One thing Matt Tomasulo says about the upcoming elections in Raleigh is undoubtedly true: The young challengers would bring fresh perspectives to the bristling growth issues that are close to a boil on a fractious City Council.

“Right now, it’s pretty hostile,” Tomasulo offers.

Hostile? Sure. Think downtown drinking and noise. Think the reviled Unified Development Ordinance. Think downtown rezoning and the issue of whether to approve buildings up to 40 stories without negotiating for design amenities, retail space or contributions to affordable housing.

Also true: October’s municipal election features the strongest group of younger candidates in many years, including: Tomasulo, running in a four-way race for two at-large seats currently held by Mary-Ann Baldwin and Russ Stephenson, both of whom are seeking re-election; Corey Branch, trying to unseat Eugene Weeks in District C (Southeast Raleigh); and Ashton Mae Smith, up against Kay Crowder in District D (Southwest Raleigh).

These challengers are bright, self-confident and eager to serve. All believe new blood is needed, if only to reflect Raleigh’s growing numbers of young people. All appear to be running campaigns with a shot at winning.

That said, they’re not interchangeable. And there’s a huge difference in the incumbents they might replace. Thus, depending on what you think the problem is in Raleigh, electing the young folks could help your cause or harm it.

On top of which, you can’t separate the candidates by party. Branch and Weeks are Democrats. Tomasulo and Smith are unaffiliated, as is Mayor Nancy McFarlane.

But McFarlane’s closest allies on Council are Stephenson and Crowder, both Democrats. Baldwin, a frequent McFarlane rival, is also a Democrat. (On the ballot, no parties are listed—it’s ostensibly a nonpartisan election.)

Instead of party, the dividing line is growth and how to manage it—or not. The crude but useful division is between the “pro-neighborhoods” and “pro-developers” camps—between those who rarely question a developer’s project and those who want those projects to “fit” their surroundings and advance the city’s goals.

My bias is no secret: I’m on the neighborhoods’ side. I think Raleigh is too quick to settle for scattered, mediocre development that undermines our ability to establish a first-rate transit system, provide affordable housing and build an inclusive city. And I’m friends with Stephenson and Crowder, Council’s leading advocates for neighborhoods.

But the challengers are also saying good things about transit, housing and raising the bar for development. And talking about the poor job city government does of communicating with residents, and about the need to reach out beyond the usual suspects to gather input from people who can add to the decision-making process.

The more people who get involved, the three all say, the better the decisions. Especially missing in the process right now: young people.


Matt Tomasulo is frustrated by what he sees from city government. He’s perplexed that Raleigh, despite its vaunted status as one of the nation’s fastest-growing cities, is falling behind when it comes to creating the infrastructure that cities need. And he’s not talking about bridges or railroads. He’s talking simple sidewalks, crosswalks and bus shelters—”the bare-bone basics” needed for people to move around safely without a car in a densely populated place.

He says this in a measured, level voice. But he doesn’t try to hide his displeasure. He wants to get in there and figure out why it’s not happening.

Tomasulo, 33, burst on the scene in 2012 while still a graduate student in design and urban planning at N.C. State University and UNC-Chapel Hill. His guerrilla “wayfinding” signs, telling the distance and the travel time on foot between key spots downtown, were an instant hit with the public—despite being illegal, according to city staff. After a brief tug of war, City Council voted to let the signs remain for three months as a pilot project, which is what Tomasulo had in mind. He wanted to open people’s eyes to the possibilities if pedestrian and bicycle connections were improved on downtown streets.

“I was trying to start a conversation,” he says. “We either have to create more room for people or more room for cars.”

Today, Walk [Your City] is a thriving business that Tomasulo runs from a spacious office in Boylan Heights. His clients are cities coast-to-coast that hire him—and his signs and an app—to help get citizens involved in fashioning better pedestrian/bicycle/bus plans.

