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Updated: Democrats sweep Wilmington City Council race, incumbents largely hold beach town positions

New Hanover County Public Library's Northeast branch is a polling location for the midterm elections.
Grace Vitaglione
New Hanover County Public Library's Northeast branch, a polling location in the 2023 election.

With all precincts reporting, Democrats appear to have swept the race for Wilmington City Council with comfortable margins. Challengers David Joyner and Salette Andrews and incumbent Kevin Spears took the top three spots, respectively.

Note: This article has been updated with comment from the winning candidates.

Wilmington's City Council race is technically non-partisan, but this year's election had a distinctly partisan flavor, with three Republicans running and the Democratic party making the potentially controversial decision to support only three of four Democratic candidates— a strategy that appears to have been successful since those three candidates all won.

Newcomer David Joyner, the youngest candidate in the council race, had the most votes on Monday night — 8,538 (17.41%).

Joyner said he'd like to tackle both short and term issues as he takes office.

"Some low-hanging fruit is to address and complete the city’s LED lighting transition. Outside of environmental policy, I’m excited to visit with administrators, teachers, and social workers in our school," Joyner told WHQR on Wednesday. "Obviously, there’s a clear difference in roles and responsibilities of city council and the school board, but I want to be plugged into what’s most impacting Wilmington’s youth so we can make this city the best we can be for young people."

Behind him was Salette Andrews, who previously served on a town council in Arizona but is new to Cape Fear politics; she garnered 8,099 votes (16.51%).

Andrews said her first priority would be electing a mayor pro-tem, followed by looking at committee assignments and appointments.

"I think people know from my campaign that I'm very interested in water. So I would be very interested in being named to the Cape Fear Public Utility [Authority] Board. And then I know that there's going to be an opening on the WMPO [Wilmington Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization], as Neil Anderson did not get reelected/ So that might be another interesting position for me to hold," she said.

Incumbent Kevin Spears took the third of three spots with 7,982 (16.27%), winning his second term.

During the campaign, Spears said we wanted to continue and expand the city's focus on more human-centric programs. On Wednesday, reflected on his campaign strategy, which eschewed high-dollar fundraising for garnering support at the ballot.

"It feels great to win again and to be supported by the entire city. It’s an honor to serve my city! Thanking everyone who supported," Spears said. "Votes win elections, not money!"

Marlow Foster, a fourth Democrat, running without being endorsed by the party, came in last place, with 4,245 votes (8.65%) — significantly behind the three Republican candidates.

On the Republican side, incumbent Neil Anderson earned 7,064 votes (14.4%). Close behind him was challenger John Lennon — a former city planning commission member and the top fundraiser of all candidates, by a significant margin — with 7,003 votes (14.28%). Challenger Kathryn Bruner, a newcomer who mounted an aggressive social media campaign, received 6,042 (12.32%).

Mayor Bill Saffo ran unopposed. This will be his ninth two-year term, making him the city's longest-serving mayor.

While the vote tallies won't be official until the New Hanover County Board of Elections canvass on Friday, November 17, and totals could shift based on a review of absentee or provisional ballots, the Wilmington City Council results are likely to remain outside the recount range (which is 1% of the combined votes of two candidates vying for a seat).

Beach town results

Based on last night’s unofficial results, other local races appear to have decisive winners.

In Carolina Beach, Lynn Barbee won re-election in the mayoral race by 173 votes, more than eight percentage points ahead of challenger Michelle Alberda. However, two other challengers for the race — Chad Kirk, with 134 votes, and Tyler McDowell, with 39 votes — may have pulled votes from Alberda.

In the Carolina Beach town council race, incumbents Jay Healy and Deb LeCompte also kept their seats by wide margins over challenger Danny McLaughlin.

In Kure Beach, incumbent David Heglar kept his seat with 410 votes (29.54%) — but challenger Connie Mearkle was the top candidate with 431 votes (31.05%), ousting incumbent David Panicali, who received 304 votes (21.90%). Challenger Tracy Mitchell fell in last place with 241 votes (17.36%). Councilman Allen Oliver won an unopposed race for Kure Beach Mayor.

In Wrightsville Beach, Mayor Darryl Mills kept his seat by over 10 points, thwarting a challenge from Henry Temple — a resident who previously challenged the town's building code with a voter petition, leading the general assembly to pass legislationmaking it tougher for Wrightsville Beach residents to use petitions.

Incumbent Wrightsville Beach Board of Aldermen members Jeff DeGroote and Zeke Partin won uncontested reelection.

Voter turnout

Voter turnout was down slightly — in early voting and on Election Day — compared to the last municipal election in 2021, both in terms of total voters and percentage of eligible voters.

It's a decrease some, including New Hanover County Elections Director Rae Hunter-Havens, said could be attributed to an uncontested Wilmington election (2021's hard-fought contest between Mayor Bill Saffo and former Mayor and State Senator Harper Peterson clearly engaged voters and donors, including Republicans who crossed party lines to support Saffo, or perhaps, to oppose Peterson).

This year, 20.76% of eligible voters (20,874 out of 100,549) turned out for municipal elections. In 2021, it was 24.07% (23,671 out of 98,334).

This year's turnout is still an increase over previous years, which saw 19.22% in 2019, 14.64% in 2017, and 10.45% in 2015.

Ben Schachtman is a journalist and editor with a focus on local government accountability. He began reporting for Port City Daily in the Wilmington area in 2016 and took over as managing editor there in 2018. He’s a graduate of Rutgers College and later received his MA from NYU and his PhD from SUNY-Stony Brook, both in English Literature. He loves spending time with his wife and playing rock'n'roll very loudly. You can reach him at BSchachtman@whqr.org and find him on Twitter @Ben_Schachtman.