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Republicans struggle to break through in Winston-Salem council race

by Jordan Green

 jordan@yesweekly.com @JordanGreenYES

Republican candidates for Winston-Salem City Council season are struggling to break through in an election season that, fatefully, has coincided with the federal government shutdown — for which many voters blame the tea-party wing of the Republican caucus in the US House.

All eyes have been on the Northwest Ward, where Councilwoman Wanda Merschel is retiring at the end of her term. Though the district leans Democratic, it has the closest split in party registration with a healthy contingent of independent voters. The Republican Party fielded a near perfect candidate with Lida Hayes Calvert, a respected businesswoman with a solid resume of community service and healthy fundraising ability. In addition to being well versed on the issues and a feisty proponent for her principles, Calvert possesses a genuinely sweet personality in a political arena that is increasingly mean-spirited.

“I feel like I’m climbing this mountain barefoot and it’s on fire,” Calvert said in voicemail message to announce to share the good news that she had received the Winston-Salem Journal endorsement.

Reaching voters has been another matter.

“The campaign is much harder than what I had anticipated,” she said. “It’s much harder, I think, because people seem to have a feel of things happening in the government that they don’t like, and it would seem to revert back to everyone running. I don’t have anything to do with the [county] commissioners or the shutdown.”

Patricia Kleinmaier, the Republican candidate for the North Ward, said she received “a nasty letter” from a voter who blamed her for the federal government shutdown after learning of her affiliation with the tea party. Kleinmaier is challenging Democrat Denise D. Adams, who has held the seat for one term.

The retired business owner has been engaged in municipal politics since 2006, when her neighborhood of Lake Hills was annexed by the city. It was hearing a speech by Dr. Greg Brannon, the tea party-backed candidate for US Senate, that prodded her to make the personal sacrifice to run for office. Since filing in July, Kleinmaier — like Calvert — has been relentlessly canvassing her ward in an effort to reach voters.

“The only one who has a shot is Lida,” Kleinmaier said. “I don’t give myself much of a chance. I’ve got to have 75 percent of Republicans come out to get what [Adams] got last time.”

That’s a steep climb, considering that only 12.3 percent of the electorate voted in the last Winston-Salem municipal election four years ago. In early voting through Tuesday at noon, turnout among both Republicans and Democrats in the North Ward was higher than their share of registered voters, with independents lagging. Meanwhile, in the Northwest Ward, only a quarter of early voters were registered Republicans compared to their 31-percent share of the electorate. In contrast, Democrats made up 53.1 percent of early voters compared to Weekly their 40.5-percent share of the electorate.

Jeff MacIntosh, the Democratic candidate in the Northwest Ward, described a comparatively easeful experience on the campaign trail.

“People are worried about the budget; they’re worried about property values and property taxes,” he said. “In some neighborhoods, you get very localized concerns, such as areas where people live next to a greenway. From what I’ve heard, voters in the Northwest Ward feel like the city’s pretty well run. I haven’t encountered any great angst.”

Kleinmaier said she made an unsuccessful effort to get her fellow Republican candidates to draw up a platform to let voters know what agenda they would enact if they were able to elect a majority on council. Two Republican candidates — Nathan Jones in the South Ward and Mike Hunger in the Southeast Ward —aren’t even returning phone calls from the press.

Allen Joines, a popular three-term mayor with strong backing from the business community and African- American voters, ran unopposed in his last two elections. Widely respected among his fellow mayors in the Southeast, Joines has been mentioned in Democratic circles as potentially being a future candidate for governor or Congress in the future.

This year, Joines faces only nominal competition from Republican James Lee Knox, a tow-truck operator whose party has publicly renounced him. Revelations this summer that Knox used a racial slur to characterize an elections worker in 2012 brought to mind former Mayor Jack Cavanagh, who brought national embarrassment to the city by pledging allegiance to the Confederate flag, according to reporting by the Journal.

Playing to the center in the Northwest Ward

With the most closely divided electorate in the city, both the Republican and Democratic candidates for the Northwest Ward tack to the center.

Lida Hayes Calvert, the Republican candidate, was appointed to serve on the Citizens Organizational Efficiency Review Committee by Mayor Joines. The committee identified $4.5 million in cost savings, only a third of which were adopted by the current council in an overall budget of $378.8 million.

Calvert, who owns S&L Painting & Decorating, has said she was disappointed that the council didn’t act on more of the recommendations, including one to require residents seeking backyard trash pickup through an exemption to the city’s curbside collection ordinance to obtain a doctor’s note. The committee estimated that the city could save $114,000 by tightening the rules.

