Raleigh’s mayor isn’t just a figurehead at civic ceremonies. She—or, depending on how things shake out next week, he—is the leader of a city council that decides how to spend nearly half a billion taxpayer dollars a year.
Those council members came to power in a 2015 election that brought out fewer than five thousand votes in one council district. Only 36,172 ballots put incumbent Mayor Nancy McFarlane in office for a third term.
In the municipal elections on October 10, McFarlane is bidding to remain in office for a fourth term, partly on the strength of general contentment with the city’s direction, at least based on a community survey that showed that more than 90 percent of Raleigh residents were mostly or very happy with the state of things.
Opponent Charles Francis, a Raleigh native and lawyer, doesn’t buy that most of Raleigh is satisfied with its government. He says the mayor is aloof, and Raleigh can do better. And he thinks increased turnout will help him overcome the mayor’s popularity.
The party lines in this contest are complicated. Although McFarlane is backed by many prominent Democrats, the mayor is unaffiliated, part of a category of voters that outnumbers Republicans in Wake County. Francis, meanwhile, is a Democrat and has gained the endorsement of the county Democratic Party, which previously backed McFarlane. The race is officially nonpartisan, and it’s not clear that party endorsement will matter much.
The race heated up this week, with both major candidates announcing increased war chests and spending. A victory for Francis would not only be a big upset—an incumbent mayor in Raleigh hasn’t lost reelection since 2001, when Charles Meeker defeated Paul Coble—but would also mark something of a sea change in the normally steady Raleigh politics.
Here, in the INDY‘s last issue before the election, we profile the two leading candidates, an effort to give voters some last-minute insight on the two people who might lead the city for at least the next two years.
Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane says she’s all about being a grandma these days. That’s the reason the mayor often appears in public with her young granddaughter on her hip.
But that only scratches the surface. McFarlane is the kind of grandmother with enough savvy about finance to found the specialty pharmacy company MedPro Rx, which she and her husband sold to Diplomat Pharmacy Inc. for $52 million in 2014, according to Securities and Exchange Commission documents. (Before the company was sold, the McFarlanes gave nearly 20 percent of their stock to their employees, McFarlane says.)
The mayor’s business acumen was key to pulling off Raleigh’s purchase of the former Dorothea Dix Hospital property through negotiations with two governors, two Councils of State, and the General Assembly.
“I don’t think anybody has any idea what I did to get that park,” says McFarlane, sixty-one. “They don’t need to know.”
During an interview at a downtown coffee bar, McFarlane showed elements of both the hard-edged city leader and the self-described homebody. She’s been knocked—especially by opponent Charles Francis—for being distant and hard to get along with, but she says those views don’t reflect who she really is.
“I will talk to anybody,” McFarlane says. “A lot of people have a very different conception of me. Once they meet me, they’re surprised.”
Laughing, she adds: “A friend said she was going to get me a T-shirt that says, ‘I’m not a bitch, I’m just shy.’”
Voters’ impressions of McFarlane’s sometimes inscrutable demeanor and of Raleigh’s overall direction will emerge in next week’s municipal elections. Francis, whose short fill-in stint on the city council in 1993 comprises his background in political office, launched his bid in July, proclaiming that, for all its high rankings in national and local surveys, Raleigh can do better. He quickly criticized McFarlane as being disconnected from the realities many of Raleigh’s citizens face.
McFarlane hesitated to respond sharply. “It’s more my style to keep things positive and talk about the things I’ve done and about what’s going right and things that could get better,” she says.
Among the things McFarlane says the city has done right are the purchase of the Dorothea Dix property and the planning for its future, start-up work on the downtown Union Station transportation hub, attracting hundreds of millions of dollars in new business investment, and the tax increase that provides upward of $5 million a year for affordable housing.
Francis has countered that those sky-high approval ratings are misleading and not reflective of all residents’ situations. The city is too sluggish, he adds, and McFarlane should run things more efficiently to get results more quickly.
City council member David Cox has clashed with McFarlane on occasion, but he says relationships on the council don’t interfere with business getting done. “Eventually issues come up and we vote on them,” says Cox, who thinks either Francis or McFarlane would make a fine mayor. “It’s not like we can’t get things done.”
Nancy Louise McFarlane was born in Washington, D.C., and raised in nearby Arlington. Her father was a credit manager and her mother was a nurse.
“You would get like three pairs of shoes: schools shoes, play shoes, and church shoes,” she says. “Once you got to be fourteen, if you wanted something else, you’d go out and work for it. So, I’ve never been poor, but I don’t think you have to be a certain way to empathize with certain people.”
McFarlane met her husband, Ron, at Virginia Commonwealth University, where they were pharmacy students. They moved to Raleigh in the 1980s and had three children. She worked as a pharmacist until 2002, and then started MedPro Rx, a specialty pharmacy company that works with high-need patients such as hemophiliacs. (Ron joined the company later.) MedPro Rx started small, she says.