Meanwhile, however, Raleigh’s efforts are lagging. Tomasulo is especially critical of Council’s recent 6–2 vote against starting a bicycle-sharing program, which Tomasulo thinks could be a catalyst to change our car culture. (Stephenson and Bonner Gaylord, the District E incumbent, were the two votes in favor.)

Other cities with less density than Raleigh have launched successful bike shares, Tomasulo says. But Raleigh seems to ignore urban innovations elsewhere. “I think the status quo is OK for the current council,” he adds dismissively.

I’m nodding as Tomasulo amps up his critique.

“As a resident,” he says, “I’m missing a little bit of the vision of what we want to be.” To overcome political and bureaucratic resistance to change, he advocates “tactical urbanism,” things like his wayfinding signs and painted crosswalks. Instead of sweeping changes, try small ones—experiments in limited locations.

Such an approach, he argues, would help Raleigh get beyond its “neighborhoods versus developers” arguments and find methods to accommodate growth while respecting homeowners.

What the city can’t do, he says, is continue to approve decentralized density unconnected to bus, bicycle or pedestrian travel. The car congestion at Crabtree Valley “is foreshadowing” the dangers if we do.

Underlying specific city problems, Tomasulo thinks, is a general failure to engage the public. Why were so many shocked by the rollout of the UDO and the planned rezoning of their neighborhoods? Instead of Raleigh being “at the forefront of using modern communications tools” to improve development outcomes, he says, “it’s almost like they’re trying to slip things by.”

He likewise blames this “communications disconnect” for the mess surrounding late-night drinking on the sidewalks downtown. A bad public process left out some of the affected business owners, he says, while failing to define what problem the city was trying to solve.

In the at-large council race, a Tomasulo win would displace either Stephenson or Baldwin, with the other probably surviving. A fourth candidate, developer Craig Ralph, will most likely trail the field.

Stephenson and Baldwin are bitter foes and on opposite sides of the neighborhoods-developers divide. Interestingly, Tomasulo’s campaign finance report ($38,507 raised as of Sept. 1) shows Stephenson and Baldwin supporters each trying to help him knock off the other. Stephenson, in fact, is a $100 contributor—from personal funds, not his campaign fund.

Tomasulo’s views seem to me closer to Stephenson’s than Baldwin’s, but I couldn’t get him to say which opponent he’d rather defeat.

“They are polarized,” he agrees, “which makes it interesting.” But, he insists, “I’m running to represent this younger, newer-to-Raleigh demographic that’s growing in the city.”


It’s not complicated why Corey Branch is running. “I look at the growth across the city, and then I look at District C.”

Everywhere else, Raleigh is booming. Southeast Raleigh isn’t. Empty grocery stores, half-empty strip malls and neglected neighborhoods are commonplace. “It’s time for new leadership that’s more proactive,” Branch says.

His goal: economic development that provides opportunities for people living in the district but without the gentrification that would drive their taxes up and them out. One key: robust public transit—a subject that Branch knows quite a bit about—tied to affordable housing, perhaps backed by tax incentives.

All of which will require that residents be better informed and more engaged, he says.

A senior technical manager with AT&T, Branch is 37, making him the oldest of the three challengers. But he’s half the age of the incumbent, Weeks, who was appointed to this office five years ago when James West, who’d held it for 10 years, was picked to fill a vacancy on the Wake County Board of Commissioners.

For as long as anyone can remember, that’s how Southeast Raleigh—historically African-American—has been run: A tight cadre of black Democrats chooses the candidates who invariably win election.

Weeks waited his turn while serving on the city’s parks and recreation board and leading voter registration and get-out-the-vote drives. In his first campaign after being appointed, Weeks easily defeated four opponents in 2011, including Branch, who finished third.

In 2013, with Branch not in the field, Weeks won re-election with 80 percent of the vote.

Thus, Branch, running head-to-head against Weeks this time, is in an uphill fight. He’s raised just $11,000 to Weeks’ $31,000, which doesn’t bode well.