“That is wasteful spending,” she told YES! Weekly in June. “Anybody can just call in and say, ‘Hey, I want my garbage picked up in my backyard,’ and the city will just say, ‘Hey, okay, what’s your address? No doctor’s note needed.’” Calvert tacks to the right of the Democratic majority on council by arguing that private patrons should pick up a larger share of the cost of the arts to relieve city taxpayers.

“I am a big arts lover, and what I do instead of using someone else’s money, I sponsored Les Misérables for the Theatre Alliance,” she said. “Usually, I get very, very involved in the arts. I make a donation to the Arts Council. We in the area are the ones who get entertained. I feel like that with the arts the city does have some responsibility, but also I feel like the people who are enjoying the arts should have a personal responsibility.

Calvert said she has a good working relationship with several sitting council members, and not just fellow Republican Robert Clark, who is running unopposed in the West Ward.

“Molly [Leight] and I are on the YWCA board,” Calvert said. “Mrs. [Vivian] Burke has been nothing but wonderful for women in business and minorities in business. We have run across each other over the years and are good friends.”

In tone, Calvert also demonstrates an ability to appeal to voters across party lines.

“I’m not supposed to like diversity, compared with the ‘R’ in front of my name,” she said. “But I do. I like everybody — all mankind.”

Calvert’s company has performed contract work for the city, including painting parking decks and light poles. If elected, the candidate said she will give up contracting work with the city.

Jeff MacIntosh, the Democratic candidate for the seat, is firmly committed to the downtown focus embraced by the current council. The position fits his professional background as a commercial real estate broker with Leonard Ryden Burr and his family’s successful efforts in the 1980s to restore the Holly Avenue neighborhood near the Milton Rhodes Arts Center in downtown.

“People who don’t use downtown don’t have as much buy-in,” he said. “They don’t understand the impact that the success of downtown can have on their property taxes. It’s an opaque concept to put across. I try to explain that the money downtown throws off pays for services such as sidewalks and crosswalks that the rest of the city and county wants.”

MacIntosh’s position on a proposed Urban Circulator to link activity centers near downtown and promote new retail and housing investment has evolved from initial support to skepticism after talking with voters in the Northwest Ward. Calvert opposes the initiative.

“People don’t care who’s paying for it,” MacIntosh said. “I’ve gotten a lot of feedback that it’s just too much money.

It’s going to be a hard sell. If we’re going to go forward, we need to have a better picture of the economic development that’s going to occur and how fast. In order for my ward to go for it, the payback’s going to have to be clear.”

MacIntosh makes the case that “as the lowest-cost producer of services in North Carolina,” Winston-Salem needs to look to other means to attract business investment and talent.

“We need to do a better job of letting people know that we have a serious cycling community here,” he said. “I’d like to see our food culture grow. And we have several breweries taking off. People get excited about that. People want to move here because of that — not because we have the lowest tax rate.”

He added that he would like to see a design-focused business incubator formed around the Center for Design Innovation.

“We have to build on things that are authentic to Winston-Salem,” he said, adding that a music festival could potentially capitalize on the city’s significant role in popular music, from the 5 Royales as R&B trailblazers to the jangle-pop sound of the dBs and Let’s Active in the late 1970s and ’80s.

AN INDEPEN- DENT INSUR- GENCY IN THE NORTHEAST WARD

While the Northwest Ward is one of the few competitive races in the election, the Northeast Ward came back into play after the primary. Mayor Pro Tem Vivian Burke, who has served since 1977, handily defeated two challengers in the Democratic primary and seemed poised to cruise to victory in November. She faces only nominal competitive from Michael Owens, a 37-year-old unemployed Republican who is making his first run for political office.

But Keith King, owner-operator of Kingz Downtown Market, got his name on the ballot as an unaffiliated candidate after the Forsyth County Board of Elections certified that 791 signatures submitted by the candidate were eligible voters in the Northeast Ward. State law requires unaffiliated candidates to collect signatures from 4 percent of registered voters in the district.

“I believe I’m the right person for the job,” said King, who serves on the Winston-Salem Transit Authority board. “A lot of people think I’m the right person for the job simply because I’m out there with the people. I see the frustration when they can’t get in touch with their council member. I see the fear in their eyes when they can’t pay their power bill.”

Burke could not be reached for comment for this story.

Unlike Burke, King opposes the Downtown Circulator, arguing that a poorly utilized rubber-tire trolley that circulates through downtown through a subsidy by Wells Fargo demonstrates that there is no demand for such a service. The trolley is almost always empty.

