NEW HANOVER COUNTY — It was a slow, optimistic Election Day — with candidates roaming the various precincts as voters trickled in and out to cast their ballots in the municipal election. Traffic picked up around lunch and during morning and evening rush hours, when people were commuting to and from work. Nearly 10,000 residents voted early throughout the second half of October, according to initial public tallies.
By mid-morning Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo was outside Bradley Creek Elementary and described the vibes as “positive.” It is Saffo’s ninth time campaigning in a municipal election, which he recognizes is the slowest type of cycle.
The past two municipal elections had fewer than 19,000 ballots cast. Comparatively, more than 130,000 voters turned out to 2020’s general election, and a total of 89,403 ballots were cast in 2018.
The New Hanover County Board of Elections began counting early votes Tuesday afternoon; 194 absentee-by-mail ballots were sent in, according to elections officials.
Of the early voting sites around the county, the Senior Resource Center saw the most voters, at 4,161 since Oct. 14 when the window began. Following in second was the Northeast Library with 4,042 voters; the Cape Fear Community College throughput was 1,446 ballots during early voting, according to initial tallies.
After the meeting, board member Bruce Kemp — an IT specialist who previously served as an election judge in Fairfax, VA — counted his steps from the Northeast Library’s entrance to ensure both parties’ politickers, who hawked sample ballots, were in compliance with electioneering law. A first-year board member, he said he plans to ask lots of questions about the local elections process.
Saffo’s goal for the day has been to traverse as many precincts and encounter as many voters as possible, then watch the results roll in later tonight. If elected, Saffo will tack another two-year term onto his already 14-year career as mayor.
“There’s a lot of energy behind [a municipal] election,” Saffo said. “You talk about your platform, you talk about the things that you’ve done, the things that you want to continue to do. And, hopefully, the electorate that’s coming out to vote will support my ideas and my positions.”
The long-time mayor can pitch several wins –– a thriving film industry, the newly opened Riverfront Park with its successful inaugural concert season, and an overhauled land code designed to influence the city’s future. He refers to himself as a “consensus-builder” that has worked well with council members and leaders at the county, state and federal levels. With eight consecutive re-elections under his belt, the question for voters weighing the Saffo ticket is: Am I happy with the way things are going?
“I think it’s a matter, from my perspective as far as the mayor’s race is concerned, of, ‘Do we continue to move in the direction that we have been as a community?’” Saffo said. “We’ve made a lot of progress on a lot of different fronts. We’ve created a lot of job growth in the community. We’ve put a lot of infrastructure in place. We’ve revitalized downtown Wilmington …
“My opponent says we need new ideas and new thoughts and new change. But I guess at the end of the day, we’ll see what the voters say.”
Though Saffo has victories to display, he’s also been met with criticism. With growth and development rapidly changing the face of the greater Wilmington area, some residents have raised concerns about traffic, gentrification and environmental impacts under his watch.
That’s where his opponent, former N.C. Senator and once-Mayor Harper Peterson, steps in. Peterson spent the day poll-hopping. By early afternoon he’d reached Cape Fear Community College, where he greeted familiar faces and made his pitch to strangers. His first priority? Growth and development. It’s an issue he says interrelates with jobs, affordable housing and climate change.
The latest U.S. Census shows the population in New Hanover County has increased from 202,667 in April 2010 to 225,702 in April 2020.
“It’s more than just crowded streets, and the loss of our tree canopy, and flooding consistently, constantly,” Peterson said. “It’s about, ‘How is growth and development improving my stake in the community, with a job, with a house, with a living wage to support my family?’”
Peterson said he reassures voters he plans to protect them from the change. One way to do that, he proposes, is creating new jobs, potentially ones in green fields like renewable energy.
He is hopeful a younger crowd turned out to support him. Not only is Peterson soliciting Gen-Z and millennial votes, but he said he’s committed to appointing those generations to boards and commissions, rather than giving the same platforms to the same people on repeat.
“They’re inheriting the city, and they need to be part of the decision making,” Peterson said.
Peterson has been seen as the more progressive of the two candidates. Saffo received an endorsement from the Republican Party, which steered some Democrats away.
Despite the fact that municipal elections are supposed to be nonpartisan in North Carolina, many voters accept pre-filled copies of ballots from the Democrat or Republican parties while heading into the polls, giving them the party-approved cheat sheet in the ballot box.
Early afternoon in Wrightsville Beach, elected officials hung out at the elementary school, talking to locals who made the trek to the polls. In the evening back at Bradley Creek, one Democratic volunteer told passers-by that Angelica Ulmer had dropped out from the city council race.
“If you sit out here long enough, everybody’s got a pet peeve they want to talk about,” said Wrightsville Beach Mayor Pro Tem Hank Miller, who is running unopposed for one of two open spots on the board of aldermen. (Incumbent Ken Dull is running unopposed for the other spot.)
Polls will close at 7:30 p.m. and results will be reported in waves by the N.C. State Board of Elections shortly thereafter. Port City Daily will post results later in the evening.
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