Branch acknowledges the difficulty of the task. To catch Weeks, he says, he’s visiting churches, reaching out to homeowners associations and pounding the pavement.

“We’ve had the same [system] for many years. I’m different,” he says. “I’m not hand-picked by anyone.”

The district is changing, too, Branch insists. A new generation of blacks and whites is emerging. Some, like him, were born in District C. Others are newcomers, drawn by available land and affordable housing prices. (Tomasulo lives in District C, albeit not far from Oakwood, the booming downtown part.)

Branch is an electrical engineer, a North Carolina A&T graduate who “manages a network delivery team for a global customer.” Whatever the customer needs, his team delivers it, he explains.

That makes him an example, he says, of District C’s unrecognized but growing economic diversity. He and his wife, a teacher, could’ve moved to a more upscale neighborhood. But his roots in Southeast Raleigh are deep. So is his commitment to the community, which he dates to his time at Ligon Middle School, where he was student body president. (Fun fact: Bonner Gaylord was in the same class.) He was active in politics at A&T and, for the last 15 years, in Alpha Phi Alpha, a service fraternity that mentors black youths.

In other words, Branch has been an aspiring leader since he was a teenager. And since running four years ago, he’s become a transportation expert, serving on the Raleigh Transportation Authority, which oversees local buses, and this year on the Wake County Transit Advisory Committee, which is trying to hash out a plan that will persuade voters to approve a half-cent sales tax for transit.

For months, Branch has been moving around the city explaining the process and collecting input. When we talked, he rattled off a list—by number—of busy bus routes that run through Southeast Raleigh, and he told me a startling fact: 70 percent of Raleigh’s bus riders live in his district, including many who don’t have cars and need reliable buses to get to their jobs.

That’s why the transit plan must, in his view, improve the frequency of service on Southeast Raleigh routes and improve their shaky on-time performance. He wants more bus shelters. City staff says there’s no more money. Branch thinks it’s the job of the District C representative to find the money.

Still, Branch doesn’t criticize Weeks directly. “He’s a good person,” Branch says without mentioning Weeks’ name. “I hear he’s fighting for Southeast Raleigh. I just don’t know what he’s fighting for.”

On development issues in the rest of the city, Weeks is a reliable vote for developers, seeming to take his cues from Baldwin. Branch might be different on that score.

But we didn’t talk about citywide issues much. His entire focus is on District C and making it, within 20 years, equal to the rest of Raleigh. To do that, he says, residents must get involved.

“If there’s one message I’d like to get out,” he says, “it’s that we can’t keep doing the same things and expect different results. We need to embrace the future.”


Ashton Smith, at 28, is the quintessential up-and-comer. She’s quick, laughs easily and seems well suited to her job at Citrix, the software firm that moved downtown two years ago with 120 employees and is now at 700 and growing. In charge of civic engagement, Smith is company ambassador to the business community, nonprofit groups and city government, which means serving on boards or finding others in Citrix to do so.

Smith seems to be running against Kay Crowder not because of fundamental policy differences, but rather because she wants to be on Council and thinks she’ll be good at it. And because she wants to change the process of city government—staff and Council—which she describes as sluggish, resistant to change and closed to the creative thinking that it ought to welcome.

That’s the antithesis, Smith says, of the collaborative spirit and openness to innovation that’s the secret to Citrix’s success. It’s certainly not what young people expect when they choose Raleigh as a place to live and work, based on its reputation as a creative hub. They want input and a “user-friendly government.”

“In a nutshell … the change I’m looking to see is: Are there opportunities, and it seems to me that there are, to affect the way city government is run that matches a little bit more the expectations of people who make up the majority of residents and the people we’re attracting?”

Smith didn’t cite a lot of examples of how the process is letting Raleigh down, answering some of my questions with questions back. In general, she seems to share Crowder’s vision of the city sticking to to its comprehensive plan, with density downtown and on corridors served by transit and featuring affordable housing.