But he supports the position taken by Burke to keep the city from intervening in a federal court appeal by Kalvin Michael Smith.

Like Burke, King argues that Winston-Salem residents should have first crack at new jobs when the city provides incentives to employers. To enforce such a provision, King said the requirement could be written into a contract, and a city employee could act as a liaison to oversee the hiring practice.

He said his first priority is to put a police substation in the Northeast Ward, with jobs and economic development rating a close second.

“I think that the downtown needs to shine,” he said. “Any city’s downtown needs to shine, but they cannot forget about the areas outside of downtown.”

The candidate doesn’t see a lot of progress in the outlying areas of the Northeast Ward.

“Waughtown Street’s been built up,” he said. “Peters Creek Parkway has been built up, along with the Hanes Mall area. All of that’s been built up except for the Northeast Ward.”

SHIFTING AWAY FROM DOWNTOWN IN THE NORTH WARD

Denise D. Adams, the Democratic incumbent in the North Ward, said she believes efforts to revitalize downtown have succeeded and it’s time to shift focus and apply the same emphasis on improvement and economic growth in the city’s outlying areas.

Her Republican opponent concurs. “The North Ward is dead,” Kleinmaier said. “This is our excitement — McDonalds.

“All these people in the West Ward are complaining about Wal-Mart,” she added. “I’m like, ‘I’m over here. I’ve got a spot for you.’” As a small-government conservative, Kleinmaier opposes the Urban Circulator. Likewise, she is opposed to corporate incentives, city loans to small businesses and grants to nonprofits.

She called the Urban Circulator a “waste of time,” adding that idea that the federal government would foot a large portion of the bill doesn’t impress her because “it’s still my money.” Mass transit is underutilized, she said, and Winston-Salem Transit Authority should use smaller buses to operate more efficiently.

Adams initially supported the Urban Circulator on condition that it be rerouted to include stops at Wake Forest University and Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum, which are located in the North Ward. But as the campaign has progressed her tone has become more skeptical.

“I have nothing against the circulator,” she said. “In these times the can has been kicked down the road, and will continue to get kicked down the road.”

Adams said she would like to see retail development take place on University Parkway and Northwest Boulevard.

“I see condos, duplexes, coffee shops — things that bring people to the area,” she said. “You’re landlocked in downtown. From downtown to Wake Forest tremendous things can happen.”

As for Northwest Boulevard, a commercial corridor that lies just beyond the bustle of downtown, she wants the city to impose new regulations to require auto repair businesses to screen their facilities from the street with decorative fencing.

Adams cautions that the North Ward won’t be transformed into a transit and pedestrian oriented area overnight.

“We’re not a city; we’re a town,” she said. “We don’t have urban transportation — that eliminates the city. We don’t walk. People drive one car with one person. We’re not a city where you walk like Charlotte, Greensboro or Asheville. You can name them off.”

Notwithstanding her advocacy for areas outside of downtown, Adams is a champion of the city’s recent initiative to create an entertainment district around Ziggy’s and the District Roof Top Bar & Grille. As an alum of Morgan State University, she has spent a lot of time in Baltimore and is familiar with Power Plant Live!, a dining and entertainment area a block from the Inner Harbor.

“You can go there and drink; you can see live entertainment — that’s what I envision the entertainment district as,” she said. “I can get a wristband, and I’m taken care of.”

Adams successfully pushed to allow neighborhoods to petition to prohibit front-yard parking — putting herself at odds with Democratic colleagues such as Dan Besse in the Southwest Ward. But Adams said the current council is united by its commitment to economic development.

“It’s jobs, jobs, jobs,” she said. “We all want clawbacks, but the first thing is to get jobs — one and 100 and 1,000.”

Kleinmaier said if she’s elected, the Republican caucus would at least have someone to second a motion to move forward a discussion about spending cuts.

“I believe in conservative fiscal responsibility,” she said, “and trying to get some common sense on council to say, ‘No.’ Someone asked me what my platform is. And I said, ‘No.’” In the East Ward, Democratic incumbent Derwin Montgomery is running unopposed.

Democrats Molly Leight in the South Ward and James Taylor in the Southeast Ward face only nominal Republican opposition from Nathan Jones and Mike Hunger, respectively, who are running lowvisibility campaigns.

Republican Donald T. Shaw, who is challenging Democrat Dan Besse in the Southwest Ward, has at least responded to questionnaires and showed up for candidate forums, but there’s little indication that his cantankerous conservatism has gained traction in a ward where voters strongly identify with their progressive councilman.

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