There’s no politician in Raleigh quite like Mary-Ann Baldwin.
She’s loved, or she’s hated. She’s a creative, forward-thinking innovator, or she’s a pawn of developers bent on selling out Raleigh’s quality of life to the highest bidder. She’s a champion of affordable housing, or she’s a would-be destroyer of neighborhoods. She’s outspoken and tenacious, or she’s polarizing and abrasive. There’s no in-between.
No one else in Raleigh politics generates this kind of visceral response. And that’s why this year’s mayoral election is going to be all about the Notorious MAB.
In an exclusive interview with the INDY Friday—embargoed until Wednesday—the sixty-two-year-old former city council member, who stepped down in 2017, announced that she was running for mayor.
Baldwin cast her candidacy in characteristically no-bullshit terms: The council is broken. She wants to fix it.
“Seeing what’s happened in the past year and a half has really been disturbing to me,” she said. “I think we’re moving backward as a city instead of forward. Issues like affordable housing, simple things like the sharing economy—we can’t make decisions, or we’re making bad decisions. I stepped away because I said we needed new leadership, and now I’m stepping back in because I think we need new leadership.”
During her ten years in office, from 2007–17, Baldwin was instrumental in bringing Citrix to the Warehouse District, which helped turn the once-desolate area into a downtown hub that now includes Raleigh Union Station. She co-founded Innovate Raleigh in 2011, a nonprofit that spurs entrepreneurship throughout the Triangle, and championed downtown businesses. She pushed for better transit and more affordable housing—including more housing choices and increased density.
But as a marketing executive for engineering and development companies—including Holt Brothers, where she’s currently vice president—Baldwin was criticized for being too close to developers and accused of prioritizing businesses over neighborhoods. During the battle over a controversial 2015 sidewalk-patio ordinance, she was attacked—via the infamous “DrunkTown” ad—for her support of downtown nightlife. Her feuds with other council members, including Russ Stephenson, rubbed detractors the wrong way, too.
Baldwin grew up in Rhode Island, the daughter of a local gadfly who volunteered for George McGovern’s presidential campaign when she was fifteen. After graduating from the University of Rhode Island, she became a cops-and-government reporter for a newspaper outside of New York City before moving to Raleigh three decades ago.
She got into city politics on the heels of a sanitation workers’ strike, when she thought officials needed to communicate better. She’s reentering the fray with the city council as divided as ever, governed by a majority of neighborhood preservationists who, Baldwin would argue, vote more often to protect the Raleigh of yesterday than to prepare for the Raleigh of tomorrow.
Baldwin says she’s done watching from the sidelines.
She won’t be the only candidate vying to replace the outgoing Nancy McFarlane, who announced March 13 that she won’t seek a fifth term as mayor: Former Wake County Commissioner Caroline Sullivan, a friend of Baldwin’s who has McFarlane’s backing, announced her bid Monday. Charles Francis, who lost to McFarlane in 2017, is running again, too. More will likely jump in.
But Baldwin argues that she has the experience and resolve to push Raleigh into a bold progressive future.
The conversation that follows has been edited for space and clarity. You can listen to the entire interview—which runs about ninety minutes and delves deeper into Baldwin’s background, her relationships with council members, and her perspectives on policy issues—on INDYcast, the INDY’s podcast, which you can subscribe to on Apple Podcasts or Stitcher, or listen to at soundcloud.com/indycast.
JEFFREY C. BILLMAN: When I moved here in 2015, people described you as a polarizing figure, both beloved and despised. Do you see yourself that way?
MARY-ANN BALDWIN: It’s funny to me, because nobody calls David Cox polarizing or Russ Stephenson polarizing or blunt or abrasive. I find it interesting that a woman can be labeled as such. I see myself as someone who has spoken her mind. I stand up for what I believe in, and if that makes me abrasive or polarizing, so be it. I mean, I’m not gonna back down from that. On the other hand, I think I’m probably loyal to a fault and extremely compassionate and empathetic. I know who I am, and I know what I’ve worked for.
JCB: One of the criticisms you’ve faced is that you’re too closely tied to the development world, that you work for development companies.
