July 26, 2012It's hard to get around the fact that the 2012 High Point mayoral race is High Point City Councilmember Bernita Sims' to lose.
Sims has been planning her run for mayor for years. There are two main hurdles to jump, one of which she has cleared successfully and one of which she may still have.
The first, and most important hurdle, was getting her fellow councilmembers to put off any effort to restore High Point's municipal primary until after this year's election.
Many of High Point's longest serving councilmembers, tired of having to fight to scrape by with plurality wins, have wanted to reinstate the primary system, scrapped several years ago – including her mayoral opponent Councilmember Chris Whitley, Councilmember Latimer Alexander, former Councilmembers Bill Bencini and John Faircloth, and possibly even Mayor Becky Smothers, who is stepping down to run for an at-large seat this year.
Sims, working quietly behind the scenes, helped put off a reinstatement of the primary system, timed her race for mayor to fall in what is likely to be the last election year without one, and to coincide with Smothers' giving up the mayor's job. If Smothers and Sims, both Democrats, conspired to have Smothers step down in the one year likely to give Sims the edge she needed, neither will tell – but that's how it worked out.
The second hurdle Sims had to overcome was ideological, a matter of positioning. She had to represent her majority-black Ward 1 well without overtly angering the majority of white High Point voters and the old white High Point establishment that has organizations it could unite against her. She has generally done that, keeping race out of her public discourse and generally voting as a member of Smothers' City Council majority, which has been, by necessity, composed largely of Republicans.
Smothers' exit from the mayoral race leaves Sims running against Whitley, Coy Williard, Tammy Holyfield and Matthew Fowler. The first three are white and Fowler is a black resident of Ward 5.
Holyfield has an inspirational story (overcoming an abusive childhood to become a successful author and motivational speaker), an outgoing personality, an attractive website and no chance of becoming mayor. Until the week the filing period began, she lived on Groometown Road in unincorporated Guilford County. The Guilford County Board of Elections has certified her as having moved, as of July 2, to Rockbridge Road in the part of Davidson County that has been annexed into High Point.
Fowler works for a temp agency in Greensboro but also, on the side, is part owner of a real estate rental agency, Piedmont Rent A Home Inc. Neither he nor his two business partners are listed with the North Carolina Real Estate Commission as having a broker's license, which is usually required for such a business, and Fowler seemed surprised when asked about his side job.
Fowler first said he fell under an exemption to the North Carolina real estate statute, then acknowledged that he should have a license and said he didn't know that when he started the company and is working toward getting a broker's license.
In any case, Fowler moved into High Point three-and-a-half years ago into a majority-white Ward 5, now represented by Whitley, and seems to lack the connections he will need to win Wards 1 and 2. Using rough numbers, black at-large City Council candidates in High Point have to sweep those wards and win about 20 percent of mostly-Democratic votes in other wards to win. Fowler does not seem equipped to do so, which has led to speculation that he is a spoiler arranged to draw votes from Sims, something he denied.
Fowler, too, has no chance of becoming mayor.
That leaves Whitley, Sims and Williard as the only serious candidates for mayor.
Whitley and Sims are both longtime councilmembers. High Point has a history of choosing former councilmembers as mayor, which gives them the edge. Both Whitley and Sims argue that Williard, a political novice, has no real chance because he has never held office.
Maybe so, but this is shaping up as a weird, angry year in which being a political novice might not be a total liability. And Williard, a developer who has belonged to every major old-line High Point business group, has business and social connections Sims and Whitley don't in Emerywood, the longtime power hub of High Point.
Don't rule Williard out, but rank him well behind Sims and Whitley. Despite his business connections, he seems to attract enemies as well as friends. He's the wild card of the three serious candidates. His path to victory, if there is one, isn't clear.
The growth of north High Point, much of which is in Ward 5, which Whitley represents, has shifted voting power northward. By definition (the US Department of Justice, under the "one-man, one-vote" rule, requires all wards to have nearly the same voting population), a third of High Point's residents live in Wards 5 and 6, which make up almost all of north High Point. Many of those voters moved to High Point to take jobs in the Piedmont Centre industrial and office parks and are unconnected to the old High Point business establishment. Some even work for companies that High Point has to bribe with economic incentives to even admit they are in High Point.
