Last Tuesday, Chapel Hill voters picked Chapel Hill Town Council member Jess Anderson for mayor by a nearly 60-40 margin. Anderson, who ran on a campaign slogan of “moving Chapel Hill forward,” beat her council colleague Adam Searing in nearly every precinct in town. Chapel Hill voters also elected three Anderson allies: Melissa McCullough, Theodore Nollert, and incumbent Amy Ryan, to the council. Searing’s slate won only one seat, with Renuka Soll and Elizabeth Sharp in a race that may come down to provisional and outstanding mailed ballots.
Beyond the immediate results, though, the election gives clues about some larger dynamics driving Chapel Hill politics. Here are our five biggest takeaways from last week’s municipal election results:
Online discourse drove record turnout
Tom Jensen, director of Raleigh-based Public Policy Polling, credits the higher turnout to civic-minded organizations like the chronically-online Triangle Blog Blog, run by 501(c)(4) nonprofit Shameful Nuisance, that has become locally known for its love of greenways and personable tweets about local politics. Triangle Blog Blog, which endorsed Anderson and her allies for council, provided questionnaires, voting guides, and stickers through the course of the election—all with a tone that may have made the esoteric issues of the council more accessible to younger voters.
Triangle Blog Blog occasionally clashed with Searing and his slate after publishing negative stories about Searing. Searing called it a “dark money” group and argued that the Triangle Blog Blog was a political organization masquerading as “real news.” But it’s very likely that those spats raised the profile of Triangle Blog Blog, and in turn, election turnout overall. Jensen dug into the numbers a bit more in his column on Chapelboro.com.
Voters favored experience in candidates
Adam Searing ran for mayor on a slate, supporting David Adams, Breckany Eckhardt, Elizabeth Sharp, and Renuka Soll for the four open council seats. If they swept the election, they would have won a majority on the nine-member council. And since Searing would have vacated his current council seat to become mayor, they may have even been able to get a sixth ally to fill that seat.
The campaign messaging tied all the candidates together as a package deal. But when the first early voting numbers hit, it was clear that voters didn’t “VOTE ALL FIVE” as the signs urged.
The best-performing slate members, Sharp and Soll, won about as many votes as Searing. But Adams and Eckhardt underperformed Searing by roughly 500 and 900 votes, respectively.
And since both Sharp and Soll were listed further down the alphabetically-organized ballot, that difference can’t be waved away—hundreds of Searing voters deliberately passed up on Adams and Eckhardt.
Jensen says that experience and visibility likely culled Searing’s pack. Soll, the current chair of the parks commission, was the only Searing candidate who could point to experience in municipal government. While Sharp didn’t have that experience, Jensen says her history as a successful Chapel Hill business owner raised her profile.
Of the winners of the council seats, McCullough and Nollert both served on the planning commission and Ryan was an incumbent council member.
CHALT may have maxed out its vote
In 2015, Pam Hemminger was backed by the organization Chapel Hill for a Livable Town (CHALT) when she unseated incumbent Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt.
In recent years, though, CHALT’s reputation has deteriorated and its influence has waned. In 2021, Hemminger cruised to reelection against a CHALT-endorsed candidate. Anderson was also endorsed by CHALT in previous elections but won without its endorsement in 2021 and again in this election.
This year, CHALT did not endorse any candidates because its steering committee members worried that a CHALT endorsement may actually hurt candidates. CHALT’s PAC, the Chapel Hill Leadership PAC, however, did support Searing and his slate through emails, fliers, mailers, and campaign signs.
Jensen points out that Searing won around 4,950 votes this year—about 60 more than the total that Hemminger won her 2015 election with. But the overall electorate got larger, and those new votes apparently went to non-CHALT candidates like Anderson.
“CHALT has a certain base of older homeowners who are going to vote in every single municipal election, and if turnout is small enough, their base is big enough to win an election,” says Jensen.
CHALT opponents keep losing seats to bad math
There were 10 candidates running for four open council seats.
Searing ran with four candidates for those four seats, but there were five (serious) non-Searing candidates. Several local groups that had endorsed Anderson split their council endorsements between Eric Valera and Jon Mitchell, the two non-Searing candidates who won the fewest votes on election day.
The results make it clear that most Anderson voters also supported McCullough, Nollert, and Ryan. Jensen argues that Anderson voters likely split their last vote between Mitchell and Valera, leaving the fourth council seat open for a Searing ally.
In 2021, Jensen says the opposite happened—there were only three serious non-CHALT candidates for four seats, leaving a seat open for Searing, even though he finished 1,000 votes behind the top three, who were all within 70 votes of each other.
Slates have proven to be difficult to sell. But for popular candidates, more coordination could be key to winning more seats.
“I think it is important for groups to come together and make sure that there’s four candidates that everybody can agree on,” says Jensen.
Searing will gain an ally on the council
Searing, who was elected to council in 2021, will keep his seat through 2025. And when the official vote tally is over, Searing will gain an ally in either Sharp or Soll.
With a record as the underdog in many 8-1 council votes, Searing ran a challenger’s campaign against the current direction of the council. But the council had many votes turn on any combination of nine votes. And even with campaign promises, it’s impossible to know how Sharp or Soll will vote when faced with the reality of governance on council.
Anderson, post-victory, has struck a conciliatory tone about the new cohort.
“The wisdom goes that even if you get one new member, it’s a whole new council because all the dynamics change,” says Anderson. “There’s always healthy disagreements and healthy debate.”
“I am committed to working with everybody for the benefit of everyone” she says.
The unofficial results of the 2023 Chapel Hill Town Council election
The unofficial results of the 2023 Chapel Hill mayoral election
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