On the morning of October 13, Raleigh Mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin was talking with a colleague about a shooting that killed two police officers the night before in his hometown of Bristol, Connecticut.
He knew one of the officers, who had two kids.
“It was anguish,” Baldwin recalled. “I said, ‘You know, this is my worst nightmare, that we experience this.’
“Six hours later, here I am.”
Shortly after five that evening, a mass shooting rocked an East Raleigh neighborhood. One police officer died and another was hospitalized. Four civilians were also killed.
Baldwin texted a reporter that evening: “Just called the wife of the slain officer and I’m about to lose it,” she wrote.
The suspect, Baldwin soon discovered, was a teenage boy.
“That’s the part that makes me so angry,” Baldwin told The Assembly. “Like, you experienced this sadness and shock, and I mean, your stomach’s churning and you feel sick. And then you find out the kid’s 15?”
In press conferences the night of the shooting and the next morning, Baldwin appeared shell-shocked, her voice cracking as she offered condolences and urged gun reforms.
“We must stop this mindless violence in America,” she said. “We must address gun violence.” Later: “I would ask that you reach out to the ones you love. Let people know you care.”
That’s how the nation was introduced to Baldwin last week: another weary mayor trying to comfort her city after another senseless tragedy.
But warm and fuzzy isn’t usually Baldwin’s style.
The mayor Raleigh knows is at once the city’s most dynamic and polarizing figure: an ambitious force for progress or an arrogant pawn of developers, depending on whom you ask.
Since she first ran for city council in 2007, few local Raleigh politicians have attracted as much vitriol as Baldwin. Yet she’s never lost an election, and she seems unlikely to start on November 8, when voters decide whether to grant her a second term.
Baldwin, who turned 66 in September, has been a key player in luring tech companies to Raleigh and revitalizing its downtown. She knows the modern, urban city she wants to build, and she’s shown that she’ll play hardball to get it.
Despite the pandemic, she and her city council allies have begun laying the groundwork to transform North Carolina’s capital. Not everyone will like where that transformation leads. But as long as Baldwin wins, not everyone needs to.
Get on board, get out of the way, or get run over—it all ends the same.
Everyone agrees that Raleigh needs more affordable housing.
Since 2016, the city has spent $90 million to build 5,700 affordable units; another $80 million is on the way after more than 70 percent of Raleigh voters approved an affordable-housing bond in November 2020.
Baldwin championed both efforts. But she knew they wouldn’t dent the city’s housing problem on their own. The city loses about 4,000 affordable units a year, and over a third of the city’s households spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent or mortgage payments. Skyrocketing housing prices are driving working-class residents out of the city.
As Baldwin sees it, the issue is supply and demand. Since the Great Recession, the city’s housing stock hasn’t kept up with population growth, and its zoning laws allowed only single-family homes in 80 percent of the city.
Baldwin wants more housing. She wants townhouses, duplexes, triplexes, tiny homes, and accessory dwelling units. She wants taller apartment buildings and housing clusters near transit. She wants to let builders build.
“We know growth is coming,” Baldwin said. “You can’t just sweep it under the rug and say, ‘Oh, we’re gonna stop growth.’ No, it’s coming. And if you just sweep it under the rug, you’ve created more unaffordability.”
But those plans put Baldwin on a collision course with Raleigh’s 18 citizens advisory councils. The city-sponsored groups—which represented different sections of the city and were open to whoever showed up—had served as residents’ main conduit for civic engagement since 1974.
They’d also become gatekeepers of growth—and sometimes bastions of NIMBYism. By an unwritten rule, developers had to pitch their projects to local citizens advisory councils, or CACs, before seeking the city’s approval. CACs were made up of volunteers who voted on whether developments should move forward. Though their views weren’t binding, critics, including Baldwin, said this process empowered these self-selected volunteers to make provincial demands.
In February 2020, two months after Baldwin became mayor, the city council cut off the CACs’ funding and staff support.
The decision would have been controversial under any circumstances. But the execution poured gasoline on the fire. The vote wasn’t on the meeting’s agenda, and CAC leaders weren’t warned. Council member David Cox, who drew political support from CACs, was kept in the dark.
Baldwin explained that previous attempts to rein in CACs had collapsed after heated public hearings, and she didn’t want the fight.
“They still would have been angry, no matter what,” Baldwin said in early October, sipping rosé in a downtown bar.
The CAC vote became a rallying cry for Baldwin’s opponents.
“This current council finds it much more convenient to govern in private and make their decisions in private,” former council member and Baldwin antagonist Russ Stephenson told The Assembly. “And they find that governing in public and engaging the citizens in important decisions is a pain in the neck.”
