Highsmith edges Larson by 4 votes in South Ward race balloting


John Larson awaited election results at Washington Perk & Provision with Anne Wilson (left) and Susan Campbell.

by Jordan Green

With heavy turnout across Forsyth County, suburban and rural voters appear to have returned incumbent Republicans to the county commission, including moderate Dave Plyler, part of a cross-party coalition in support of raising the county’s debt limit and green-lighting a school-bond referendum.

With 63 out of 67 precincts in County Commission District B reporting, Chairman Dave Plyler appeared to have held off a challenge from conservative Bill Whiteheart in the Republican primary, with Plyler banking 17,478 votes to Whiteheart’s 15,803. Whiteheart had attacked Plyler as a “liberal Democrat” in a billboard campaign.

“The difference in this election is Bill Whiteheart never talked about the issues,” Plyler said. “He talked about me. He said at three meetings that he wanted the Republican conservative message to be heard through him, and he was the one to deliver it. For him to say, ‘I’m the only real Republican’ — I think if you listen to the people and do what they want you to do, you’re all right. Two thirds of the voters voted for new libraries in Winston-Salem, Clemmons and Kernersville [in 2006]. He and his colleagues decide that was more than the county could afford to borrow. They delayed the construction for the three libraries for over three years until I was put back in power. People have asked for things with their ballots. Let’s get on with the business of government rather than cater to the whims of people who say, ‘I will never raise your taxes.’”

The results of the Republican primary for the three seats in county commission District B were a replay of the 2008 primary, with Plyler placing in the top three, along with conservatives Richard Linville and Gloria Whisenhunt, while Whiteheart lost out in the game of musical chairs.

In the final balloting for the Democratic primary for the South Ward seat on Winston-Salem City Council, Carolyn Highsmith led John Larson by only four votes — 1,997 to 1,993. For a couple hours, Larson held the lead, with incomplete reporting from the polling place at First Alliance Church, where voters had to wait in line from 45 to 90 minutes, according to Larson. Highsmith wound up carrying the precinct, 392 to 318, flipping the result.

A neighborhood leader, Highsmith ran a populist campaign, focusing on the needs of residents in outlying areas of the city, while Larson traded on relationships with city officials as vice president of restoration at Old Salem Museum and Gardens. Larson earned the endorsement of Councilwoman Molly Leight, who is retiring from the South Ward seat on city council.

“What I was hearing on the ground was that people are ready for a change,” Highsmith said. “They want the voice of the people to be heard. During early voting at Southside Library I was presenting myself as a candidate of and for the people. I really cared about their issues and the entire South Ward. I don’t think that had happened before. That resonated. I think that’s resonating all over the country.”

Larson watched the returns come with Leight and other local Democratic Party stalwarts at Washington Perk & Provision.

“I’ve enjoyed the conversations I’ve had,” Larson said. “Clearly people are concerned about issues like neighborhoods and jobs. People are anxious to protect the investments of their homes from economic as well as criminal forces. There is a pride. People are proud of Winston-Salem as a whole. There is a concern about affordable housing.”

long line at Griffith Fire Station
Voters lined up outside Griffith Fire Station.

Highsmith carried all but three precincts, while Larson drew strong support from the neighborhoods close to downtown like Old Salem, West Salem and Washington Park. The 3,990 people who cast ballots in the race contrasted with the last time the seat was up for election, in 2013, when only 1,085 people voted. This was the first year that city council elections were aligned with the presidential contest.

Many voters, who were drawn to the election by the presidential contest, were not familiar with the city council candidates. Cherie Watkins, a registered nurse at Forsyth Medical Center who waited in a line of 65 people at Griffith Fire Station, said she skipped the South Ward race on her ballot because she didn’t know anything about the candidates. Others waiting in line studied campaign literature from the candidates while trying to make up their minds.

Mayor Pro Tem Vivian Burke celebrated a resounding win with her supporters at the local NAACP headquarters, nailing down 63.9 percent of the vote against challenger Keith King in the Democratic primary for the Northeast Ward seat on city council, with 18 or 19 precincts reporting. Burke has served on city council since 1977.

“I feel great that so many people volunteered their time and just daily, weekly worked to make sure we won the election,” an elated Burke said. “I was so grateful that they came to the polls where there was early voting. They said, ‘We’re with you; we wouldn’t leave you now.’ I got telephone calls. I was in the grocery store, at church, they were so encouraging. I’m grateful to God that He’s going to allow me to continue my service to the community.”

A downcast King kept his own counsel in a darkened alleyway next door to smoothie shop on Liberty Street in downtown Winston-Salem where his supporters were gathered to await the results. With early-voting returns showing the disappointing results that would hold for the rest of the night, King reflected, “We did robocalls. We did mailers. A lot of people probably didn’t come out to vote.”

In the Republican primary for the Northwest Ward seat on city council, Eric Henderson was leading Jimmy Hodson, with 51.4 percent and 48.6 percent of the vote respectively and 14 out of 16 precincts reporting. The winner will face Democratic incumbent Jeff MacIntosh in the November general election.

In the Democratic primary for register of deeds, Lynne Johnson pulled out a stunning upset against incumbent Norman Holleman, with Johnson winning 69.2 percent of the vote to Holleman’s 30.3 percent, with 95 of 101 precincts reporting. Johnson worked in the register of deeds office for 27 years and now works in the county clerk of courts office.

“I figured after 25 years I was very experienced and it was time for me to try to do it,” Johnson said, attributing her victory to “the very many supporters I had who encouraged me to run, stuck with me and showed up at the polls to show that they did support me.”