None of which is true, but that’s OK …
JCB: Well, you’re VP of Holt Brothers, which does construction …
We have construction, and I worked at Stewart, which is an engineering company. But when I think about that, I have to chuckle because the kinds of work we do—like, when I was at Stewart, we did the new terminal at RDU, we did the Hunt Library, we built and designed the Neuse River Greenway project. These aren’t [condo developments]. We were involved with the new apartments that were built in Cameron Village. But I believe that’s smart urban infill, and we made a conscious decision as a company to do smart urban infill and not do these sprawling subdivisions because we wanted to be good stewards of the environment. One of the things I love about Holt Brothers is that we care about what we build. Right now, we’re working on the Southeast Raleigh YMCA and new [elementary] school. There’s going to be affordable housing there. It’s all about lifting people out of poverty and giving them exposure to recreation and education and housing security and stability.
LEIGH TAUSS: You’ve been criticized for being too pro-development, but the council’s majority is very pro-neighborhoods. Where do you see yourself in that dynamic? How can we promote affordable housing while still protecting neighborhoods?
I don’t know what “protecting neighborhoods” means. Because, my question is, what are we protecting them from? We have to ask ourselves, as a community, do we want to be inclusive of people, all people, all different kinds of people, or are we going to be exclusive? And I’m leaning more toward the inclusive camp. Because I really believe that housing choices and diversity are what make our neighborhoods interesting.
JCB: Every city is dealing with some version of an affordable housing crisis. What cities do you look at and say, “They’re handling this really well”?
The entire city council went to Seattle [in 2018] on a Chamber of Commerce intercity visit. And what I would say about Seattle is that they are starting to handle things well, but what they said to us was, “Do not do what we have done. Treat this with urgency, and do it now.” And when we came back from that trip, nothing. There was no sense of urgency. I felt the sense of urgency.
What [Seattle has] done, they now encourage ADUs. I think that’s a step in the right direction. Seattle also decided to move forward on inclusionary zoning. And that’s what most [Raleigh] city councilors gravitated toward. The fact is that we can’t do that here [because of state law].
After the recession, there are still a lot of people out there struggling, who can’t afford a home. There are people who own a home, who can’t afford to move up because what they can afford is now beyond their reach. One of the things we can do is build our transit corridors denser. And when I think about that, we had an opportunity on Hillsborough Street, which is one of the most transit-friendly streets in Raleigh. We limited height there to three stories. That doesn’t make any sense to me.
If I had my druthers, first off, the ADU ordinance [the council passed earlier this year] wouldn’t be the way it is. We would allow people to build [ADUs] by right. We would just put some good rules in place to make sure people weren’t abusing it, or that they were building appropriately. The reality is that [ADUs are] not going to solve our housing crisis. But it’s one of many things that we can do, and it’s not going to overpopulate our city or ruin neighborhoods.
LT: Could Raleigh emulate Durham and do a $95 million housing bond?
It’s all of the above. It’s changing our zoning laws and policies. Some on the council will argue, “Well, the zoning allows that.” Well, yeah, the zoning might, but our policies don’t. So if you have parking minimums, if you have minimum lot sizes—minimum lot sizes actually encourage people to build McMansions, which is what some of our councilors have said is their biggest issue. So we have policies in place that are actually encouraging what we don’t want.
“Nobody calls David Cox polarizing or Russ Stephenson polarizing or blunt or abrasive. I find it interesting that a woman can be labeled as such. I see myself as someone who has spoken her mind. I stand up for what I believe in, and if that makes me abrasive or polarizing, so be it.”
LT: How do you think you’re going to be able to pull the council together and move the city forward?
I think if we knew, we’d be doing it. Quite frankly, I think there needs to be some changes on the council.
LT: Why wasn’t McFarlane able to do it?
You know, that’s a really good question, because these were her friends. One of the saddest days that I’ve seen was that first council meeting [of the latest council, in December 2017], where her friends basically, through a show of force, said, “We’re going to have our way,” and overruled her committee assignments.
Nancy was a champion for Kay [Crowder]. She and her husband gave her a considerable amount of money—I think it was over $13,000 during her first campaign. She named her mayor pro tem. They sat next to each other; they were close. And she and Russ [Stephenson], over the course of Russ’s tenure on council, she contributed over $14,000 to his campaign. And Nancy got Dickie [Thompson] on the council. She was the one who really talked him into running and campaigned with him, and it was her old district. They were good friends; she’s good friends with his wife. She also was instrumental in getting Corey [Branch] elected.
