some instances, actively adapt to move beyond what they “have always done.” Cary has a bright future, and I would like to be a part of making it bright for all our citizens.
3) What are three of the most pressing issues the town currently faces? How would you propose to address them? Please be specific.
I believe the three most pressing issues facing the Town of Cary and much of our region are housing affordability, environmental pressures and reducing emissions, and equity concerns. If elected, I am committed to:
• Prioritize funding and address the needs of housing cost-burdened citizens: I will work to build private-public-nonprofit partnerships to build capacity to ease the housing affordability crisis. As a person who once experienced the stress of housing insecurity, I’ve been laid off and spent sleepless nights worrying about where your child(ren) will lay their heads at night. I had help, but not everyone is as lucky, and I will work to help people who are housing cost-burdened. The success of any affordable housing programs rests on a council that will prioritize and adequately fund it so that the Cary Housing Plan is actionable and becomes more than simply words on paper. As property values rise, so does the inflow of tax dollars, and when considering how to use those additional funds, housing programs must be prioritized.
• Championing efforts to create equity opportunities and better municipal access for all: I believe our council can work with our town staff to get a better diversity of citizen input and participation. Also, it is past time for Cary to adopt Wake County’s Non-Discrimination Ordinance for LGBTQ+ and minority protections.
• Prioritize opportunities for Cary to adopt greener practices and renewable energy: I believe we need to move beyond coal for our electric needs and strengthen environmental protections; I would like to see Cary work to help citizens and our town buildings move to solar power, and I want to be a part of a council that prioritizes solar and green building standards in our town projects.
4) What’s the best or most important thing the town council has done in the past year? Alternatively, name a decision you believe the council got wrong or an issue you believe the town should have handled differently. Please explain your answer.
I see the adoption of the Cary Housing Plan in November 2021 as the most important thing the town council has done in the past year. This plan is the most comprehensive that our town staff has ever presented to the council. It includes several forward-thinking programs and efforts to move the needle on the affordable housing crisis. However, to be effective, it would be better if it had benchmarks and specific funding plans.
My concern is that the plan does not include precise funding or benchmarking. There will be a need for a coalition of council members to push to make sure we prioritize the support measures to achieve the plan’s goals to address affordable housing challenges. Without funding and specific, measurable goals, the Housing Plan will be just words on paper, and I am not confident my challengers will support this vital prioritization. Ken George railed against and voted no on the much scaled-down Habitat for Humanity project near his neighborhood, and Ed Yerha votes unpredictably and has not voiced firm support for affordable housing efforts. My intent to support housing affordability efforts has been unequivocal – yes, I will.
5) What prior experience will make you an effective member of the town council and advocate of the issues listed above? Please note any endorsements you have received that you consider significant.
I am proud and humbled by the support and endorsements I have received, and I believe they reflect my core values and commitments to advocate for issues I am passionate about. I was thrilled to get an endorsement from current councilperson At-Large Lori Bush. She has been a great role model and mentor to me, and we are like-minded in the values we share. I want to be a part of moving her efforts forward.
Also, the Wake County Democratic Party officially endorses me. As a lifelong Democrat and Vice-Chair of Democratic Precinct 04-11, this means a great deal to me. I believe that my status as an endorsed Democrat sets me apart from our Unaffiliated incumbent and Republican challenger in my race.
Also, I earned the endorsement of the Sierra Club. I see this endorsement as a welcome responsibility, as my voting behavior should align with my values of being the best steward of the environment I can be. I also see a great deal of value in the Sierra Club’s guidelines for infill development. I refer to that document frequently.
Another endorsement I am very proud of is that of Equality NC. I have learned much from their team on Non-Discrimination Ordinances. I will work hard to ensure that I am always taking advantage of any opportunity to be an ally and an advocate for the LGBTQ+ community.
Additionally, I bring to the council the spirit of an active volunteer; I’ve lived in Cary for 23 years and have spent years volunteering to better my community. I am a trained member of Cary’s Community Emergency Response Team (FEMA CERT). In addition, I served on Cary’s Information Services Advisory Board and as Vice-Chair of the Cary150 Commission. Currently, I advocate for abused and neglected children in the Wake County court system as a volunteer Guardian ad Litem.
6) Given the rate of growth in Cary, how will you ensure that growth is well managed and enhances the town rather than detracts from it? Where does density and height fit in in planning decisions, if it does? How do you intend to balance growth with sustainability?
Growth can be painful, and all the change does make citizens uncomfortable. I have conversations on this topic daily. One resource I share with people when they voice environmental concerns in the face of revitalization efforts, and in particular infill and increase in building heights, is the Sierra Club’s 2021 Smart Growth and Urban Infill Guide for municipalities. It is a compelling resource on choosing smart growth over sprawl. It outlines how local governments can consider density to reduce climate emissions and air pollution and conserve good local habitats. In addition, I believe committing to creating a Cary that is very walkable and bikeable will improve the health of our air and our citizens and is a crucial step in reducing the number of miles driven.
Also, I would like to see incentives in place for developers and builders who voluntarily adhere to a green building standard.
7) As with most places in the Triangle, Cary is grappling with issues related to affordable housing. How would you like to see the town approach affordability issues over the next few years? Should it promote apartment living, duplexes, and/or triplexes? Encourage density in single family housing? What do you believe the town is doing right? What could it do better?
I am happy to get more specific on practical opportunities to address the housing affordability challenges at the municipal level. To achieve the goals listed in the Cary Housing Plan, the council and town staff will need to take proactive action.
