As Raleigh Mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin seeks a second term, she has plenty to run on: The city is booming, mass transit projects are moving forward and an $80 million city bond is paying to build more affordable housing.
But for all the good news, someone keeps getting in the way – Mary-Ann Baldwin.
Even as the mayor presides over a bountiful period, her leadership style and support for development have drawn some critics. They say she ignores those who worry that rapid growth is erasing the city’s leafy character and that she supports developers over neighborhoods.
Baldwin is a Democrat, but the Wake County Democratic Party endorsed her opponent, Terrance Ruth, in the nonpartisan mayoral race. The group Livable Raleigh unsuccessfully petitioned to recall her from office. DaQuanta Copeland is also running on behalf of residents who are struggling as the city’s growth increases the cost of housing.
Baldwin, 66, said it was “a mistake” for the Wake Democratic Party to endorse in race between Democrats. She never really acknowledged the recall effort. And she makes no apologies for her style. She says she’ll listen to dissenting ideas, but she wants the City Council to keep moving in a city that can’t afford to wait.
“We are growing from a small city to a big city and that’s painful,” she said. “You can work together to come up with solutions. And that’s what it has to be. It can’t just be people yelling that they don’t want development to happen. It’s going to happen.”
After serving for a decade on the City Council, Baldwin took a two-year break before running for mayor in 2019. Six months afterward she was confronted by major challenges. The COVID-19 pandemic shut down much of the city. Then came the Black Lives Matter protests, damage to downtown Raleigh and clashes with police.
She was slow to show leadership during that period. Her problems were compounded by the City Council’s ending Citizen Advisory Councils and her decision to take a job with the Barnhill Contracting Company. The mayor’s employment with a company that could bid for city contracts prompted her critics to dub her “Mayor Barnhill.”
Baldwin dismissed that nickname as coming from people who think developers and builders are bad for the city. She said, “Where would we be if we didn’t have construction firms? Where would we be as a city? I think the whole thing was a ruse. It was used to attack me personally. “
In recent months, much of that tension has receded. Vaccines have eased the pandemic, a new police chief is rebuilding relations with the community, the economy has rebounded strongly and Baldwin, who earns $27,000 as mayor, gave up her second job at Barnhill.
Now, she said, the city is doing well. “We have more economic development proposals in the pipeline than ever before,” she said.
The city’s political establishment supports the mayor and contributors have given more than $500,000to to her campaign. So why the complaints?
Baldwin thinks some of it is that a woman who acts decisively is viewed as brusque while men doing the same are seen as efficient.
“Being a woman in politics is different than being a man in politics,” she told me. “People are going to criticize you in different ways. I am very straightforward. I’m direct and some people don’t like that.”
Baldwin is tuning out the noise and focusing on her agenda. Bus rapid transit will start next year and commuter rail is on the horizon. She encourages dense development to create more housing. And she’s working with the police to reduce gun violence.
“We’ve accomplished a lot and now we need to build on that,” she said. “I sense there’s excitement about that.”
Associate opinion editor Ned Barnett can be reached at 919-829-4512, or nbarnett@ newsobserver.com