For most political candidates in the Triangle, the first round of elections was over in May. Winners celebrated their victories and losers trudged along the roadsides to collect campaign signs. But for four candidates for two seats on the Cary Town Council, the race is still on.
Of the three town council seats that were up for grabs in May, only one candidate secured enough votes to avoid a runoff election—incumbent Jennifer Robinson, who won the District A seat with 75 percent of the vote. In North Carolina, a few nonpartisan municipal elections, such as Cary’s, require runoff elections to take place when candidates don’t earn enough votes to be declared the winner outright. Under state statute, in municipalities using this election and runoff method, candidates have to win at least 50 percent of the vote to secure a victory.
In the race for the at-large seat, the first-place finisher was Carissa Johnson, a Democrat, who secured about 40 percent of the vote. This month, she faces Republican Ken George, who earned 39 percent. In a surprising upset, incumbent Ed Yerha, who is unaffiliated, fell to his challengers in May, finishing in last place with 21 percent of the vote.
In the race for District C, Republican Renee Miller finished in first place with 28.54 percent of the vote, barely edging out unaffiliated incumbent Jack Smith, who earned 28.04 percent. Miller beat longtime council member Smith by just 45 votes, and the two face off again on July 26.
As Cary grows rapidly and politics become more partisan, this month’s election will determine the direction the city heads in for at least the next two years. One council member, Ya Liu, is also running for the state house, so if she’s elected in November, a new member will be appointed to fill her spot.
On the current council, four members are unaffiliated, with moderate voting records that often lean liberal on issues of development and conservative on issues of finance. Robinson, a registered Republican, is also part of that cohort. Two members, Liu and Lori Bush, are registered Democrats and solidly liberal, but they also tend to vote based on the local landscape rather than along party lines.
“On the whole, the [current] council is fairly moderate and has traditionally been nonpartisan and focused on local issues,” says Devin Ross, a local advocate for affordable housing with the nonprofit ONE Wake. “What’s unusual about this race is how national politics are filtering down.”
This year, partisan politics have infiltrated the race, giving an edge to candidates backed by the Democratic and Republican Parties. Both unaffiliated candidates, Yerha and Smith, trailed their partisan opponents. One explanation for the results could be the delay in the election, says Smith. Cary’s town council elections typically take place as stand-alone races in odd-numbered years. But this year, because of pandemic-related delays in reporting the decennial census data, the 2021 election was rescheduled to take place at the same time as a partisan primary.
“It is the first time in recent history we’ve had a race moved into a partisan primary year,” says Smith. “Both parties had candidates that just wanted to ride the coattails of the organization. I talked to people that voted, and they said, ‘Look, we love what you’ve done for Cary, but this is a bigger issue now. We have to send a message to the country … to stop this [growing] hate.’”
The results of the runoff elections could create a council that leans more heavily toward liberal or conservative ideals. Hot-button political issues such as LGBTQ rights and immigration have also become part of voters’ considerations. One flyer left on doors in Cary this week urged people to vote for Ken George to “protect” the city from events like the Apex Pride Festival.
“This event … was aimed to sexualize, groom and indoctrinate our children, clearly a Marxist assault on our family values!” claims the flyer. A Democratic majority in the Cary Town Council “risks Cary going the way of Apex,” and Equality NC, which endorsed Johnson, George’s opponent, is a “radical organization,” the ad continues.
If Miller and George win, the council would be composed of three Republicans, two unaffiliated members, and two Democrats. The two candidates, along with Robinson, could significantly influence the council majority to start voting more conservatively on issues of development, public safety, and taxes. Neither candidate is an extreme conservative, but their election could mean the town council slows its current course.
District C Race
Who is Renee Miller?
Miller said via email that she was not available for an interview but has written on her website about prioritizing public safety, low taxes, infrastructure, and “strategic growth.” Miller writes that Cary will be kept safe by providing first responders with “proper equipment and training” and by keeping pay competitive.
She says the town council needs to preserve Cary’s “hometown feel,” “welcoming spirit,” and “charm” by balancing the rights of property owners with “excessive rezoning requests.” Miller adds that the city should “guarantee our current citizens’ needs are met before adding more developments.”
Who is Jack Smith?
Smith is a moderate council member who has served on the town council for the past 32 years, a fact he admits didn’t boost his chances in the most recent election.
“I’m not blind. People say, ‘Well, he’s been there 32 years, maybe it’s time for someone else,’” Smith says. “Am I the same Jack Smith who ran in the ’80s? Probably not. You can’t be afraid to say, ‘I’ve changed, I’ve evolved.’ When I talk to [people], I talk about what we’re doing now.”
Smith says one of the biggest things he brings to the town council is an open-minded and responsive attitude. He has a record of serving under mayors from both sides of the political spectrum, focusing on practical, local issues. It’s a trait that may serve him well in the coming years as political fights become more heated.
