For Jovita Simons, Fuquay-Varina is a place she’s been connected to her whole life.
Simons grew up visiting her grandparents in town and she’s a resident of more than 20 years, living in a home right behind where her grandmother’s house once stood. She’s seen Fuquay grow from the small town it used to be to a more booming one with a population of nearly 44,000.
Simons has actively attended Fuquay-Varina town commissioners’ meetings, voted, and advocated for underrepresented groups and marginalized communities. She’s been disappointed in recent years, she says, to see the board’s seeming reluctance to take steps to address inequities in a system that seems stacked against the communities she advocates for.
“The board of commissioners is here to serve the people of Fuquay, to make sure our infrastructure and systems are running and that we are advancing this town,” Simons says. “It has gone far beyond that. It has become very political, gone away from servitude. People are coming with their own agendas, and it’s sad.”
Early voting started October 19 for voters in Fuquay-Varina and its neighbor to the north, Holly Springs.
In Fuquay-Varina, three seats on the town’s Board of Commissioners are up for grabs, plus the mayor’s seat. Two incumbents—Marilyn Gardner and Bill Harris—are running for reelection. Two candidates who have previously served on the board—Charlie Adcock and Jason Wunsch—are also running. And three newcomers—Mike Ferig, Nolan Perry, and Elizabeth Parent—are running for seats. Incumbent mayor Blake Massengill is running unopposed.
In Holly Springs, three seats on the town’s council are open, and nine candidates are running to fill them. Appointed incumbent Danielle Hewetson and newcomers Jack Turnwald, Brian Dennis, Staci Almquist, and Chris Deshazor are running for two open seats with four-year terms. And candidates Annie Drees, Scoop Green, Travis Groo, and Brian Norman are running for a seat with a two-year term. Mayor Sean Mayefskie’s term does not end until 2025.
In the months leading up to these local elections, both towns have faced controversy for their town leaders’ decisions on various issues ranging from government accountability and the lack of progress on securing affordable housing in Fuquay-Varina to the town’s treatment of LGBTQ+ residents in Holly Springs. While the towns have traditionally been a conservative holdout in a county that’s overall more liberal, those dynamics are changing as the towns grow, and many residents and activists hope that this election cycle will usher in new, progressive leaders on these towns’ governing boards.
Fuquay-Varina: A jettisoned cultural assessment, a dearth of affordable housing
In Fuquay-Varina, some residents’ dissatisfaction with the town leadership extends back several years, to before the last municipal election in 2021.
Following the murder of George Floyd in 2020, and an incident in the town in January 2021 where police handcuffed and detained a teenager, Malcolm Ziglar, outside his home for “stealing” a dirt bike he had bought, residents launched a petition calling on town leaders to engage a third party to conduct a cultural assessment of the municipal government.
The purpose of the cultural assessment, the petition states, was to “create an organizational structure and develop a network of individuals that will advocate for opportunities to empower Black Americans socially, politically, and economically in Fuquay-Varina.”
The petition was addressed to then-Mayor John Byrne who had served in the mayor’s seat for 20 years and announced in July 2021 that he wouldn’t seek reelection. In June, July, and August of that year, residents regularly spoke at town council meetings pushing for the town to undertake the cultural assessment, or at least to take it under discussion.
But the board, under Byrne’s leadership, didn’t take any action on the call for a cultural assessment. And after he announced his retirement, Byrne publicly endorsed then-commissioner Blake Massengill to succeed him as mayor in the race against another commissioner, Bill Harris, who is Black, and the only council member to publicly support the cultural assessment.
This rubbed some residents the wrong way.
“I said, ‘Well, so much for the electoral process,’” says Simons. She recalls the summer of 2021 as “a very tense time.”
“Mayor Byrne didn’t want to touch it, that much was clear,” Simons said of the cultural assessment. “There’s a lot of backdoor politics. Mayor Byrne came from the school of the old boys club, old boys network. It’s alive and strong here in Fuquay. He nor [Massengill] want the cradle robbed.”
Byrne defends his decision to endorse Massengill, who he says is “a fine young man.” Massengill, whose family started a design-build company in Fuquay-Varina that he now leads, served as mayor pro tem under Byrne for six years.
“[Massengill] wanted to do the job,” Byrne says. “Other people want the role and they act like they want to do the job, but they’re not doing it, they haven’t proven themselves. They may have been in government for a long time, but you got to want to do it. You gotta be willing to do more than your part when you’re the mayor. … I wanted somebody that was gung-ho.”
After Massengill won the mayoral election by 531 votes, one of the first moves of the new board of commissioners was to jettison the cultural assessment. At a March 7 commissioners meeting, Massengill said that board members had discussed the idea of a cultural assessment at its recent retreat but ultimately decided, unanimously, not to move forward with it.
