Meet the New Mayor of Raleigh: Russ Stephenson

By Brent Woodcox

The first day of the reign of the new city council was undoubtedly a rude awakening for Nancy McFarlane. She thought voters had rewarded her with another term as mayor of Raleigh after a November runoff. However, it turns out she was dethroned. But not by Charles Francis. Instead, it was by Russ Stephenson and his pitchfork-wielding cohort of NIMBYs.

Today's meeting started out innocuously enough with the new council being seated for the first time and handling various bits of administrative business. These bits of housekeeping are usually just formalities and produce no controversy.

The mayor first suggested Corey Branch for the position of Mayor Pro Tem. Branch quickly proved to be the consensus choice of his colleagues and the new council was off and running while on the same page.

This seemed like a wise political move. Branch is widely seen as a swing vote on many key issues, such as short term rentals, and helping to bring him into the fold could help the mayor form a governing coalition after former members who were aligned closely with the mayor, Mary-Ann Baldwin and Bonner Gaylord, left the council.

But then the plan hit a road block when the time came to approve McFarlane's suggested committee assignments.

Update: It was later reported that David Cox made the motion in support of the alternative roster and Russ Stephenson explained the proposal. Both then voted in favor of the motion.

There was speculation that Branch may have been confused about what his absence would mean for the outcome of the vote but the result was that McFarlane's preferred slate was cast aside in favor of Stephenson's alternate roster.

Mayor McFarlane has consistently been a progressive voice advocating for forward-thinking policies on short term rentals, accessory dwelling units, zoning and land use regulations while embracing a "money where your mouth is" approach to affordable housing. However, her challenges have always arisen in keeping a coalition together that is willing to back her approach to these issues.

One of her primary opponents in these fights has been Russ Stephenson. Stephenson, among the 6 of 8 members of the council over the age of 59, is entering his 13th year on the city council. Elected at-large to his 7th term in October as the top vote getter in the race, he may have seen the struggle that mayor had in beating back her strongest challenge since becoming mayor as presenting an opportunity for him to more boldly challenge her leadership.

Whatever the case may be when it comes to palace intrigue within the city council, Stephenson represents the coalition of NIMBYs that have taken over in Raleigh city government after this fall's elections. He has bragged about using Airbnb in other cities while blocking it in Raleigh.

He has stood in the way of approval for backyard cottages while he literally has these types of structures on his own property grandfathered into legality under the city zoning code. He is the leader of the movement I have heralded as cheap progressivism.

Any elevation of Russ Stephenson's power can only come at the expense of people who support strategies to encourage smart growth in Raleigh and use innovative solutions and new tools to attack the problems of inequality and access to housing that continue to hold our city back. In short, Russ Stephenson is single-handedly standing in the way of Raleigh becoming the city of opportunity that it is meant to be.

And Russ Stephenson is the new mayor.

Brent Woodcox