This interview has been edited lightly for clarity. Listen to the whole show (starting at the 42-minute mark) on iHeart Radio.
Jeff Messer: We're not here necessarily to talk about the 2017 Asheville City council race, but my next guest has declared and he is running. And let me just throw this out there for you: Campaign slogan for you, if you want it?
Rich Lee: "Rich Lee Works for Me." Best rhyming campaign slogan in Asheville City history, I'm going to go ahead and say it.
JM: Here's another one for you I'll throw out there: "The Candidate You Richlee Deserve."
JM: I don't know, whatever. Good to see you, man! How are you?
RL: I'm doing great. How are you? (cont. below)
JM: I'm good, I'm good. I'm trying to think: I ran into you downtown at one of our many festivals. Maybe last fall. Was it the Mountain Moral Monday?
RL: You know, I want to say it was probably an HB2 protest, something like that. I take my kids up to a lot of those. They make great signs.
JM: The beautiful thing about Asheville is there are so many reasons to gather in Pack Square Park to make your voice heard, it kind of blends together at a certain point, but I know that's the last time I saw you, back in the fall somewhere.
RL: You can't start your kids on sign-making for rallies too early. They've got to build up those slogans.
JM: I know last summer, it was a sad sort of thing, but I took my 13-year-old son to O'Henry's for the nightclub vigil last summer. It was such a powerful moment, and it was so important for him to be there and be a part of it, and be holding a Pride flag with everyone else and be embraced by the crowd there. It was one of those special things, and I really respect you so much for taking your kids. And I think I see that in Asheville, I don't see that in so many other places where people do bring their kids and explain to them, this is why we're here, this is what we're doing. You have to be involved. You have to stand up and be accounted for when it comes time. You know, get them ready to vote, so when they're eighteen they're eager to go and vote and cast that ballot.
RL: I think kids' sense of fairness is so well-developed, especially when they're Asheville kids. And you've got to cultivate that sense of fairness, and they get it. Which is, maybe, a segue into what we're here to talk about today?
JM: Absolutely. And, again, we're not going to get too much into the city council race. It's still early. But you're out there working super-hard. You were right on the cusp of it last time. So very close. You came in fourth, of course, with three races open out there. But you had a lot of support and I felt like you really came back around this time, the wind is at your back. And I think you've got the passion, and it shows in what you're doing, including in we're going to talk about today.
RL: I feel like we're doing the work.
JM: Absolutely. Now, just a couple days ago on the show we had David Forbes, which we do every couple weeks, to talk about local issues in depth. We really kind of get deep into it. One of the things that came up was the -- at that point it was brand new -- the same old, new idea of creating state-mandated districts within the city of Asheville, coming from a Hendersonville Republican. Which is not the first time that's happened.
JM: And not the first time that's happened in the last year. Apodaca's heir-apparent, following in his footsteps, pushed this idea forward. And let me ask you first, before we get deep into it: Are they doing this because they think that if they can carve out a district in the south part of town, that somehow they'll automatically get a Republican on the city council to make merry and create havoc? Do they just assume that they're going get a freebie candidate out of this?
RL: In a word, I think, yes. But if it's okay, let's start with the current status quo: So you've got Asheville, the liberal bubble that we all know and love. And we've got about ninety, ninety-five thousand people who live here, about sixty thousand registered voters. And the way it's worked in the past is we've got six city council members plus the mayor, and they're serving staggered four-year terms. So this year's an election year. We've got three city council seats up for election. Two years out, in 2019, we'll have the other three. And we've also got the mayor this year. Votes are citywide, so everyone who declares as a candidate goes into a big pool. On election day, every voter in the city -- ideally -- goes and picks their favorite three out of the pool, and the top three vote-getters get it.
JM: So everybody's all in.
RL: Everybody's all in. And everybody... So I ran in 2015. I campaigned for votes in South Asheville, Shiloh, in Kenilworth.
JM: Every neighborhood, you had to compete.
RL: And, you know, I think what you try to do, what you'd like to do, is pull together support from all over the place.
JM: Not just your local neighborhood where they automatically like you because you're such a nice guy.
RL: Everyone wins their own precinct. But let me say, historically, this has given advantages to people who are tied into strong existing networks. So, these are low-turnout elections. Maybe 7,000 to 10,000 people come out to vote.
JM: Out of 60,000?
RL: So we're talking about 10-15% turnout. And if you're tied into a donor network that already exists, or some base of support you can draw on like the JCC or the county Democratic Party, or a big neighborhood association, even, like Montford, then you go into this thing already with a couple thousand votes in your pocket. And that can make a difference, right off the bat. So elections going back decades and decades have historically favored people from a fairly small area in North Asheville-Montford. And more recently West Asheville has started to pick up in terms of the strength of its networks.