So to me, there’s really no explanation. And I don’t get it—I mean, I don’t get it.
LT: Another big issue is diversity on the council. Just talking to the younger millennial slate that’s gearing up to run, a lot of them don’t feel represented.
The diversity piece is really important. We need to do a better job of cultivating young people, appointing them to boards and commissions, getting them involved in the process, encouraging them to be involved in nonprofits, just helping them get in leadership roles. I think that part of it is, as leaders, our role is to bring up new leadership.
But the other part of that is most people cannot afford to run for city council. Most employers don’t want their people to run for city council, because it does get nasty and you do get dragged through the mud. When I was working at Stewart, it was like, “She’s pro-development and blah blah blah.” The company takes some of that hit, so people don’t want their employees running. That is why you have people who are retired, wealthy, they own their own business—those are the people who can run for office. I’ve been fortunate in that the two employers I’ve had did encourage me to do this, but that’s not usually the case.
And then, you know, the salary. That’s one reason why we don’t have the diversity we need. Because the system isn’t set up for that. When I first ran for office, I was fifty, and that’s because I was now an empty-nester. When I was in my forties and thirties, and times when I was a single parent, well, now, you’re not thinking about that.
“Most people cannot afford to run for city council. Most employers don’t want their people to run for city council, because it does get nasty and you do get dragged through the mud. That is why you have people who are retired, wealthy, they own their own business—those are the people who can run for office.”
JCB: In 2017, Charles Francis did well with younger progressives who thought McFarlane had been too timid on big cultural issues compared with Durham. How do you reach out to them?
Durham’s got it going on. Every time I go to Durham, I’m like, wow, this is happening. And that is leadership, plain and simple. [Durham Mayor] Steve Schewel has thrown down the gauntlet, and he has got people supporting him and supporting moving forward on some very bold ideas, and that’s what I think leadership is. That’s what a mayor should be doing. You have a bully pulpit. You can have that voice—you can have that strong voice—and you can bring forward ideas. That’s what I think the role of the mayor should be.
JCB: Raleigh has been considering a civilian police oversight board, though there’s not a lot something like it could do under state law. As mayor, do you think an oversight board would be helpful? What other steps do you think the city should take to facilitate better relations between the police and the African-American community?
After the shooting of Akiel Denkins [in 2016], we did something called “community conversations,” where we went out to different areas of the community, and it was a listening session, really. When we do these types of things, people want to see what you did to respond to them. And that’s part of the missing piece. OK, we listened, but what did we learn and what did we do? We have an African-American woman who has strong relationships in the community who’s our police chief [Cassandra Deck-Brown]. We should be listening to her. What should we be doing to improve these relationships?
The other thing is, you get kids busted for a little bit of marijuana, where we’re sending people to jail for something that is legal in other parts of the country. Is that really how we should be policing? Are there ways that we can help kids, help young people, instead of just busting them? What are we doing to facilitate conversations in the community between the police? We have a great police department. At the same time, I know that there’s opportunity for improvement. Maybe the role of that civilian board really is as a facilitator.
JCB: So would you ask the police not to arrest people for possession?
That’s where I would need feedback from the police chief. How could we do this in a way that’s sensitive and isn’t …
Illegal. I’m trying to find that balance there. I’m not saying I have all the answers, but I can certainly raise the questions.
LT: The mayoral race of 2017, it got pretty ugly. How are you prepared to deal with that if this race gets really heated?
I’m hoping that we don’t go there.
JCB: I was going to say that it got ugly by Raleigh standards.
It was ugly, you’re right. It was ugly by Raleigh standards. One of the things I love about Raleigh—I moved here from New York. Moving down here, one of the things I love about it is people are nice. It’s almost like you move here and you become nicer.
It’s a different kind of feel to the city, and that divisiveness of the last campaign really left a lot of people shaken. I think people want people to be nice and work together. That’s what people are looking for. Now, it’s just name-calling. The fact is, when I first ran for city council, there wasn’t social media, but that didn’t stop people from saying whatever they thought. There was this anonymous blog called Below the Beltline, and I was just eviscerated there by anonymous attackers who had a lot to say but obviously wouldn’t say it to my face, and they were supporters of [the late council member] Thomas Crowder and Russ Stephenson. I often said that if had known it was gonna be like that, I don’t know that I would have run. But now I’ve had ten years to get used to it. I’ve taken the slings and the arrows—and the Drunktown ads.
