Two Greenville City Council members are giving voters a choice in the city’s first contested, incumbent-less mayoral race in a decade. The competitive race began soon after former Mayor Allen Thomas resigned before the end of his term.
One candidate comes from the private sector, the other has spent most of his career teaching at a public university. One has served two years on the council, the other has served 10 years. But the differences between Council Member P.J. Connelly, District 5, and At-large Council Member Calvin Mercer don’t end there – they both have very different views on how to make Greenville a better place to live. Connelly, who’s owned a real estate business for 10 years, says his private sector experience influences how he’d lead the city.
“I feel like I’m more pro-growth, more moving things forward than we are right now," he said. "I don’t think he has that same thought process.”
He measures growth by the number of new businesses moving to the city, and maintains that high-paying jobs are key to economic development, Connelly said. But Mercer, who’s served on the council for ten years, says the city shouldn’t welcome any type of development. Instead, it should encourage businesses and development that will improve the city’s quality of life, he said.
“I am not pro-development anywhere, anytime, pro-growth anywhere, anyway because it’s not sustainable. Again, you want to build quality into your growth," he said. "I don’t want growth just in the next six months, I want growth in the next six years and the next 16 years.”
If he’s elected mayor, he would continue to advocate for cleaner parks more sidewalks, bike lanes and greenways, Mercer said. These improvements will attract professionals to the area and help retain East Carolina University graduates, he said.
“Greenways are important. They are linear parks. They are another way for people to not only get around, but to recreate and be healthy and stay healthy," he said. "If you go to progressive cities, cities that are viewed as the top cities you want to move to, they have greenway programs, they have walkability, bikability.”
Because municipal elections are non-partisan, voters can’t draw a distinction between Mercer and Connelly based on political party. But the two candidates have voted differently while on the city council. When the council considered buying the Imperial Tobacco Warehouse downtown after the city received a grant to clean up the toxic site, Connelly voted against the aquisition. Mercer voted in favor of the project, along with the majority of council members.
“So, the Imperial site is going to be a real great addition to our city. And it’s an example of the kind of public private partnership, going after grants that I think characterizes how I will try to lead the city," Mercer said. "It also is a good example of the differences between my major opponent and myself.”
For his part, Connelly says he's not totally opposed to the city working with developers on major projects. But those ambitions shouldn’t take precedence over basic infrastructure improvements, he said.
“I think a lot of times you get lost looking for that pie in the sky and trying to figure out what that next big thing will be. You could look at a $20 or 30 million project that might be great, it might be fancy, it might be shiny. But is that going to grow our community? I think a lot of times we lose focus on cleanliness throughout our city. I think when you go to different communities, you’ll see that the grass is really well kept, there’s no trash in the area, their infrastructure doesn’t have potholes,” Connelly said.
In addition to leading the council on policy matters, the mayor also serves as the face of the city – that means attending ceremonies, working with county and state lawmakers and welcoming new businesses into the city. If he wins the mayoral spot on Tuesday, Connelly said, he will use his background in business to encourage prospective employers to re-locate to the city.
“I want us to be friendly for people coming and looking to open a business here because I think it’s important. The more people that we welcome into our community, the more people that come here and locate here. I hate to say it, but the more taxes that we’ll receive," he said. "And that’s more that we can do as a community to help out on infrastructure, to help out on public services, our public safety and to help on recruiting businesses.”
Campaign finance reports show both Connelly and Mercer have raised a little more than $44,000 each. But Connelly has relied on fewer contributions in larger sums – with only $225 coming from contributions that are $50 or less. Conversely, mercer has received more than twice as many contributions this year – with about $3,800 coming from individuals giving $50 or less.
Curtis Pulley and Ernest Reeves are also running for mayor. Neither of those candidates have ever served in local government. And their campaigns have raised less than $1,000 each.
Election Day is Tuesday, November 7, in several municipalities across Eastern North Carolina.