And this is not necessarily a cynical cabal that's doing this. It's just neighborhood associations, professional networks, elevate their people. They're kind of these farm teams that bring people up. When you run, if you belong to a big church or a big community group, then you already have connections that you can go to for money and stuff.
JM: A pretty good base of support.
RL: And if you go into these things with three or four thousand votes in your pocket already, you've only gotta win another three or four thousand to win, you've got a huge advantage over most people. The complaint about this is, going back to 1980, so almost my whole lifetime, Asheville has only elected one council member from East Asheville -- that's Chris Pelly who finished his term two years ago. And I think only one from South Asheville as well, from far South, like below-the-Parkway South Asheville.
JM: Fletcher, Arden? Heading out that way?
RL: Heading towards Arden. It's within city limits. But nowadays what we would be talking about with that, just so you can place it on a map, is Biltmore Park, Long Shoals Rd sort of area of Asheville.
JM: When you head down there, you're almost out of town.
RL: Yeah. And a big part of that has only been a part of town for ten or eleven years. Biltmore Park was only annexed in fairly recently. Enka Lake only annexed in maybe 10 or 15 years ago.
JM: And not really developed heavily until ten years ago.
RL: So a couple years ago when we talked to South Asheville voters when we were campaigning and they were talking about a lack of representation there, the take of an organization I'm really involved in, the Coalition of Asheville Neighborhoods, was: well, let's start building networks and start pulling people together like Chris Pelly did when he formed E.A.S.T., the East Asheville group that worked on the sidewalks. And you need to do this organically. Republican legislators from Hendersonville, you know, they don't agree. They'd like it to go faster.
JM: We can't wait for it to happen on its own. We're losing power rapidly!
RL: There we go.
JM: Let me ask, though. Now I'm thinking about this. There are arguments to be made for both of these... You're a West Asheville guy?
RL: Now I'm an East Asheville guy. I ran as a West Asheville candidate last time. I've since moved to Haw Creek.
JM: Okay, so let's think about it, then, in these terms. Certainly if you're from a neighborhood, and people think of themselves in terms of neighborhoods.
JM: And certainly the West Asheville people are like, we've got a set of values and a set of things we need and how things are developing and how things are going over there. So... just because you're from West Asheville, though, doesn't necessarily mean that you're predisposed to be of benefit to that neighborhood.
RL: I can see that.
JM: And the reverse of that can work as well, that you don't have to be from West Asheville to come in there and go, I get it, I get you guys and I'm going to be your candidate.
"Asheville has big holistic issues. So, how is a council made up of districts necessarily better able to handle citywide problems like gentrification and the affordability crisis?"
RL: I like to think that maybe last time, South Asheville people voted for me because I had a focus on transportation and jobs and business-type stuff.
JM: Specific issues more than, hey, I know where Rich lives, his house is in this neighborhood. It doesn't matter what neighborhood your house is in for you to care about the big picture.
RL: So that's an argument against districts. Another argument against districts is that Asheville has big holistic issues. So, how is a council made up of districts necessarily better able to handle, you know, citywide things like gentrification and the affordability crisis? There's a couple arguments for districts or at least geographically-diverse representation, and that's one.
JM: Because you can make some very nonpartisan statements about districting versus not districting.
RL: I hope so. I think that these sort of things defy the usual partisan logic. I like to think I can make an argument either way that appeals to Democrats or Republicans. But let's at least say you know your own area of town and its issue better. So if you're from South Asheville, you know the roads that need attention. And they're probably Mills Gap and Sweeten Creek and Long Shoals --
JM: Sure, because you drive and you walk and you shop and you live there.
RL: And you know where the gutter blocks up and floods, and so on. Little, granular stuff. I mean, my first involvement in the city was as a neighborhood representative from the East West Asheville Neighborhood, don't laugh at the name.
JM: "East West Asheville." which part is that?
RL: That's everything from I-240 down to the river in West Asheville, where WALK and Hole Doughnuts and everything you are. By having just a focus on this tiny area around Hall Fletcher Elementary and Haywood Road --
JM: Because it is different from the other end of Haywood Road.
RL: We thought it was different enough. So, by focusing on that, we were able to get speedbumps on a road that needed it, and a sidewalk where we needed one, and some stop signs. We knew, driving around that area, where the fixes needed to be. And you could say that without a person who lives in far South Asheville on council, maybe -- I mean, I'm trying to make their case for them -- maybe you're not as aware of where the problems are down there. You're more likely to approve this big apartment complex that they approved on Mills Gap Road a few weeks ago.