Critics pointed out that Baldwin worked as a vice president at Holt Brothers Construction, a position she’d held since 2012. (Raleigh’s mayor is a part-time employee who, at the time, was paid $27,550 a year, including expenses. The council recently increased the mayor’s salary to just under $46,000.)
When Baldwin left Holt Brothers for a similar position at Barnhill Contracting in May 2020, her critics pointed to a $6.3 million city contract Barnhill had landed two months earlier as proof of Baldwin’s alleged corruption.
Baldwin said the street-resurfacing contract was awarded before Barnhill approached her, and she pledged to recuse herself from any issue involving the company. Her opponents weren’t satisfied.
Baldwin left Barnhill for First Tee Triangle, a children’s golf charity where she is vice president of advancement, in September 2021. She caught flak for that, too: Four of the 22 members of the nonprofit’s board of directors work in real estate development.
But scrutiny of Baldwin’s industry ties peaked a year into her tenure.
In December 2020, the city council voted 7-1, with Cox in opposition, to overrule its planning commission and approve a rezoning request for a $2 billion mixed-use sports and entertainment district called Downtown South.
The project’s developer, John Kane, and his wife had given Baldwin’s campaign the legal maximum of $10,800. (He donated to other mayoral candidates as well.)
Neighborhood advocates worried that the project would displace South Raleigh residents and said the city should have pressured Kane to include more affordable units. As straightforward as that seems, the fight revealed how few options local governments actually have in these situations.
State law bans rent control and likely prohibits local governments from making rezoning contingent on affordable housing, a practice called inclusionary zoning. They can insist on affordable housing in agreements for public subsidies, but subsidies weren’t part of Downtown South’s rezoning application.
Denying the rezoning risked losing an opportunity to redevelop a vacant industrial site the city had eyed for more than a decade. Approving it meant the council could negotiate for affordable housing when Kane pursued $75 million in available tax breaks. (In November 2021, he put plans to seek a subsidy on hold.)
Decisions on affordable housing issues are more complicated than many people realize, said council member Jonathan Melton.
“There is not going to be a simple solution to this problem,” Melton said. “So anybody stepping forward and saying, ‘Here’s a simple solution, just do it,’ that’s probably not going to work. And they probably, quite frankly, haven’t thought about it enough.”
But after the Kane vote, a perception took hold. A poll commissioned in February 2022 by Livable Raleigh, an anti-development organization whose leaders include some of Baldwin’s longtime foes, found that 72 percent of voters think the city council is beholden to developers.
Stephenson, a member of Livable Raleigh’s advisory committee, said the council’s allegiances have brought out antidemocratic tendencies.
“They’ve decided it’s so much easier for them, and meets the goals of their big-dollar donors, to make big decisions in private,” he said. “They have gone out of their way to suppress and limit public engagement.”
Beyond gutting CACs, the city council moved to allow so-called missing-middle housing—duplexes, backyard cottages, and other forms of multifamily housing—in traditionally single-family neighborhoods without involving the public, Stephenson said.
When he’d been on the council, Stephenson said he tried to reach a consensus on missing-middle development that “was both affordable and compatible” through a “citywide public engagement process.” But, he added, “I never had the five votes to move it forward.”
Stephenson and two council allies lost re-election bids in 2019, when voters rejected a governing body perceived as being paralyzed by indecision. Baldwin’s council spent more than a year developing its missing-middle rules. But Baldwin ultimately opted for action instead of more debate, even if the outcome didn’t please everyone.
Asked about the different approaches, Baldwin pointed to a line in The News & Observer’s endorsement of her re-election: “Despite problems of image, Baldwin has delivered on issues of substance.”
But her penchant for efficiency came back to bite her in June 2021, when the city council voted in a closed session, without public debate, to ask the General Assembly to postpone city elections.
Census data had been delayed by the pandemic, which meant the city couldn’t redraw council districts before the scheduled October 2021 election. But instead of holding the election during the primaries in early 2022, the council got it moved to this November—essentially giving themselves an extra eight months in office.
The city attorney said at the time that the legal issues required confidentiality and therefore a closed-session vote. Baldwin says the city’s growth complicated the redistricting process so much that the new maps might not be finished in time for the primaries.
But some residents saw elected officials bypassing voters to grant themselves extended reign, and Livable Raleigh launched a campaign to recall the mayor. In eight months, the group collected fewer than 3,000 of the 14,000 signatures it needed to force a recall election, which Stephenson blamed on the pandemic and “antiquated rules” that prevented the use of digital tools.
“We did a tremendous amount of awareness-raising about the issues, which is ultimately what we want to do,” Stephenson said. “Somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 people made a real serious effort to sign their name on a piece of paper saying they’re unhappy with the way the current mayor is doing her job.”
