July 19, 2012Ending months of speculation, High Point Mayor Becky Smothers on Wednesday, July 18, filed to run for one of the two at-large seats on the High Point City Council. Smothers on May 9 announced that she would not run for mayor again after holding that office for all but four years since 1992.
In May, Smothers left open the possibility of deciding "later" to run for an at-large seat. "It's later," she wrote in a statement released Wednesday.
Smothers cited several reasons for running for an at-large seat, including using her experience to support the new mayor, wanting to come up with new means of raising revenue for High Point's general fund, wanting to build a new senior center and wanting to stay involved in regional and state transportation issues.
Smothers also wrote that, with the support of the new mayor and City Council, she wants to form a small committee to examine High Point's revenue options, eventually making recommendations to the mayor and City Council.
"I have expressed concern for the past several years that there is too great a dependence on the property tax," Smothers wrote. "That will not change without a careful study, examination and implementation of other options. Continued superficial discussion about the property tax rate is not going to yield any solutions. This is a high priority to me and should be for the future of our City."
Smothers wrote that she is running for an at-large seat because she is concerned about all of High Point, not just one area.
"I am proud of our City," Smothers wrote. "My message will be positive; I know our strengths and I believe there is a strong story to tell. I hope to have the support of the citizens so that I may give my best effort to make High Point an even better place to call home."
Councilmember Latimer Alexander recently said that Smothers would be the "800-pound gorilla" in the mayor's race if she decided to run. She remains a dominating presence in the at-large race.
As of Wednesday, Smothers' only filed opponent was the man she beat to retain the mayoralty in 2010: attorney Jay Wagner, who challenged Smothers and lost, winning 36 percent of the votes to Smothers' 55 percent. Many High Point politicians said Wagner would have been wiser to run for City Council first, and he apparently took the advice to heart for his second campaign.
One of the two at-large seats is now held by Alexander, who lost the Republican nomination to represent the newly redrawn state Senate District 27 to Greensboro City Councilmember Trudy Wade. Alexander has repeatedly said that he is "100 percent certain" that he will not file to run for reelection to his at-large City Council seat.
The other at-large seat is held by Councilmember Britt Moore, who knocked off former Councilmember Mary Lou Blakeney in 2010. Moore has said he will run for reelection but had not filed as of Wednesday.
Other people who have said they may run for an at-large seat include Blakeney and, possibly, Planning and Zoning Commissioner Cynthia Davis.
With only Wagner filed as an at-large candidate as of Tuesday, however, he looked increasingly likely to win one of the two at-large seats unless there was a flurry of last-minute filings. Smothers no doubt loves High Point, but, according to some High Point political observers who know her well, she may also be determined to prevent Wagner from getting on the City Council. The Smothers-Wagner race in 2010 got personal and ugly, and the passions it set off have apparently not dissipated.
The number of filed High Point mayoral candidates has swelled to four, with a fifth announced, promising political infighting between now and November in High Point's nonpartisan, no-primary City Council election.
On July 13, full-time staffing agency employee and part-time rental property manager Matthew Fowler became the fourth candidate, joining longtime City Councilmember Chris Whitley, motivational speaker Tammy Holyfield and developer Coy Williard.
"The first thing is jobs," Fowler said. "We have to go out and sell the city of High Point. I call it 'High Point in search of America.' We've got to do what we can for the businesses in the city but also reach out to other hotels, other retail, other manufacturing businesses. High Point University is a beautiful campus, but we can't let it be the only hot topic in High Point."
Councilmember Bernita Sims on Tuesday, July 17 said, "I am going to file. I am running." The filing period ends at noon on Friday, July 20.
Until the filing by Fowler, a black Georgia native who moved to Guilford County a decade ago and to Ward 5 in north High Point four years ago, Sims, whose candidacy has been carefully planned, would have been the only black candidate taking on three white candidates. This is perhaps the last time that will happen, if the High Point City Council, after the November election, modifies the city charter to restore High Point municipal primaries, as councilmembers have repeatedly suggested.
High Point dropped municipal primaries several years ago, at the same time it petitioned the North Carolina General Assembly for a local act to change High Point municipal elections to even-numbered years to increase voter turnout for High Point City Council elections, which was then hovering around 10 percent. That worked, but has also created two undesirable side effects: Councilmembers, including the mayor, can be elected with only a small plurality of votes, giving them a weak mandate, and less-than-serious candidates aren't weeded out of the process by a primary.
For Sims, however, the lack of a primary could be a godsend. Sims timed her candidacy to fall after the decision by Smothers to not run again for mayor, but before High Point, if it does, reinstates a primary that would force her to go head-to-head against a white, Republican candidate. Sims is a Democrat.
