Policy nerds are quick to point out that every year is an election year. This may not be true for all municipalities in 2021—Raleigh’s elections are pushed back to next year—but Orange County is keeping its November 2 election date.
The 2021 voters will select the Chapel Hill and Carrboro mayors, as well as multiple positions on the Chapel Hill Town Council, Carrboro Town Council, and the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Board of Education. Hillsborough and Mebane also have positions up for grabs.
Only Hillsborough Mayor Jenn Weaver is running unopposed this year, leaving a mix of seasoned local politicians and relative newcomers to duke it out on democracy’s smallest stage. Some may surprise you; others may not.
One surprise in Orange County elections was Lydia Lavelle’s decision not to run for re-election as mayor of Carrboro. Lavelle, who works at the N.C. Central University School of Law, has been in the town’s top position since 2013.
In Chapel Hill, councilmember Allen Buansi also won’t run again after his first term. Buansi, who recently welcomed twins, told the INDY that his decision stemmed from the time commitment it takes to run a campaign, which would pair poorly with caring for two newborns.
“I’m running to keep a seat at the table,” Foushee, the only Black person on the council, told the INDY. “My husband told me when I ran in 2017, ‘Barbara, you have to be at the table: when votes are taken, policies are being discussed, decisions are being made, conversations—your voice and your face have to be in that room to have impact.’”
In Chapel Hill, Pam Hemminger has announced a bid for her fourth term as mayor. Karen Stegman, a Chapel Hill native, also seeks to keep her seat on the town council to continue some of the initiatives around affordable housing and racial justice she and Buansi spearheaded together.
When Lavelle announced she wasn’t running again, councilmember Damon Seils says he took some time to evaluate his interest in the gig and decided to throw his hat into the ring.
“Carrboro is a small town, and I want to make sure we’re continuing to punch above our weight,” Seils told the INDY of Carrboro’s reputation as a progressive leader in the state.
You may also recognize another name in the race for Chapel Hill mayor. Hongbin Gu, a council member up for re-election this year, announced that she would challenge Hemminger for the position. Gu has received support from Nancy Oates, a former council member who was listed as the editor of The Local Reporter until recently.
New challengers with histories of activism are also looking to shake up the Chapel Hill Town Council. Paris Miller-Foushee, the secretary of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP and board member at EmPOWERment, Inc., wants to keep affordable housing in the discussion.
“I grew up in affordable housing in Durham,” Miller-Foushee says. “It’s not peripheral for me to live in public housing and know what that means, and the importance of the investment of our community.”
Another newcomer with a storied presence in town is Vimala Rajendran, the owner of Vimala’s Curryblossom Café, who wants to look out for the interests of small businesses.
“President Biden said in a conversation with me before he was elected that [small business] is the heartbeat of America,” Rajendran says. “For 11 years I have been a leader in the industry, and nationally recognized for worker justice, and I want that to be the focus of all small businesses, and for small businesses to be the focus of Chapel Hill.”
There are four seats open in Chapel Hill, since the vacancy left by former council member Rachel Schaevitz has stayed open until now. The other newcomers running are Robert Beasley, Camille Berry, Andrew Creech, Jeffrey Hoagland, and Adam Searing.
In Carrboro, two challengers are running against incumbents up for re-election. Danny Nowell, a Democratic Socialist who settled in Carrboro to raise his family, told the INDY that he seeks to make housing more affordable for Carrboro residents through public-owned housing, instead of relying solely on private ventures. Aja Kelleher, a mother and self-described activist, is the other challenger.
Two candidates for mayor—Mike Benson in Carrboro and Zachary Boyce in Chapel Hill—decided to run to keep the races from being uncontested, pressuring Hemmminger, Gu, and Seils to come to events and speak on tough issues. Boyce, a UNC-Chapel Hill law student, says he decided to run when he realized there were no Black people and no one under 40 running, and that Hemminger could potentially run unopposed—again.
“I would like more graduate and undergraduate students to be involved … in local government, because in a place like this that is … a university town, we make knowledge here,” Boyce says. “We make new ideas here, and who is going to be more committed to putting the new knowledge on the policy table than the people who are making it?”
Aside from local elections, an empty seat is about to pop up on the Orange County Board of Commissioners at the end of July, when Commissioner Mark Dorosin moves to Florida for a law school teaching position. The board will appoint a new commissioner from a pool of candidates; the deadline has already passed to submit an application.
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