“What needs to be considered is good governance,” Smith says. “We can’t rest on rhetoric, we can’t rest on fear, we can’t rest on whatever the Supreme Court is doing this month. It’s not that those issues are not important, but at the local level, we affect people’s lives the most.”
Smith has a broad coalition of support, including the Wake County Democratic Party (although it has not officially endorsed him) and three of his former opponents—Mary Insprucker, Amanda Murphy, and George McDowell.
“Fundamentally, we were pretty much on the same page,” Smith says. “In the end, when somebody says, ‘I’m for the environment,’ I get to say, ‘Yes, so am I, and this is what we’ve done.’”
During his time on the city council, Smith prioritized diversity in hiring; supported Project Phoenix, in which police officers were assigned to work with specific apartment communities; and helped launch Cary’s sister city program, which promotes cultural festivals and education. Smith also helped create Cary’s affordable housing plan and fund the effort with $10 million in this year’s budget.
“I want to make sure that every citizen in Cary enjoys all the benefits that Cary has to offer, not just the wealthy, affluent neighborhoods,” Smith says. “You can talk all you want about quality of life, but if you don’t feel safe, or you feel intimidated, or you feel uncomfortable then … we’re kind of losing the essence of what we’re all about and that is to be welcoming and inclusive to all.”
Who is Ken George?
George, who previously served on the town council from 2015 to 2019, is a fiscal conservative who says one of his top priorities is keeping property taxes low. Cary’s recent boom means some property owners have seen a 14 percent tax hike, he says. George also takes issue with the increase in the price of Cary’s Downtown Park, a project that was initially projected to cost $50 million. Voters approved a bond in 2019 that included funding for the park, but the town recently upped its estimate to about $69 million, a move George calls a “bait and swap.”
Another of George’s priorities is affordable housing, he says. Cary has grown massively in recent years, with Apple planning to renovate a seven-floor office building and Epic Games building its new headquarters in the dilapidated Cary Towne Center. Development downtown has also skyrocketed with the Fenton mixed-use development on Cary Towne Boulevard and a new sports complex planned for Buck Jones Road.
Activists with ONE Wake, the community nonprofit lobbying for more investment in affordable housing, are worried that rising housing costs and property taxes will lead to long-term residents being displaced. In response to a survey by the group, George pledged to maintain the current level of funding for affordable housing.
He also wants to expand the city’s home repair grant program to include renovations for in-house rental units and accessory dwelling units, or “granny flats,” that would come with a guarantee of reduced rent for 30 years.
These units would help fixed-income homeowners earn rent, George says, as well as give the city more affordable housing options. In addition to subsidizing these units, George wants the city to waive development fees, which can be anywhere from $15,000 to $20,000.
“We have a large number of houses in Cary that are not part of a homeowners association that would prohibit a garage apartment, for instance,” George says. “I want to make it so school teachers, firefighters, people who need workforce housing can rent from somebody [in the neighborhood]. We’ve already got the infrastructure in place. We can get more density without having to plow down a lot of trees.”
Who is Carissa Johnson?
If Johnson wins, a liberal voice would replace Yerha’s moderate position, leading to a group of three solid Democrats on the council. The town council already voted unanimously in favor of an affordable housing plan and a nondiscrimination ordinance, but Johnson could influence the council to lead more aggressively on issues of development and social justice.
Johnson, a first-time candidate, says the housing affordability crisis was what made her want to run for office. She knows what it’s like to be uncertain about where you’re living, she says.
“During the 2007–2008 recession, I got laid off and didn’t get a job very quickly. I had to have two or three jobs to make ends meet,” Johnson says. “I know what it feels like to lay in bed wondering where in the world my daughter and I are going to be in a month or two …. It’s a visceral ache. It makes everything feel unsettled.”
Johnson says the town council needs to do more work to fund affordable housing, especially as federal and state dollars eventually dry up. She also wants the town to relax zoning regulations to allow for more dense and diverse housing types, instead of just single-family homes, Johnson says.
The mixed-income project on Southeast Maynard Road is another good example of what the town should pursue, she says. The development includes 130 rental units, half of which are are market rate and half of which are reserved for affordable housing. The project is a partnership between the town and a nonprofit. Johnson also supports green building standards and solar power housing, which she says will both attract higher-income individuals and support lower utilities for people in need.
On social justice, Johnson says Cary needs to have “a proper Pride Month celebration” and should work to hire and hear from the town’s Asian and Hispanic communities. The town has a responsibility to reflect the values of its residents, she says.
A Summer Election
For all candidates, the biggest fight is to get people to turn out and vote. Spreading the word that an election is happening in the middle of summer is no easy feat, especially when many eligible voters are on vacation, enjoying the beach, and simply not thinking about politics yet because it’s not November.
“Half of my battle is getting people to understand there’s a runoff election,” Johnson says. “A significant number of people have congratulated me on my win, and I have to tell them I didn’t win, because in Cary, it’s a nonpartisan race, you have to get 50 percent plus one vote.”
Smith agrees. “We just got to get people to remember there’s another election in middle of summer,” he says.
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