JM: So the idea that, if you don't see it on a daily basis, you're not around it on a daily basis, you might not be as aware of it or as inclined to perhaps make it a priority.
RL: Devils advocating, that's one argument for it. Another one is that, a lot of cities district for better racial representation. Right now we've got one African-American city council member, Keith Young.
JM: Who won big last time.
RL: He won big last time. I would say, if I were Keith Young or I were thinking about how to get good representation on council, I would say he pulled in support from other areas of the city that he doesn't live in. But right now, him being on council, that basically means that council about matches the demographics of Asheville. We're one council member, that's a 16-17% black council. That's about what the city is as well. But we went two years before that with an all-white council. Then we had Mayor Bellamy, but prior to that we went a couple years without. So we've not always been really great with racial diversity.
JM: True representation of the composition of our public.
RL: Sure. That's a known benefit of districting: to ensure racial representation. And if you actually look at the fifteen or twenty biggest cities in North Carolina, Asheville's the 11th biggest I think, and all but us and Wilmington have some form of council districts. And in almost all those cases it was to ensure that there would be people of color represented on council. So that's a good one.
JM: So thre's an argument.
RL: If you read the research, yes. Where that kind of goes of the rails is this: So, one, a little more history. Last year, in September or October, on his way out the door, he'd already announced he was retiring, Senator Tom Apodaca, state senator from Hendersonville and a tiny little sliver of Arden and Asheville, introduced this bill that divided Asheville into six districts. So instead of all six council members being elected citywide, there would be these tiny little areas that each elected their own person and only held their own little elections. If you want to place it on a map, it's basically Malvern Hills in West Asheville and everything west of that was one. Near East Asheville and Southside Neighborhood was one. North Asheville was one. Kenilworth and Haw Creek and Chunn's Cove was one. Shiloh was one. And everything in Asheville below the Blue Ridge Parkway was one. So six districts, fairly small.
RL: Prescribed by him. And he rammed this through. It was one of these, introduce it one day, everyone's going to vote on it the next day bills.
JM: As he was on the way out the door.
RL: And he was fairly powerful in the state legislature. There's some weird rules in the fall session of legislature that say you can't introduce a bill that only affects one city without it having the support of all the state representatives in the city. He misrepresented that and said that representatives like Brian Turner and John Ager and Susan Fisher were on board with it, and they weren't. And it actually, in this amazing, bipartisan reversal, ended up being killed in the North Carolina State House, with uber-conservatives like Michael Speciale from, I think he's from New Bern, a guy who we do not normally mention in the context of being friendly to Asheville, making these really impassioned speeches about how it was a breach of process and how this was a local bill being crammed down Asheville's throat.
JM: It was an overreach. It was a massive overreach.
RL: Oh, it was unbelievable. And so it died in this amazing way. And a lot of public outpouring from citizens of Asheville helped kill it. But also people all over the state were thinking, what if it happened to us, where we just woke up and these people in Raleigh who have no connection to our area decided force their will on us?
JM: Well, it's important, and I know David Forbes and I have talked about this some, too. It's that, if you can take the partisanship out of it, yu can have a worthy conversation about districting. But it was just the way that it was done which felt as if it was being forced, felt as if it was being dictated to us from Tom Apodaca. Maybe that created an unfair sort of partisan backlash to the idea of districting in general. But it is something you could look at and come up with a fair way of saying, maybe could and should try it this way and it would make things btter for everyone in the city. IT's not exactly a black-or-white, good-guy or villain, kind of conversation. It's the way that it was done with Apodaca.
RL: Sure. I'm definitely respectful of the arguments that the city could start to consider elections held in districts in ways that work for us.
JM: Is it a worthy long-term conversation for the city council and the local population to take up, perhaps, starting this year or next year?
RL: What makes it a little faster than long-term is that as of last week, this bill has come up again. Under Senator Apodaca's hand-chosen replacement, Senator Chuck Edwards, McDonald's magnate of Henderson County.
JM: I heard a good joke about him before the election.
RL: Are you going to tell it?
JM: I am. I'm going to tell you. I shared this with everybody.
RL: I have no idea what's coming, Chuck Edwards voters!
JM: Even Norm Bossert who ran against him. I told Norm, you can use this: One of the producers that does weekend shows here lives in Henderson County, and he says, how is Chuck Edwards supposed to fix North Carolina when he can't fix a milkshake machine at the McDonald's on Four Seasons Boulevard?
RL: Oh. That's cold.
JM: But apparently on point, because that one never worked, for some reason.
