Winston-Salem city council candidates in tight primaries come out swinging

by Jordan Green


Echoing a Democracy North Carolina intern, Winston-Salem Mayor Allen Joines inaugurated a candidate forum at the Behavioral Health Plaza Auditorium by saying that turnout in local elections tends to be “abysmal.”

Leaving immediately after his remarks for another engagement, he didn’t have to listen to barbs lobbed at him by his Democratic primary challenger, Gardenia Henley, or his general election opponent, Republican James Lee Knox.

Councilwoman Molly Leight made a case for why voters should match the fervent turnout in presidential elections when it comes time to vote for their mayor and city council.

“Local government is the government that touches you most closely and daily,” she said.

The incumbent in the South Ward, Leight was in the audience for a tough, detailed campaign pitch from her Democratic challenger, Carolyn Highsmith.

The mayoral and South Ward races were only two of five contests where full slates of primary opponents appeared in the same room to make their case to the voters.

Mayor Pro Tem Vivian Burke, a nine-term incumbent who filed for reelection in the final hour, met her two primary challengers, Brenda Diggs and Jemmise Bowen, head-on. The hosts of the forum hadn’t bothered to include Burke in a photographic slide projection because they hadn’t received a firm commitment from her.

Burke was seated in the audience next to Diggs, but when the time came for her remarks, she mentioned only Bowen by name.

“Jemmise, I’ve known you for a long time,” Burke said. “We’re in the same neighborhood, and I’m grateful. I’ve also had the opportunity to speak with you, and I’m grateful. I don’t want any young person to be discouraged from running. It’s here for all of us. Anyone can run for any position.”

Burke’s remarks covered several points. She said the city has reviewed its bus routes to make the service more efficient for riders; that the city needs to push companies receiving tax incentives to hire locally; that, beyond food and shelter, homeless people also need job training; and that the police department needs to treat everyone equally.

“I am the voice for the voiceless,” Burke said. “I am the person who stayed at the grassroots.”

Diggs, a retired bank executive, shared with the audience that she walked to school during elementary, middle and high school.

“I’m not here to say that we’re broken,” the candidate said, “but I am here to say that we need to take all of the successes that we’ve had — we need to build on what our leadership has done, what they’re still doing — which I certainly appreciate — and move it further.”

Bowen said she wants to bring people together in the Northwest Ward to strengthen the community. She spoke about a personal epiphany when she visited the Forsyth County Tax Office earlier this year to inquire about why property tax valuations were so drastically reduced in her community.

“When I got up to the desk, I asked:

‘What is it about where we live or what is it about this property that makes you devalue it at the rate that you did?’ And he said, ‘Well, what is your neighborhood like?’ And I think it’s great. But he said, ‘What’s the graduation rate at your local high school?’ He said, ‘What are the EOGs in your elementary and middle schools?’ He said, ‘How soon can you get to a store? And if you do get to a store, what kind of store is it?’ These are the kind of things I thought about, so I said, ‘We’ve got to go back and fix this somehow?’” Carolyn Highsmith, a longtime community leader who helped lead an effort to restore property-tax valuations, said the South Ward is challenged by crime in residential neighborhoods, chronic unemployment, what she called “the blighting of the West Clemmonsville Road corridor and “especially the devaluation of our wealth in the 2013 tax reappraisals.”

Highsmith said, “Winston-Salem and the South Ward need a stronger voice and advocacy from its city council representative.”

Leight, who seemed somewhat knocked off balance by the intensity of Highsmith’s appeal, said she takes a different view of the revaluation. “I think it’s a nebulous thing,” she said. “You’re not losing wealth; you are losing some of the taxes you pay otherwise.”

Leight offered assurances that the city recovers incentives monies through tax revenue and, as vice-chair of the finance committee, said the current council cut spending to the bone to keep a recent tax increase as minimal as possible. Above all, Leight said she is committed to protecting neighborhoods.

“What I’m against are high-trafficwhatever businesses that want to plop themselves into a neighborhood and destroy the quality of life of those people who live there,” she said.

Joycelyn Johnson, a former representative of the East Ward who is waging a campaign to reclaim her seat from incumbent Derwin Montgomery, made the most dramatic impression. She entered the auditorium from the back, chanting, “Walk together, children, walk together…. Walk with me as I run this race again.”

As aides fanned worked the aisles handing out her campaign cards, Johnson said she has worked to revitalize the Martin Luther King Jr. Drive corridor through her leadership in Creative Corridors, helped bring about new housing opportunities and fought to protect property values following the tax reappraisal. “You have my information,” she said. “I’ll see you at the polls.”

Montgomery gave a much more staid rundown of his accomplishments over the past four years. He said he has supported the Enterprise Center, a business incubator operated by the SG Atkins Community Development Corp., helped open up the city’s small business loan program and pushed for justice for Kalvin Michael Smith.

