Robin Cape


Politics from the Inside Out: a conversation with Robin Cape

The Indie, October 2005

Robin Cape had an auspicious arrival on the Buncombe County political scene in 2003. Her election to the Woodfin Water Board remains the only victory by a write-in candidate in the county's history. Her current run for a seat on the Asheville City Council is, in some ways, more conventional. Her name will appear on the ballot. But she still isn't politics as usual. Win or lose this fall, Cape advocates turning governance inside out. Given the sorry state of American politics, her re-vision of it seemed well worth a looking into.

Robin Cape

It was laundry day at the Cape household when we met to discuss her orientation and how she'd arrived at it. For environmental reasons, her family of four returned to line-drying their clothes two years ago. When I asked how that worked out during this sodden summer, she said, "It's not an easy thing to do. You have to be connected with Nature and know whether it's a good day." She proudly added that she'd only had to resort to a Laundromat or a friend's house a few times all season.

The idea of working harmoniously within a larger context figures prominently in her sense of politics as well. "You don't just elect six or seven people with all the answers and get ticked off with them when they don’t accomplish what you want and then just elect seven more. That model doesn't work." Cape believes governance needs to be restructured away from the "power over" concept to one of partnership between citizens and elected officials. This would require open processes, accountability, and inclusion.
I asked what that meant in practical city government terms. She ticked off several items including building upon the current model of publicizing the Council agenda on the city's website. It should be possible for citizens to input their ideas directly to the website.  There should also be greater advance notification for public hearings, council agendas, and work sessions. "We need to shift the focus that citizen engagement slows things down in a negative way. There may be a slower process up front, but in the long run you get more buy-in with the citizens because they are part of the solution building process. We have an incredibly dedicated group of citizen in this town. But too often Council ignores the findings of citizen commissions. Look at the 2025 plan. If we still approve it, why isn't it out on the table when decisions are made?"

Cape cited the newly formed Asheville Coalition as one model for enhancing partnership. She envisions it as a "people's council" where engaged citizens of all political persuasions meet to do the hard work of listening to each other and making tough choices. "It's about people coming together and looking each other in the face and having some real dialogue." The coalition could also provide a mechanism outside of Council meetings for Council members to gain broader knowledge of issues before having to vote on them. So far, the Coalition has held sessions on water and development policies. One on the police department is being considered.

The city's development policies are, to her mind, an area ripe for citizen involvement. She's thinking in terms of community design as well as design standards for buildings. "It shouldn't just be about the tax base. It has to be about a bottom line that also includes quality of life, sustainability, and fairness. And enforcement of our codes and regulations has to be part of it too. The climate needs to change from developers asking for forgiveness instead of sticking to the rules.  Currently there seem to be no consequences, and in the long run the neighborhoods pay."

In Cape's vision, a primary goal of development policies should be the creation and nurturance of sustainable communities. Policies should deal with issues as diverse as transportation, affordable housing, turning government facilities into models of efficient resource use, and rebalancing the economic development equation. She would like to see as much emphasis placed on promoting and supporting small local businesses as there is on the importation of large factories.

I wondered about her own process of development from private citizen to public figure. She said she'd realized that, "For democracy to work, citizens have to show up and participate in more than just voting. Most of us haven't shown up to offer our skills and our time to the political process. We've abdicated the power by our lack of participation. We can start acting locally and show that positive proactive engagement is a good thing."
On behalf of the people sitting on the sidelines, I asked Cape about the personal and family consequences of her own showing up. "It takes the whole family agreeing to the commitment," she said. "It's not always easy. You develop a sense of humor." As for herself, "I just learned to like roller coasters a few years ago, so I guess I am ready for this. There's a lot of joy and personal growth in the process. Taking on the energetic level of doing this has challenged me to be more in tune with my own center. Anything you engage with is an addition to your life; you grow. That's a wonderful thing."
I suggested that readers might be surprised by her description of politics as a personal and spiritual growth opportunity. "It doesn't have to be, but for me it is. For some it can be just a career choice and more about politics than principles. There's a whole movement of servant leadership that's not so much about what you get. It's about what you give and what you're a part of. The power I get from this work doesn't come from other people. It comes with confronting something really difficult where all my buttons are pushed and I'm feeling sensitive and sad and dejected, and then I reach down and find some kind of peace beyond it. That's power. That’s the gift. I'm challenged constantly to not get caught up in the conventional notion of power and the status quo."

What has most surprised her during the transition to political activity? "That the skills I developed by just living my life have practical applications in this role. By being a mother I’m learning the skills of mediation. I have gained skills from being in a relationship for a long time and learning to compromise, listen and have patience with ideas other than ones own.  Being a successful small businesswoman, I know the difference between gross and net and how to manage a business efficiently.  There is a set of skills that comes from being an environmentalist who tries to live a sustainable and responsible life. All these skills are applicable. Politics isn't for an elite class that has it all figured out. It's about real people going in there and making decisions that impact real people and how we live."

So what is the right relation between an elected official and the citizens she serves? "Where we're really going to make a change, and it's happening all over the world, is when we realize power doesn't come down from above. Power comes with the community joining together and saying what is right, where do we want to go, and how do we go about achieving it. And who among us can do this job while I do this one and you do this one? It's about all of us being engaged.

"There's a country, maybe Denmark," she concluded, "where you end up being a council member just like you get pulled for jury duty. Absolutely everybody in the community will be called at some point to do that. That way you'd better pay attention because you might be up there next. There's something in that model we should hold onto and recognize that in democracy real connection and representation comes from the citizens. I like that!”

—Michael Hopping
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