Campaign highlights spirited debate about High Point’s identity and future

by Jordan Green

You may not have noticed, but there’s actually an exciting municipal election underway in High Point, notwithstanding the fact that races for mayor, at large seats and all six ward seats fall at the bottom of a ballot headed by the marquee US Senate contest between Richard Burr and Elaine Marshall.

Perhaps the best observer is Marcus Brandon, who snuck in by knocking off incumbent off incumbent Earl Jones during the Democratic primary in NC House District 60, which spans a territory stretching from central High Point to south Greensboro. Part of Brandon’s strategy was to take up residence in High Point’s poorest ZIP code, make a case that High Point has been underrepresented and transport residents to the polls for early voting.

Running in a district whose voter registration favors Democrats by an almost 50 percent margin, Brandon doesn’t have much to worry about in the general election, but as a former political consultant and self-confessed “political junkie” he’s watching the High Point’s nonpartisan municipal election with avid interest.

“Everybody’s suffering economically,” Brandon said.

“A lot of the incumbents are in for a surprise.”

Brandon said he discounts the campaign signs that are placed in public right-of-ways and counts the signs in residents yards, which represent the endorsements of individual people.

All the challengers are working hard and knocking on voters’ doors, Brandon said, and the incumbents shouldn’t take their races for granted. “These incumbents need to go out and work with their records,” he said, “and not rely on name recognition to get reelected.”

High Point has a heart built like an iron forge, notwithstanding the site of weedinfested lots and boarded-up houses that greet any visitor driving into the city from Kivett Drive or mayoral challenger Jay Wagner’s repeated reference to the city’s “dead mall.” No matter who wins this election, High Point has already benefited from a spirited discussion about the city’s identity, its future and the mosaic of its people. The strengths, yearnings and tensions of High Point were on full display during a forum for mayoral and at-large candidates hosted by the Delta Sigma Theta sorority on Oct. 21: a city with a strong and viable manufacturing tradition, an entrepreneurial city, a city of both opulent wealth and staggering poverty.

Brandon, who sat on a panel following the mayoral and at-large candidates, said his campaign is telling the “two stories” of High Point. He begins by talking about “the furniture capital of the world,” Thomas Built Buses and “the beacon that High Point has been and continues to be.”

“But there’s also another story that I have to tell,” Brandon said. “And that is the story of 27260, which is the ZIP code that I live in. And it’s the ZIP code that most of us up here are trying to represent. That ZIP code is also one of the poorest in the state of North Carolina. It is the poorest in the Top 10 cities, and so we’re going to have to continue to tell that story also.”

Brandon called attention to “what it’s like to have a whole group of citizens that are felons… what it’s like for people to be unemployed, what it’s like to have the highest HIV rate, what it’s like to have the highest infant mortality rate.”

“We have a saying on this campaign that your reality is not your destiny,” he added. “Some of us are single mothers, and that’s your reality, but it’s not your destiny. Some of us are felons, but it’s not your destiny.”

There were competing visions at city council chambers that night.

One from first-term at-large Councilwoman Mary Lou Andrews Blakeney, who helped launch High Point’s sit-in movement as a high school student in 1960: “Senior citizens should not have to walk six blocks to catch a bus.”

Another from Will Armfield II, a 26-year-old financial advisor, who is also running at large.

“I advise many small-business clients,” he said, “and they all tell me without fail that our city council is anti-business. I am pro-business, and if you elect me you will send a signal to them to grow their businesses in the area.”

The starkest contrast was on display between the two leading mayoral candidates.

“I want High Point to be known as the most livable, fun, innovative, business-friendly city of its size in the United States,” challenger Jay Wagner said. “I think we can get there if we have the courage to chart a new path.” Wagner added that he would like High Point to be able to compete with some of the amenities of its larger municipal neighbors.

Becky Smothers, the incumbent, seem to take affront.

“I want you to know how proud I am that we are a manufacturing city, and that we have that reputation for a workforce in terms of their willingness to take jobs, to learn new skills,” she said. “And that stands us well. I don’t think we need to be an imitation of anybody. We are strong as we are, and we will be stronger.”

The Delta Sigma Theta Sorority will host a forum for High Point City Council ward candidates at High city hall on Thursday from 7 to 9 p.m.