A week ago I asked my Dad who he’d be voting for in the Raleigh City Council races.
“I’m voting for the old people,” he told me. Turns out he wasn’t alone.
Was age a major factor in the At-Large race that saw incumbents Russ Stephenson and Mary-Ann Baldwin, both 59, box out up-and-comer Matt Tomasulo, 33? Or in District D, where incumbent–but technically first time running–Kay Crowder, also 59, soundly reclaimed her seat over Ashton Mae Smith, 29? Or, in a bit of a youth movement, in District C where Corey Branch, 37, unseated incumbent Eugene Weeks, 75?
Probably not. I hope not.
While the hot topic late in the race became how late Raleigh could leave its lights on, my guess is most of the votes went about how they would have without all the ruckus over Raleigh’s infestation of #DrunkTown zombies. If anything, it may have made the At-Large vote a bit closer, with Tomasulo grabbing 24% of the vote, while Baldwin and Stephenson won with 31% and 30%, respectively.
When I was growing up in Raleigh, the same dad who told me he was voting for the “old people” (more than likely, he just couldn’t remember their names at that moment–he’s old) used to spend many an election night at the campaign after-party of one of the people for whom we had a sign in our yard. Often I’d tag along. Many of them were for losing candidates. And for many of them, downtown planning was also a big issue. Except the issue then was, you know, CREATING a downtown so that we could one day argue over what time of night we roll back the sidewalks.
Perhaps feeling nostalgic and because they usually take place in bars, I decided to drop by a few campaign parties Tuesday night. Not knowing the election returns as I set out, my first stop was at Busy Bee Cafe in Raleigh where Smith was gathering with supporters. At around 8:15pm, I briefly chatted with her.
“All of the feelings,” she said when asked her current state. The answer was both an honest admission of exhaustion from an election day that starts before dawn for most candidates, and a phrasing nod to the crowd she probably hoped would come out to support her more in the voting booth.
I admitted to Smith that in assessing her as a candidate, one of the factors that crossed my own mind was indeed her age. I think something about being under-30 catches voters’ eyes much more than even a 31- or 32-year old would.
“It doesn’t surprise me,” said Smith, who is involved in more civic projects and committees than most of her peers, or those in any of the decades above her. “I’d feel the same way about someone who is not as old as I am, or older. That’s why we canvassed–we knocked on doors, we made phone calls, we got to know people. Often times when you get a chance to know someone they realize there’s age, and then there’s maturity, and they’re two different things.”
A few blocks north at Person Street Bar, the Tomasulo crowd was a little more upbeat, a little more crowded and–in a way that drew me in and had me wishing it weren’t the last night of the campaign–seemingly a little less mature than the group at Busy Bee, despite having people of all ages in the crowd watching the At-Large numbers roll in.
While he knew age alone wouldn’t decide the race, social media ads I saw for Tomasulo towards the end of the campaign were clearly aimed at painting him as someone who would represent all demographics. But in addition to his reputation as the grassroots city planner who created the Walk [Your City] movement, locally Tomasulo became the “Keep Raleigh Vibrant” candidate, and that made him pretty popular in Raleigh’s bars, no more so than on this night.
The spirited crowd had to drop the music and wait until folks from the porch could pack in to listen to a not-quite-yet-concession speech Matt gave to his supporters around 9pm Tuesday night. Though confident in his voice, he had a sheepish demeanor that still seemed surprised this many folks would come out to support him.
“This is pretty amazing,” he began. “I think that everybody in this room is a testament that this was worth our commitment, time, money and skills. I mean, 25% of the people of Raleigh today voted for…”
He was too humble to even say “me” and finally decided on “change.”
A former high school classmate of mine in the crowd summed up at least one of the Tomasulo campaign’s weaknesses: “All of us know him,” he said, generally meaning folks under 40 who are from Raleigh, “But none of our parents really know him.”
In Raleigh it’s probably less about how old you are and more about who you know, and who knows you. Tomasulo is from Richmond. As guarded as I can be about Raleigh outsiders, his genuine, visible passion for this place he has chosen to live and the general vibe at his get-together have me hoping it’s not his last campaign.
It’s a near-certainty the he and Smith, elected or not, will stay actively involved in civic endeavors. And though I needed to keep moving, I’m quite sure his speech didn’t signal last call on the evening for the crowd gathered.
Both Smith and Tomasulo should take heart–one of the guys whose election after-parties I attended as a kid was former Mayor Charles Meeker, who was inducted this week into the Raleigh Hall of Fame. Before he guided Raleigh through one of its most prosperous periods for development in the city’s history, Meeker lost his share of local elections, too. Sometimes it can take an electorate a little time to warm up to you.
Towards the end of the evening, I tried to swing by Bonner Gaylord’s victory party at Coquette in North Hills. Bonner is 37, but was first elected in 2009, meaning he’s been a city councilman since he was just over 30. Unfortunately, though, by the time I arrived at 9:20, Gaylord and most of his supporters had left for the night. I guess it’s partly because Gaylord, an incumbent, was expected to win easily and did. Or maybe he’s just getting old.