Mayor_Esther_Manheimer_2013Why did Esther Manheimer run for mayor of Asheville?

“Because I run a really good meeting?” she quips. “Because I love Robert’s Rules of Order?”

Manheimer stops joking for a moment to note that, yes, deep down she does, indeed, adore Robert’s Rules of Order. Which is odd, because if you take the parliamentary procedure manual at face value, the regulations could be seen as uber-masculine and a most inefficient way to run a meeting, she says. As a woman, they’re certainly rules Manheimer would never write if she were writing a guidebook to running a meeting. Next question?

Manheimer is one week removed from her cakewalk of an election victory in which she captured about 70 percent of the vote. Only about 10 percent of eligible city voters cast a ballot. The numbers seem irrelevant to Manheimer, who is in full-on transition mode to taking over the city figurehead spot she’ll be sworn into on Dec. 18. She’s been busily answering 100 emails, working on her calendar and planning to attend training sessions, not the least of which is the The Seminar on Transition and Leadership for Newly-Elected Mayors. The invitation-only program for new mayors is held at the Harvard University Institute of Politics. Manheimer will be one of a select group who will receive executive leadership training from public policy experts in a variety of fields.

Her business-like approach – she’s an attorney at The Van Winkle Law Firm who spent her first four years as an attorney after law school working for the North Carolina General Assembly – thinly veils a real zest for policy discussions, a self-deprecating sense of humor (Robert’s Rules of Order, anyone?) and a deep-seated love of her hometown.

I caught up with Manheimer on Monday for a 30-minute talk about a range of issues. Here’s the best of that:

Manheimer on what’s at the top on her agenda:

Manheimer says her successful platform was this: securing the long-term financial stability of Asheville so the city could implement all it’s been working on, from greenways and sidewalks to sustainability measures and job growth. It’s all predicated on the long-term financial health of the city, and it’s a plan “that revolves around a $111 million investment in the city over the next five years,” she says.

That investment will come through a variety of funding sources, according to Manheimer. One example is the River Arts District transportation improvement plan. It’s a multi-million dollar blueprint to improve infrastructure in the RAD, a location the city has clearly identified as a new growth frontier. The project includes extending a greenway, moving Riverside Drive and partnering with private investors, Manheimer says.

“What we’re hearing is we want greenways, a boulevard setting and not a highway. Underground utilities. That we need to move the road. So that’s the kind of thing that involves taxyer money,” but money that is combined with outside funding and invested in the long term, Manheimer says.

Manheimer on working with Republicans in the N.C. General Assembly:

I asked Manheimer if there were any plans for Asheville City Council to approach state House and Senate lawmakers from Buncombe County to ask for an increase in the county’s hotel tax. The occupancy tax, at 4 percent, is lower than most North Carolina counties, and the money the tax brings in is controlled by a separate board. The city of Asheville is on the verge of a downtown hotel building boom, with several projects on the boards.

Manheimer says any discussion “would seem unlikely.” Lawmakers are unreceptive.

“It’s important to continue to communicate with the Legislature. I’m going to continue to go down there and talk with them. The downside is knowing what may or may not be possible. We know that other revenue options are tenuous at best. For that matter, a food beverage tax would be a substantial revenue stream,” she says, but that, too, appears unlikely.

Manheimer went on to note that she pushed for the city to hire a lobbyist, which it now has in Jack Cozort, a former N.C. Court of Appeals judge and once legal counsel to Gov. Jim Hunt. Having Cozort aboard “has been extremely helpful in just tracking what’s happening in Raleigh,” Manheimer says.

“There are ways that elected bodies can work to develop strategies to communicate with the state Legislature, and I think we have not fully explored those. I’ve talked with our lobbyist about basically training us on relationship building and communication strategies, so that at least we can do our part to be as effective as possible,” Manheimer says.

Manheimer, expanding on her election night comments about Asheville leading other N.C. cities, and the state as a whole, on issues:

Manheimer says she is talking about Asheville’s leadership role in two senses. The first is having the city be innovative and creative in working on issues, solving problems and generating economic growth. “The role of cities is changing in America, with more and more stepping up in terms of job growth and economic development. I think there’s a lot the city can do,” she says. (Here’s one story on the changing role of cities today.)

Asheville can also lead in terms of the political atmosphere in North Carolina, Manheimer says. The state, for example, first went for Obama and then voted for Romney four years later. North Carolina now has Republicans holding sway in the governor’s office, the state Senate and the state House. Its residents are grappling with issues that reflect nationally.

“To me, this is such a fluid thing in North Carolina, but the trajectory with the growth in the minority population and influx of Hispanic residents – I just don’t see us landing in conservative column long term. Asheville may be marginalized in Raleigh right now, but it is incumbent on us to lead a charge with other urban cores to say, ‘Wait a second. Social just issues are important to us. Education is important to us,'” Manheimer says.

“On these key issues, I think our Legislature has gone too far, and we’ll see a correction. But we can’t just sit and be quiet. I think we’re riding a tidal wave. I don’t mean to be overly optimistic, and I don’t think the people in Raleigh are bad people. I think they’re well intended. I think there’s a fundamental disagreement.”

Manheimer on why she ran for mayor:

“I ran because I love this community. I’m passionate about city issues. They’re really exciting, really tangible to me. People want to stop you on the street and talk about these issues, and when people talk to me about them, I feel a real weight. Yes, I want to think about that and I want to do the smartest thing. I feel like my vision for this community and my role in this community is to facilitate a constructive conversation with the best policies to address those concerns and be proactive.”

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7 Comments

  1. Curtis Cash says:

    Put cameras on the poles in the high risk areas, to stop drawing and painting on Bus. buildings. When you ID the people, chg. them $50.00-100.00 and istead of putting them in jail. I promise you it will STOP!

  2. If Asheville really wants to raise the room tax, the people to convince are the hoteliers. If they saw the benefit to raising it, and were willing to advocate for that, it would be done in a heartbeat. But if it’s attempted in opposition to them (or at least the biggest hotels) it will never work. The General Assembly is not the issue, but local relationships and coalitions.

  3. Jonathan Wainscott says:

    None of this “new” growth is any different from the growth that has been occurring over the last two decades. The rising tide has only lifted life boats, but the impoverished conditions in those boats haven’t changed. Developers and landlords will make money, as they always have, but the trickle-down policies of her corporate welfare won’t do anything for the under employed living in an expensive town. Take an economic snapshot now and save it for the next election. Track the progress of the promises made by Esther, Cecil, and Gordon. New Council same as the old Council.

    • I agree, non of the ideas above represent innovation.

      Also: “I don’t think the people in Raleigh are bad people. I think they’re well intended.”

      Really, when can we say they’re “bad people”. Do we have to wait until they build an altar to Satan in the General Assembly and start sacrificing babies on it?

      I don’t think this middle of the road attempt to not ruffle any feathers gains any political dividends.

      Want some free political advice, Esther? Be real and people will respond. We know things are not good, they are not working, you don’t always have to put a “positive spin” on everything. People are starving around here and all we get are platitudes and deals that help developers while things stay the f***ing same every single year for regular working people.

  4. what about east asheville?

    • Shush we don’t need to draw any attention to the east side like West Asheville has done to itself. That place is getting too big for its britches, especially with New Belgium coming to town.

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