“The town board had spent significant time having open extra dialogue regarding a cultural assessment,” Massengill said at the meeting. “The conversation was positive and I believe each member was given an opportunity to speak from their mind and their heart.”
Massengill added that the town will “continue to focus efforts on being an inclusive organization that is built on the principles of diversity, fairness, and professionalism.”
Simons was disappointed with the town’s decision not to pursue the cultural assessment.
“It was a long hard battle, and it was all in an effort to say, to recognize, and to understand that this country was built on racist, capitalistic ideals,” Simons says. “…We [were asking the town to look at its individual departments] and try to get the temper of what’s going on.”
Qisoundra Flowers, a Fuquay resident since 2013 and chair of the town’s nonprofit Cultural Arts Society, has organized a Juneteenth event at the Fuquay-Varina Arts Center for the past two years. She says she thinks some town leaders took the narrative around the cultural assessment and made it seem like it was targeting the town’s police force.
“In fact, we wanted a town-wide assessment because it would help everybody, not just African Americans, but small business owners, women, other minorities, individuals with disabilities,” Flowers says. ”It would have been able to see where there were gaps … but it didn’t happen.”
Still, when it came time for candidates to file for office, no one put their name in the ring to challenge Massengill. Flowers says she’s disappointed, but not surprised that no one challenged the mayor this year.
“From my interactions and conversations with some community members, they … wanted something different,” Flowers says. “It’s nothing personal against [the mayor], but for the sake of democracy … I am of the belief that it’s always good to have multiple candidates running.”
Massengill declined to be interviewed for this story and did not respond to a list of detailed questions.
Even though there likely won’t be a change of leadership at the top of the ticket this election cycle, residents still see an opportunity to elect more progressive candidates to the town commission. Issues like affordable housing and managing growth—Fuquay-Varina is projected to be the third-largest municipality in Wake County by 2050—are top of voters’ minds, as elsewhere in Wake County.
“This is a beautiful town, it is a beautiful place, but there are many people here that could be doing better, should be doing better,” Simons says. “My question is, what is the town doing to help? Where is the workforce housing? … Where and when are you accommodating for those that may not be fortunate enough to afford certain types of living? They are here, they are still here! You can’t hide them. I just wonder about that.”
Residents Kirsten Starr and Emily Holloway say that while affordable housing is a priority for residents like them, members of the board of commissioners have seemed more interested in making sure those involved in driving the town’s growth are reaping the benefits of town business.
“It’s almost like this refusal to talk about affordable housing,” says Starr. “The conversation is immediately just tilted or turned somewhere else.”
Holloway notes the number of commissioners connected with the real estate industry who have held seats on the board in recent years.
“The money goes where they want it to go,” Holloway says. “I hear this from a lot of people, it’s like, ‘We got a developer on the board, we got a realtor on the board,’ we’ve got all these people who want to grow Fuquay. Meanwhile, the traffic is horrendous. I’ve always felt like, why wasn’t the infrastructure put in place before the building was allowed? But then they always say we gotta have the builders to pay for the infrastructure.”
Holloway says she doesn’t understand why there’s no committee on the board of commissioners that is dedicated to securing more affordable housing.
Elizabeth Parent, who moved to North Carolina with her family from Washington state in 2018, is running a campaign focused on ways to diversify housing options in order to combat the town’s affordability crisis. She says her family struggled to find a house to buy in Fuquay-Varina, and that she hears the same thing from residents.
“Gentrification is well underway,” Parent says.
Parent’s platform advocates for the town to study and adopt a housing affordability plan, update the town’s ordinances to allow residential accessory dwelling units (ADUs) to be used as permanent residential tiny homes, support local land trusts, and incentivize employer-assisted housing programs. Her platform also includes advocating for infrastructure advancements and leading with a mindset for smart growth.
“Now is the time to implement some of these proactive measures and policies to manage the population growth we’re experiencing,” Parent says. “I’m excited to be a part of that and to serve people in a more official capacity.”
Pride in Holly Springs
The Holly Springs town council has faced criticism from the community in the last two years over the way it’s perceived to treat the town’s LGBTQ+ residents.
In 2021, Wake County adopted a nondiscrimination ordinance that applies to unincorporated parts of the county, and most Wake municipalities adopted the ordinance as well. The ordinance provides explicit protections for LGBTQ+ residents by prohibiting discrimination on the basis of gender identity, sexual orientation, and several other factors.
But last year, Holly Springs refused to adopt the nondiscrimination ordinance alongside the other towns. And despite residents continuing to push for the town to do so through this summer, it still would not.