“I think it’s time for us to raise our standards a little bit” about the kind of development Raleigh approves, Smith said at one point. At another: “Not every project is right for Raleigh.” At another: “I’m into making Raleigh great.”

Which prompts the question, what’s wrong with Crowder? Since replacing her late husband, Thomas Crowder, a year ago as he was losing his battle with cancer, Kay has continued Thomas’ long and popular crusade—in District D, anyway—for transit-oriented development, inclusionary housing, better adherence to the comprehensive plan and listening to residents and neighborhood leaders. Why not allow Kay to serve a full term?

“I really like Kay,” Smith responded. “It just happens that I live in District D.”

Some of Crowder’s supporters don’t believe it’s that simple. They think Smith is a plant from the development community. Their suspicions stem in part from an email Smith sent recently to a listserv run by the YIMBYs, a group in Raleigh that has yet to see a high-density development it didn’t think could be bigger. (YIMBY stands for “Yes in My Backyard.”)

Someone in the group had circulated a go-go growth column written by Jacob Rogers, executive director of the Triangle Community Coalition, which, notwithstanding its name, is funded by development interests. Smith, who is on the YIMBY list—as am I—responded effusively: “Jacob’s been a good supporter and a big part of driving funds toward my campaign.”

Smith has in fact outraised Crowder slightly ($37,655 to $34,589), but her edge comes more from angry bar owners than from developers. Dan Lovenheim, owner of Capital City Tavern and other downtown bars, for example, gave Smith $5,100, a sum matched only by realtor Lisa Rose.

That’s because Smith, like Tomasulo, has ripped the council’s decision to restrict bars’ sidewalk patios and close them at 1 a.m. Crowder was in the 5–3 majority. It’s the one vote by Council that Smith cited to me as a mistake.

One more matter: Though she’s registered as an independent, Smith voted in both Republican primaries in 2012 (some offices required runoffs) and the one in 2014. (She voted in the Democratic primary in 2008.) In heavily Democratic District D, this could be a red flag.

Still, I’m not sure what any of this tells us that Smith hasn’t already. She grew up in Raleigh, went to State; she’s a hometown fan and then some. Her interest in politics begins and ends with the city, she told me. It’s not partisan.

While still at State, Smith joined a downtown real estate firm, and she kept on selling after graduation before heading for Italy, where she taught English for two years on the island of Sardinia.

Preparing to come back (“because I love Raleigh”), she hooked a job over the phone with Citrix doing employee training. When Citrix moved to the Warehouse District, Smith’s local knowledge and downtown connections led to her current role.

She’ll bring fresh thinking and a zeal for open process to the council table, she says. And no disrespect to Kay Crowder, but they both have the same claim on Thomas Crowder’s old seat—which is to make their case and let the voters decide.

In the two decades I’ve been watching City Council, many candidates have come and gone, won and lost, talking smart growth and transit and the rest. But there’s never been a majority on Council willing to back up the talk with action and shape development to further smart-growth goals.

This year’s election could be the breakthrough.

For one thing, the city’s pell-mell growth now forces the hand of the laissez-faire development side, because as Tomasulo argues, unless dense development is aligned with the basic infrastructure for transit, car congestion will soon slay the golden goose.

For another, Southeast Raleigh’s time has come to share in development without, as Corey Branch says, letting gentrification go crazy.

Electing those two could overturn the current 5–3 majority that favors developers and replace it with a majority that supports what Tomasulo calls “thoughtful development.”

In addition to which, smart-growth candidate David Cox could knock off incumbent John Odom, a dependable pro-developer vote for years in District B. And in District A, developers’ lawyer Wayne Maiorano decided not to run for re-election.

Thus, to steal another Tomasulo phrase, we may be on the verge of doing “the fun stuff” that turns a pretty good Raleigh into the pretty great Raleigh that future generations deserve. I don’t think the task requires a youth movement on Council. But it might help.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Watch the throne”