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Two challengers take on 36-year incumbent in Northeast Ward

by Jordan Green

jordan@yesweekly.com Twitter: @JordanGreenYes

When filing opened for Winston-Salem City Council in early July, speculation arose as to whether Mayor Pro Tem Vivian Burke, who has represented the Northeast Ward since 1977, would seek reelection.

Compared to Burke, who has served on council since Jimmy Carter was in the White House and the Sex Pistols toured America, the second-longest serving member, Wanda Merschel, has only held her seat since 1997. Merschel, who chairs the finance committee on council, announced she would retire after finishing her term as Northwest Ward representative.

While Burke considered her plans, two other Democratic candidates made forays into the Northeast Ward race. Brenda Diggs, a 65-year-old retired banking executive with experience on nonprofit boards and serving on the Winston-Salem Police Officers Retirement Commission, filed to run on the first day, accompanied to the board of elections by an entourage of about 20 family members, friends and other supporters. Jemmise Bowen, a 43-year-old shelter monitor at the Salvation Army who has logged numerous volunteer hours with the Forsyth County Democratic Party, also entered the race.

Voters in Winston-Salem will go to the polls in local precincts on Sept. 10 for the primary election. Democratic primaries take place in the Northeast, East, Southeast, South and Northwest wards, while Republican voters will select their nominees in the West and Southwest wards.

Like Burke, Diggs emphasizes public service in her pitch to voters. Campaigning across the Northeast Ward, the candidate said voters have told her that they want change.

“They believe that, as a gentleman said, ‘We want progress,’” Diggs said. “Progress always dictates change.”

Bowen is more blunt. “When we have a city council representative that holds the position for an extremely long time a lot of people lose interest,” Bowen said at a candidate forum at the Milton Rhodes Arts Center last month.

Burke, who lost her husband to illness earlier this year, said she’s still up to the job. “I have been progressive, and I think I have been very, very good at what I do,” she said. “You can check the record; I have not missed meetings…. When people get older it does not mean that here is something wrong. As long as you can be active and productive, I don’t think you need term limits.”

Burke says on her campaign website that she launched the Minority/Women Business Enterprise program and the human relations department in Winston-Salem while increasing citizens’ opportunities for participation on boards and commissions. Among her proudest achievements over her nine terms in office is the mixed-use business and residential development in the Hanes Mill Road area.

Diggs’ economic-development philosophy closely tracks with that of Mayor Allen Joines. She promotes the city’s investment in biotech research while promoting partnerships with Forsyth Tech to help ensure that city residents qualify for the new jobs.

Bowen argues that it’s time for the city to try something new in its quest to replace the solid, middle-class jobs that have been lost over the past couple decades. The candidate proposes that the city leverage its evolving transportation infrastructure to develp an industrial food economy.

“I’m talking like canned vegetables,” she said. “We can now produce vegetables from our neighbors in Walkertown, the surrounding areas, down east. We can secure vegetables and food products from South Carolina. We have the mountains where we have peaches.”

Bowen takes a more definitive stance on the Kalvin Michael Smith case than her two opponents. Smith, a black man, was convicted of brutally beating a white woman following an investigation by the Winston-Salem Police Department that many argue was deeply flawed. Burke, who chairs the public safety committee, voted with the majority of council to not file a friend-of-the-court brief in federal court to support Smith’s motion for a new trial.

Diggs has said that considering that she was not present at the closed-session meeting at which the council decided not to intervene on Smith’s behalf, it would not be appropriate for her to comment.

Bowen said she challenged Burke to take be more proactive. “Trayvon Martin — remember when he was killed,” she said. “You wouldn’t arrest George Zimmerman. The Northeast Ward is 58 percent African American, and many of them are young men. Why would we overlook the fact that they could be the next Kalvin Michael Smith, Darryl Hunt and Trayvon Martin? I was like, ‘Black is your constituency.’”

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