Incumbent Burke has built political power base from Northeast Ward over past 36 years

by Jordan Green

Vivian Burke ended suspense over the future of her political career when the veteran council member filed for re-election for the Northeast Ward on Winston-Salem City Council less than an hour before the deadline on July 19.

Burke, a Democrat, has represented the Northeast Ward since 1977. The second-longest serving member, Wanda Merschel, was first elected in 1997 and announced her retirement last month.

While Burke contemplated her plans, Brenda Diggs, a 65-year-old retired bank executive with experience on civic, philanthropic and corporate boards, formalized her bid for the seat. Diggs, also a Democrat, entered the race with a flourish, appearing at the Forsyth County Board of Elections with an entourage of 18 family members, friends and community supporters when filing officially opened at noon on July 5.

The race attracted a third Democrat.

Jemmise Bowen, a 43-year-old shelter director at the Salvation Army. One of the first people Bowen told of her plans to run was Vivian Burke.

“I was looking for some kind of response,” Bowen recalled. “I didn’t expect her to be mean about it. She told me: ‘Okay.’ That was basically it. I told her what I wanted to do with my platform. She didn’t say she’s not running; she didn’t say she is running. I have tremendous respect for her. She’s been serving, what, 30-plus years? That’s most of my life.”

The intrigue over Burke’s plans continued through the eve of the final day of filing.

“I had a meeting at my house last night,” Burke recounted as she stood at the counter at the board of elections accompanied by a campaign aide on July 19. “We had a roomful. They talked; I listened. I told them they would know my decision tomorrow.”

Dressed in an elegant white jacket affixed with a fuchsia flower next to the collar, she displayed the same poise and decorum for which she is known both on the dais and in the corridors of City Hall. When James Lee Knox, a citizen who had addressed city council earlier in the week quipped that he hoped staff wouldn’t tell the elections director that he was running for mayor, one of the employees reassured him: “Anybody can file. That’s the beauty of elections.”

Burke amended the statement: “That’s the beauty of America.”

As election worker Joshua Chunn filled out her paperwork, Burke, a retired educator, turned to her companion.

“If only they could write like us,” she said, impressing on Chunn how her cursive writing was emphasized in her educational upbringing.

Unlike Earline Parmon, another veteran black politician in Winston-Salem, Burke does not surround herself with protégés, instead cultivating an aura of personal excellence. While Parmon has risen through the ranks from Forsyth County Commission to NC House and finally as the county’s first black state senator, Burke has expanded her political influence while continuously serving as one of the city’s eight ward representatives.

Burke has chaired the city council’s public safety committee, which oversees the police and fire departments, since she was first elected in 1977. And since 1989, she has served as mayor pro tem, a position that gives her power, along with the mayor, to call special and emergency meetings at any time, and to preside over meetings if the mayor is absent. The way she secured the position illustrates Burke’s independent course as an elected official.

Burke supported G. Dee Smith in the Democratic primary for mayor in 1989, over the eventual victor, Martha Wood, according to an article in the Winston- Salem Chronicle. Wood went on to win with strong support from the black community.

After recommending the four black members of what was then the board of aldermen for chairmanships of committees with specific work plans Wood quickly discovered that her leadership would be challenged during the organizational meeting. Burke joined the three Republican aldermen and Democrat Lynne Harpe in overturning Wood’s appointments, instead supporting a plan to split the chairmanships between two black aldermen and two white aldermen, while naming herself mayor pro tem. She also retained her chairmanship of the public safety committee. As a result, Virginia K. Newell in the East Ward lost the chairmanship of the finance committee. Instead, Robert Northington, a Republican representing the West Ward, was appointed to chair the finance committee, which holds the important responsibility of preparing the city’s annual budget.

In the Southeast Ward, Alderman Larry Womble, a future state House representative, in the Southeast Ward was stripped of the chairmanship of the public works committee.

Newell was furious, telling the Winston-Salem Journal:

“It will not be erased. It will not be erased. This will be told to grandchildren what one black elected official did.”

Calls for Burke’s resignation quickly sounded from the community and a recall effort — ultimately unsuccessful — was mounted.

“People want to know why she didn’t give up her position of chairman of public safety committee to a white alderman and give her position of mayor pro tem to a white alderman, rather than oust the black aldermen who have served commendably in their positions over the years and served as the much-needed role models for black youth in our community,” J. Raymond Oliver, a leader of the recall campaign, told the Journal.

“What she effectively did was to elevate herself to power at the expense of a black coalition of power which we were trying to build in our city,” Oliver added. “Political power leads to economic power, which affects some 40,000 blacks in Winston-Salem.”

The recall committee issued a statement, accusing Burke of betraying the Democratic Party, her constituents in the Northeast Ward and the black community, in that order.

“I have not betrayed anybody,” Burke told the Chronicle at the time. “I have done what I feel was the proper thing to do. We’re supposed to work together for the total community.

I thought, with all sincerity, that when I was elected that I had the right to vote for what I thought was right for the total community. There are eight of us on the board: four whites and four blacks. Now we have two white committee chairs and two black committee chairs. I thought we were supposed to be at the stage where we can work with all people. But some people continue to promote racial disharmony and continue to talk about black and white.”

In interviews with journalists and published campaign ads over her 36 years in office, Burke has cited jobs, economic development east of Highway 52, police accountability and drug treatment as an alternative to incarceration as priorities — themes that continue to resonate in 2013.

In 1982, at the beginning of her second term, Burke granted an interview to Allen Johnson, then editor of the Winston-Salem Chronicle and now editorial editor at the News & Record in Greensboro. Five years earlier, Burke’s predecessor in the Northeast Ward, Carl H. Russell, had lost a bid to become the first black mayor of Winston-Salem. Greensboro would elect its first black mayor in 2007, followed by High Point in 2012. That racial barrier has not yet been broken in Winston-Salem. Three decades ago, Johnson asked Burke if Winston-Salem was ready for a black mayor.

“Yes, I believe that we can elect a black mayor,” Burke responded. “But first we’re going to have to elect a black who can relate to and identify with all groups of people. We need to have a black who can feel comfortable communicating and have the type of know-how to be able to get the support of the total community.”