When push comes to shove on Tuesday, Nov. 6, whether or not High Point City Councilmember Bernita Sims becomes the next mayor of High Point will depend on whether or not voters feel strongly about the differences between the other candidates, Councilmember Chris Whitley and Coy Williard.
The numbers are in Sims' favor in the mayoral race. She is a black Democrat going up against Whitley and Williard, both white Republicans, in the general election, which by default gives her a majority of votes in Wards 1 and 2 and a respectable Democratic vote in the other wards.
It's possible for Williard or Whitley to defeat Sims. But that happening would require an extremely lopsided white, Republican vote.
In other words, to defeat Sims, Whitley would have to beat Williard, or Williard beat Whitley, decisively – winning almost all of the Republican vote or a large majority of the white vote. Given the facts that Whitley and Williard have different constituencies, and that the two candidates are increasingly at odds, it's hard to picture either of them beating the other decisively enough to overtake Sims' built-in lead.
Members of the High Point Rotary Club got a look at all three candidates in action at a candidates' forum on Thursday, Oct. 25 at First Presbyterian Church on North Main Street. At a mayoral debate on Oct. 17 at the Pennybyrn at Maryfield retirement home on Penny Road, Sims did not attend and was represented by her campaign manager, Vicki Alston.
"It kind of started out as a five-person race," said High Point Rotary Club President Kelly Sain. "It got down to four. And, as you can see today, it's kind of a three-person race."
Two inactive candidates will be on the Nov. 6 ballot: motivational speaker Tammy Holyfield, who withdrew from the race, and Matthew Fowler, who hasn't been seen since he filed to run.
Williard seems tailor-made as a Rotary Club candidate. On the campaign trail he has said, if elected he will govern judging each action by four criteria: Is it the truth? Is it fair to all concerned? Will it build goodwill and better friendships? And will it be beneficial to all concerned?
That's the Rotarian 4-Way Test, the club's guiding principles. Fine principles, but Williard's use of them on the stump is also a signal to Rotarians and other business people that he's one of them. Williard is a member of Furnitureland Rotary Club, not High Point Rotary, but the connection is there just the same.
Neither Whitley nor Sims are Rotarians. But both are longtime councilmembers, and many of the businesses represented at the Rotary luncheon regularly need permits, rezoning and the like from the city. That, and fairness and goodwill, earned them a respectful hearing.
The luncheon was not so much a debate as a chance for each candidate to give a 10-minute speech to the business community.
Sims went first, reluctantly.
"I don't know about this being first thing," she said. "I had a rousing closing."
Sims told of growing up off College Drive, attending High Point schools, then graduating from high school in Maryland and from the University of the District of Columbia and working for private companies. She said, "I have worked with multimillion-dollar budgets."
Sims now works as a night manager at a High Point hotel.
Sims has been on the City Council since 2002. She said, "I also knew there was a segment of this community that needed better representation on a board that was responsible for the things that affected their lives."
Sims listed the many City Council committees she has served on, and said she is committed to the city revitalization plans of the High Point City Project.
Sims said she had served on committees that approved infrastructure, including storm drainage, sewer, roads and larger recycling containers, which she credited with prolonging the life of the current landfill.
Sims accused some of this year's City Council candidates of being "irresponsible" in reporting tax rates without properly explaining last year's property revaluation by the county. She said the City Council went three years without a tax increase. It has approved tax increases for the last two years.
"The City of High Point has no input in the valuation process," she said. "This is handled by the county."
Sims said she wants the City Council, after consulting with community leaders, to be more active in planning the future of High Point. She said, "Invariably, it all comes back to quality-of-life issues."
Williard followed Sims. He kicked off by buttering up the Rotary Club and quoting the 4-Way Test, then said he graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1967 and had been a business and civic leader for 40 years. He listed some of his numerous memberships in business and community organizations.
Williard credited High Point University President and CEO Nido Qubein and High Point attorney and former state Rep. Jim Morgan, who he called High Point's "energizer bunnies," with motivating him to run.
Williard said he would, if elected, support the City Project's revitalization efforts, advocate for education and work to attract businesses to High Point.
"I will definitely work to reduce taxes," he said. "I will not raise taxes. I will not support wasteful spending."
Williard parodied Hillary Clinton's 2008 primary ad with a ringing telephone representing a national crisis – only, in Williard's version, it is a call from a company wanting to settle in High Point. He said, "Who do you want to take that call."
Williard also repeated his call for voters to vote for Sims or Whitley if they consider City Council experience important.
"What do I bring to the table?" he said. "Leadership."
Williard's construction company is successful, and at the Rotary luncheon he listed employees that had been with him for decades.
Whitley batted cleanup at the luncheon.
Whitely began by quoting NC state Rep. and former High Point City Councilmember John Faircloth as saying, "Chris isn't necessarily the best speaker, but he's the kind of person who's going to be working in the background and getting things done."
Faircloth said at the end of the luncheon that the quote did not mean he is endorsing Whitley. Faircloth said he is remaining neutral in the mayoral race.
Despite his disclaimer, Whitley spoke well, laying out his 19 years of City Council experience and his business experience. Whitley is president of RCW International Inc., which deals with commodities, and is a partner in S.E. Whitley and Son contractors.
Whitley, like Sims, touted his City Council and committee experience, and the businesses that have moved to High Point or expanded recently, including Stanley Furniture and Solstas Lab Partners.
Whitley asked, "Is it the responsibility of government to create jobs, or to create opportunities for business to create jobs?" He opted for the latter. Whitley has been an opponent of giving companies financial incentives to locate or expand in High Point, but has softened that stance since the economy took a nosedive.