Jeff Messer Show March 21, 2017: Districting Bill

 

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."

[laughter]

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.

RL: No.

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.

RL: Yes.

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.

JM: That's what was proposed.

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.

[break]


"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.

RL: Yes.

JM: So there you go. Find Rich on Facebook and richworksfor.me

RL: Richworksfor.me

JM: That's the website: Richworksfor.me. It's a dot, don't spell it out. Just a dot.

RL: Yes.

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.

[break]

JM: We're hanging out with city council candidate Rich Lee and having a good time, getting down to the brass tacks, man. We're really going deep into explaining to people what's going on with the proposed districting of Asheville for district-specific elections. This is one part of what I guess can be attributed to the Republican plan for Asheville coming from the state legislature. The other part would seem to be pushing these city elections into even-numbered years instead of odd-numbered years. These are the off-off-year elections.
 
RL: Yeah.
 
JM: If this wasn't to happen this year but happening in 2018, the voter turnout would be higher. And if they had districts, like that little southern district that goes past the parkway south, would likely trend more toward a right-wing type of candidate. That seems to be the prevailing philosophy. Am I getting that right at all?
 
RL: So that southernmost district in even-numbered years, state and federal election years, has enough of a lean that, for example in 2012, that district went a little over half for McCrory. So you do have a little bit more of a lean there. The one that is farther out to the west past Malvern Hills that includes Enka Lake and up into Starnes Cove and some of those areas, that one's pretty close too.
 
JM: So you get two.
 
RL: At least close enough to make them competitive for a conservative, which I think is the best that a Republican could hope for right now. I have a feeling that if this bill was in place for this election, that we would still manage to put liberal Democrats in all six districts if they were all six being voted for. But you might see some that were --
 
JM: A closer race.
 
RL: Yeah, 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.
 
JM: So it could break down into very specific areas of liberal-conservative ideology that tip the scales.
 
RL: Sure. So let's even talk about what this hinges on. Before the break we were talking about the video.
 
JM: It's on your website. Give them the website one more time.
 
RL: Richworksfor.me. So one of the things I found is, I took last years elections, the 2015 election, and I laid these city districts over them as if they were already in existence.
 
JM: The last city council election.
 
RL: And people say, well, if we had districts, more different candidates would come out because they would feel they had better chances or whatever. But actually --
 
JM: Well, we had a ton.
 
RL: We had fifteen.
 
JM: We had fifteen. There were initially going to be seventeen or eighteen.
 
RL: Three or four of them were from South Asheville. From Shiloh and far into South Asheville. We had a couple East --
 
JM: So there were representative candidates from all corners of the city.
 
RL: They didn't all make it out of the primary. But even coming out of the primary we had one from North Asheville, one from East End, that's Keith Young, one from the River Arts District, two from West Asheville, and one from Haw Creek. So that's pretty diverse? But here's the thing, though: In that election, if you take that southernmost district below the Blue Ridge Parkway, only about 574 voters, a little less than 600 people voted in the election in that district -- in the city election.
 
JM: So in the proposed district, there would have only been 574 voters.
 
RL: There would only have been about 600 voters.
 
JM: Wow.
 
RL: Now, take that and divide it in half and there's your winning margin. If you get three hundred and something, I think it was 274 votes, or something like that --
 
JM: It would put you over the top.
 
RL: Would put you over the top for that district. Now this is an election that normally the lowest candidate who wins a seat gets six or seven thousand votes. You can have someone put onto council by 275 of his neighbors' votes. That's a tiny amount! As a candidate, I can tell you, you can put that together in a weekend.
 
JM: It is very localized, that's for sure.
 
RL: Sure, but: What if you're a local who has 275 cousins and extended relations?
 
JM: Let me tell you, you can shake that many hands at a church picnic the Sunday before the election --
 
RL: And sit on that thing forever and ever. And one of the criticisms of districts that I think should cut across partisan lines, that everyone should worry about, is that they tend to reduce turnout and make races less competitive. Last year, I went to a training with Wellstone Action PAC, that's Paul Wellstone's family's candidate trainings that travel around the country. It was an off year so the only elections that were present were Asheville city election and the candidates from the Baltimore City elections where they run in wards. And everybody who was at that training was a young challenger against a ward boss who'd been holding onto their seat for twenty or thirty years and was unshakeable. Once you've locked down one of these places, since you only have a really manageable number of votes that you have to corral to sit on it forever. You can essentially become uncompetitive. If you look at our gerrymandered North Carolina districts, I mean, about half of those it seems like run uncontested.

