The race for mayor of Raleigh highlights a division in the Democratic coalition that’s less noted than the split between establishment Democrats and left-leaning populist supporters of Bernie Sanders. In Raleigh, the split is between less affluent African-Americans native to Raleigh and the solidly middle class white voters that have largely moved into the city from other places. The new voters have benefited from the rapid development while African-Americans clearly feel left behind.
Raleigh has emerged from the Great Recession in a much better position than other cities. It’s still one of the fastest growing metropolitan areas in the country and the median income rose an impressive 13% from 2015 to 2016, far faster than North Carolina as a whole and probably far faster than most of the city’s African-American community. This uneven recovery set the stage for the division within the mayor’s race.
The race is ostensibly non-partisan, but incumbent Mayor Nancy McFarlane is registered unaffiliated while challenger Charles Francis is a Democrat. McFarlane has governed as a progressive who largely continued the direction of her predecessor, Charles Meeker, a Democrat. She embraced Smart Growth policies that further developed downtown and North Hills, favoring growing up instead of out. Raleigh became a destination for new businesses, particularly in the tech sector with entertainment and a foodie culture following.
Francis represents an African-American population that wants to share in the wealth more than it has. Francis is talking about affordable housing instead of downtown development. He wants to strengthen the Citizens Advisory Councils, a move that could reduce gentrification that threatens some of Raleigh’s traditionally African-American neighborhoods. In essence, he’s trying to portray the race as a populist choice between people who’ve not shared in Raleigh’s prosperity against powerful interests in city hall and the development community.
At its core, the race is a change versus status quo election, but it underscores class divisions within the Democratic party that have broader implications. For decades, the Democratic coalition included blue-collar white voters who shared the economic and cultural concerns of the largely working-class African-American community. Today, the working class white voters have been replaced with younger, more affluent and educated white voters who often have little in common with African-American voters.
At the national level, the base of the Democratic Party still relies on a large minority base but many of their policies reflect the values of the more urban, educated and solidly middle-class white voters. The race in Raleigh helps explain why African-American voters might be less than enthusiastic voters in other elections. They can’t vote for a Republican Party that is openly hostile toward minority voters, but they’re not enthusiastic about a Democratic Party more focused on the needs of an economically and geographically mobile, and largely white, middle class.
Democrats looking for ways to heal their party should look at the underlying divisions within the race of Raleigh mayor. Two core constituencies are at odds. Uniting them will be key to winning in the future. Addressing the concerns of African-American could also help outreach to white working class voters in suburbs since the grievances are similar. While Democrats might not ever be able to win back large swaths of the blue-collar white voters, they need to win enough if they want to take back Congress or the North Carolina legislature any time soon.