by Jordan Green
A downtown shopkeeper is taking a second shot at the Northeast Ward seat on Winston-Salem City Council, challenging a political institution who has held the office for almost four decades.
Many have tried, and all have come up short.
Keith King, owner of Kingz Downtown Market on Liberty Street, is challenging Mayor Pro Tem Vivian Burke, a one-woman political institution, in the Democratic primary for the Northeast Ward seat on Winston-Salem City Council on March 15.
King ran against Burke as an independent in the last municipal election in 2013, a three-way contest in which he garnered 14.0 percent of the vote, while the incumbent commanded 75.2 percent. Earlier, in that year’s Democratic primary, Burke had carried 53.8 percent of the vote against two challengers.
Burke has served on city council since 1977. In comparison, the next longest serving members are Mayor Allen Joines and Councilman Robert Clark, who were both elected in 2001. Her fellow council members honored Burke with a bust in City Hall after her last election — it was financed by private funds raised by her supporters — recognizing her as the first black woman elected to city council, the first black female mayor pro tem and the first female chair of the public safety committee.
King is hoping that voters unsatisfied with the pace of economic progress in the Northeast Ward, much of which lies to the east of Highway 52 and runs north from 14th Street, will consider him as a replacement.
“It seems like the Northeast Ward has been at a standstill while the rest of Winston-Salem is improving,” King said during an interview in his tiny office at the back of his downtown store. “Take a look at Peters Creek Parkway and Stratford Road — they’re booming. We haven’t seen the progress in the Northeast Ward. Under new management, that will change.”
Among the highlights of her current term, Burke mentioned starting a scholarship fund with Mayor Joines, enhancing the visibility of the police and communication with citizens, and promoting civic engagement. She cited Project We Care, a citywide program she launched in 2009 to promote voluntarism, which she said drew 600 volunteers during its annual program at the city fairgrounds last September, as well as the Gathering Place at Fairview Park Summer Festival in May, which featured a gospel act bringing together different church choirs.
“These were ideas from working with neighborhood groups — not what I want, but what they want,” Burke said. “I want these initiatives to come through the neighborhoods. I’m very pleased that I’ve been able to work with people on these initiatives.”
Burke acknowledged some disappointments in efforts to promote economic development in the ward.
The mayor pro tem placed blame on city staff for the poor performance of the Liberty Street Market, an open-air pavilion owned by the city on the northeasterly thoroughfare. The market failed to attract more than a handful of vendors when it opened in the spring last year, and the vendor selected by the city to manage the facility pulled out before the end of the season.
“It was not managed well by the city staff,” Burke said. “We know we made some mistakes, and they made some mistakes. What the city manager did in communication with me was he talked about how we could turn it around.”
Without mentioning his opponent by name, King suggested Burke could have worked harder to push the project forward.
“It looks to me like if you really cared about your community you’d be on that every single week trying to find someone to run it,” King said. The candidate cited his background in retail, along with 16 years of experience in the fast-food industry, as an asset in putting together a viable deal. He added that he’s talked to a farmer who assured him that he could afford to sell produce at the market at a price point below Wal-Mart’s.
Similarly, the city has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in the Ogburn Station Shopping Center in the Northeast Ward through the Revitalizing Urban Commercial Areas program in the hopes of a restaurant opening that will be able to serve area residents. The project has been plagued with delays because of lack of coordination between the restaurant owner and shopping center owner.
“The same department that was working with the Liberty Street corridor was also working with the restaurant,” Burke said. “I felt that there was not enough overseeing of the individual that was in charge of that project. We had to step back with the city manager and look back at how things were not moving the right way.” The mayor pro tem added that she felt the city put the restaurant owner “through too much.”
“When we don’t do it right and admit we haven’t done it right, I think the taxpayers understand that staff has to regroup and avoid having that happen again,” Burke added.
Both candidates said promoting open communication between residents and the police is important, and spoke highly of the Winston-Salem Police Department.
King said he would be more transparent than the ward’s current representative.
“I would be having more public meetings,” he said. “God forbid an incident happens in the Northeast Ward, but if it does the councilman needs to be there telling people what they know, not a council member from another ward.”
His comment referenced an incident in December when a 31-year-old resident named Travis Page died in police custody in the Northeast Ward. Concern about the incident overtook the agenda at a community meeting hosted by Councilman Derwin Montgomery, who represents the East Ward, the next day, although the meeting had been scheduled long before.
Burke declined to comment on Page’s death on the grounds that the matter remains under review. But she applauded the police department’s efforts to engage in dialogue with different segments of the community.
“In having these neighborhood meetings, police are invited to participate with neighborhood groups,” she said. “This is to make the police more sensitive and make the citizens more willing to talk to the police. We can always improve. Police should be more comfortable with going into every neighborhood in the city. Residents should feel that they can communicate with the police. If you see a police walking in your neighborhood, you don’t need to walk away from them. You need to walk up to them. They’re not always there because there’s a problem; sometimes they’re there because something good happened.”
King said he will focus on public safety as a foundation for economic development.
“I would start with communication in the ward,” he said. “Start with making some residents feel safe because they don’t at the moment. They are concerned about the police. I would make sure they feel safe and make sure the police are safe, too. Then economic development will begin.”
Burke has had the same campaign slogan for decades.
“I always say, ‘Let the record speak,’” she said, “as I move, coming and going throughout the Northeast Ward across generations and working with all people to have a better life and a safe life in this ward.”