Caroline Sullivan describes herself as the world’s luckiest unlucky person.
In 2016, Sullivan was a member of the Wake County Board of Commissioners. After Democrats swept the board in 2014, the GOP-led General Assembly had overhauled how commissioners were elected, creating gerrymandered single-member districts and two “super districts,” one of which Sullivan ran for. But late in the election season, a court threw out the new districts and reinstated the old. Sullivan was essentially left without a race.
A few months later, another blow came. The day after Donald Trump’s election, Sullivan learned she had breast cancer. It was a long, hard-fought battle, and she still bears the scars, but she beat it.
Now, she’s ready for another fight.
In March, Sullivan—the executive director of the North Carolina Business Committee for Education, a nonprofit operating out of the governor’s office—announced that she’s running for mayor of Raleigh. She presents herself as a unifying force in a city polarized by issues of growth and neighborhood protection, and argues that she can push the city council to get out of the weeds and see the bigger picture.
The INDY spoke with Sullivan—one of four declared candidates for mayor; the others are former council member (and Sullivan’s friend) Mary-Ann Baldwin, Raleigh lawyer Charles Francis, and former council candidate Zainab Baloch—earlier this month about why she believes she’s the best person for the job.
This interview has been edited and condensed. Listen to the entire conversation—including more on Sullivan’s background and what drew her to politics—on INDYcast, which you can find on iTunes or Stitcher, or on Soundcloud.
INDY: You’ve been out of politics for a few years. Why get back in it now?
CAROLINE SULLIVAN: Sometimes, in life and in politics, it’s all about timing—the timing of what’s good for the city and also what’s good for the candidate. Personally, I am at a new juncture in my life. I will be an empty-nester. I’ve been focused on my kids for a while and now I’m ready to focus more holistically on the community and the city.
In the city, it’s a time of change and growth and the problems we’re facing are complex and need a collaborative approach to solve them both in the short term and the long term. And I’ve got a history and a track record of doing that. I’ve professionally worked in the federal system, federal government, the state government, the county government. I now work in a nonprofit where we have business leaders addressing educational issues. I’ve been on many boards that focus on everything from early intervention and mental health and child abuse to housing and health and patient care. So I think I’m able to synthesize the systems, the nonprofits in the community in a way that is helpful as we reach this point of the city.
We’ve heard that Mayor Nancy McFarlane asked you to run. She’s been frustrated with how things have been going on the council for a couple of months. Are there things that frustrate you about with the direction the city’s headed in?
Number one, especially in times of change and growth, you need to get out ahead with your vision—what’s the shared vision of the community and how do you bring people together to come up with this shared vision? Because then it’s easier to move forward with policies if we all know what we’re working toward. But also I think some of what is going on at the federal level and the state level is starting to bleed down into local politics, which is really unfortunate and unnecessary. These are not partisan boards. I am an eternal optimist, and I believe people are good. And I think that if we can figure out where each other are coming from, we can come up with a solution. I heard what Nancy was talking about [with] a “reset,” and I think things have gotten kind of toxic, and I don’t think they have to be.
There seems to be this ideological divide between people who want to preserve what they believe makes Raleigh a great place and people who want to embrace the city’s growth. Where do you see yourself?
Sometimes when there’s a time of great change, you want to try to keep everything the same, and that’s understandable. But the growth is going to happen. So we’ve got to figure out, as a community, how do we grow together forward and not leave people behind? And I think we need to have that conversation. A lot of these big, complex issues, we’ve been focusing on one or two little strategies, and you’ve got to have a lot of strategies all fired at the same time. But you’ve got to do it under this umbrella of a shared vision and path forward.
One big proposal is John Kane’s plan to build a forty-story tower, which wouldn’t border on any single-family neighborhoods. Is this how we need to build density downtown?
I think it’s a balance between neighbors that are there and where you’re building the density, but you’re [building] in places where there aren’t that many neighbors. We’ve got to have more density, and we have to have more stock. That’s part of the problem. There’s this supply-and-demand portion of this discussion to where we’re growing a lot, and there are not enough places for people to go. So density where it makes sense.
You’ve talked about providing opportunities and lifting up a diverse group of people. My question is, how are we able to combat gentrification in a way that also embraces the growth we’re seeing?
It’s hard. And it’s another [issue] that cities all over face. Where people want to live has changed. And the demographics of our city have also changed. Some of the people love it, and it’s less folks with two-point-five children who are going to public schools and want to live in the suburbs. And a lot of times, it’s more older people who don’t want houses or younger people who don’t want or can’t afford houses. But a lot of people want to live close to downtown. There is a generation coming up changing their relationship with the automobile, which is something we need to look at when we’re thinking about transit and roads in the future.
But when it comes to the changing of the cities, you have to go back to that comprehensive plan. That is one of the pieces of this complex issue and how can you try to protect what you have—you know, protect the stock that you have that’s affordable before it gets sold to something not affordable. And also, how can you engage with the community on strategies through different funding sources to try to protect people who need to sell, but might not want to sell to a developer who might put up something that’s substantially different than what is there now?
