Anyone hoping to name a clear winner at High Point's Thursday, Oct. 4 mayoral debate was bound to be disappointed. The candidates were too close on too many issues, and none crashed and burned.
High Point's political spectrum, at least as reflected by its City Council, is narrow. Councilmembers to the extreme left or right don't seem to make it onto the City Council, or perhaps they just don't last long if they do. The meter might wobble, but it always seems to stabilize on center-right.
The fact that High Point's debates are almost always organized by the Republican Party is telling. High Point Republican Party Chairman Don Webb was the moderator of Thursday's debate.
High Point has six wards and two at-large seats, in addition to the mayor's chair, and it has been governed for years by Democratic Mayor Becky Smothers and a coalition composed primarily of moderate Republicans. That will change in the November election because Smothers isn't running for reelection as mayor, but the mayoral candidates all said that High Point's main priority is jobs: bringing businesses to High Point, making it easier to start small businesses and improving the quality of life in High Point so that companies and people will want to come there.
The mayoral debate made almost certain what seemed likely from the beginning – that two of the candidates, Tammy Holyfield and Matthew Fowler, are out $96. That's the filing fee for High Point City Council races.
Fowler – who works for a temp agency in Greensboro but is part owner of an unlicensed real estate rental agency on the side – didn't show up. That raises the odds that he is on the ballot, as some suspected, as a spoiler to draw black votes from Councilmember Bernita Sims, who, if she wins, will be High Point's first black mayor. Or maybe Fowler just had $96 burning a hole in his pocket.
Holyfield is intelligent, articulate, passionate and shows no signs of knowing how government works. Her answers were larded with business-motivation-speak (logically, since, like High Point University President Nido Qubein, she is a business motivational speaker).
Holyfield said she was moved to run for mayor by driving her son to school and seeing the pockets of greatness and devastation in High Point. She also said that she would like to see lower taxes. Beyond that, however, her answers devolved rapidly into "proactive approaches," "working smarter," "performance-management systems," "strategic unified visions" and "organizational strategic processes."
That leaves Councilmembers Sims and Chris Whitley and businessman Coy Williard, the three serious candidates.
Whitley and Sims did predictably well. Whitley has been on the City Council for 19 years; Sims for 10. Both have rotated through committee chairmanships, learned policy, reviewed budgets and represented High Point on state and national boards. Both know what makes city government tick. They were precise in their knowledge of the City Council's workings, the laws it operates under and its past decisions.
Sims said that, if you haven't sat at the dais, "You don't have the whole picture."
Williard's pitch was his business experience. The president of Williard-Stewart Inc. construction and Marketplace Management Inc., he has belonged to major old-line High Point business groups and is the candidate of Emerywood. He is also, reputedly, the favored candidate of Qubein, whose university has a Coy O. Williard Stadium.
Williard came across as self-effacing, cheerful and even amusing. He is likable and speaks well.
Williard made no bones about his lack of governmental experience, even joking about it.
After Webb asked the candidates about their lobbying experience in Raleigh and Washington, Williard, following Holyfield, who acknowledged that she had none, said, "I'll have to divert it a little too. I've never been in politics."
Williard had the most concrete plan for what he would do after the election if he won. That 10-point plan involves Williard meeting with the City Council, High Point City Manager Strib Boynton, the North Carolina Department of Transportation, past presidents of the High Point Chamber of Commerce, Guilford County School Superintendent Mo Green, schools, churches, ministries and retirement communities to learn what High Point needs.
After all those meetings, Williard said he would form a community advisory group to help decide what High Point should do
Sims' numbered plan was shorter, but more specific.
She said that the top three things she would address as mayor are streamlining the city's process for approving and giving code approval for new businesses, while trying to retain the city's core small businesses; get rid of blighted neighborhoods, with which High Point is richly endowed – "That needs to go away;" and increasing the reach of the furniture market through the Internet, reaching business to let them know they don't have to send people to walk into brick-and-mortar buildings. Sims called it, "Getting the low hanging fruit, from the global perspective."
That might be counterproductive when it comes to bringing people and money into High Point, but at least would keep buyers feeding money into the furniture market.
Whitley pointed out that 2012 is likely to be a sea change for High Point – it's the first time since 2003 that a sitting mayor hasn't run for reelection, and because of councilmembers stepping down, the City Council will have had two elections in a row with heavy turnover. This year alone, there will be a new mayor, at least one new at-large councilmember, and new councilmembers in Wards 1, 4 and 5. He argued that, under those circumstances, the City Council needs a mayor with experience and institutional memory.
Since 1992, High Point has had only two mayors, Smothers and Arnold Koonce, who Whitley called a great man and great leader. Whitley cited the extensive work he has done working with both mayors, including recent businesses that have moved to High Point or expanded their High Point operations, including Stanley Furniture and Polo Ralph Lauren. He also cited the investments High Point has made in infrastructure during his tenure that have brought businesses to High Point.
Whitley said, "High Point needs a mayor who has the proven leadership to keep High Point moving forward."
Webb asked the candidates what one thing they would change that the City Council has done in the last two years, if they don't agree with everything it has done.
Holyfield said she wants to see the city budget based on merit pay, or a "performance-management system."
"I don't agree with maybe some of the spending," she said. "And I don't agree with how funds are stewarded."
Sims said she did not regret any of the City Council's decisions. She said she disagreed with some of them, but supported the City Council's decisions once made. She said that High Point has been fiscally responsible. She said, "We were prepared for this recession where other people were not."
