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Caraker regrets not seeing through projects he 'stirred up'

Steve Caraker at the construction site at the Grey Mill Apartments, one of the major city projects he advocated during his 12 years on the council. [LIGHTNING FILE PHOTO] Steve Caraker at the construction site at the Grey Mill Apartments, one of the major city projects he advocated during his 12 years on the council. [LIGHTNING FILE PHOTO]

The day after last week’s election, Hendersonville City Council member Steve Caraker described his disappointment in failing to win a fourth term, mainly because he won’t get the chance to see through projects he “stirred up” during his three terms on the board.

In a surprise to some local election watchers, Caraker finished last in an election that saw two young moms outwork everyone else to gain seats on the council.
Jennifer Hensley, a chiropractor, finished first, with 941 votes, just 13 votes ahead of Lyndsey Simpson, who owns a graphic design business. Debbie Roundtree finished third with 699 votes, 11 more than Caraker. The veteran Hendersonville council member was not alone last week in failing to win re-election. Incumbents lost in every town in the county that had contested seats — including one each in Fletcher, Flat Rock, Mills River and Saluda.
Arguably the busiest council member on city work outside the council meetings, Caraker served on the county Transportation Advisory Committee, the French Broad MPO, the Firemen’s Relief Fund, the Historic Seventh Avenue District Advisory Committee and the Water and Sewer Advisory Committee, which has the often contentious task of trying to balance city and county interests on issues like rate parity and water extensions.
“I carried the heaviest load of any council member,” Caraker said.
A county building inspector who owns a home in the Westside Historic District, Caraker chaired the Hendersonville Historic Preservation Commission during the fight over a proposed high-rise condo downtown. He was a leader on the winning side — a big uprising defeated the proposal — and was elected to the council in 2007.
He assumed the role of council member Jon Laughter, a civil engineer the board had often relied on for input on development. A plumber before he was a county building inspector, Caraker retired recently as project manager for a large plumbing contractor. He was the go-to authority on the council in construction matters and could knowledgably question developers and engineers on their plans when they sought the council’s OK for rezoning.
“Totally I’m going to miss Steve,” council member Jeff Miller said Tuesday. “He had a very unique skill set that he brought to the table that none of us have and none of the new council members have. It’s the knowledge he brought to the table that was just very beneficial, with roads and water and sewer. I’m definitely going to miss Steve. Steve was retired now and this was stuff he could do and was interested in. We’re just all going to have to step up.”
“I think John (Connet) will be talking to the new council members as they kind of get groomed to hit the ground running,” he added. “I would like to go on to the Water and Sewer Advisory Board. We’ll see what council thinks. I’d love it if there was some way we could keep Steve involved.”
Miller said he doesn’t know which committees Hensley and Simpson are interested in but that the board will have to divvy up Caraker’s jobs in the coming weeks.
“We’ve not had a meeting yet. We’ve not had opportunity, all of us, to sit down and just talk. We’re coming into this with a good attitude. We’re going to work to just keep things on the right track.”

Partisanship sneaks in

Simpson, a Democrat, got help from the Progressive Democratic Women in get out the vote efforts. She said on election night that when the organization offered help she accepted.
“As a one-man political committee, it’s hard to compete with the Progressive Democratic Women thing, sending text messages and driving people to the polls,” Caraker said.
Simpson joins Mayor Barbara Volk as the second Democrat on the board. Hensley and Miller are Republicans. Jerry Smith is registered unaffiliated. Caraker worries that a tilt toward the Democratic side could chill city-county relations.
“The county is a Republican-based body and now the city will be at least in part a Democrat-based body,” Caraker said. “We need to get the two governments closer together for the good of everybody.”
Hensley told the Lightning on election night that she had declined offers from Republican Party leaders to work for her campaign.
“I didn’t allow my party to help because I felt like this was truly a nonpartisan election,” she said.
Miller said he regrets that this year’s election set a precedent of partisanship.
“I’m disappointed that a nonpartisan election was really taken to a partisan election,” he said. “I guess we won’t see any truly nonpartisan city election because I feel that if a Republican runs they’re going to have to enlist the Republican Party to do the same thing the Democratic Party did to help Lyndsey and Debbie. Not surprising though. Everything is pretty partisan now.”

On his campaign page, Caraker said that the council, made up of five people with diverse opinions, had consistently arrived at good decisions.
“Our council since my tenure here has always been a mix of larger political ideologies, and the back and forth between them has always produced a good work product,” he wrote.
“I’ve never seen another board work as well for the last two terms,” he added in an interview. “I’m a registered Republican and consider myself a conservative but you don’t have to be hard-line conservative on everything.”

‘New face on the city’

Caraker thinks the city is on the cusp of big and positive change as projects long in the conceptual stage become a reality.
“It’s going to put a new face on the city,” he said. “All of the amenities coming out of the ground right now are going to change the way the city works. My wife asked me why I decided to run again. Once I got all this stuff stirred up, I felt obligated to the city to finish. I can hold my head up and be proud of what I did for the city of Hendersonville.”
He’s confident that the projects he’s advocated or helped to guide for a long time — the Grey Mill renovation, a new police station, a downtown hotel and parking deck, Seventh Avenue revitalization, major street improvement projects — will go forward under the city’s professional leadership.
“John Connet and Brian Pahle and the staff will handle things really well,” he said. “John Connet was a godsend when we brought him in. Brian Pahle — he will be a whizbang city or county manager when he gets a little age on him. The staff is great. We can give them an idea and they will run with it, flush it out and tell you how to finance it.”
“It’s bittersweet for me,” he said of the abrupt end to his council career. “I hate leaving unfinished work.”