“We started it with a second [mortgage] on the house,” she says. “We were at a point where I was doing payroll and all the bills, and you sit in front of your computer and you have all your bills, and all that stuff you have to pay, and your employees that you have to pay, and [think], ‘What can I extend, or not pay for ten days, and still get the drug supply I need?’”
The company may have started small, but it got big quickly. Managing that transition, she says, helped her prepare for overseeing city government. She developed the ability to knock heads during negotiations.
“You think I didn’t do that as a business?” she says. “You think I didn’t do that with insurance companies?”
In addition to learning to function as an executive and reading a balance sheet, McFarlane says she also learned what it means to have a marked effect on others.
“You know your primary responsibility is your employees, and you know them all because it’s a small company and you all get together and do stuff,” she says. “That’s kind of how I see the city. My primary responsibility is the people and their lives. I’m the one who says a lot of times, ‘Who pays for this again?’ Who asks, ‘What’s the long-term cost of this?’”
While getting the company rolling, the couple was also raising their three children. McFarlane immersed herself in PTA and school volunteer activities, and took a prominent role in her neighborhood’s homeowner’s association. By 2007, she’d turned her attention to municipal politics. She sought—and won—a district seat on the city council.
After two terms, the outgoing Mayor Charles Meeker urged her to seek the next level.
“He was not going to run for mayor again and he said to me, ‘You need to think about running,’” she says. “I said, ‘No, no, no, no.”
Despite her initial hesitance to seek the high-profile office, McFarlane took the plunge and ended up winning easily, pulling 61 percent of the vote against two Republican challengers. That year—and in her subsequent bids in 2013 and 2015—McFarlane won the endorsement of the Wake County Democratic Party and received overwhelming Democratic support.
The partisan politics of this year’s race have proven more complicated. McFarlane refers to her positions as progressive, but she lost the endorsement of the Wake Democratic Party to Francis. That endorsement of Francis in this election season made sense—parties tend to support their members over outsiders—but it came as a surprise to many of McFarlane’s followers.
“Their biggest question always is, ‘Why’d they do that?’” she says. “I’m still working on the same progressive issues and ideals. Why would they do that? We’ve had a lot of feedback from Democrats that are not happy about it because they’ve always supported me and didn’t feel it was right to do that. I’ve had Democrats who are torn because they have the party telling them one thing, but their experience is telling them something else.”
She did garner the backing of one Democratic heavy hitter—former governor Jim Hunt, one of the most popular politicians in North Carolina. Considering that Francis has billed himself as a “Jim Hunt Democrat,” this was something of a coup.
A frequent critique McFarlane faces is that the city doesn’t move projects along fast enough.
The effort to improve downtown’s Moore Square is supposed to start this fall after a master plan was completed in 2011 and the council passed funding in 2014. In addition, the council has spent years trying to come up with regulations for short-term residential rentals.
That’s government, McFarlane says, noting that a Republican-led Wake County Commission held back Raleigh’s progress on mass transit issues for years during the 1990s.
Another criticism that Francis’s campaign literature hits on: too many people in Raleigh have been shut out of decisions at City Hall.
Says McFarlane: “In a campaign, it’s really easy to pull out one issue and say, ‘You’re not doing enough for affordable housing,’ or, ‘You shouldn’t be spending money on bike lanes,’ or, ‘You shouldn’t be doing this.’ But it’s so complex. I got asked in a forum, If you had a certain amount of money, would you build a park or affordable housing?”
She thinks that’s a false choice. Many decisions about the future of the city aren’t up-or-down or either-or. Whether for her or for Francis, the next term will be filled with intense discussions about what Dix Park will look like, about how to spread the boom-generated wealth to more citizens of Raleigh and more parts of town, about the best way to stretch affordable housing dollars, about whether there’s really any realistic way to get a grip on growth and traffic.
“We’re really successful because we’ve done a really good job of making this a place that people want to live,” she says. “Is it perfect? No. Could it get better? Yes. It’s always something.”
Charles Francis is in it to win it.
Francis, a fifty-four-year-old banker and attorney, entered the Raleigh mayoral race in July to challenge incumbent Nancy McFarlane. A Raleigh native who previously did a brief stint on the city council, Francis says he’s not merely testing the waters for a bid in 2019, as some observers have speculated.
“That’s wrong,” Francis says during an interview in his Raleigh law office. “The needs that we have in Raleigh can’t wait two more years. They need to be addressed now. The idea up under that is part of the complacency and self-satisfaction that is keeping us from being a great city. Raleigh’s a good city, but it’s not a great city yet.”
McFarlane, who’s seeking a fourth term, and others have cited a survey by a Kansas-based firm that showed more than nine of ten residents were satisfied with life in Raleigh. Francis, however, says the mayor doesn’t deserve credit for the city’s growth or national reputation.
“The tide is high because everybody’s moving here,” he argues. “The reason people are moving here is because of cheaper prices than New York and California, the warm weather, and enjoying the family.”
McFarlane’s politically unaffiliated status creates a conundrum for some longtime Democrats who previously supported her. However, several former and current Democratic officials have endorsed her, including former Raleigh mayor Charles Meeker and state attorney general Josh Stein.