Still, at least 150,000 people are likely to vote for Raleigh’s mayor next month, based on previous turnout numbers.
“They don’t have support out there across the so-called silent majority,” city council member David Knight said of Livable Raleigh. “They just don’t.”
In cities across the country, affordable housing has become a Gordian knot of divergent interests, limited resources, and racist legacies. Raleigh, the nation’s third-hottest housing market, is no different.
City leaders segregated Raleigh a century ago by concentrating schools for Black children in the city’s southeast, near a landfill and rock quarry. After decades of neglect, absentee landlords and public housing moved in; middle-class Black families moved out.
Downtown reemerged in the 2000s, and white homebuyers flocked to cheaper, traditionally Black neighborhoods to its east. Small, aging homes were torn down and replaced or renovated and flipped. Property values—and taxes—rose. Homeowners sold to investors. Landlords raised rents. More white residents moved in.
The low interest rates, rising costs of construction materials and labor, and influx of new people that accompanied the pandemic accelerated this process. From April 2020 to July 2021, more than 28,000 people moved into the Raleigh real estate market, according to research from UNC-Chapel Hill’s business school.
Raleigh is “in the advanced stages of gentrification, and it’s priced out large numbers of people,” professor James H. Johnson Jr. told The Assembly. From 2021 to 2022, Raleigh’s rents rose by an average of 14 percent. Home prices shot up by 22 percent.
Johnson said the city needed to focus on so-called workforce housing aimed at residents like police, nurses, and teachers. “These are competitiveness issues for us,” he said. “We’re gonna lose our share of the global marketplace if we don’t fix these problems.”
Those workers were the focus of the $80 million bond that Baldwin pushed and Raleigh voters passed in 2020. But workforce housing isn’t the same as low-income housing, which is why some housing advocates opposed the 2020 bond. At the time, council member Cox said it gave developers “a blank check” to build “market and near-market-rate housing while building only a small number of affordable housing units.”
“The poor people can’t go away because there’s nowhere for them to go,” said Dawn Blagrove, director of the social justice organization Emancipate NC.
But housing for low-income residents costs a lot more to subsidize than near-market-rate housing. The bond revenue wouldn’t help as many people if it focused on low-income housing.
“The reality of it is, nobody can provide everyone in the city a subsidized, income-restricted unit,” Melton said. “That’s just not how it will ever work.”
Many housing advocates view the city council’s reliance on density with suspicion. The $400,000 townhomes being built across the city won’t help households that earn $50,000 a year, they argue.
“They’re pro-developer, and they seem to really feel like the market will solve this issue,” said Yolanda Taylor, an attorney who runs The Center for Community Law & Equity and a member of the Wake County Housing Justice Coalition. “How are you a city that is trying to grow so fast and intensely and not have a comprehensive plan for how you are going to address affordable housing?”
Advocates have also argued that the $275 million bond referendum the council placed on this November’s ballot to fund parks and greenways will speed gentrification by increasing property values (and taxes) in low-income neighborhoods.
But Baldwin and other bond proponents say long-overlooked neighborhoods deserve the amenities they’ve been denied.
“Last night, we heard from some people in the Southeast Raleigh community who felt that parks gentrified their community,” Baldwin said in early October. “And you know what? The investment in [John Chavis Memorial Park], we have a lot of public housing around there. I look at it as an amenity for people who for many years didn’t have that amenity.”
Wanda Hunter, who is running for city council in Southeast Raleigh, said that she has found common ground with wealthy white homeowners in the Hayes-Barton neighborhood across town. This summer, they learned that a developer planned to tear down a century-old house in Hayes Barton and build 17 townhomes on the lot, which will sell for as much as $2 million.
Council members “are continuously doing this,” Hunter said. “They’re not looking at the land-use map, not looking at the character of the neighborhoods, and most importantly, they’re not talking to the community to find out how they feel about it.”
The project in Hayes Barton hasn’t been approved yet. But because of the council’s reforms, the development does not need to go through rezoning. In protest, the neighbors started a campaign called Save Our Neighborhoods to restore the rezoning process.
“You have no voice in these decisions in your neighborhood,” said Frank Gordon, an attorney who is on the group’s steering committee.
Gordon, whose home’s value is assessed for tax purposes at about $800,000, doesn’t believe that missing-middle housing will reduce home prices. But even if it did, Gordon doesn’t think affordable housing should disrupt what residents like about the city.
“Instead of tearing it all apart and screwing it up, maybe we should say, ‘We’re full. We’re not going to tear apart everything we’ve done just for people who would like to live near downtown Raleigh in a $100,000 townhome,’” Gordon said. “Well, you know, that’s not the market. There ain’t no such thing.”
