You don't notice her size when she sits at the dais at High Point City Council meetings, but it was evident at her Dec. 3 swearing-in ceremony at the High Point Theatre, where she barely topped the lectern, and it's apparent when she's seated in her usual corner at Becky's & Mary's Restaurant on Washington Street.
But Sims has a large amount of confidence and ambition. That was apparent not only before the Nov. 6, 2012 election, but before the May 8 North Carolina primary.
At that time she said, in strong terms but off the record, that she would win the mayor's seat whether or not former High Point Mayor Becky Smothers ran for reelection, whether or not two white Republican candidates split that vote and whether or not the High Point City Council voted to reinstate a primary for City Council races.
Smothers did not run for reelection, former Councilmember Chris Whitley and developer Coy Williard split the conservative vote, and High Point skipped the primary, making it possible for a candidate to become mayor with only a plurality of votes.
Sims, until Dec. 3 the Ward 1 representative to the City Council, got 33 percent of the vote, beating Williard's 27 percent Whitley's 18 percent.
At Becky's & Mary's on Friday, Dec. 7, Sims discussed the campaign, her reorganization of the City Council and what she thinks needs to be done to put High Point on the right track.
Being mayor is equally a change for Sims. The mayor does most of the public speaking and much of the liaison work for the City Council, which is almost a full-time job in itself. In her last months as mayor, Smothers delegated most of the public speaking engagements to Whitley. Now the burden falls on Sims.
After a long day of meetings on Monday, Dec. 10, Sims said, "One thing that's amazing to me is the diversity of people with whom you interact."
Besides her confidence and her height, there are probably many things some High Pointers don't know about Sims, despite her decade on the City Council.
As Ward 1 councilmember and now as High Point's first black mayor, Sims is well known in Wards 1 and 2, the two majority-black wards. She's well known to followers of the High Point City Council. But Smothers, except for one term won by Arnold Koonce, has been the public face of the City Council since 1992 – a long time for any mayor, and some young High Pointers may not remember anyone else in that role.
Sims, despite being born and raised in High Point and attending High Point city schools, did her senior year of high school at Central High School in Seat Pleasant, Maryland. She attended the University of the District of Columbia for two years, majoring in communications.
Sims moved away from High Point for much of her professional career, working in Kansas City, Atlanta and Washington, DC. Her resume shows a series of corporate jobs, including senior property manager for National Housing Partnerships in Washington, vice president of operations for Bolton Property Management in Atlanta, vice president of operations for Omega Realty in Atlanta and human resources executive for La-Z-Boy Furniture once she returned to High Point in 1997. She now works as night manager of a High Point hotel.
Sims argues that her time outside of High Point has better prepared her to serve as mayor of High Point.
"I think it would be the diversity of the knowledge I bring to the table," she said when asked about her qualifications. "I have lived all over this country, so I don't come with a preconceived idea about High Point. I think if you've lived here all your life and you've never lived anywhere else, you're making decisions based on limited knowledge."
Sims won the mayor's seat in the three-way race against Whitley, who had 20 years on the City Council, and Williard, who touted his business experience. Williard's campaign was interpreted by some as an effort to block Sims' election, and Sims has some bitterness over the campaign.
"Coy to this day doesn't speak to me," she said. "I tell him, why do you personalize this? Whitley didn't do that. The next day he called me to congratulate me. It's not personal. If Coy won, I would have called him to congratulate him, and the next thing I would have said is, 'How can I help in the transition.' He did none of that."
Despite any lingering animosity, Sims remained adamant that she would have won even had Williard not filed to run.
"You forget what my part in all this is, I would have prevailed anyway," she said. "I might have had to work a little harder, but at the end of the day, I still would have won."
Sims dismissed many of the positions taken by other candidates for City Council as gimmicks, including that taken by unsuccessful at-large candidate Elijah Lovejoy, who said he would ask High Point City Manager Strib Boynton for a menu of 2 percent, 4 percent and 6 percent budget cuts.
"That's not how budgets work," Sims said. "Meanwhile, back at the ranch, there's another guy sitting in the room telling me 'I really have some concerns about our streets and roads, and I want to make sure you put more money into resurfacing of streets.'"
Sims said Whitley and Williard said they would revisit the High Point budget for the 2012-2013 fiscal year – this fiscal year, which is halfway done.
"I'm not Chris and I'm not Coy," she said. "We're not going to revisit the budget. It is what it is."
Sims did say that, if the City Council or staff find any savings, they can put them back into the city's general fund, but that taking this year's budget apart and putting it back together makes no sense.
"I can't see what that does," she said. "We're beginning another budget as we speak. To me that is just a total waste of time. I don't see the reasonableness of that happening."
It has been no secret to people following High Point politics that Sims has been planning to run for mayor for years. Her campaign came together in what seemed like a perfectly timed sequence of events: Smothers decided not to run; former Councilmember Bill Bencini, who also wants to run for mayor and whose father was mayor, is off taking a turn as a Guilford County commissioner; and the City Council, despite complaints from some councilmembers, did not vote to reinstate a City Council primary, which would have left Sims, a Democrat, running head-to-head against a single Republican candidate.
Nevertheless, Sims claims she had no master plan.
"There was not a plan," she said. "As much as people may want to give me credit with being all that strategic and whatever, I never sat down and put pen to paper and set a strategy. That never happened."