As a result, the truth is that Emerywood, which is crammed into Ward 4, may not be the power center it used to be. It still has a disproportionate influence when it comes to raising money for campaign donations, and, to some degree, in getting out votes. But this may be a watershed year in which power tips to north High Point, which works in Whitley's favor.
Whitley, in his quiet way, is the most conservative of the candidates. This may pick him up votes in Ward 3, which is a mixed ward politically, and may attract hard-line Republicans in Wards 4, 5 and 6. His path to victory, if he has one, is to sweep north High Point, have Emerywood handed to him (Whitley has been frantically meeting with Emerywood power brokers, some of whom may want to mount an anyone-but-Sims movement) and picking up votes from white, Republican voters who value City Council experience more than joining business clubs.
Whitley has his faults as a candidate – he does wonderfully one on one but has a shyness that comes across as stiff and reserved in group settings. That's a liability for a candidate trying to press the flesh at large community group meetings outside his ward. Whitley has more City Council experience than any other candidate, having served for all but one of the last 20 years.
Smothers has given Whitley some practice lately, dodging the rubber-chicken circuit and letting him make public appearances for her as mayor pro tem. That may have improved Whitley's stump speech some.
That leaves, last but hardly least, Sims. Her long-honed weapon, which will be difficult, perhaps impossible to defend against, is the fact that she's going up against four other candidates, three white and one inconsequential, who are going to split the votes she doesn't get. She's sure to sweep Wards 1 and 2, and it's hard to imagine her not getting the 20 percent she needs in other wards.
Sims has been on the City Council since December 2003. Like Whitley, she has served on numerous boards and committees, within and without High Point. She has far more experience than Williard, and is more politically crafty than Whitley.
The best Sims' detractors have been able to come up with against her is her successful push to get the City Council to vote, outside the usual funding mechanism for outside agencies, to give the John Coltrane International Jazz and Blues Festival, of which she is a board member, $32,000 last year for advertising. The festival has paid back $5,000 of the money, and if Sims is smart, she'll find a way to have it pay back the remainder before she begins campaigning in earnest, as the Coltrane festival controversy has had surprising staying power.
Sims refused to handicap the race, other than to say she considered herself and Whitley to be the only viable candidates.
"I think it will probably break along partisan lines, even though it's a nonpartisan race," she said. "I think that's going to be part of it. Even though I don't want this to happen, I believe race will somehow play a factor. That would not be my desired thing to happen. I think if more informed voters vote, it will be a race that comes down to the two individuals who have already served on council. I'm not saying Chris and I are better than anyone out there – I'm just saying that experience counts. You look on the blogs and they say 'get rid of all these guys' – how do you hone your skills and your knowledge without experience? Having all new people comes at a cost sometimes."
The meta-wildcard in all this is the national election. There is an incumbent black US president on the top of the ballot, which may help bring out the black vote. There is a lousy economy, and there are a lot of Republicans and some Democrats and independents who are deeply dissatisfied with that president. That could work against Sims. And party-line voters focused on the national election who just push a straight-ticket button won't even cast votes in High Point's nonpartisan City Council race.
It was predicted that 2010 would be a throw-the-bums-out year as well, but that didn't trickle down to many local races. Sims and Whitley retained their seats easily.
Sims has an edge that will be hard to overcome, and if she loses the election it will probably be because she blows it in some way.
Sims told The Rhino Times that she would file to run on Tuesday, July 17, in time to make The Rhino Times filing story on Thursday, June 19. Instead, after analyzing the news cycle, she filed on Thursday, July 19. That got her a front-page story in the High Point Enterprise on Friday, July 20.
"My plans were to file earlier in the week, and one of my campaign managers said, 'I wanted to go in with you to file,' so I made that happen," Sims claimed later. "There was no strategy to get a headline all by myself. But that was cool. In that regard, I think it worked."