At the municipal level, the first challenge to tackle is capacity. Working with public companies, builders, non-profits, and our regional governments to quickly build capacity will be key. This capacity building will require critical, out-of-the-box thinking and excellent stewardship of grants and funding to ensure additional future funding.
To build capacity, I am interested in exploring small zoning shifts to increase the variety of housing products to help first-time homebuyers and allow more people, especially Seniors, to downsize within their community. About 73% of Cary homes are single-family detached houses, which use more land per home than other housing types. In Cary, where land is costly, I support the limited application of zoning policies that allow for the construction of varied housing types in appropriate areas, particularly walkable areas near transit. Housing type variety is the most direct way to promote homeownership while reducing housing costs by spreading land costs across multiple homes.
Likewise, I support expanding zoning for property owners looking to add Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) on their property. ADUs add to housing variety and bolster affordable, multi-generational family housing.
Importantly, I am very supportive of additional projects like the one the town is trying to do at 921 SW Maynard road. This mixed-income approach is right for Cary. Plus, it is replicable as a project built on town-owned land in partnership with a phenomenal non-profit builder. I am thrilled that the project is being considered for solar power. I have been involved in stakeholder meetings and working on grassroots efforts to demonstrate community support for the project.
I spent the last year learning everything I can about how our town government can do its part to help housing-cost burdened citizens, and it will take real commitment to funding and action. Otherwise, our adopted Housing Plan is just words on paper without benchmarks or measurable objectives
8) How should town leaders work with the large organizations who are relocating to, or expanding or investing in Cary? What obligations, if any, should these businesses/companies/facilities have to the town?
We must continue investing in Cary’s world-class sports and entertainment facilities to be attractive to businesses. On the horizon, I see needs that must be met with a high-tech approach, ranging from smart-cities infrastructure to regional cooperation in transit and shared resources. As someone spending her professional life immersed in IT and technology, I know the advances, changes, and expectations are coming rapidly, and our council and staff must be ready.
We also need an environment that allows small to medium-sized businesses to thrive. A municipal commitment to easing the housing cost burdens of the workforce is going to be essential to attracting and keeping businesses. Also, as commutes become even more problematic, a commitment to walkability and bikeability will make Cary a first choice, as will investment in our transit. We must protect Cary’s beauty, safety, and desirability, but we must look for a balance to be business-friendly, whether small or large.
9) In your view, how can Cary be safer and more accessible using different modes of transportation? What is your vision for public transit, pedestrian and bike safety?
There has been effort put into increasing the biking and walking opportunities in Cary, and the town has done this well. However, we do have many areas that are not connected, whether greenways or bike lanes and sidewalks, which need to be addressed.
Our community could not build this type of infrastructure overnight. Still, we need to see a commitment to the areas of Cary that have not gotten the investment in biking lanes, sidewalks, and greenway connectivity yet. Sidewalks and the connection of greenway spurs is a common ask of citizens in the outer edges of Cary, where the growth is more recent. The need for more sidewalks is the most common concern I hear from current Cary residents.
10) What are your goals for Cary’s downtown and what does the town need to do to achieve those goals?
I have lived in the downtown area of Cary for 15 years, and I know it intimately. I think the revitalization efforts and the focus on investment in the downtown area are well thought through, bring thriving businesses and visitors, and are proving to be very successful. However, we must be diligent in preventing the downtown revitalization from becoming gentrification. A great example of this is the proposed mixed-income project on town-owned land at 921 SW Maynard in partnership with non-profit development partners must be prioritized, along with affordable housing for Seniors.
However, I think the current challenges faced by the town reflect a changing, mobile, high-tech world and will require a council that will take a less conservative approach and commits to tackling challenges creatively.
I see many opportunities for our town to embrace forward-thinking approaches to environmental stewardship, in addition to current efforts. Greener approaches range from more intensive stormwater management in the face of potential 500-year rain events to solar investments and incentivizing the greenest building standards and certifications to safeguard what we have and curb environmental deterioration.
Also, we are facing a housing crisis that requires swift action to make up for the loss of moderately priced naturally-occurring housing stock and affordable rental opportunities. If our council prioritizes funding the recently adopted housing plan and dedicates resources to swiftly address this problem while working with public, non-profit, and government organizations to ramp up capacity quickly, we can do our part at the municipal level. I spent the last year learning everything I can about how our town government can do its part to help housing-cost burdened citizens, and it will take real commitment to funding and action. Otherwise, our adopted Housing Plan is just words on paper without benchmarks or measurable objectives.
11) Cary residents love their parks and greenways. How should the town work to preserve, improve, or expand them?
The parks and greenways in Cary are genuinely remarkable. I can’t imagine a municipality more committed to these outdoor amenities than Cary. In the future, we need to focus on areas of Cary where greenways are not connected and places where there are significant gaps in sidewalk coverage. Additionally, there is talk of finding creative ways to create separation between bike and pedestrian lanes on greenways, and I support that. I would like to see Cary greenways that everyone can safely access and enjoy.
12) If there is anything else you would like to address please do so here.
I am proud to say that I have the endorsement of current At-Large Councilperson Lori Bush. She has been an incredible mentor to me, and her support has been vital as a first-time candidate. I have been fortunate to run this race with another endorsed Democrat, Amanda Murphy in District C, and both she and Lori Bush share my values. There are so many other people supporting and helping me in my campaign, and I am humbled by their dedication, guidance, and experience. I hope that the Cary citizens who share my values and my vision for an inclusive Cary will come out during early voting from April 28th to May 14th or on election day on May 17th and show their support by voting for me. I would be honored to represent Cary as an At-Large councilperson and will work very hard to do right by those who put their faith in me!