As Sims acknowledged on Tuesday, if she is going to become High Point's first black mayor, it will almost certainly have to be this year. Sims said she thinks only two of the five candidates have a serious chance to become mayor: herself and Whitley, a 19-year City Council veteran who has more political experience than anyone else in the field.
The expected dynamic of Sims taking on a vote-splitting field of white and mostly Republican opponents alone is why the entry of Fowler, a political novice largely unknown in High Point political circles, has shaken the expectations and calculations of all the candidates. If Fowler manages to shear off a substantial percentage of the third of High Point voters who are black, it will be whole new ballgame in November.
That's a big if. Fowler's choice to move into northwest High Point in the relatively affluent, majority white Ward 5 leaves him far from the majority black Wards 1 and 2 in central and east High Point and far from the network of churches and political and social groups that provide the base for Sims or any other at-large black candidates.
High Point has elected black at-large councilmembers, but never a black mayor, and to win at large, black candidates usually have to sweep Wards 1 and 2 and draw decent minorities or pluralities of votes in the other four wards. Sims represents Ward 1.
One theory prevalent among High Point politicos this week is that Fowler is a spoiler whose candidacy was arranged to undermine Sims'. Fowler dismissed that theory out of hand.
"The thing about it is I didn't even know she was running for mayor," he said. "When I registered to run, there were only three people running. I have a lot of respect for her. I would never run for office to do something unethical like that. Anyone running for mayor or City Council I think is a good thing."
Fowler's disconnect from the High Point political and business scene does seem to weigh against the spoiler scenario. He works for Labor Ready Inc., a Greensboro company that provides companies with temporary workers and runs a small rental property company on the side.
Fowler said he has increasingly wanted to get into politics as he has watched High Point's economy from his job as a labor provider.
"I have a lot of relationships with businesses, with the superintendents in business here in the community," he said. "The reason I'm very attuned to politics, I always have been, is that to make things happen, to get things done, you have to be on the field not on the sidelines. I've been on the sidelines too long."
Fowler said businesses are hiring workers, but fewer than before the crash.
"I see people every day," he said. "I deal with the community every day. People come in my office with no hope. They've been looking for jobs. I try to encourage them and lift them up. You can make something of this. This is America. Everything is possible."
In District 1, physical trainer and ordained minister in High Point's Miracle Temple of Deliverance Orrick Quick has filed to run to replace Sims. Quick, in addition to being a minister and church elder, trains elderly people at The Rush fitness center.
"I just have a desire to help people," Quick said. "It's amazing how the Lord puts a passion in your heart. I had never considered going into the political arena. I am most passionate about helping young people to find their purpose in life, so they won't waste so much of their life. Even in my own ward, in my community, I see so many young guys who are just walking the street who don't seem to understand where they could be in life."
Jeffrey Golden, who challenged Sims for the Ward 1 seat in 2010 and lost, has been expected to run for the seat she is vacating, but had not filed as of Wednesday.
In Ward 2, incumbent Councilmember Foster Douglas on July 16 filed to run for reelection and so far is unchallenged.
"I think a few things need to be changed as far as protocol with the city manager," Douglas said. "I think before a police chief is hired, the manager should consult with the City Council. I represent my community. I know my community. This hand-picked mess that's going on, to me, is a buddy system. I hope that now we will have a council that knows what's happening."
In Ward 3, incumbent Councilmember Mike Pugh filed to run for reelection on July 16. He has one challenger, Former High Point Mayor and City Councilmember Judy Mendenhall, who filed on July 9.
"I don't plan to change," Pugh said. "People know me. They know what I stand for. I'm going to continue to fight for the people like I always have. I'm going to continue down that road and work even harder if I can. The people know me by now. They know what I stand for. They say you can't fight city hall. But if I think city hall has done something wrong to someone, they've got a fight on their hands. Because I'm going to do what's right for my constituents or any other citizen of this city."
In Ward 4, Brett Moore (no relation to at-large Councilmember Britt Moore) on July 12 filed to run against Councilmember A.B. Henley, if Henley runs for reelection. As of Wednesday, Henley hadn't filed.
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.
"High Point, I think, is at a place where the citizens feel more detached from their city government than they have for a long time," Brett Moore said. "I don't know if the reason for that is the grander political movement going on or because of the council we have. There's so much hostility toward the budget that was passed, for a lot of reasons. I think the city should really try to keep their tax rates low. We have one of the highest tax rates in the area, and there's got to be a way to change that."