In June, the town’s leadership made things worse when it issued a Pride Proclamation that failed to even make mention of the LGBTQ+ community.
“This was always intended as a celebration of inclusion, a statement against discrimination,” said Holly Springs Mayor Sean Mayefskie in a statement at the time. “It’s a great first step. My door is always open to residents who want to have a dialogue about any issue.”
The election cycle has only brought more controversy.
Partly in response to the town’s treatment of LGBTQ+ residents, Jack Turnwald, a local activist, former educator, and trans non-binary person who uses they/them pronouns, decided to run for a seat on the town council.
Turnwald wants to see a change on the governing board, which is currently composed of five Republicans and one Democrat (though it is ostensibly nonpartisan). But it’s not just anti-LGBTQ sentiment that has them concerned as the Wake County town grows.
“I just started to see where I’d like to be able to be a part of a solution,” Turnwald says. “I see a lot of the things happening on council right now … being rejected out of hand instead of looked at with an equity lens. I think that equity lens would do a great deal to move Holly Springs in a more positive direction.”
In August, the Wake County Republican party sent out an invitation to a campaign event for three Holly Springs candidates for council: Brian Norman, Brian Dennis, and Daneille Hewetson. All three candidates are registered Republicans.
But the invitation also targeted Turnwald.
“This is the first time there is a nonbinary running for town council in Holly Springs,” wrote Oksana Sharapova, the Holly Springs area chair of the Wake GOP, according to reporting from the News & Observer. “This concerns me because the town’s politics and policies will be about advancing the ideologies of a small minority.”
The GOP followed up with a newsletter to voters stating that Democrats in Wake County are supporting Turnwald because they “represent the policies and agenda” that Democrats want to see everywhere.
Turnwald says they have since had to protect themself more while campaigning.
“I find it disappointing when the rhetoric sinks to stoking hate and fear around candidates,” Turnwald said in a text message to the INDY. “What voters need and deserve is information on how candidates will address town issues and that is what I will continue to provide.”
Turnwald says their home has been vandalized since the flier was circulated. They say another flier that was mailed out recently also targeted progressive campaigns including theirs and those of two others running for the council, Annie Drees and Chris Deshazor.
“Give yourself a TREAT and vote Republican!,” the flier states. A Halloween-themed graphic with the photos of the candidates follows, and the flier says, “This Halloween, don’t get TRICKED (by the Democrats).”
Ren Shore, a Holly Springs resident since 2013, and former host of the Holly Springs Deep Dive Podcast, says the current town council feels more partisan to her than ever before, especially in regard to this summer’s Pride Month Proclamation.
“I was very disappointed,” Shore says. “I think I’m more disappointed this year than I was last year when the mayor didn’t do it [issue a Pride proclamation] at all, because I could chalk that up to ignorance about his constituency here, ignorance about statistics, about what percentage of the population identifies on the LGBTQIA+ spectrum.”
Council member Aaron Wolff, the council’s lone Democrat who is not running for reelection to his seat, says he has become disenchanted with local politics due to the way it has become partisan in a way he had never experienced before.
“The thing I would tell voters is that you gotta pay attention,” he says. “There’s nothing that’s going to affect your life more than this town council election.”
Of his tenure on the council, Wolff spoke to the difficulties and frustrations he had coming to an agreement with other council members.
“The last two years have been incredibly frustrating, it’s part of the reason I’m stepping aside,” he says. “I got tired of arguing, I got tired of scratching and clawing for the smallest little bits of victory. It’s morally defeating. But, I’m glad I’ve been able to do it because without me there, there would’ve been no voice. These things would’ve been happening without anybody knowing, without anybody standing up for the people who are getting hurt by these decisions.”
Wolff is happy to see progressive candidates running for council, including Turnwald, Drees, and Deshazor.
Despite the hardships, Wolff says he is proud of what he’s accomplished and is hopeful for the future of the town’s leadership.
“It is possible to be effective as a liberal in the minority,” Wolff says. “You just have to be creative about it and patient. There’s a long way to go. To be a highly effective council, there needs to be a level of cooperation, a level of mutual understanding that is [currently] not there. We need individuals who are willing to function in a different way, and I hope that that’s what we are going to get.”
Turnwald shares Wolff’s perspective and hopes for the election outcomes next week.
“I am proud of the campaign we’ve run,” they say. “By showing up authentically, focusing on meaningful local issues, and centering people’s humanity we have invited others to do the same. We have ultimately reminded people that government at every level can and should be community-driven.”
The final day of early voting and voter registration in Wake County is Saturday, November 4. Election Day is November 7. Election information, early voting sites, voter registration information, polling places, and more can be found here.
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