Reflections from Raleigh

A stint in North Carolina offers perspective on some familiar concerns about transportation, school busing, local politics, and quality of life.
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Scattered clouds over Raleigh, N.C.

A stint in North Carolina offers perspective on some familiar concerns about transportation, school busing, local politics, and quality of life.

Having spent time recently in Raleigh, N.C., during a civic-election season, I have seen remarkable parallels between the issues facing our city and others. (I was in Raleigh to help the campaign efforts of my oldest son, an architect and urban planner, in his strong but ultimately unsuccessful effort to unseat a three-term incumbent city councilman).

The Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area ranks with Seattle as a "most highly educated" place in the country. Raleigh has a rich and diverse cultural life. It is North Carolina's capital, is home to several colleges including North Carolina State University, and has high-tech and biotech companies nearby. It notably lacks any big industrial employer. It has tree-lined streets and many parks.

Citizens are concerned with their quality of life and patterns of development as population continues to increase (estimated at about 20,000 per year over 10 years). They currently are debating transportation issues (light rail/bus/bus rapid transit mix) and the matter of backyard houses built on lots that traditionally have contained only single-family homes. The city grew out of sprawl; many leaders (including my son) are pushing for higher-density, planned development.

Raleigh's schools, part of a highly rated Wake County school system, graduate a high percentage of college-entry students. They also have a strong percentage of minority students — mostly black but with increasing Asian and Latino representation. They have had busing for purposes of school desegregation — and also to magnet schools throughout the system — for many years. But sentiment increasingly has fallen behind the concept of neighborhood schools, with limited busing reserved for magnet students.

Sound familiar?

Elections Tuesday night brought a county school board majority favoring the neighborhood concept. This represents a big change and, for minority parents in particular, anxiety. If neighborhood schools again become the order of the day, will skilled teachers and a quality curriculum prevail there?

Raleigh has a strong city manager system. The mayor, reelected Tuesday, has led carefully and without taking risks. Two city council members are elected at large, the others by district. My son, running in a district, appealed to minority, newcomer, and young-professional voters with a smart-growth, open-process platform. He was endorsed by minority leaders, police and firefighters, and well as known "progressive" city leaders. The incumbent, a multi-generation Raleigh native, appealed to the Old Raleigh with an outright anti-growth platform and with the endorsement only of the local Sierra Club. He made no effort in minority precincts. In a low-turnout election — no national or statewide offices or important ballot measures were to be decided — the incumbent held his seat. All but one council member, in fact, won reelection. The only exception was a one-term incumbent with a shocking absentee record at council meetings.

It is a far reach to imagine any Seattle candidate brushing off minority precincts. We love our neighborhoods and single-family homes but also recognize that growth will come and must be managed. We have made some important transportation decisions here but many remain unresolved. Seattle schools, as those in Wake County, N.C., are moving back toward the neighborhood concept after many years of expensive and often counterproductive busing of students out of their neighborhoods. We face here the same question: Will all neighborhood schools be equally good schools?

It is healthy to see, in such places as Seattle and Raleigh, fundamental and even conceptual questions dominating the electoral processes. What kind of city do we want? What mix of transportation systems would best serve our region? How can the quality of local education be improved? And, most of all, how can we maintain a quality of life that caused many of us to stay here or to migrate from elsewhere?

Within all this, of course, are the nuts-and-bolts questions about ways and means. How can we generate growth, jobs, and tax revenue to provide the things we want? What spending and tax levels will be needed? Who shall benefit from spending and who shall provide the needed revenues?

These are questions facing every major urban area. Seattle and Raleigh are not exceptions but, because of their economic and population profiles, are more focused on "quality of life" issues than many others. Both cities, it must be said, appear to be headed to similar and ultimately positive destinations, with some painful mistakes and diversions en route.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk

Ted Van Dyk has been active in national policy and politics since 1961, serving in the White House and State Department and as policy director of several Democratic presidential campaigns. He is author of Heroes, Hacks and Fools and numerous essays in national publications. You can reach him in care of