“I ran because I saw a community that I couldn’t understand totally the disparities that we face traveling from one side to the other,” Montgomery said.

Phil Carter, a third Democrat running in the East Ward, said he wants to promote prosperity through job training and education.

“I believe in you,” Carter said. “I believe in the citizens of Winston-Salem.

Why should you believe in me? I have walked the streets. I have served the party with which I affiliate.”

Carter added that on behalf of the chair of the Forsyth County Democratic Party he distributed more than 2,000 fliers warning people in low-income communities about the voter ID bill and other onerous legislation that has come to pass.

As evidence of candidates’ hunger for exposure, all three Democratic hopefuls in the open primary for the Northwest Ward seat being vacated by Wanda Merschel showed up for the forum. The audience was predominantly African-American, and many presumably live in the Northeast, East and Southeast Wards.

Noah Reynolds, the great-grandson of tobacco magnate R.J. Reynolds called himself “the dash,” using a jumbled metaphor that alluded to the merging of Winston and Salem 100 years ago, the new baseball stadium and the North Carolina and American flags.

“When was Winston founded?” Reynolds asked. “Anybody know?” Someone answered that it was 1849.

He was only 10 years off. Forsyth County was formed in 1849, while the town of Winston was incorporated as its seat in 1859, according to an official history of Winston-Salem.

“Eighteen seventy-five,” the candidate declared, “when RJ Reynolds came down from Virginia with a sack of tobacco and started a factory.”

Reynolds said that as a result of the two towns merging Winston-Salem became the largest city in the Southeast, the Reynolds building was the tallest between Baltimore and Atlanta and the city’s airport was the most modern in the nation.

“You know things have been kind of slow,” he said. “We’ve maintained for, what, half a century. Things have gotta change. Charlotte and Raleigh are the two fastest growing out of the 10 in the nation — not in North Carolina; in the nation. So we need a leader for the next hundred years. I think I can be that leader.”

Laura Elliott, an ordained minister who is also seeking the Democratic nomination for the Northwest Ward seat, said she knew several people in the audience through her past employment with the Experiment in Self- Reliance. Elliott said she has worked to promote homeownership and employment opportunities.

Elliott said she wants to make Winston-Salem “an inclusive, diverse community where everybody’s voice is heard.”

Jeff MacIntosh, a third Democrat running for the seat, kept his remarks brief. He told the audience that he and his wife “have restored about 30 properties in Winston-Salem neighborhoods that most people told us we were crazy to go into.” He added that he is a hard worker.

Allen Joines ran down a progress report from his past 12 years as mayor that was familiar to anyone who has seen his many guest appearances at other candidates’ events. Joines said that under his leadership Winston- Salem has maintained the lowest taxes and fees of any major city in North Carolina, held a superior credit rating, added new jobs, saved taxpayers through a new recycling program and reduced crime and chronic homelessness.

Gardenia Henley, Joines’ challenger in the Democratic primary, spoke about her experience as a retired inspector general officer with the federal government. She said she has saved US taxpayers millions of dollars by uncovering fraud, waste and mismanagement. Henley said she wants to implement a “no fear” policy so citizens can address issues without fear of retaliation. The candidate noted that she has written and published several “Henley Reports,” which detail alleged fraud and waste at the local level.

“A lot of people right out in that audience have suffered the consequences of my report,” she said. “Your names are in it. I can’t say that I regret that because if you haven’t done anything wrong you don’t have anything to worry about. Hmmm? But I can say that I’ll call a person out respectfully if I feel that something has happened wrong. Now, if you go back and look at those reports and you see what I’ve written in there, nobody has come to me and said, ‘Ms. Henley, you were wrong.’ So what does that mean? I was right. And I challenge anybody out there tonight to… take it to court.”

Three challengers in other races also made remarks, including Bill Tatum, a Democrat running in the Southeast Ward, Republican Donald T. Shaw in the Southwest Ward and Republican Howard Hudson in the West Ward. Incumbents James Taylor Jr., Dan Besse, Robert Clark and Denise D. Adams did not attend the forum, which was hosted by Democracy North Carolina.

Hudson got off the best zinger of the night, although the left-leaning audience was a mismatch for his conservative politics. Hudson lambasted the current council for cost overruns on BB&T Ballpark and spending money on feasibility studies for a proposed urban circulator.

“Do you want a beaming, progressive city that’s built on a solid foundation of fiscal responsibility and accountability?” asked Hudson, a retired banking attorney. “Or do you want a city speeding on a trolley down the first-base line only to be thrown out by a knuckleball of Detroit-like problems?” Addressing the audience on the same night that the Republican-controlled NC House approved wide-ranging legislation to limit voting while loosening restrictions on campaign contributions, Democracy North Carolina organizer Linda Sutton argued that exercising the franchise is more important than ever.

“Let’s disappoint the naysayers,” she said. “Vote like you’ve never voted before. Vote for whomever you want to. But vote.”