Williard said High Point has the highest tax rate of any city in North Carolina with a population of more than 100,000. He said, "I do not believe there is any person in this room who would approve of having their taxes increased two years in a row."
The City Council has increased the property tax rate for two years running.
Williard attacked a statement of Sims' that was quoted in the June 23, 2012 High Point Enterprise He said, "They admit that they did not take the time to review the budget and check the line items."
Sims in turn attacked Williard for misrepresenting what she had said by adding words not in her statement. Sims said her statement was actually a complaint that the City Council had not considered whether or not to cut services earlier in the budget process.
As quoted in the article, Sims said: "Very late in this process, we started talking about how the expenses needed to be decreased, we can run a tighter machine – and we probably can. There's no doubt in my mind that somewhere in that budget we can do all these things. But it's incumbent on the council to sit down and put in the time that is required to make that happen."
Whitley said he has few regrets about City Council votes, except being unexcited by raising taxes or fees. He said the City Council has gone through every budget line by line and given department heads small bonuses when they found ways to cut money out of their budgets.
"It's been a tough year," Whitley said. "It's been a tough two years. However, the City of High Point has weathered this storm pretty well."
Williard and Whitley tangled at the end of the debate. Williard took the City Council to task for taking a long time to order the demolition of most of an apartment complex in the 500 block of Meredith Street owned by Schwarz Properties LLC of Asheboro, which it did on Oct. 1.
Williard said, "This council sat here for two years with a boarded up community that they would not pull the trigger on to tear those houses down."
Whitley hit back, saying Williard didn't understand the legal requirements to demolish private property, which include a one-year wait. He said, "You don't want to get the city involved in a lawsuit."
Much of High Point's current political discussion has centered around where to make future investments, and that discussion has created some strange bedfellows, as the debate showed.
The biggest divide was on whether to target money to High Point's northward expansion, or to push for investments in High Point's Core City Plan, which would redevelop eight of High Point's traditional neighborhoods.
Whitley said he is the only remaining councilmember who sat in on the original meetings with consultants to come up with the Core City Plan. But he is firmly associated with north High Point – with Piedmont Centre, with the northern neighborhoods that have sprung up in recent years and with the businesses that have stretched far out Eastchester Drive. He has argued that the center of High Point has already moved irretrievably northward.
To a question from Webb about urban sprawl, Whitley repeated a variation of the argument: that past City Councils have, through annexation agreements, already created a new High Point. He said, "We know where the sprawl is going to be."
Whitley said that, since the High Point City Project is a registered nonprofit group, it should be weaned off the city government, "like all outside agencies."
That created the clearest distinction of the night, between Whitley, on the one hand, and Williard and Sims on the other. Both Williard and Sims strongly supported the Core City Plan.
Williard said he would take development wherever he could get it in this economy, and that "people are going to live where they want to live" – but he also said the Core City neighborhoods should all be attacked at once. That would be a cohesive and expensive drive for redevelopment that recent City Councils haven't dared. Williard said that, as a community, High Point has to spend money to get the job done.
Sims argued that the expansion of the High Point city limits is going to slow. She pointed out that a local bill recently passed by the North Carolina General Assembly gives the Davidson County Board of Commissioners veto power over even voluntary annexation in Davidson County to the west, and that the airport overlay district and the noise cones from Piedmont Triad International Airport will limit the types of development to the northeast.
Sims said that eventually, concentrating on High Point's core will be the only way to develop in some areas. She said that doing so would take an absolutely committed City Council – "It can't be a maybe" – and a strong mayor. The later was a dig at Smothers, who has been iffy about the Core City Plan.
Sims argued that High Point should create shovel-ready opportunities for development, presumably like graded- and infrastructure-ready office and industrial parks other cities have prepared.
There is irony in Williard and Sims being on the same side in the Core City debate. Ward 1, which Sims represents, and Emerywood are as far apart politically as High Point gets. But black and white, rich and poor, like it or not, the residents of the old High Point center are tied together by geography and by the lifestyle limitations caused by the city center's decay.
Sims, a Democrat, would have a harder fight on her hands in an election with a primary. But in a five-candidate race with no primary, and with the near-certainty that she will sweep Wards 1 and 2, her odds have always seemed best this year.
Sims said after the debate that all but one of High Point's mayors have come from Emerywood, the traditional neighborhood of factory and mill owners. Whitley agreed. That's a hard statistic to prove, but it's true that Emerywood has had an outsized influence on High Point politics. But most of Emerywood's factories and mills are gone, and even its population is not as monolithic as it once was.
Williard is Emerywood's man. If Emerywood votes for him en masse, and he can draw votes from other areas of High Point, he might have a chance – but it's hard to see where those outside votes would come from.
Whitley is both the most experienced candidate and the representative of the High Point that has sprung up between Eastchester Drive and I-40.
The question dogging Whitley's campaign is how many people in north High Point actually consider themselves High Pointers, how many of those will come out to vote and how many of those who vote will make it to the City Council races at the end of the ballot.
Smothers later said she was encouraged by the makeup of the audience that almost filled the City Council chamber. "It was one of the first I've seen in years that wasn't totally populated by family and friends of candidates," Smothers said. "There were actual voters there."
Smothers said she was concerned that some candidates were unfamiliar with municipal services.
"As I said in the elevator going down with some folks, I've never been to a forum in which there was so little reference to police and fire, basic services that are so important to citizens," she said. "I don't want to be unfair, but I think there's a lack of understanding of what government is about. I think that's sad."