July 26, 2012High Point's no-primary system for municipal races is a godsend for political junkies and reporters alike. The fact that anyone can file and wind up on the general election ballot has generated interesting High Point City Council races this year, both at large and in all wards, except Ward 2 where Councilmember Foster Douglas is running unopposed.
The filing period for City Council races closed at noon on Friday, July 20 – and there was a clutch of people at the High Point office of the Guilford County Board of Elections filing at the last minute.
Former At-large Councilmember Mary Lou Blakeney, who was knocked off by current At-large Councilmember Britt Moore in 2010, was there to file. Blakeney, however, filed to run in Ward 1, the seat Councilmember Bernita Sims is vacating to run for mayor. Blakeney said she would probably have a hard time putting together the organization and money it takes to mount a successful at-large race this year.
"It will take probably a little less, and it will cost a little less to run," Blakeney said of running in Ward 1. "It's a little bit of a scale-down, but I'm still out there doing citywide work."
Blakeney said her issues wouldn't change.
"Mine don't change," she said. "That's my life's work. Seniors, children, education and, of course, health care is wrapped around all that."
Planning and Zoning Commissioner and frequent City Council meeting speaker Cynthia Davis was there, filing to run at large. Rodney Joslin, who lost an attempt to unseat Ward 5 Councilmember Chris Whitley in 2010, was there, filing to run for the open seat in Ward 5 created by Whitley's run for mayor.
Joslin, a quality analyst at TE Connectivity Ltd. (formerly Tyco Electronics), said he will run on some of the same issues on which he ran two years ago.
"Basic issues of the attractiveness of the city to business," he said. "I have concerns with fiscal responsibility – some of the uses of money for things. Some of the things you write about in The Rhino Times. Electric rates being higher than Duke [Energy], and planning to raise them for three years, and taxes being higher than any city in the triad."
A flurry of registrations in the last few days of the filing period brought the total number of City Council candidates to 25, including five mayoral candidates and five candidates for the two at-large seats. All of the candidates predicted to run by The Rhino Times this year filed to run, and then some.
That's what has made High Point City Council races fun since the City Council, several years ago, eliminated primaries, and a local act of the North Carolina General Assembly switched High Point City Council elections from odd-numbered years, like the elections of other North Carolina cities, to even numbered years, in an effort to increase voter turnout, which was then hovering at about 10 percent.
The conventional wisdom is that High Point will undo both changes after this election. Former High Point City Attorney and current $68,040-a-year consultant Fred Baggett told the City Council that it could reinstate the primary by changing the city charter, but would need an act of the General Assembly to change elections back to odd-numbered years.
That "conventional wisdom" is a shared opinion among the current councilmembers. But so many seats are contested or have been vacated this year that the next City Council could be a very different beast. And if some of its members got onto the council because they could skip the primary and run directly in the general election, they may be less prone to return High Point to its previous type of election.
The current councilmembers hate the no-primary system, and two-year terms, to which High Point switched from four-year terms in 2000, because of the expense and effort needed to defend their seats every two years, often against political unknowns.
Moving High Point municipal elections to even-numbered years has increased voter turnout, but not all of those voters get around to voting for City Council candidates. There may be 25 City Council candidates this year, but the first of them, by virtue of the first letter of his last name, is mayoral candidate Matthew Fowler – and his name is on page 24 of 28 pages of the Board of Elections list of candidates, behind several pages of judicial candidates and even candidates for soil and water commissioner.
This year's High Point election system is what it is, which explains the 25 candidates.
The five candidates for mayor are Fowler, who works for a temp agency in Greensboro and runs a rental property management company on the side; Tammy Holyfield, a motivational speaker; Ward 1 Councilmember Bernita Sims; Ward 5 Councilmember Chris Whitley, the first to announce his candidacy; and developer Coy Williard.
