Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Waddell comes out on top in Wilmington council race, incumbents reclaim seats

Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo (top left) will lead council for yet another term, alongside newcomer Luke Waddell (top right) and incumbents Charlie Rivenbark (bottom left) and Clifford Barnett Sr. (bottom right).

WILMINGTON –– Voters of Wilmington overwhelmingly chose to check off familiar names on their ballots during this year’s municipal election, re-electing long-time Mayor Bill Saffo and the only two incumbents up for re-election, Charlie Rivenbark and Clifford Barnett Sr.

Luke Waddell, the 33-year-old owner of Cadence Realty Corp., is the sole newcomer to city council and the unofficial top vote-getter, replacing outgoing member Kevin O’Grady. A Democrat, O’Grady did not seek another term after a dozen consecutive years on council.

Saffo will serve an eighth term as mayor after sweeping his sole opponent Harper Peterson, who banked on residents craving change of the status quo and leaned more progressively on issues. Saffo collected 12,927 (63.3%) votes in his favor, according to unofficial tallies, while Peterson took home 7,267 (35.6%). This is Peterson’s second loss to Saffo, after falling behind in 2007.

The three council electees beat out five other candidates. Paul Lawler was the runner-up with 8,854 votes (15.4%); Jonathan Uzcategui collected 7,094 votes (12.3%); Philip White raked in 6,760 (11.7%); Angie Ulmer received 4,588 (7.9%); and JB Brookins was last with 1,708 votes (2.9%).

Waddell placed first with 9,806 votes (17%), followed closely behind by Rivenbark (16.4%) and Barnett (15.8%).

On a call Wednesday, Waddell said his strategy while campaigning was to earn at least third place, figuring the incumbents would successfully retain their seats.

“If I even beat the fourth-place guy by one vote, that was fine by me, and that’s how I was running,” he said. “But something about our message resonated with the whole community. I mean, 9,800 votes in a municipal election is nearly unheard of.”

At this point, Waddell has outscored the top candidate in the 2019 council election, Margaret Haynes, by more than 3,000 votes. He and Rivenbark performed best at Masonboro and Bradley Creek elementary schools precincts, while Barnett won amongst early voters.

Will Knecht, local GOP chairman, said Waddell’s strength was garnering support at the polls while also exciting the Republican donor base in town. Waddell became known to local Republicans a few years ago, in part through a role with the political arm of the trade organization Cape Fear Realtors. Cadence Realty’s office is in Wrightsville Beach. 

“He’s a fine young man,” Wrightsville Beach’s re-elected Mayor Darryl Mills said.

The Committee to Elect Luke Waddell raised more than $75,000 during the election cycle, drawing favor from real estate agents and developers in the Cape Fear Region. One super PAC threw its weight behind Waddell in October, as did the NC Home Builders Association PAC and NC Realtors PAC.

Waddell himself, according to campaign finance reports, began contributing to NC Realtors PAC in 2015 with a $25 payment, while he was with Intracoastal Realty Corp.

He sent $70 checks to the PAC in 2017 and 2018, then contributed $490 in December 2020.

READ MORE: Super PAC money in play during local elections

Though Waddell describes himself as fiscally conservative, he believes his supporters crossed party lines. In addition to Republicans, he likely had to entice the city’s large unaffiliated population and secure votes amongst Democrats to garner his substantial totals. He believes it was his positivity and “hyperlocal campaign,” focused on city-level issues.

“We weren’t talking about any rhetoric about the federal level or state level, like a lot of other folks kind of get mired into those things, and they get mired into the negativity on either sides,” Waddell said, “and I think people are sick of it. I think people are sick of all that negativity nationwide, but especially here in Wilmington, and so I think, to get 9,800 votes, we had support from all sides of the aisle and in the middle.”

He said the issues voters confronted him about most were ones he was already campaigning on: economic prosperity and opportunity; supporting local businesses; and curbing violent crime that’s “gotten out of hand,” by providing resources to law enforcement.

“Those three items were the big-ticket things for me, right off the bat, just as a citizen,” Waddell said. “So that’s what I ran on, and ultimately that’s the big thing people were asking about and I think why our message resonated so, so heavily.”

Preston Lennon contributed to this report.

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Alexandria Sands
Alexandria Sands
Alexandria Sands is a journalist covering New Hanover County and education. Before Port City Daily, she reported for the award-winning State Port Pilot in Southport. She graduated from UNC Charlotte and wrote for several Charlotte publications while there. When not writing, Williams is most likely in the gym, reading or spending time with her Golden Pyrenees. Reach her at alexandria@localdailymedia.com or on Twitter @alexsands_

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