October 25, 2012
A High Point
mayoral debate on Wed., Oct. 17 at the Pennybyrn at Maryfield retirement home on Penny Road far outclassed the previous debate on Oct. 4 at High Point
city hall in energy, specificity and the willingness of the candidates to tangle on issues.
Three of the candidates didn't show: Tammy Holyfield, Matthew Fowler and High Point
City Councilmember Bernita Sims. Holyfield withdrew from the race before the debate, citing a serious health issue in her family that would prevent her from actively campaigning. Fowler's campaign has never been anything but a $96 filing fee and a signature on a form at the Guilford County Board of Elections. And Sims, who is on the executive director selection committee of the National League of Cities, was out of town serving on the committee.
This left only Councilmember Chris Whitley and developer and all-around business-group member Coy Williard. Sims' absence, however, provided the most dramatic moment of the debate. Not expecting her, the organizers of the debate put two comfy overstuffed chairs on the podium for Whitley and Williard, along with a lectern for the moderator.
While the moderator, new High Point
Enterprise Editor Megan Ward, was being introduced, the doors at the rear of the Pennybyrn event room burst open, and Sims' campaign manager, Vicki Alston, pranced down the center aisle, yoo-hooing, waving, talking a mile a minute and saying of Sims, "I'll be sitting in for her tonight."
It was a great bit of political theater because it worked. Had Lynn Johnson, who provided the introduction for Ward, or Ward said, "You're not running for anything. Shoo," the gambit would have been a political failure. But they didn't. Johnson limited herself to calling it quite an entrance. She said, "You just surprised us."
First score to Sims, who was hundreds of miles away.
Williard and Whitley took it in good grace, allowing Alston a (non-comfy) chair on the podium. Neither objected to her participation.
Sims later said she notified Pennybyrn that Alston would be there. The message apparently didn't get through. Sims said she would have preferred to be there. She said, "I'm sure it would have been even livelier."
Dramatic entrance aside, Alston's presence didn't make much of a difference. She quickly ran out of canned answers Sims had given her and most of the questions went to Whitley and Williard.
Williard gave his opening statement first. He said that High Point
is, he hopes, on the path to greatness, but it won't be greatness in the labor-intensive furniture and textile industries.
Williard said that, when he went into business in 1969, the High Point
job market was wholly different.
"We had no trouble getting employees," he said. "The unemployment rate was probably 1.5 percent, in that range, at that time. If you could walk and chew gum, you could get hired."
Williard used that as a segue into mentioning his position on the board of trustees of Guilford Technical Community College, which he said has 45,000 students take at least one class yearly.
Williard said that High Point
's new jobs are going to be in the aircraft and biotech industries.
"We need to train people for the new workforce," he said. "And the new workforce is not building furniture or making hosiery."
Williard said that High Point
's public schools are in trouble something he acknowledged the City Council can't do much about but said he would advocate for mentors and parents to work in schools.
Williard also attacked the City Council, saying High Point
has more employees per 1,000 residents than any North Carolina city with a population of more than 100,000 except for Charlotte. He said, "We have to overcome what is now the highest property tax in North Carolina for a city of 100,000 or more."
Williard is president of Williard-Stewart Inc. construction and MarketPlace Management Inc., and emphasized his business experience as a qualification for mayor.
Whitley, in his introduction, said that the decision by High Point
Mayor Becky Smothers to run for an at-large City Council seat rather than for reelection as mayor leaves the City Council with an experience gap at the top. He said, "I think it's important that experience and leadership remain in place."
Whitley, trying to counter Williard's reliance on his business experience, cited his own. Whitley is president of RCW International Inc., which deals with commodities and is a partner in S.E. Whitley and Son painting contractors. He said the businesses have done well.
But Whitley leaned most heavily on his 19 years of experience on the City Council, especially his last three years as chairman of the City Council's Finance Committee, when High Point
had no property tax increases. Whitley gave up the chairmanship of the Finance Committee two years ago.
Whitley praised the City Council's financial leadership, including its at-times pay-as-you-go philosophy.
Whitley said High Point
has a bond rating higher than those of many North Carolina cities. He said, "We have a triple-A bond rating, and that became a triple-A bond rating in the middle of a recession."
Whitley said that, if he became mayor, he would re-review the city's budget for the current year, something he said would be unprecedented. He also cited large business expansions in High Point
in recent years, including ones by Ralph Lauren Corp., Solstas Lab Partners and Stanley Furniture Co., as well as high-tech firms High Point
Whitley said, "I think it's important for you to remember as you go through the night that experience does matter."
Alston did best with her stand-in introduction for Sims, for which Sims had obviously prepared her. She cited Sims' 10 years on the City Council, and, like Whitley, said the City Council needs continuity.
"I'm plain spoken, and I'm going to say it like it is," she said. "We have to have some remnants left on our City Council. We have to have people who know what they're doing on the City Council and I think Bernita Sims is that person."
Alston said Sims would create mayoral commissions on youth and families, bringing young people into the political process and arts and culture.
What followed was a series of questions from the audience, which was a mixture of Pennybyrn residents, other voters, candidates for other offices and reporters.
One man asked whether, if Whitley or Sims lost, they would lose their City Council seats.
Whitley explained that, yes, the mayoral race is the end of the line if he or Sims loses. He said that is why he wants to be mayor.
"You're controlling the agenda," Whitley said of the mayor's job. "At that point, there are things I've been wanting to do for years ... It takes five votes."
Ward called on Alston, mistakenly calling her "Ms. Sims."
Alston said Sims will advocate for four-year City Council terms. Alston said that Sims thinks that, once councilmembers are elected, it takes longer than two years to get up to speed and accomplish things.High Point
, unlike all other North Carolina cities, has its City Council elections on even-numbered years a change the City Council made several years ago in an effort to increase voter turnout . That has worked to some extent but it has also left city councilmembers at the bottom of a long ballot, below national and state candidates. The City Council also eliminated primaries an action that gave Sims her best shot at the mayor's seat, since Williard and Whitley are splitting the white and Republican votes. Sims is a black Democrat....continued on page 2