JCB: What do you think of the way the city is being run? How do you think city manager Ruffin Hall is doing managing relationships between the council and staff?
I don’t think it’s going well. And I don’t think it’s the city manager’s fault. I am going to say it’s the city council’s fault, because they have interfered in staff work. We passed a code of conduct specifically to deal with these issues to ensure that the city council stayed in their lane and that the city council and the city manager ran the city with staff, but we have situations now where council members call staff directly, and they intimidate them. They basically threaten them.
I really feel that a majority of the city council has really overstepped their boundaries. They’ve gone over that line. And the only way to curb that is to actually put some teeth in the code of conduct or to actually call someone out for violations of the code of conduct.
LT: Why do you think some councilors are so interested in micromanaging staff?
They’re retired. They have nothing else to do.
JCB: Two or four years from now, if you’re elected, what does success look like?
Upward mobility in Southeast Raleigh and other neighborhoods that have been left out. If we can grow LaunchRALEIGH [a program to support entrepreneurs in Southeast Raleigh], and if we can grow [the Raleigh Pathways Center, a workforce-development program launched in 2017], if we can do that type of thing in workforce development and encouraging entrepreneurship, getting kids in coding school, teaching them these skills, exposing them to the possibilities—if we can do that, I will consider that a success.
If we can see progress with housing affordability and choices—and there are thirty-four hundred kids in Wake County who don’t have a stable place to sleep at night, and there are a thousand homeless people. How can you study and be successful in school if you don’t have a place to sleep? If you don’t have food? So the housing piece, having at least a plan in place where we are moving with urgency—if we can do that, I would consider that a success.
And I want to see some protected bike lanes.
JCB: Last question. In 2017, you gave a TEDx Talk in which you said that the advice you give people you mentor is essentially to ask for what you want. So, Mary-Ann Baldwin, what do you want?
Now I have to follow my own advice! You know, the reason I’m running is I want to make a difference. That’s what I want. I want to move our city forward, and I want the voters to have faith in me that I can do that and that I share a vision for a progressive city, an innovating city, and my favorite word is a compassionate city, because Raleigh is a compassionate city, and I don’t want to see us lose that. I want to be the mayor for all the right reasons, and that’s to make a difference. That’s what I want.
Listen to this entire conversation on INDYcast, available now on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or at soundcloud.com/indycast. The INDY has also invited Caroline Sullivan and Charle Francis to appear on the podcast.
Contact editor in chief Jeffrey C. Billman by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, by phone at 919-286-1972, or on Twitter @jeffreybillman. Contact staff writer Leigh Tauss by email at email@example.com, by phone at 919-832-8774, or on Twitter @leightauss.
She works for Holt Brothers, a large construction company. We don’t need another Mayor in the developer’s pocket.
Too old, Raleigh has had enough baby boomer leaders.
The level of cognitive dissonance at the INDY! MAB, a progressive? She was on council for 10 years. Literally all of the things you set up for her to respond to in a progressive manner here… she led Raleigh to these problems (fearlessly, I’ll give you that) over ten years on the council! You are bad at reporting. You know you can look up all of the council minutes and see exactly what she pushed, what she said, and maybe piece together how the council became “dysfunctional?” I’m sorry, it would take a bit of work and digging… like actual research which you seem resistant to.
I mean, did y’all call Hillary the progressive candidate in the 2016 primaries? Just because she maybe said she was in one random speech? Because fyi, there’s an actual progressive running for Mayor, and you would have thought INDY would want to plaster her face all over their papers – a young, progressive, outspoken muslim woman. But no, a 62 year old centrist loaded with developer cash is what will bring diversity to the council. I have to admit, INDY is incredibly bold for taking gaslighting to this level.
Mary-Ann Baldwin is to the Progressive Movement what Donald J. Trump is to the Conservative Movement. An Opportunist.
She has a spunky background and that is what is needed to leads Raleigh to the next level.
Mary-Ann Baldwin is to the Progressive Movement what Donald J. Trump is to the Conservative Movement. An Opportunist.
Comments are closed.