Melton said the two groups that are complaining the loudest about increased density—residents of gentrifying communities and wealthy white homeowners—make strange bedfellows.
“They’re not actually aligned,” he argued. “They can’t be aligned, because the folks who are trying to throw up walls around their old, rich white neighborhoods and keep new types of housing out, they are funneling that [affordability] pressure into vulnerable communities like Southeast Raleigh.
“One of the strangest phenomenons I’ve experienced since I’ve been on council is how the people with housing have convinced the people without housing that the people who build housing are the problem.”
‘This is Where We’re Going’
Baldwin’s defiant public persona might be best summed up by an irreverent, urinating dog.
In 2013, legislative Republicans threatened to torpedo Raleigh’s lease on the expansive Dorothea Dix Park just south of downtown, which is now home to an ambitious redevelopment effort. Then-council member Baldwin protested by posting a photo on Facebook of her dog—Jack Bauer, a Yorkie-Maltese mix named for the lead character in the counter-terrorism drama series 24—peeing on a marble column outside of the General Assembly building.
It was quintessential Baldwin: more winking than churlish, but designed to provoke outrage that she almost seems to revel in.
Two years later, liberal businessman Dean Debnam published a full-page newspaper ad accusing Baldwin of wanting to turn downtown Raleigh into “DrunkTown” after she backed bars in a long dispute with high-rise condo-dwellers who desired less bacchanal. At her campaign victory party, Baldwin posed with a T-shirt declaring herself “Mayor of #Drunktown.”(After she announced her mayoral bid in 2019, a newspaper headline called her “The Notorious M.A.B.” That turned into an unofficial campaign T-shirt, too.)
Baldwin has always been a Democrat, but she’s never been close with the party’s base. On the city council, her alliances with downtown businesses and developers put her at odds with older liberals nostalgic for Raleigh’s past. As mayor, she’s seen by some progressive activists as indifferent to the needs of the city’s marginalized neighborhoods.
“She likes to pretend that she’s listening to the people and she cares what people think,” said Blagrove of Emancipate NC. “But she really does not.”
On July 25, 2022, the Wake County Democratic Party stunned some local observers by endorsing Baldwin’s opponent, first-time candidate Terrance Ruth, as well as challengers to Democratic incumbents in four council races.
Raleigh leans Democratic, but its elections are nonpartisan. The county Democrats did little to explain their rationale.
Party chair Kevyn Creech declined to speak on the record for this article. But she admitted to The News & Observer in July that there was “genuine shock and dismay” among some party members over the decision to endorse in the mayoral race.
Baldwin gave the N&O a classic response: “I have $500,000 in the bank. I’m going to take my message to all the voters of Raleigh, and not just a few radical activists.”
Put another way: So what?
As of the most recent campaign finance report, filed on October 4, Baldwin had raised more than $700,000, and she had more than $523,000 in the bank. Ruth, by contrast, had raised about $41,000 and had a little over $8,000 on hand.
Ruth, a professor at N.C. State, opposes a soccer stadium in Downtown South and the parks bond on the November ballot, and says he will “massively” expand subsidies and public-private partnerships to aid affordable housing. But his campaign mostly exists as a tabula rasa for those who believe Baldwin has cut off the public from their government.
History suggests that won’t be enough. It’s been two decades since an incumbent Raleigh mayor lost a re-election bid. And though this election—occurring in November of an even year rather than October of an odd one—presents uncertainties Baldwin hasn’t previously faced, she has money and name recognition, and she’s closed the campaign by leading the city through tragedy.
Baldwin disputes the claim that she hasn’t been transparent. She said the council has “more liberal” public-comment rules than anywhere else in the state. And though the pandemic delayed its rollout, she argued that the city’s new community engagement office will reach more people more effectively than CACs did.
But she said pandemic restrictions prevented the public from getting to know her. “[What] people don’t understand is that I am probably one of the most empathetic people you’ll ever find,” Baldwin said.
She said her opponents have caricatured her as abrasive and uncaring, which she attributed to being “an assertive, go-get-’em woman, and not everybody likes that.”
“If men are assertive, if they want to get things done, if they put their foot down, if they say, ‘This is where we’re going,’ they’re called great leaders,” Baldwin said. “When a woman does that, we get called other things.”
Baldwin is mostly OK with being called other things. Just as long as one of those things is mayor.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated which statute restricts local governments’ authority on affordable housing and misidentified where Yolanda Taylor works.
Jeffrey Billman reports on politics and the law for The Assembly. He is the former editor-in-chief of INDY Week in Durham. Email him at email@example.com.
Additional reporting by Leigh Tauss.