If you’re going to buy yourself another year in public office, it’s best not to do it in secret.
In June, Raleigh’s city council learned this the hard way, earning rebukes from Governor Roy Cooper, Wake County’s delegation in the state Senate, and plenty of pissed-off residents. But while it takes two (or in this case, seven city council members) to tango in a literal backroom deal, only one on the council is facing the consequences: Mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin, who’s the target of a recall effort led by the community activist group Livable Raleigh.
“We weighed all of it and decided we could not wait, we had to do it,” says Susan Maruyama, Livable Raleigh’s chair. “The decision to delay the election, some people interpreted it immediately as voter suppression. We felt we cannot sit by and let it happen. This will not go away.”
The group faces an uphill battle. By the end of October, a recall petition will have to receive 14,000 notarized signatures, or 25 percent of the total number of voters who turned out in the last municipal election in 2019, according to rules laid out in the city’s charter. A potential recall election would take place in January, after the holidays, according to Maruyama.
That’s not the only challenge. The charter has not been updated since the 1950s, so Livable Raleigh can’t use any digital tools to help it collect the signatures more quickly. A special election will be expensive—Wake County Board of Elections director Gary Sims says he couldn’t float a number since it’s all still hypothetical, but if an election were to happen this fall, it would cost between $700,000 to a million dollars. And there also could be issues with the recall election timeline, plus any runoff election that may need to happen, said Gerry Cohen in a separate conversation with the INDY. Cohen is an elections expert and member of the Wake elections board.
“[The city charter] worked in 1957, when Raleigh did not have absentee or early voting,” Cohen says. “Now, you need 30 days for absentee, and 17 of early voting. Some of it doesn’t work.”
Maruyama acknowledges these challenges and adds that candidate filing, voting by mail, and absentee voting, not addressed in the charter, will also have to be dealt with.
“The overall logistics are complicated,” she says, but adds that a coalition of organizations, including the Wake County Housing Justice Coalition, is interested in assisting with collecting signatures for the recall effort, and the Southern Coalition for Social Justice will work to amend and modernize Raleigh’s charter rules. Maruyama says she is optimistic that enough signatures will come in and a recall election will happen.
But, historically in the Triangle, attempts to recall local leaders have not been successful.
An effort by conservatives to recall Durham Mayor Wib Gulley in 1986, after he issued a proclamation designating an anti-discrimination week and endorsed the Triangle gay and lesbian pride march, failed to rack up enough signatures and Gulley won re-election the next year.
Another botched effort by conservatives came after Charles Meeker was elected mayor of Raleigh in 2001. Led by ousted mayor Paul Coble, the recall effort targeted Meeker based on a claim that he reneged on a promise to complete Raleigh’s Outer Loop. It’s unclear if there was ever a formal petition process. Meeker served as mayor until 2011.
Unlike with these attempts, though, there is a more diverse group working to recall Baldwin, including former council members and Livable Raleigh but also members of the city’s economically disadvantaged communities concerned about displacement and gentrification.
Then, there’s the question of who would run against Baldwin if a recall election were held. Maruyama mentions Terrance Ruth—an N.C. State lecturer and social justice advocate who is, so far, the only candidate who has committed to challenging Baldwin for the mayoral seat—but Maruyama says she has not spoken to Ruth about running in any special election.
Ruth declined to say whether he supports the recall effort, or whether he would run against Baldwin in a potential recall election.
“We’re ready for change,” Ruth wrote in an email to the INDY. “We’re ready for new leadership. I trust that our city will make the right choice regarding a recall. I am a candidate for Mayor because our city deserves a better leader. A more committed leader. And, a leader who puts our city’s interests first.”
All told, given the challenges in collecting signatures, working within the confines of the city’s charter, and potential interventions by the county and state elections boards, it’s hard not to see Livable Raleigh’s recall effort as a means of playing the long game, an attempt to tarnish Baldwin’s reputation, and the job she’s done as mayor, in the lead-up to November 2022.
The group, described by its critics as anti-development, has never been a fan of Baldwin and her pro-growth, developer-friendly agenda. But why not take the energy and resources involved in coordinating a special recall election and go hard after Baldwin next year, in a midterm election in which voter turnout could be as much as five times higher than in odd-year municipal races?
Maruyama says her group didn’t feel like it could wait.
“I am very concerned about protecting the vision for the city and I don’t think this council or mayor has a vision other than to approve development that she is connected to,” Maruyama says. “People see it and feel it and are affected by these decisions. There are a lot of angry neighborhoods.”
Baldwin herself doesn’t seem fazed. Recent financial reports for her reelection campaign show she’s banked nearly $300,000 since January. Last month, she told the INDY she’s in good company with mayors facing recalls, citing Meeker. And she emphasized the city’s No. 2 spot on the U.S. News & World Report’s list of best places to live in the country.
“Obviously,” she said, “we’re doing something right.”
When the INDY reached her for comment last week, she said she didn’t have anything else to add.
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