"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."


JM: Absolutely. Because they're drawn in a way that it doesn't behoove anyone to put the time and money into trying to unseat someone who's already in there. So essentially this could be the same thing that could happen here. Which, on some level, could backfire for the Chuck Edwards brand of politics, that they could have a permanent -- I'm just going to throw a name out there -- a permanent Rich Lee or a permanent Cecil Bothwell that just can't be unseated from their respective districts, and there's no chance a Republican will ever get that seat.
 
RL: And let's remember that you need four votes on a seven-member council to get anything done. I don't know why anybody, Republican or Democrat, would trade the ability to have a say in voting for potentially a majority of council that could vote their way, versus one guaranteed seat that maybe ends up being your token protest vote.
 
JM: Right, are they going to be the monkey-wrench vote that doesn't get anything done?
 
RL: You can say, to throw a name out there: I want to guarantee that we can elect a Carl Mumpower. Well that doesn't matter if the other five districts are electing Cecil Bothwells. You're never going to get the thing that you want done.
 
JM: He is not going to pull a coalition into his corner.
 
RL: No. And so running citywide has the big advantage of requiring candidates to pull votes from all over the city.
 
JM: You have to be competitive everywhere.
 
RL: And to hold onto them. Yes. And say I'm on city council, and say a vote comes up to -- this is the example I used in the video -- say a vote comes up to me to put a new city landfill in somewhere. In Kenilworth.
 
JM: Right up on top of that hill.
 
RL: Just fill in the lake, you know? Votes like this, controversial votes, come up all the time. And say my vote is one of these ones to put the landfill in Kenilworth lake, and I'm sitting there going nyah, nyah. Kenilworth doesn't vote for me because I live in the East Asheville district, and you can't do anything about it.
 
JM: You don't have to appeal to the Kenilworth voters, because they're not going to be voting for you next time.
 
RL: You've got your Kenilworth council member, and sorry his vote went down in flames because everyone else decided to do it. So that's already a recipe for an unaccountable government that's also dysfunctional. And if you also look at these really gerrymandered congressional districts and state congressional districts, a lot of them contribute to the dysfunction of government. Is that what we want?
 
JM: That's what some folks want.
 
RL: Yeah. Your mileage may vary whether you want government to work or not. But let's just assume we have big problems that we're trying to deal with here like traffic and growth, and that we don't want a government that's just paralyzed. One way or another, I think you're not going to be happy with the result of that. You want to have a vote for everybody.
 
JM: Seems like the cons definitely outweigh the pros on district elections. You're making a good argument.
 
RL: The way I would say is: Let's look at it in a way -- I don't think the issue's going to go away or the desire's going to go away -- let's try to look at it in a way that we can answer the concerns of South Asheville or far-West Asheville residents who feel underrepresented, with districts, and get this sword from hanging over our heads. But let's deal with the problems. And I think there's a couple ways we could go. One thing a lot of cities do is have a mix of districts and citywide at-large seats. What if you had four districts, North, South, East, West?  Each of them has a toehold in downtown, so we've got a little bit of common ground that we have to work on. But you're going to definitely have a person from South Asheville, definitely a person from East, definitely a person from North and West. Plus the mayor. And then you have two at-large seats. Potentially you, as a voter -- I live in East Asheville. I could have a say in electing my own East Asheville representative, my two at-large people, and the mayor. So potentially, I have the power to elect a majority. I still definitely have my own guy, but I also have a say in the citywide vote.
 
JM: That's right. You're not hemmed into that one district and that's all you have a say in.
 
RL: The other way I would consider is dividing Asheville into three districts. If you do West, North, and then kind of Haw Creek through Oakley down through Shiloh down to South Asheville, you kind of make an East/South district.  So you've got three. Think of it like the county: the county's got two people each in three districts, they each elect two. And then on top of that I would say there's got to be a way that everyone has a say in the person who's voting about the landfill in their backyard. So maybe they each have their own primary, but then, once it's down to two or three candidates in each district, then the whole city votes: I like this guy from District 1, this guy from District 2, this guy from District 3.
 
JM: What are the chances of something like that getting a serious conversation?
 
RL: I put it to Senator Edwards. He said absolutely not, no way. I don't think there's any less than six districts that would guarantee a South Asheville district which is his goal. So he says no.
 
JM: So a completely reasonable notion and he just flat-out rejected it.
 
