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Chapel Hill Mayoral Race Starts Heating Up After Town Forum

by: Tristan Dufresne,

CHAPEL HILL — Two candidates are facing off in the 2019 Chapel Hill mayoral election, incumbent Pam Hemminger and challenger Josh Levenson. The election, which includes four open seats on the Chapel Hill Town Council, will be held November 5.

Levenson, a yoga instructor, is challenging Hemminger, who is running for her third consecutive two-year term as mayor of the town that houses approximately 61,000 residents and a major university, and whose budget in the 2019 fiscal year comes to almost $116 million.

The two mayoral candidates answered questions at a town hall public forum on Monday, September 9 at East Chapel Hill High School. Nearly 80 community members gathered to hear their respective policy proposals.

“I have been serving this community for over 30 years,” Mayor Hemminger told the crowd at East Chapel Hill High. “Working on things like affordable housing, like improving our public transit system…[and] environmentalism is at the heart of what I’m passionate about.”

“I’m also a mother, have served as an elected official in other capacities, and now I’m a small business owner,” Hemminger added. “Knowing this community for so long and knowing what the possibilities can be makes me really excited.”

Levenson said he does not see his newcomer status as a deterrent to his possible tenure in town government.

“I am going to do everything I possibly can to mobilize a volunteer base,” he told the Sundial in an interview this month.

“I come from a background in STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] and have a master’s degree in mathematics and worked in education for five or six years,” Levenson said. “I spent time teaching yoga, being an environmental explorer and surfer around the world for five or six years,” he said , “but then gradually [got] involved in all these environmental service and educational projects.”

In speaking of her work as mayor, Hemminger also referenced the “climate action plan that the interns have been working on all summer.”

Although she did not want to go into specifics until the climate action plan is released to the public later, the last official update on Chapel Hill’s climate plan was presented to the Town Council in April of this year.

The town has pledged to have a finalized climate plan by 2020 that will include initiatives like switching a significant amount of public lighting to compact fluorescents and LED, as well as composting efforts.

Levenson currently works at the Loving Kindness Yoga School. His campaign website promises to help Chapel Hill’s low-income residents by weatherizing homes in need of repair, to “stop developers from tearing down our last affordable housing without guaranteeing to build 15 percent more” and directing funding for pre-K and afterschool programs, among other priorities.

Levenson also told the Sundial that he sees “no reason for a pure environmental focus, because there’s no reason to do anything for the environment if we’re not taking care of our marginalized community members.” However, he did not separate the two issues totally: “If we are thinking far into the future, [environmental policy] is one of the most critical things we can address for social justice.”

Hemminger weighed in on the issue of traffic congestion and parking shortages. “The pressures of growth have really caused us to look at everything comprehensively, instead of piece by piece,” she told the Sundial.

Hemminger explained, “We have an amazing transit system that we are trying to expand... We are also attempting to build a new parking deck downtown, but we are in a chicken-and-egg situation. We can’t build any new commercial because we can’t park it, but we can’t justify [adding] parking without commercial.”

Levenson told the Sundial, “I personally believe we should not be building more parking into downtown Chapel Hill, I think we should build parking on the outskirts of town and create more frequent transportation that helps people get into downtown.” He continued, “As for low-income residents who rely on affordable housing, I would look to make parking passes for them that are free or low-cost.”

Levenson told the Sundial, “There is one other social initiative in addition to the typical affordable housing efforts that all candidates are working towards, and that’s the way our parks and recreation programs and the way that we fund youth programs and community centers…can take a huge step toward addressing the opportunity gap in our schools.”

During Hemminger’s tenure, the town has confronted several issues related to affordable housing and development. The Sundial has previously reported on a developer’s plan to displace residents of the Lakeview Mobile Home Park off Weaver Dairy Road in northern Chapel Hill.

Despite the widely protested intentions of the landowner, the mobile park at 1000 Weaver Dairy Road “has not been shut down yet," Hemminger told the Sundial.

"[Lakeview] will not be closed until a solution has been worked out," and the residents have somewhere else to live, she said, making it clear that her administration's efforts had stalled the evictions, but not elaborating further.

Lakeview residents live in 33 mobile homes on a lot marked for development into a multi-use “commercial park” of retail, town homes, several hundred apartments and more than 300 parking spaces. The proposed development would add density and commercial activity near the Timberlyne shopping district and Chapel Hill North plaza.

Hemminger attained the mayorship by challenging an incumbent in 2015, unseating two-term mayor Mark Kleinschmidt as part of a wave of political turnover favoring candidates endorsed by the Chapel Hill Alliance for a Liveable Town (CHALT).

The political group has focused on public management of town growth since its formation in the prelude to the 2015 election; its related PAC, the Chapel Hill Leadership Political Action Committee, was created in 2017. CHALT had not released 2019 candidate endorsements as of publication, but those are expected to be announced before October.

Mayor Hemminger was asked if, in the interest of the democratic spirit, she's ultimately happy that she is not running unopposed.

"Happy isn't the right word," she replied. "But it's a great opportunity to get out there and tighten up [my] message."

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