Sims also claims she did nothing to aid the City Council's failure to restore a primary for City Council races. The City Council eliminated them several years ago, at the same time that it switched High Point City Council races to even-numbered years in an effort to capitalize on the turnout for national and state elections.
What High Point voters want, according to Sims, is experience – although that doesn't explain why Whitley, who had been on the City Council twice as long as Sims, came in so far behind Williard, who had no council experience, and Sims. It may explain why some of the candidates who made the City Council itself an issue, claiming the council was leading High Point into disaster, didn't win.
"As much as people say experience doesn't matter, I think people want someone who is at least experienced in some part of government," she said. "And I think they want people who can articulate what they're feeling and wanting. If you go to the polls, are you going to vote for someone who only sees doom and gloom? I think in this race, there was some of that, and that didn't resonate with the voters."
Sims included in that category rhetoric about high property values in High Point and about this year's property tax increase, which followed a Guilford County property revaluation.
"When you start talking about property values in High Point, like we have something to do with that," she said. "When you talk about us having the highest property tax in the state, you can't compare us with Greensboro, which has twice the residents we do, or Asheville, which is sort of a retirement community. I don't think that resonates with voters."
During her campaign, Sims met with many groups, including High Point First, an influential behind-the-scenes group of businesspeople and opinion makers. She said that, during one such meeting, she told a group that High Point, as a city, and its business groups, haven't done a good job of selling a coherent view of High Point to the world.
"You guys are sitting in this room, and you're saying our job is to help economic development, and in a quiet sort of way make sure we should be working with all those little things that make economic development happen, and meanwhile you guys can't get together and decide the story to be told," she said. "Who outside this city's limits knows? That's what matters. That's how you get the buzz that Greensboro is alive and popping. Someone is telling the story. We can't get together and decide on branding ourselves."
High Point faces challenges not only with development, but with redevelopment – one area in which Sims will probably differ from Smothers. Sims has been a stronger supporter of the High Point City Project, a public-private partnership created by the City Council to redevelop old High Point neighborhoods.
With D.H. Griffin proposing a 431-acre business park north of High Point, competition for funds between supporters of northern development and redevelopment of old High Point neighborhoods is likely to get heated.
During the mayoral race, Williard at one debate proposed paying for all the City Project proposed redevelopment in eight old High Point neighborhoods at once – a position from which he rapidly retreated after being attacked by Whitley over what it would cost.
Sims supported both the City Project and Griffin's proposed business park. She said the City Project's goals can only be achieved by short-term and long-term planning for the eight neighborhoods and by attracting private investment to each in turn. She said Griffin's business park is also a matter of long-term planning.
"The way that I see it is, our council is going to have to sit down and really look at all these proposals that are on the table and then prioritize the things we can and can't do," she said. "When we look at the proposed business park out there at I-40, It will be 20 years at least before that has any buzz happening."
The City Council on Nov. 19 voted 7 to 2 to approve the annexation of the 431 acres, effective in May 2013. On the recommendation of Boynton, the City Council did not rezone the land and made the annexation contingent on Griffin getting the property rezoned and a development agreement for it approved by the City Council by March 2013.
Sims was asked if Griffin needed a vote on the project before the election of the new City Council, while he knew he had the votes.
"I don't know if he needed it," she said. "He may have wanted it. It may have been dancing with the devil you know. It may have been a lack of understanding of the project. There are five new members of council. If he came in with this in January, how many councilmembers do you think would have understood this? I don't think his ask or request was unreasonable, given the size and scope of the proposal. If we were talking about 20 or 30 acres, maybe we could have pushed it off into the next council."
Sims said she sympathizes with farm and homeowners near the proposed business park, but that there is no way to stop the urbanization of Guilford County.
"I'll never forget Arnold Koonce, when I came on council, when we did the Westside Development Plan for Davidson County," she said. "Those people were complaining about property being annexed and redevelopment. Arnold Koonce's response was, 'If you don't want to see this development happening, all you have to do is get together, and when the property comes up for sale, buy it, and then you don't have to worry about it.' But these developers can offer a whole lot more money."
At the City Council's reorganization meeting on Thursday, Dec. 6, Sims did away with the City Council's traditional committee system, leaving all meetings controlled by the mayor's gavel. She said she did so because of the lack of experience of many first-time councilmembers. She said she may revisit the issue in a year.
"I don't want this council to come off looking like rubes," she said. "Who, on this council, except Becky and maybe [new Ward 4 Councilmember] Jay [Wagner], could run a planning and zoning meeting? And Becky has told me she doesn't want to chair anything."
Sims said that, as mayor, she may push for a return to four-year, rather than two-year, City Council terms. "I believe it is fundamentally unfair for these people to hold two-year terms," she said. You work a year and you run a year."
Sims said she would not make a priority of reinstating primaries, the lack of which helped her get elected, or to return City Council elections to odd-numbered years. She said that holding them on even-numbered years has driven up turnout.
"I'd say we were closer to 50 percent than the 13 percent we traditionally had deciding elections," she said. "We have people say, 'National issues dominate the election.' I don't think so, because a ton of them voted, and I don't know if they voted so much on issues as for people. I think the reasons for changing our election cycle and process of the elections worked. Probably even with a primary and a general election, it would work, but I disagree that people are not paying attention to what we're doing and what is said. I think they're listening."
Sims' swearing in, at least, drew hundreds of people, many of whom do not regularly come out for High Point political events.