RL: Flat-out rejected it. But I know that our other local representatives, Represtatneive Brian Turner, Representative John Ager, Rep. Susan Fisher, Senator Terry Van Duyn, they're likely to, using amendments, try to make the process a little bit more geared toward what we would like locally. So one of them may introduce an amendment that calls for some at-large seats. One of them may introduce an amendment that calls for citywide voting. Or at least, how about this? If you've got three candidates in a district with six hundred voters, then a plurality is two hundred, maybe. So maybe you have to win a runoff if you don't get over half the vote.
 
JM: So there are opportunities for them to introduce these amendments and try to tweak it to more suit what we need.
 
RL: Otherwise, it comes down to what our state representatives hear from the public. There's a good website called ncmegaphone.com that lets you email all your legislators at once. Send them an email saying to let Asheville decide on its own districts. Don't let us be divided into districts that aren't accountable to all the voters.
 
JM: Absolutely. Let's take another break. Coming back we'll wrap it up with Rich Lee. I think you've broken this down in a way that everyone can understand it. You've done a tremendous service. People's eyes glaze over when stuff like this comes up, like, oh my gosh, what's going on?
 
RL: I hope your eyes aren't glazing over.
 
JM: No, I think you broke it down really well. I understand it even better now. Go watch that video, though. We'll tell you how, and we'll tell you more about how you can get in touch and support Rich in his run for city council, right after this.
 
[break]
 
JM: We've just got about five minutes left with Rich Lee, who's running for city council. Richworksfor.me is the website.
 
RL: Excellent, yes. Remember that one.
 
JM: Before we go, of course your city council bid has just started. You were one of the early ones out of the gate, very serious minded, and we appreciate that. Any other hot topics that you want to broach today while we've got you.
 
RL: Let's do one that you're either going to groan or swoon when you hear about it. So we haven't talked this election about this park, or other thing, across from the Civic Center.
 
JM: Which was a deciding factor in the last election at the wire. Suddenly, that became the hot issue.
 
RL: I would say it definitely became a sort of litmus test about where you stood on growth issues and things like that. So here's where things stand right now. I want to be conscious of our time. The last year, basically since the last election, an appointed body of citizens representing downtown residents, buskers, the Chamber of Commerce, have been meeting in a basement room to try to hash out a vision of what this could be.
 
And this is a very, very vague thing. If you go looking at their report, which is coming to council next week, for designs or anything that looks like a map on the ground, you're going to be disappointed. It's a very, very broad, general, vague vision of what's come out of it. And of course this being a contentious hot-topic issue in Asheville, this is already being picked at from the edges by concerns about the process and whose input was allowed and whose wasn't. But generally, what I would say is what they've come up with is exactly what you would expect any group of citizens disagreeing to come up with. They've got a bubble diagram with the words "Open Public Civic Space" on it. "Active Space" like an amphitheatre, something that's not just open land. And then "Mixed Use Development" surrounding it. And they were specifically tasked with not tackling the kind of questions that are still the knotty questions out there.
 
And I would say that, one way or another, whichever side of the issue you're on, you're not likely to get a lot of relief out of what is going to be presented at council. And your view is not likely to be shut out.
 
JM: They're trying to please everybody, it sounds like.
 
RL: It's so vague. And the next step of the process is going to be to go to a designer using these buzzwords to try to come up with something there. Now, I think, if you ask me what I think, that the city has an opportunity to make a really big park. And I think they need to, it's in the master plan. And I think to do that they really need to look at the holistic picture of that intersection there of Flint Street and Haywood Street, where it kind of comes in at an angle. It's a terrible, dangerous intersection. And if the city took on a project to straighten up those roads and make more squared-off intersections, it would make more space for a park and, potentially, some space to put a building around the backside there. Because if you have look at it, there's a twenty-foot retaining wall there. There kind of needs to be something in front of it just to make it, unless it's going to be a jai alai court or something --
 
Producer: You need the view of that cathedral.
 
RL: Leave that view and everything. But the city really needs to think bigger than just what to do with the lot that's there. They need to straighten out the roads and take on a big infrastructure project.
 
JM: Good stuff. I have a feeling we'll to hear more about this topic during this election. It seems to be a decider. Rich, though, that's a good idea. I like what you were talking about. Rich Lee for City Council. Go check out his website: Richworksfor.me is the website, and on Facebook you can find him at Rich Lee for Asheville.
 
RL: Thanks so much Jeff.
 
JM: Thank you, keep up the good work. Can't wait to have you back. We'll be talking much more about local politics as the election year proceeds. But it's good to see you again, and best of luck.
 
RL: Thanks so much.
 
JM: Thank you.