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Insurgent grassroots candidate challenges council insider in South Ward Primary

by Jordan Green

jordan@yesweekly.com Twitter: @JordanGreenYes

Molly Leight, the two-term representative of the South Ward on Winston-Salem City Council, won her seat in 2005 by ousting archconservative Vernon Robinson — infamous in North Carolina for his reputation as the “black Jesse Helms.”

Robinson had sealed his reputation for intransigent political warfare by placing a granite monument of the 10 Commandments in front of Winston- Salem City Hall the previous year, and Leight recalled that his Democratic colleagues, notably Dan Besse, were fed up with him.

During her two terms on council, Leight has proven to be a reliably liberal vote on council, taking the lead on a resolution opposing the statewide marriage-amendment ballot initiative last year, yet notably also opposing a legal motion by the city in the federal courts to support a new trial for Kalvin Michael Smith, who was convicted of brutally beating a store employee following what many consider a deeply flawed police investigation.

Leight said in a recent interview that Robinson underestimated her during that first campaign, and that “probably I didn’t have many goals because I didn’t know what I was getting into.”

Leight has built her political base in two precincts in the upper tier of the ward that are nearest to downtown, encompassing Old Salem and Washington Park, with strong support from Democrats active in the local party. Four years ago, running unopposed, Leight cornered 57.8 percent of the vote on the strength of turnout in the two upper precincts. Two surprise write-in candidates walked away with the rest of the vote, with Democrat Carolyn Highsmith carrying the precinct at Philo Middle School south of Interstate 40 and Republican Nathan Jones carrying the Griffith Fire Station precinct near the Davidson County line.

“The closer you are into the center of the city the more liberal, more Democratic,” Leight observed. “As you move out, the suburban areas are more likely to be Republican.”

Highsmith entered municipal politics as president of the Konnoak Hills Community Association. She said that, prompted by concerns about gang initiations taking place behind the middle school, she and her neighbors invited Leight to meet with them three weeks before the general election in 2009. They came out of the meeting dissatisfied.

“When she came to the meeting, she was the one who gave us the idea,” Highsmith said. “She asked us to vote in the November election because she was afraid she was going to have a writein campaign. She left and then people turned to me and said, ‘Why don’t you be a write-in candidate?’” This year, both Highsmith and Jones officially filed for election. Either Leight or Highsmith, as victor of the Democratic primary contest on Sept. 10, will meet Jones in the general election in November.

Coming off the heels of her leadership in a campaign to restore property-tax values in less affluent parts of the city, Highsmith pivoted into the city council campaign by highlighting concerns about crime, chronic unemployment and blight in neighborhoods far from the city’s booming downtown. Early in the campaign Highsmith argued that the South Ward needs “a stronger voice and advocacy from its city council representative.”

Leight has appeared taken aback by Highsmith’s stridency while struggling to articulate her political biography and a leadership narrative. The sitting councilwoman told voters at a candidate forum at the Milton Rhodes Arts Center last month that she was “pretty pleased and proud of what we’ve accomplished in the last eight years.”

Leight began her opening statement by citing the council’s record of corporate recruitment resulting in new jobs and expanded tax base, interrupting herself to note the similarity between her pitch and that of Mayor Allen Joines. She asked, “Did we write the script together?” Leight continued by touting the city’s Revitalizing Urban Commercial Areas program, which matches public funds with private investment to shore up struggling shopping centers; an uptick in building permits coming out of the depths of the recession; and a number of new ordinances to protect trees and streams while regulating stormwater runoff.

Highsmith, in turn, showcased her work on the South Area Suburban Plan, which the council ultimately approved, adding that her leadership helped limit unwanted retail development along the Peters Creek Parkway corridor.

Through her neighborhood leadership, Highsmith said she has been “an advocate for stronger police-andcommunity partnerships to help prevent the ever-increasing rise of property crime and armed robberies in south Winston- Salem.” She also has taken a strong stance for justice in the Kalvin Michael Smith case, arguing in a questionnaire response: “The city’s apparent fear of liability if Mr. Smith is ever found innocent is a morally unacceptable reason for ensuring that the institutional mistakes of the past are continued indefinitely into the future.”

While lauding Highsmith’s neighborhood leadership, Leight charges that her opponent lets her passions get ahead of her grasp of issues.

“Several times I had to correct her misinformation,” Leight said. “She said, ‘Oh, the city is going to sell access to the greenway with Bowman Gray Stadium.’ No. I had to say, ‘No, that’s not the case.’” Highsmith said in response that neighborhood leaders across the city had heard that the city was considering offering greenways and parkland to Winston-Salem State University to “sweeten the deal,” and that the statement was intended to pressure elected officials to provide clear information about the negotiations.

Leight said she is excited by the redevelopment of the area between Business 40 and the Gateway Fitness Center, noting that some of the housing is affordable to young people who want to live and work near downtown.

Highsmith said that, inspired by her work with Neighbors for Better Neighborhoods, she wants to promote micro-businesses by leveraging talents from within the community.

“I am running a campaign focusing on listening, connecting and celebrating the citizens of the South Ward one block at a time,” the candidate said.

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