Five weeks away from a self-imposed deadline, a group of neighborhood activists only have about 11 percent of the signatures needed to trigger a recall election against Raleigh Mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin. As the days and weeks slip by, it’s looking more likely that this effort, like those in years past, will die not with a bang, but a whimper.
The campaign to oust Baldwin began this summer by Livable Raleigh, a local activist group critical of the mayor’s lack of community engagement and developer-friendly agenda. The straw that broke the camel’s back, however, was the city council’s decision to push elections back from next month to November 2022, buying officials an extra year in office.
Successful recall efforts are often defined by a single unpopular policy decision, and the decision to postpone Raleigh elections was almost universally unpopular. Not only did the council make the dubious choice to push the election, but it did so in secret, earning censure from Governor Roy Cooper, Wake County’s delegation in the state Senate, and hundreds of angry voters.
It was the kind of decision that earns condemnation from people on the left and right—a key element to a successful recall, says Mac McCorkle, a professor at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy.
When it comes to removing someone from office, it’s not enough to disagree with their platform, McCorkle told the INDY. The few officials who have been recalled are often perceived as betraying those who elected them.
“It has to be a high crime, to say you’re gonna throw somebody out,” McCorkle says. “There has to be a really clear, compelling case like you aren’t who you said you were, or you simply can’t govern. As a consultant, I would find that a hard case to make.”
Baldwin has made the case easier to argue. The fact that Raleigh didn’t hold open meetings or listen to residents’ opinions on the election timing is “galling,” said Bob Hall, co-founder of the good-government group Democracy NC, during a Livable Raleigh event.
“It was just a con job to say that they had to postpone the election in the manner that they did,” Hall said. “Respect is at the core of democracy. To not respect your citizens, and to not bring them in and ask them and talk to them about such a major policy decision, is deplorable.”
It’s clear people are angry—but it likely won’t be enough to bring down Baldwin.
Since August, some 1,500 people have signed the recall petition. According to the city’s charter, Livable Raleigh needs 14,000 notarized signatures, 25 percent of the total number of voters who turned out in the last municipal election in 2019. The group has set an October 31 deadline to collect signatures.
Although Livable Raleigh chair Susan Maruyama remains optimistic about the chances of earning a recall election in January, she admits the campaign faces challenges.
“What we’re doing in Raleigh is difficult because it’s never been done,” Maruyama says. “It’s daunting.”
Like many cities across the state, Raleigh has high standards for removing lawfully elected officials based on political disagreement. One of the biggest obstacles is the city’s “antiquated laws,” which don’t allow the use of any digital tools to collect signatures, says Maruyama.
“We’re required to conduct this recall campaign according to the 1954 city charter rules,” she says. “It’s like being shot back in time. We cannot use any technology to help us, so everything is personal interaction.”
The coronavirus pandemic creates an additional obstacle since many people are reluctant to join large gatherings. Maruyama and other volunteers have been holding outdoor signing events, but even with safety precautions, “people don’t really want to get together,” she says.
Many recall efforts fizzle because of a lack of organization and funding, causing petitioners to fall short of the number of signatures required to force an election. In 1968, for example, an effort by conservatives to recall Durham Mayor Wib Gulley died because the petition failed to get enough signatures.
Likewise, Baldwin says the recall is led mainly by her political opponents, particularly former city council members Stef Mendell and Russ Stephenson, who lost their bids for re-election in 2019. Baldwin’s critics take issue with her pro-development policies, which they say lead to gentrification and displacement. Baldwin has also come under fire for her job, with some saying her position as director of business development for Barnhill Contracting represents a conflict of interest.
“If she (Baldwin) stays in power, she’ll continue to give kudos to the real estate companies and have things her way,” says one recall supporter, Steve Mayberry. “She’s not giving full credence to housing needs.”
Baldwin disagrees, saying her policies are an effort to increase the supply of housing and drive down the cost.
“What we’re trying to do is build with more density,” she says. “It’s about giving people access to opportunity.”
Future of recalls
Despite the group’s determination, it seems unlikely Livable Raleigh’s pursuit to recall Baldwin will succeed. Their pro-development grievances aren’t supported by all Raleigh residents. While some people find fault with Baldwin’s handling of protests in downtown Raleigh last year and her elimination of citizen advisory councils, there doesn’t seem to be enough widespread will for a special election.
But even if the effort fails, Livable Raleigh says it has succeeded in drawing attention to a powerful political tool that can be used as a check on executives. During a city council meeting last week, resident Barry Eriksen argued in favor of maintaining a viable recall option, especially as elections are moved to even-numbered years when turnout is expected to be much higher.
“The recall rules have been outdated for decades. Surely this is an appropriate time to update them,” Eriksen said. “If we are going to switch to four-year terms, we should reform our recall rules to allow a determined effort to recall an elected official to succeed, rather than be stuck with a bad apple in office for a full four-year term.”
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