A watershed year in Asheville politics

After decades as a participant and observer of Asheville and Buncombe politics I have to note that this year’s election represents a watershed. For many years the debate was relentlessly dragged to the right, but now we have begun to pull discussion back to its traditional middle ground.

It’s a watershed year when two of the front-runners, Gordon Smith and myself, have centered our campaigns on traditionally liberal issues: fair wages, domestic partner benefits, affordable housing and transportation, environmental stewardship and expanded public involvement in decision making. That’s progress!a speech

It’s a watershed year when big dollar, pro-development donors like Jerry Sternberg, Albert Sneed and Chris Peterson place their electoral bets on the socially liberal and pro-sustainability candidate Esther Mannheimer. The arch-conservative candidates that they used to back are no longer politically viable here, so they have apparently dropped the old litmus test and accepted the inevitability that Asheville is a progressive city. We should celebrate this!

Its a watershed year when we see Kelly Miller, whose day job is at the Chamber of Commerce, spending almost as much time talking about greenways and multi-modal transit as he does about business development and tourism. And despite the anti-populist, anti-health care leaning of his employer, he has even crossed the aisle to register as a Democrat. Another cause for celebration!

Looking at the current Council we can see the same phenomenon. Jan Davis, once regarded as a centrist Democrat, is now generally regarded as conservative—not because he has significantly changed but because the field has shifted under his feet. When Jan is considered conservative and Joe Dunn is no longer on Council, progressive ideals are winning. And Bill Russell, while sharing Carl Mumpower’s Republicanism, has carried that standard leftward reflecting the fact that he is a member of a progressive community.

The Council as a whole is at least entertaining a move away from the “growth at any cost” mentality of recent years and toward the idea of meaningful sustainability—with an energy office that’s made a good beginning on conservation and discussions that have made first steps toward Downtown and Transit Master Plans.

Part of the ongoing shift is clearly due to the democratization of the media. The left has always been underfunded compared to the right, with conservative candidates historically needing to substantially outspend their liberal opponents to win elections. (Recall that Bill Russell outspent Bryan Freeborn in 2007 by 6:1 to get a 74 vote victory.) That money advantage would breed further money advantage because the creation and maintenance of massive data bases with direct mail and phone bank campaigns was expensive.

But that is changing. Online fundraising pioneered by Howard Dean and honed in the Obama campaign works at all levels of politics to level the playing field. Online publishing in blogs, Web sites and newsletters has made some forms of communication all but free. Modern media has knocked the stilts out from under the dominance of special interest money. There should be dancing in the streets!

Two years ago, two PACs spent $40,000 on direct mail and TV advertising to oppose progressive candidates for Asheville City Council. This year my campaign newsletter has reached well over 10,000 people on an ongoing basis for several hundred dollars—that’s for unlimited e-mails over a full year. My Web site is completely free. Automated phone calls, the eco-friendly alternative to the paper waste of direct mail, cost about 7 cents each ($1,500 so far in this campaign). Newspaper ($2,500 to date) and radio ads ($2,040) are still pretty costly, but we produce the ads on personal computers for free. We can produce and distribute campaign videos free via YouTube. Our databasing and campaign calendar can be shared across computer formats via Google docs.

Other traditional campaign materials still run up the bill (Yard signs cost about $3 each, even with volunteers doing the screen printing; campaign buttons we make on my dining room table cost 50 cents; and door tags run ten cents apiece) And there were other expenses when we rented the YMI Cultural Center for a fundraiser ($500), rented dishes to avoid paper waste ($400) and paid a band ($850) it ran up the bills. But the point is that the new media is lowering overall costs, enabling a grassroots campaign to compete successfully with the special interest money that so often controls politics. (We have about 450 donors who’ve kicked in an average of about $48 apiece.)

A difficult side-effect of the growth of the new media is the decline of the old, reducing news coverage that is essential to democratic governance. In its place we are seeing the growth of independent Web sites and blogs. The best of them are developing a track record for accuracy and accountability.

In this regard I feel compelled to comment about the newest Web presence in the current Asheville City Council race, that of a PAC which calls itself the Progressive Research Group.

Understandably, I have heard the suggestion that I must be connected to PRG since Elaine Lite appears in a video on the site. It is true that I supported Elaine’s bid for City Council two years ago, and I count her among my supporters, but I can categorically state that I am not involved in or connected to PRG in any way.

My observations about PRG’s site are the same I would offer about the Carolina Stompers on the right, or Ashvegas in the middle: Is the information offered accurate or inaccurate? If the information is correct it qualifies as voter education. If it is incorrect, it amounts to “swiftboating.” Voters need to read through the opinion on clearly political sites when they are offered spin, and weigh the facts.

Fortunately in a town as small as Asheville, we can ask the candidates questions first-hand, and expect to get answers. For upcoming candidate forums, check my event listings. To write me personally, click here.

Remember, you have three votes in the primary and three votes in the general election. Make your votes count.

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