The five candidates for the two at-large seats on the City Council are Cynthia Davis; Elijah Lovejoy, associate pastor at the Church of the Redeemer in Greensboro who has produced public events in High Point; at-large Councilmember Britt Moore, who is running to retain his seat; Executive Director of A Child's World Day Care Center Ed Squires, who ran unsuccessfully for an at-large seat in 2010; and current High Point Mayor Becky Smothers.
The other current at-large councilmember, Latimer Alexander, lost to Greensboro City Councilmember Trudy Wade in the Republican primary for the state Senate District 27 seat and is not running for reelection to his at-large seat.
One big filing surprise is Ward 1, where the departure of Sims, who has easily maintained the seat, opened the way for five candidates to file. It was conventional wisdom before the filing period started that Jeff Golden, who challenged Sims unsuccessfully in 2010, would run this year with her support, and that the field would be small. Not so.
The five Ward 1 candidates are Blakeney; Willie Davis; Larry Diggs, who has been part of neighborhood organizations and a frequent speaker at City Council meetings; Jeff Golden, a licensed practical nurse who since 2010 has become a member of the High Point Parks and Recreation Commission; and physical trainer and ordained minister in High Point's Miracle Temple of Deliverance Orrick Quick.
In Ward 2, Douglas is running unopposed. For years, he owed the City of High Point thousands of dollars from a 2003 federal court judgment in a racial-profiling case, and overdue federal and state taxes, which resulted in liens against him. In 2010 he said his constituents didn't care, and he was right – he decisively beat challenger Chris Williams, 53 percent to 31 percent, leaving third candidate Jill Harwood trailing far behind, with 15 percent.
The race for the Ward 3 seat will be interesting. Councilmember Mike Pugh is popular in his ward, disliked by some councilmembers for challenging the City Council majority and making a national issue of sectarian prayer at City Council meetings – and a hero of sorts to some voters for the same reason. He is rated highly for constituent service – he's been known to chop down a tree for a constituent who needed it done.
The only candidate running against Pugh is former High Point Mayor and City Councilmember Judy Mendenhall. Mendenhall has been out of office as mayor since 1987, after serving one two-year term. She has been out of office as a councilmember since 1992. She is now finance director for West End Ministries.
The biggest surprise to come out of the filing period was the decision by Ward 4 Councilmember A.B. Henley to not run for reelection. Henley decided not to run, clearing the way for his friend, attorney Jay Wagner, who had filed to run in the increasingly crowded at-large race, to change his filing on July 9 to run in Ward 4, in which, at the time, there were no other candidates, probably because potential challengers expected Henley to run.
On July 12, Brett Moore (no relation to At-large Councilmember Britt Moore), filed to run against Wagner in Ward 4.
Wagner in 2010 ran unsuccessfully for mayor against Smothers, winning 36 percent of the vote to Smothers' 55 percent.
In 2005, Brett Moore, then still in college, ran against Whitley and did surprisingly well, winning 46 percent of the vote to Whitley's 54 percent. Since then, Brett Moore has graduated from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and Elon Law School and has been a lawyer in private practice for two years.
Whitley's decision to run for mayor instead of defending his Ward 5 seat left that ward, too, wide open for contenders.
In addition to Joslin, two candidates have filed to run for the Ward 5 seat: Jim Davis, a general contractor who now sits on the High Point Planning and Zoning Commission and the High Point Parks and Recreation Commission, and Gerald Grubb, the owner of Southern Cross Mortgage, who ran unsuccessfully for the Ward 6 seat in 2010. Grubb has since been redistricted into Ward 5. Grubb also ran unsuccessfully in the Republican primary for the North Carolina state House District 61 seat and lost to former High Point Councilmember John Faircloth.
In Ward 6, incumbent Councilmember Jim Corey is defending his seat against Jason Ewing, one of three candidates, including Corey and Grubb, who ran for the Ward 6 seat in 2010. Corey won that race in what, at the time, he called "probably the closest race in North Carolina" – a 45-vote victory that left Corey with 35 percent of the vote to Ewing's 34 and Grubb's 31.