There’s also this piece of community. Is community the exact house where you live? Is community what things look like? Or is community who you are? And how do you build community in a different way? I am a firm believer that the path forward out of the issues Raleigh has—and let’s face it, this is a fantastic place—[is that we have] got to figure out, how do we bring it together and how do we do it as a community? We view each other not as neighbors and family, but as the other, and it’s dangerous. And a lot of the reason why we can view each other as an other is because we just don’t have the opportunity to know each other. That’s the kind of community that we’re also talking about.
Zoning questions are part of the bigger vision question. The council seems to play very close attention to a vocal minority, and council members are very hesitant to make anyone upset. Are you willing to make some of those hard choices?
Life is all about hard choices, but I think you need to bring everybody together. And I think when you have a real conversation that’s not coming from a place of animosity, but coming from a place of value, that we can all go forward as a community together. [The county’s transit initiative] didn’t make everybody [happy]. Nobody walked out of that transit process getting everything they wanted, but everybody walked out of it feeling heard and understanding what these choices were. When all of this energy is around housing, which is fantastic, we need to harness that—get leaders from the county and the city and nonprofits and developers and funders and all the banks, people who were all in this space can work on this together because it is not going away.
You served on Wake County Board of Commissioners from 2012 to 2016. What were your biggest achievements?
When I got elected—and this is the thing people need to understand: politicians will listen to you—a constituent I had never met before gave me a call, and she was a nurse and getting a graduate degree, but she also had a child with some significant health challenges. She was in Apex, where it was one nurse for two thousand eight hundred and fifty students, which is appalling. The General Assembly has never supported nurses in Wake. So I worked with the county staff and one of my Republican colleagues to get in the budget the first substantial expansion in the human services that we have had post-recession, adding ten nurses a year for four years. People in my kids’ schools and the teachers still say that’s the most impactful thing.
The second one I think is mental health. I was the point-person on mental health in the county. It’s a complex issue. We launched the Wake Network of Care. It’s a one-stop shop for human services and support, and it’s got a great mental health library and all of the crisis lines. And we funded a position to keep that up.
I had another constituent who wanted to talk about the gender gap, which it turns out in Wake County is worse than the gender gap nationally. And when the constituent came to talk to me, I did some research and decided we needed to look into it. We had a task force where we had great leaders work together for nine months on recommendations on how to address this gender gap. We decided to form a collective impact model called Wake Invests in Women, and I still serve on that advisory board. This is important not just for the equality piece of it. It’s important because we need everybody in this community work to their greatest abilities because we need to grow a talent pipeline in the city.
So 2016 was a tough year for you. First, you were essentially prevented from running for reelection. And then, the day after Trump was elected president, you got some pretty devastating news.
Yes. I was diagnosed with breast cancer the day after the election. It’s just the whole world falling apart for Caroline that day. I’m pretty tough, so I’ve never, you know, I’m not wanting to feel sorry for myself and I’m one to just think—what do we need to do? I just moved forward with the surgery and, you know, what kind of treatment we needed to to do. Just the timing was really interesting and ironic. But I’m lucky. I’m a very lucky unlucky person. I had good insurance and great doctors and we have good hospitals and lots of support and fantastic family and friends. Cancer’s a journey. I think, at the end of the day, if you’re lucky enough to have all of these supports, it’ll make you strong.
How do you think cancer changed your approach to politics?
You have a different view of what’s important and time. I’m less likely to get upset about personal slights, and I’m less likely to want to spend my time being spiteful or vengeful or any of those things. I never really was much of that anyway. But I think life’s a gift and, you know, none of us have unlimited amounts of time. And if you view how lucky we are, and if you have the gift to be able to have time and the experience and the ability to try to make things better for people, you should.
So this lets you put aside the pettiness that comes with politics.
I’m not gonna fall into any sort of a toxic trap. It’s unnecessary and unhelpful. I’m trying to talk to everybody. I think one of the things that the mayor can do to try to bring the council together is to understand where everybody’s coming from and what is important to their district and what their district needs, but also being able to take the long view of the city and how does that all fit together.
There are other people in this race who’ve had experience on the city council. What makes you the best person to lead the city in 2020?
My skill set and how I approach government and challenges is the right fit for right now. I’m not running against anybody. I’m running for what I think I can do to help my community. I think it’s great so many people are running, actually. But I think at this time, the city needs somebody who has experience and a track record of taking on complex problems and finding ways to address them holistically, systematically, and having people be a part of it.
And that person’s you?
That’s what I think.
Contact staff writer Leigh Tauss at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Seriously anyone talking about gentrification that doesn’t talk about rent control isn’t even remotely concerned enough to stop it. Can we get a serious candidate to discuss this? Otherwise we’re going to be drowning in tech bros and their families and Raleigh will be any other town.
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