"I’m not in anyone’s back pocket, including Elaine Lite… I’m a listener. I’m going to listen to all sides."
by Jess McCuan . photos by Matt Rose and Rimas Zailskas
Perhaps you knew her as an attorney for Van Winkle, a high-profile law firm in downtown Asheville. But perhaps you didn’t know her at all. Before last fall’s Asheville City Council race, many people had never heard of Esther Manheimer, a bookish 38-year-old mother of three. She has been part of several community groups but had never run for political office. Ashevilleans certainly took notice during the election, where Manheimer positively cleaned up. She got the most votes of any candidate, including all three incumbents. Now, she’s the only woman on the council (besides Mayor Terry Bellamy). Which means she’ll be milling about in a man’s world—as usual. “I’m comfortable there because I’ve been doing it for years,” Manheimer says, referring to her ten-year law career. “That doesn’t bother me in the slightest.”
She may be a first-time politician, but she’s no stranger to politics. After law school, she spent four years working as counsel for various committees in the North Carolina General Assembly. Nor is she new to Asheville. In fact, Manheimer seems to ruffle at the implication. Last year, she did a radio spot with an Asheville blogger who said something like, “‘Well, where have you been? I haven’t seen you around,’” Manheimer recalls. “The person co-hosting with him said, ‘Well, she hasn’t been around where you are.’ And that’s exactly right…There’s a whole bunch of us in Asheville who have lived here forever and we’re just doing our community thing. We’re not the subjects of blogs.”
Manheimer, a land-use attorney, is married to Enka High wrestling coach Mark Harris. She has spent six years in various positions on the board of Asheville’s Jewish Community Center, and her three sons—Levi, Greyson and Asa—attended classes at the JCC. Her father is Ron Manheimer, a philosophy professor who ran UNC-Asheville’s Center for Creative Retirement for 21 years (and recently retired himself). Her mother, Caroline Manheimer, is a fiber artist and former librarian. Esther has dual degrees in law and public administration from UNC-Chapel Hill, but here’s a little-known fact: as an undergrad at the University of Colorado, she majored in anthropology, and in her senior thesis, she compared breastfeeding habits between humans and great apes. “I’ve always loved to analyze human nature,” she says, later joking that her anthropology training helped her discover the real truth: “Are we really more like a chimpanzee? You have a group of females and their young that support each other. The males run around the periphery with sticks.”
While Manheimer may have kept a relatively low profile through the years, the North Asheville mom has been steadily networking. “It wasn’t ever with the thought in mind that, ‘Oh, one day this will pay off and I’m going to run for office.’ But when you do run for office, you call it all in. And there was a lot to call in,” she says.
She and others in city government will need to call in more than favors to dig the city out of its current financial hole. In early January, city manager Gary Jackson and an executive team delivered a stark status report that said Asheville faces a $5 million shortfall in 2010. The long recession has “exposed structural weaknesses in the city’s financial foundation that were previously compensated for by strong growth in property values,” the report said. The city must explore revenue-generating alternatives if it plans to keep up its current services.
Manheimer believes Asheville is actually relatively well positioned to weather the downturn. Its healthy fund balance and low debt load mean it has more cash in its “savings accounts” than some cities its size. There is a significant “cash-flow problem,” she says, which means Asheville may be forced to consider options like a sales tax increase, or funneling county tourism tax dollars to the city. But she believes those options, along with several others on the table, will help get the city through its cash crunch in 2010. “We won’t be cutting core services,” she says. “The average citizen is not going to notice any changes.”
Manheimer’s detractors say she’s in the back pocket of private developers. During her campaign, a website created by the Progressive Research Group (whose treasurer, according to Buncombe County election records, was former council candidate Elaine Lite) claimed that Manheimer’s job was to lobby the city council on behalf of developers. The site also said some of her biggest financial supporters were right-wingers. Manheimer rebuffs those claims. “I’m not in anyone’s back pocket, including Elaine Lite,” she says. “There is a segment in Asheville that is very wary of anyone involved in private business. That includes me. I think that, over time, anyone who’s still a skeptic will learn that I have my own independent mind and I’m not in anyone’s pocket. I’m a listener. I’m going to listen to all sides.”
Manheimer seems quite confident about her ability to tackle a number of city issues—from budget shortfalls to I-26 connector designs to rewriting stormwater regulations. Her job with Van Winkle and her spot on the city’s Board of Adjustment have given her a front row seat to see the way the city works. (The Board of Adjustment deals with zoning requests and building code changes; Manheimer was a member until she resigned in January.) In the run-up to the city council election last fall, she also had to sit through dozens of forums, fielding questions from well-informed and sometimes downright antagonistic residents. “We have a pretty grueling political process for potential city council members now,” she says. “If you didn’t know your stuff with all of those issues, that would have been very uncomfortable. You can’t fudge it in Asheville.”