In Raleigh, Terrance Ruth seeks to lead by listening

The first of three columns on Raleigh’s mayoral candidates.

When I logged into a virtual meeting with Raleigh mayoral candidate Terrance Ruth, he appeared on screen wearing a headset and sitting outdoors on a beautiful fall day.

The setting made a campaign statement in itself: Ruth will be a mayor who won’t be office-bound. He’s getting plenty of practice in outreach as he runs a low-budget, high-energy grassroots campaign to unseat incumbent Mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin.

Ruth, a lecturer in N.C. State University’s School of Social Work, said, “I’m trying to be in places where traditional campaigns have not gone before.”

Ruth is also trying to go to where he hasn’t been before – elected office. An education consultant and former executive director of the North Carolina NAACP, he thinks he has the experience to lead North Carolina’s second-largest city. The Wake County Democratic Party thinks so, too. It endorsed him for mayor over Baldwin, also a Democrat, in what is a nonpartisan election. DaQuanta Copeland, 42, vice-chair of the Wake County Health and Human Services Board, is also running.

Some Democrats have been skirmishing with Baldwin for two years. They don’t like that she and the City Council won legislative approval to move city elections from odd- to even-numbered years. They think she has a doctrinaire style and is letting developers run amok in the fast-growing city. Livable Raleigh, a group that includes two former council members, launched an unsuccessful effort to recall Baldwin.

Surprisingly, Ruth, 39, has no beef with the mayor’s style and shares her support for development.

“I think growth is healthy for a city. I don’t think growth is the enemy,” he said. “I think it’s how you manage growth that is really the center of the conversation.”

What bothers Ruth is that the conversation is not including enough people across the city. He said, “I think community engagement has been an Achilles’ heel of our city for the last two years.”

Low-income residents need to know more about the plans for affordable housing since voters approved an $80 million affordable housing bond. “We need to demystify the affordable housing plan,” he said.

In early 2020, Baldwin and the City Council ended the Citizen Advisory Councils that provided neighborhood-level feedback to the council. The city recently created a citizen engagement office, but Ruth said the lack of communication in the interim has left too many people feeling left out and skeptical about the City Council and its priorities.

“We have a deficit of trust,” he said. “That makes having feedback from the community to inform our policy very difficult to achieve. So we’re at a moment where our city needs leadership that has the trust of the community or is able to build that trust.”

Ruth said the people he has met want their issues recognized and want a say in what happens in the solutions. “Their number one thing is ‘I want to be seen and heard,’ “ he said.

It’s not fast growth that has people feeling disconnected, Ruth said. He noted that Baldwin’s predecessor, Nancy McFarlane, presided over rapid buildup without attracting complaints about favoring developers.

Ruth, who lives with his wife and young son near the N.C. State campus, added, “When you’re a public servant, there’s a disposition of leadership that’s necessary. That’s why I say all the time that I am a student of the community.”

Being such a student requires learning from everybody.

Recently, he attended an “eviction party” for a longtime Southeast Raleigh resident who had a gathering with neighbors before having to leave. He said the event was oddly festive, given the circumstance, but the concern was just below the surface. At one point he said, the woman being evicted took his hand and told him, “Terrance, this hurts. But I trust you. Don’t leave us.”

Ruth is running on restoring trust in a city that he said must grow without growing apart.

Associate opinion editor Ned Barnett can be reached at 919-829-4512, or nbarnett@