And for the first time since 2001, when Charles Meeker squeaked by Paul Coble, Raleigh might just have itself a competitive and—dare we say it—interesting mayoral election, instead of a stale retread of 2017. The proverbial clown car will fill up quickly: candidates with exciting ideas, candidates unhappy with their present jobs, candidates able to raise obscene gobs of cash, candidates looking for notoriety (or long-shots desperate for attention), candidates seeking their next political stepping-stone, etc.
Given how Raleigh’s elections work, a lot of them will have plausible paths to victory: Everyone runs in a nonpartisan jungle primary in October, which will, if history holds, have an embarrassingly low turnout. Assuming no one gets an outright majority—unlikely in a crowded field—the top two will go to a November runoff, which will also have an embarrassingly low turnout.
In other words, we have the makings of a rather unpredictable, possibly chaotic election. Good luck trying to pick a winner seven months out.
Let’s place some bets.
A lot can happen between now and October. People you think will run won’t. People you think won’t run might. Maybe a millionaire developer will throw in because he basically runs things anyway, so why not? (Ahem, John Kane.) Maybe we’ll get a fun sex scandal or corruption investigation before it’s all over. (We’re journalists, let us dream.)
Who knows? The point is, it’d be foolhardy to say with any certainty that So-and-So will be the next mayor.
But we can lay down odds.
And so we shall, based on the INDY’s proprietary blend of original reporting, informed speculation, wild speculation, guessing, cribbing other people’s work, and making up scenarios to amuse ourselves. We’ll update these odds every month or so at first, then weekly as October nears, to account for new information—candidates in or out, raising beaucoup bucks or self-immolating, and so on. The closer we get to the election, the more confident we’ll be.
Want in on the ground floor? Tell us who you’re backing. And make your checks payable to cash. If you’re right come Election Day … we’ll probably have spent your money on booze by then. Apologies in advance.
To the line!
5–2 Mary-Ann Baldwin: McFarlane’s announcement caught The Notorious MAB by surprise, but assuming she runs—and we would put real money on that—she enters as the favorite. Baldwin has citywide name recognition, can raise a bunch of money, and is beloved by the downtown set, though she also has her share of enemies. (Some use words like “abrasive,” and you can’t help but wonder what words they’d use if she were a man.) But she’s proven that can take—and throw—a punch, usually with a smile and sometimes while swearing at you. MAB’s candidacy would present a stark choice—between the development-skeptical, neighborhoods-first council majority that seems anxious about having too much change too fast; or her brand of pro-density, pro-transit, pro-smart-growth urbanism, which embraces that change and wants Raleigh to shed its safe, comfortable small-town skin and seize its messy, exciting, inevitable bigger-city future.
The bottom line: If you come at the queen, you best not miss. And people will come at her, no doubt—like Dean Debnam did following the Drunktown controversy in 2015. The question is whether they can do any real damage. After all, Baldwin still won the most at-large city council votes in 2015, like she always did.
3–1 Caroline Sullivan: The last time Caroline Sullivan was on a ballot was in 2012, when she easily defeated Republican Dale Cooke to become the Wake County commissioner from District 4—while county commissioners have to live in a district, the voting takes place countywide—replacing Erv Portman, who was running for state Senate. Four years later, she fell victim to, well, let’s call it Republican chicanery. The legislature, having watched Wake Republicans get wiped out in 2014, changed the rules to help out their pals. But the courts rejected their chicanery late in the game, and that left Sullivan without a district. She landed in the governor’s office’s North Carolina Business Committee for Education, but if she wants to get back into politics, this is her chance. And sources tell us that McFarlane encouraged Sullivan to run. Those who know her describe her as smart, tenacious, strong-willed, and a prodigious fundraiser with a well-established network—not unlike Mary-Ann Baldwin, actually.
The bottom line: If both run, Baldwin and Sullivan could be fighting over the same lane headed into October. But whichever makes the runoff—assuming one does—seems likely to become mayor, at least right now.
7–1 Charles Francis: Long story short: We’re bullish on Francis making the runoff, bearish on him winning. In 2017, he had a hard ceiling in the low forties, even with what passes for Raleigh’s Democratic machine behind him, and we’ve seen nothing that makes us think he’ll do better this time around running against actual Democrats. But if you get to November, anything can happen.
The bottom line: Can he build on his 2017 base? Can he broaden his reach beyond the African American strongholds of Southeast Raleigh? Will he stand out in a multicandidate field?
8–1 Sig Hutchinson: Hutchinson’s in a similar spot on the Wake County Board of Commissioners as McFarlane in Raleigh—once powerful, now in a restive minority. And we’ve been hearing rumors of his interest for months now. We asked him Wednesday whether he was running, and Hutchinson gave us a boilerplate “I’m concentrating on being a commissioner” reply. Tl;dr: Sig’s been in this game long enough that not-a-no means probably yes. He won his last commissioner election convincingly—and did well in Raleigh—but he didn’t face a strong opponent. Whether he would gain traction here would depend on who else gets in.
