Four challengers handily defeated two incumbents – one with a 16-year track record – Tuesday to win the race for four Town Council seats.
Hongbin Gu led the field with 6,116 votes, followed by Karen Stegman with 5,884 votes, Allen Buansi with 5,572 votes, and Rachel Schaevitz with 5,279 votes, with early voting and all 24 Chapel Hill precincts tallied.
Incumbent council members Ed Harrison, who was first elected in 2001, and Maria Palmer will join council members George Cianciolo and Sally Greene when they leave the board in December. Cianciolo and Greene decided not to seek re-election this year. Palmer is wrapping up her first term.
Challenger Carl Schuler trailed the field through the night.
The victory was “beyond our wildest expectations,” said Gu, a quantitative researcher with UNC’s School of Medicine. She faced a number of challenges to become the council’s first Chinese-American member, including social media criticism of her immigrant background. She also discovered, days before the election, that the U.S. Postal Service had closed her P.O. mailbox for two weeks and returned donations to their senders.
“It says something about about the community that we have,” she said of her victory. “I feel tremendously honored and just so happy.”
She has multiple priorities going into her first four-year term, Gu said, like continuing the council’s efforts to bring high-tech and startup companies to the town. Work on the town’s affordable housing and transportation plans also will be important, she said.
Harrison was tight-lipped about his defeat Tuesday night but noted that the average period of service when the new council takes office will be only 18 months. Council member Donna Bell will be the longest-serving council member at eight years; the mayor and two remaining members were elected in 2015.
His last four weeks will be spent tying up loose ends, added Harrison, who is the council’s go-to person for transportation-related projects in particular.
“There are a number of roles that have to be filled. There’s some things I’ll have to stop doing, and I would like to talk probably as much with (Mayor Pam Hemminger), as much as Roger Stancil about (ongoing) projects,” he said. “I want to make sure they’re finished. I want to be able to work with staff in some useful way to get them done ... like sidewalks and things like that that would not have happened without me.”
This also will be the first political office for Buansi, a Chapel Hill native and civil rights attorney; Schaevitz, the current chairwoman of the town’s American Legion Task Force and a member of the Cultural Arts Commission; and Stegman, the director of business development for IntraHealth International, who is a former member of the town’s Housing Advisory Board.
All four winners were endorsed by the Chapel Hill Alliance for a Livable Town (CHALT), which formed in 2015 to challenge the direction of town growth and development. The group helped to unseat Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt and former council members Lee Storrow and Jim Ward in that election.
Three members of the slate that CHALT endorsed that year – Nancy Oates, Jessica Anderson and Mayor Pam Hemminger – were elected to the council.
CHALT members also have criticized Palmer for her support of development projects and the form-based code approved in 2014 for the town’s Ephesus-Fordham (Blue Hill) district. The code lays out the guidelines for new buildings in the district and puts the authority to approve or reject projects in the hands of the town manager and the Community Design Commission.
CHALT members also have been critical of Stancil, accusing him of mismanaging the town finances and using public money and advocating for growth that only benefits developers, particularly at Obey Creek, a future development near Southern Village, and the Blue Hill district’s first project: the Berkshire apartments.
Harrison was the only member of the 2014 Town Council to vote against the form-based code.
Chapel Hill races
Town Council (4 seats)
Allen Buansi ... 18.30%
Hongbin Gu ... 20.09%
Ed Harrison* ... 13.07%
Maria Palmer* ... 9.56%
Rachel Schaevitz ... 17.34%
Karen Stegman ... 19.32%
Carl Schuler ... 1.98%
24 of 24 precincts reporting