One-candidate forum highlights low profile of special election


One candidate for Winston-Salem City Council gets the spotlight at sparsely attended forum in the run-up to a June 7 special election.

If attendance at a recent candidate forum is any indication, the June 7 special election hasn’t stirred up much interest.

Five minutes after starting time, a candidate forum at Community Mosque of Winston-Salem on April 14 had drawn exactly four people: the event organizer, a city council candidate, a campaign manager and a reporter. Later, two additional people materialized.

John Larson, a candidate in the Democratic primary for the South Ward seat on city council, and Fleming El-Amin, the event organizer, have become well acquainted over the past four weeks thanks to El-Amin’s role as the sole Democratic member of the Forsyth County Board of Elections.

The margin of difference in Larson’s race in the March 15 primary was only four votes. Larson, opponent Carolyn Highsmith and their respective supporters monitored the absentee ballot count and canvass at the board of elections with intense interest. When the margin of difference changed to six votes with the election’s certification, Larson announced he would request a recount and file a protest, citing reports that dozens of people at the Shepherd’s Center polling place were given the wrong ballot and prevented from voting in the South Ward race, or in other cases allowed to vote in the race when they shouldn’t have. Within a week, the state Board of Elections in Raleigh ordered a new election, with some members also expressing concern about 101 absentee ballots that were disqualified because they did not meet the statutory requirement to be postmarked by Election Day, although they clearly were in the possession of the US Postal Service by that time.

As El-Amin waited to see if any additional candidates would show up, the conversation naturally turned to the finer points of election administration, state election law and local poll-worker training. After about 15 minutes, El-Amin said he wanted to be respectful of everyone’s time and start the program. A circular seating arrangement was the one concession to the limited turnout in what was otherwise a fairly formal, if relaxed, format. El-Amin opened with a Muslim prayer and then offered Larson the opportunity to make an opening statement, inviting him to take all the time he needed.

Larson talked about his background as vice president of restoration at Old Salem Museum & Gardens, but emphasized the breadth and diversity of the South Ward.

“It runs from the courthouse in the north where we have new condos going up, and it runs down to the Davidson County line in the south,” the candidate said. “It may be one of the fastest growing wards in the city.”

He praised the ethnic diversity of the ward, mentioning Greek, Latino and Asian residents, while expressing concerns about Peters Creek Parkway as “a visually challenged corridor,” along with Business 40 and Interstate 40 which both slice through the ward.

“The connectivity is challenged,” Larson said.

El-Amin said he had extended an invitation to Highsmith, Larson’s opponent, but she told him she was unable to commit to the engagement. The only other candidate represented was Selester Stewart, a Democrat who is running for one of the three seats in Republican-leaning Forsyth County Commission District B in the November general election. Stewart’s campaign manager, Tonya McDaniel, showed a short video of prepared remarks by the candidate.

The South Ward Democratic primary, which was overturned by the state Board of Elections, drew 4,052 voters, compared to only 1,085 the last time the seat was up for election in 2013. The June 7 special election to re-do the South Ward primary is unlikely to draw anywhere near the same number of voters as the March 15 election, when Democrats came out in droves to express their preference in the presidential primary contest between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

The June 7 special election ballot in Forsyth County will also include primary candidates for the 5th Congressional District, including Republicans Virginia Foxx and Pattie Curran, and Democrats Josh Brannon, Jim Roberts and Charlie Wallin, along with state Supreme Court candidates Bob Edmunds, Mike Morgan, Daniel Robertson and Sabra Faires. Early voting runs from May 26 through June 4 at the Forsyth County Government Center in Winston-Salem.

In Guilford County, the June 7 special election will include Republican and Democratic primaries for the new 13th Congressional District, with 17 Republican candidates and five Democratic candidates, along with the four state Supreme Court candidates. Election Direcotr Charlie Collicutt said early voting hours have not been finalized yet in Guilford County.

Following Larson’s opening statement at the April 14 forum in Winston-Salem, El-Amin asked the candidate a couple questions. In response to a question about the appropriateness of city financing of Emmanuel Retirement Village, Larson said public safety is the city’s first priority, but quality of life is also important.

“I’m not afraid of government involvement to improve the lives of people in this town,” he said.

To another question about whether he would be open to moving city services to outlying areas of the city, particularly the fast-growing southern fringe, Larson said, “Anywhere there’s some residue of annexation, it’s got to be more than water and sewage. Neighborhoods need parks and recreation.”

He added that outlying areas are underserved when it comes to greenways, sidewalks and bike paths.

“We’ve got to take the city to the people,” he added.

A young man who came into the forum late asked Larson to address the challenge of increasing employment opportunities, particularly for those who aren’t qualified for or interested in the biotech and information logistics jobs available at the Wake Forest Innovation Quarter.

“I have great faith in what has been done to move our economy from tobacco and textiles to advanced technology,” Larson said. “We have a lot of service industry, a lot of retail clerks and waiters.”

He added that he maintains hope that low-interest rates will spur investment in homeownership and stimulate construction jobs — a significant driver of the economy.

“We’ve got to provide a living wage,” Larson said. “I’ve got to ask: Are the people who are working for the city — do they have to work a second job to feed their family? Those are the jobs I’m responsible for and that your tax dollars pay for.”