The bottom line: There’s really no reason for him not to run—he thinks the city council is screwing up the county’s affordable housing efforts, and he’s the Board of Commissioners’ odd man out anyway. Commissioner Green Jeans, as he’s sometimes called (or calls himself), has built his rep on greenways and parks and trails and environmental advocacy, and city residents are used to voting for him. He’s also made enemies of power players who will spend money in Raleigh politics (read: Dean Debnam). But the bigger question is whether he gets anyone excited, whether he can find a lane that distinguishes himself from the pack.
15–1 David Cox: OK, David, are you running?
Here again, not a no. We’d assumed someone from Cox’s council crew would run. Kay Crowder and Russ Stephenson have said no, so did Stef Mendell (who is probably going to have a tough reelection fight in District E anyway)—and … Dickie Thompson? Couldn’t pick him out of a lineup. That leaves Cox, whose problem would be this: As loved as he is in by some of his suburban constituents—and he is, fervently—making his NIMBY-esque message play everywhere else will be a very tough sell.
The bottom line: Will Cox’s burbs-tailored message work outside of the burbs? The downtown business community will actively work against him. So will developers. So will a good portion of the city’s staff. There’s a lot of Raleigh that exists outside the beltline, sure, but Cox also won his last election with just 5,267 votes.
20–1 Bonner Gaylord: Gaylord, the former four-term council member, would rate much higher if he seemed interested in running. He’s smart, energetic, likable, connected, and easily the snazziest dresser in all of #ralpol. But he says he doesn’t want it; the council’s a hot mess, he doesn’t want to put the strain on his family, etc. On the other hand, if anyone could make a quick pivot, he’s the guy. He spent most of his tenure on the council laying the groundwork to become mayor, and he only lost to Mendell in 2017 because he didn’t take her seriously. On election night, his campaign had an easy six figures in the bank, stockpiled, unused because he didn’t think he had to use it—and because he had his eyes on a bigger prize. A year later, the Friends of Bonner Gaylord has $108,000 in cash on hand, according to state filings. Just sitting there. Waiting for … something. (For comparison, at the end of 2018, when everyone assumed she was running, Nancy McFarlane had less than $25,000 in her account.) If at any point between now and the close of filing, Gaylord has a change of heart, he already has the resources he needs.
The bottom line: Unless Gaylord’s confidence was shattered by the narrow upset in 2017, he knows he’d be a strong contender. He also knows the present council is something of a dumpster fire—which is both a reason to and not to get involved. Also: What’s he going to do with all that cash?
30–1 David Meeker: Contrary to what Stef Mendell seems to think, and despite the INDY being owned by his uncle, we do not have a telepathic connection to David Meeker’s brain. So we have no secret information contradicting what he and his father, Charles Meeker, told The News & Observer—that they’re not interested. (To be fair to Mendell, if either had planned to enter the fray, we probably would’ve gotten a heads-up.) But we’ve long suspected—again, no special insight—that David will eventually follow in his father’s footsteps. He’s on the board of the Downtown Raleigh Alliance, and he’s politically active both on local and statewide issues like HB 2 and gerrymandering, so it’s not really a stretch. His business partner is at-large council member Nicole Stewart’s husband, and he’s hosting the kickoff event for at-large challenger Robbie Rikard. But he has young kids and a business to run, and adding a full-time job that pays like a part-time job to that load is probably untenable.
The bottom line: One day, David Meeker will be a good candidate for something. Right now, it doesn’t look like that day is in 2019, or that something is the mayor’s office. Then again, Raleigh mayors tend to keep that office for a while. How many pitches will David let go by?
45–1 Zainab Baloch: When she ran for an at-large city council seat in 2017, we found a lot to like in Baloch. She was a young, engaged Muslim of Pakistani descent who would have brought fresh energy and perspective, not to mention needed diversity, to the council. But Baloch placed a fairly distant fifth. And while she began to run for an unspecified city office in 2019 as soon as the last election was over, making a real play for the top job strikes us as a heavy lift.
The bottom line: Baloch could be underpriced. But if she joins the mayor’s race, and if she catches any sort of fire, she could be a real contender. She’s a smart, progressive young woman in an electorate that’s likely to look kindly upon smart, progressive young women. A long-shot, for sure, but there’s the potential for big returns on a small investment.
Whom are we missing? Email email@example.com to let us know. Oh, and we’re not actually taking bets because that’s probably illegal. Feel free to send us money, though. We promise to spend it wisely.