RL: So anyway, this bill's been introduced again. And now this is the spring session, the long session, of the state legislature, so it doesn't have that same rule about the local delegation having to support everything. It's very, very barely modified. Basically, the bill gives the city of Asheville until, as it's written now, until November, although that deadline's probably going to be moved up, but it gives us until now to divide up the city into our own six districts. But the districts have to follow certain rules about being continuous with each other and having a certain amount of the population each, in such a way -
JM: Boy, isn't it interesting, just to break up for a second here, isn't it interesting how they're suddenly concerned about cutting corners and gerrymandering?
RL: Oh my gosh, yeah.
JM: The irony.
RL: Or, there's a word they use for when you have to monkey with the system to get a special place for a favored minority. And Republicans are normally not on that side of the argument. This time they are. So we apparently have, as things stand right now, until November to design our own council districts. The rules are so restrictive that we're basically forced to design the districts that were laid out in the bill last year, if this thing passes. If we don't, and the deadline passes, then we're saddled with the districts that Senator Apodaca came up with. As the requirements are laid out it's going to force us, if this bill passes, to have a special district of everything in Asheville south of the Blue Ridge Parkway, which is the goal of the entire thing. We can maybe fidget with the lines up in the North and West Asheville area.
JM: That's the thing they're looking for as their advantage.
RL: Senator Edwards says he has heard from many of his constituents that this is an issue. Notably, nobody on city council nor the mayor has gotten any communication from anybody, as far as they're saying, requesting districts. But apparently it's all Senator Edwards hears about. And the bill looks likely to pass this time. They've got supermajorities in both houses of the state legislature. He's got the pull, that even the guys on our side are saying that, barring some amazing reversal like we had last time, that this thing looks likely to pass.
JM: So this is possibly a foregone conclusion that we're facing in the very near future.
RL: I sincerely hope not. And there's a couple of things. I think the city is stretched. We might have a new water lawsuit coming up. I think we're stretched on fighting this in court. And other North Carolina cities that have had their elections messed with have had limited success on this. So we're in a real danger of this happening.
JM: Wow. We've got to take a quick break. Rich Lee is here, talking about a really serious subject that could become a reality sooner than later. We will continue the conversation coming up right after this.
"So we apparently have, as things stand right now, until November to design our own council districts. The rules are so restrictive that we're basically forced to design the districts that were laid out in the bill last year, if this thing passes. If we don't, and the deadline passes, then we're saddled with the districts that Senator Apodaca came up with. As the requirements are laid out it's going to force us to have a special district of everything in Asheville south of the Blue Ridge Parkway, which is the goal of the entire thing."
JM: Hanging out and talking with Rich Lee, who is running for city council. And also, we're going to tell you, we're mainly talking about one of the hot-button issues facing the entire city, coming up before this election even happens in November. And we've got to take a news break here in a minute. But I wanted Rich to give you guys his website because you've got a great animation video on there that explains this whole district proposal and everything. I love this thing. Where did this come from, and what was the brainchild behind putting this thing up on the website? Because it's so informative, it's so easy to figure out how this thing breaks down.
RL: Well, thank you. Let's not sell it up too much. It was made with the standard Windows Movie Maker that comes preinstalled on your computer. But, no, it's pretty cool.
JM: You're making me feel bad, then, because I'm like, I don't think I could do that.
RL: It slides up and down, and zooms in and things like that. But yeah, it's a little video I put together that we can share around and try to build awareness of this complex issue that's probably not flying the highest on everyone's radar.
JM: So you made the video yourself?
RL: I've made all of them so far. They're on my website. It's www.richworksfor.me. I've got one of those weird extensions. So richworksfor.me. And you'll find links to everything to do with the campaign, upcoming events, and all those videos on there.
JM: And social media? You've got a Twitter website, Facebook? All that stuff?
RL: I don't Tweet.
JM: Good for you. That's pretty crowded right now with a lot of crazies.
RL: And I figured I would do better to just learn one social media well, and not worry about the Snapchats and the Meerkats and the Periscopes and things. So I've got a Facebook presence at facebook.com/richleeforasheville.
JM: Easy enough to find you. And I'm sure all your events and things are posted through there and links to the website, and back and forth and all that.
JM: So there you go. Find Rich on Facebook and richworksfor.me
JM: That's the website: Richworksfor.me. It's a dot, don't spell it out. Just a dot.
JM: Let's take a news break. We'll be back with Rich. There's so much more we want to talk about. So stick around. We're talking about the districting that is coming to Asheville, perhaps --
RL: Unless we stop it.
JM: Unless we stop it. Rich has some thoughts on that. And we'll get right into that, right after this.
"You might see some closer ones. You might also see some candidates that had a little more Chamber of Commerce business-friendliness, less of our fire-breathing progressivism prevail. So a South Asheville district might very conceivably elect a tax-averse Democrat, for example, compared to the very pro-tax Democrats that typically elect."