“What I really think is that those people are a very, very small minority of people and much smaller than they think,” Francis says. “They all just talk to each other.”
(After this interview was conducted, former governor Jim Hunt endorsed McFarlane. Francis did not return a call seeking comment on Hunt’s decision.)
“I am the only Democrat in the race,” Francis says. “McFarlane is an unaffiliated voter who masquerades as a Democrat when she thinks it will benefit her.”
North Carolina voters who are unaffiliated can vote in the primary of any recognized party. In primaries since 1994, McFarlane has voted in Democratic primaries ten times, in Republican primaries twice, and in nonpartisan primaries twice, state records show.
Charles T. Francis was raised in southeast Raleigh in a family that has deep roots in local politics. His grandfather was one of Raleigh’s first black mail carriers and later founded the Swain-Irving printing company. He attended local public schools before earning an undergraduate degree at Princeton University and a law degree
“My aunt Vivian [Irving] helped found Wake County Democratic Women,” he says. “She was a registrar for thirty years for the Wake County Board of Elections.”
Francis recalls interning for U.S. Representative Ike Andrews, a North Carolina Democrat, and making a campaign contribution to Charlotte mayor Harvey Gantt’s unsuccessful bid to unseat Senator Jesse Helms in 1990.
“My wife and I were enthusiastic early supporters of Barack Obama,” Francis says, again stressing his Democratic bona fides.
After working as a federal prosecutor in Atlanta, Francis returned to Raleigh and started his law practice in 1994. In 2002, he won a $19 million medical-malpractice settlement for a woman in Chicago. Another signature case was a nine-year fight with the state of North Carolina over undeveloped beach land with a tangled history of inheritance and conflict. That litigation ended with a 2015 settlement in which two plaintiffs represented by Francis received more than $10 million and the state added acreage to Hammocks Beach State Park.
In addition to maintaining his law practice and serving on several nonprofit boards, Francis became a founding director of North State Bank.
His work in law and finance should help him deal with Raleigh problems such as affordable housing, Francis says. He calls the property tax increase passed by a McFarlane-led city council earlier this year “too little, too late, and the wrong approach.”
“It’s too little because it doesn’t even replace the units that are being lost in places like the Sir Walter Hotel and Wintershaven,” he says, referring to subsidized housing for seniors. “It’s the wrong approach because the property tax is regressive. In part you are taxing low-income, housing-rich seniors to pay for affordable housing for other people who are low-income. That’s not the right way to do it. There are other ways that are much more effective that would put many more units on the ground, preserve more units, and produce much more equity.”
Raleigh should aggressively pursue approaches such as low-income housing tax-credit financing for affordable housing, he says. The federally backed program gives tax incentives to landlords or investors to buy or develop affordable housing, in return for promises to keep them available to low-income tenants for a certain number of years.
During the early days of his campaign, Francis called McFarlane “aloof” and not fully connected to constituents and even to members of the city council.
“You can’t lead people if you don’t engage them, and this mayor is not even engaging the other members of her own council,” he says.
He says he’s heard that the mayor doesn’t get along with other council members, particularly David Cox and Mary-Ann Baldwin, and that those bad relationships get in the way. .
But council members—even those, like Baldwin, who have been on opposite sides of many issues from McFarlane—say that’s not really the case. While council members disagree at meetings, that doesn’t interfere with how the council functions.
One controversy promises to linger.
McFarlane initially backed a proposal for a new community engagement board that members of Raleigh’s longstanding citizen advisory councils took
The new board will be subject to a long gestation period, but Francis raises it as an example of McFarlane’s lack of involvement with the broader community.
“She’s not talking with the neighborhood people, hence the CAC debacle,” he says.
According to Francis, McFarlane’s involvement in the development of the Dorothea Dix campus as a city park has left her little energy for other sections of the parks system: “If you go and look at some of those parks in southeast Raleigh, it shows that the city is failing in applying equity tests in the way they are allocating resources,” he says. “I will engage people all over because I am comfortable and effective with people from all walks of life.”
Because of McFarlane’s longstanding appeal to voters, her challenger’s effort might be considered a long shot. But Francis says he sees a path to the mayor’s office. It involves reaching to several specific groups of voters that include people of color (“We are working hard to increase the turnout, not just with black people, but with Latino people, Muslim people, with Asian people, with South Asian people, with all the others that are part of the new Raleigh”); young people (“When went to N.C. State to speak the other day, sixty college Dems came to hear me speak; thirty signed up as volunteers”); and irregular voters (“There are three hundred and two thousand voters in Raleigh; only about forty thousand regularly take part in city races”).
In the home stretch, both McFarlane and Francis are hitting multiple events a day. Francis’s primary task is to attract current and especially new voters with his promises to listen to the needs of people from all over town, get the city’s work done more efficiently, and speed up the pace of providing mass transit and affordable housing.
“There are a lot of reasons people don’t vote,” he says. “One of them is that they haven’t been excited or enthused by the choices of this mayor. We’re giving them a reason to come vote.”