Why did Raleigh City Council give Carmen Cauthen unanimous support, then turn around and vote six-to-one for Stormie Forte to take the District D seat vacated by Saige Martin?

Leading up to the decision last week, it was clear that it would not be business as usual. Between Martin’s shocking departure, the current protests for Black lives, and the pandemic’s impact on the local economy, the council had to make a choice that showed they were “for the people.” While many qualified candidates threw their hats in the ring, all eyes were on the two Black women.

Cauthen comes from a long line of civil servants and has spent the majority of her adult life in service to government and community, most recently with the Southeast Raleigh Community Engagement Strategy Sessions and the Wake County Housing Justice Coalition.

Forte is a lawyer and real estate agent who is a part of the Raleigh-Wake Citizens Association (RWCA) and its affiliate, the Wake County Voter Education Coalition, both of which work to nurture Black political leaders and support voter turnout.

Both women were excellent candidates, yet the city council needed someone to fit certain criteria: a candidate who would communicate their support of Raleigh’s Black community while also letting them gentrify their neighborhoods with little pushback.

A couple of days after the council chose Forte, Cauthen demonstrated why she didn’t make the cut. During a “Downtown South” community engagement meeting hosted by consulting firm APCO and Kane Realty, Cauthen asked probing questions regarding Kane’s commitment to creating a community benefits agreement.

Bonner Gaylord, a representative of Kane, claimed they are working with public and private sector advisors and community members to discuss ways to make the necessary accommodations, but didn’t specify that a community-benefits agreement was in the works.

It is no secret that the Downtown South soccer stadium is a development that Mayor Baldwin and her allies on the council are very excited about. But residents of the diverse neighborhoods less than a mile away are concerned that the gigantic structures slated to be built in the floodplain will result in storm waters washing into their homes and rising property taxes washing them out.

Cauthen is known for tough questioning. Her participation in initiatives to stop gentrification and empower the community to create their own development strategies is a clue as to why she would be problematic for the Baldwin “Moon Shot” agenda. In appointing Forte instead, the city council prioritized its agenda but got to look like progressive history makers—textbook performative allyship. Thankfully, Raleigh residents are not so easily fooled. 

It is common knowledge in the Raleigh activist community how Mayor Baldwin and the council truly feel about the issues most impacting its Black and Brown residents. In a forum before the 2019 election, Nicole Stewart said she did not support a police accountability board with subpoena power because “the only people who want it are from District C.” Jonathon Melton said that while City Manager Ruffin Hall and Police Chief Cassandra Deck-Brown have made decisions that have negatively impacted the Black and Brown community “that he doesn’t agree with,” he does not believe they should be fired.

The remaining council members have all expressed opinions against defunding the Raleigh Police Department and consistently vote for zoning measures that push the gentrification of historically Black neighborhoods, including the recent decisions around accessory dwelling units and their approval for short-term rental use.

Forte is a part of an organization that represents Raleigh’s Black political establishment. Several Black politicians on the city, county, and state level value RWCA and the WCVEC as a source of support. But when one looks at the platforms and voting records of those politicians, one questions their effectiveness in advocating for working-class and working poor Black people.

On their watch, the affordable housing and homelessness crisis, excessive police force, and gentrification have worsened in Black and Brown neighborhoods. Many of these civic leaders have become “Black bystanders” as they allow their communities to be economically demolished.

With their eyes on the 2021 election—and on the developers that have exchanged financial contributions for support of ambitious building projects—Baldwin and her allies needed a candidate who was impervious to media scrutiny but wouldn’t hinder their controversial, injurious gentrifying developments. It remains to be seen if Forte will fulfill this role, but it was clear that “bystander” was not a position Cauthen was willing to take. 

COURTNEY NAPIER is a Raleigh native, community activist, and co-host of the podcast Mothering on the Margins. Comment on this column at backtalk@indyweek.com

Voices is made possible by contributions to the INDY Press Club.