An insider and a populist vie for South Ward seat on city council

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by Jordan Green

A long-time community leader and voice of dissent goes up against a vetted insider and anointed successor in the contest to represent the South Ward on Winston-Salem City Council.

Winston-Salem voters will elect at least one new city council member in next year’s municipal election with the retirement of Molly Leight, who has represented the South Ward since 2005.

Before Leight announced her decision, she approached John Larson, the vice president of restoration for Old Salem Museums & Gardens, to run for the seat.

“He’s obviously so smart and is a proponent of all the things that I hold dear — of safety and historic neighborhoods,” Leight said. “Who could have more experience with that than John?”

John Larson at Washington Perk & Provision
John Larson at Washington Perk & Provision

Leight said she took the advice of Wanda Merschel, a former city council member who retired in 2013.

“Molly, just think of someone you would trust with your neighborhood,” Merschel told Leight.

The 66-year-old Larson is retiring from his job at Old Salem at the end of the month. A South Carolina native with a background in history and architecture, he moved to Winston-Salem in 1976 to work with Old Salem, a landmark in Winston-Salem and the South Ward particularly.

“Some people talk about Old Salem as a tourist attraction — economic growth, heads in beds,” Larson said during a recent interview at Washington Perk & Provision. “It’s also a major neighborhood. Residents live there. There are churches. There’s a college and a museum. My role has been to deal with the facilities. As you drive through Old Salem, what you see is years of effort to stabilize a neighborhood that was in decline since the 1950s.

“This began long before me,” he continued. “I’ve always championed preservation, including removing non-performing commercial properties. All of that requires working with the city.”

Along with Leight’s endorsement, Larson is inheriting her most ardent political opponent — community leader Carolyn Highsmith. The two will square off in the Democratic primary, scheduled for March 15.

Prompted by her neighbors in the Konnoak Hills neighborhood who were concerned about a rash of house break-ins, Highsmith blindsided Leight by running as a write-in candidate in the 2009 general election. Officially running unopposed, Leight garnered only 57.8 percent of the vote in that election, thanks to write-in votes for Highsmith, along with Republican candidate Nathan Jones. In the next election, Leight ran an active campaign, and fended off an official challenge from Highsmith, carrying 72.2 percent of the vote.

Carolyn Highsmith credit Jordan Green
Carolyn Highsmith in Konnoak Hills

The 62-year-old Highsmith holds deep roots in Winston-Salem. And like Larson, she’s no stranger to city government.

While the historic Moravian settlement of Salem attracted Larson to Winston-Salem almost 40 years ago, Highsmith moved to Konnoak Hills, a suburban neighborhood established in 1929, with her parents in 1963. She said her grandparents “have long lines of living in south Winston-Salem.” A nurse practitioner, Highsmith moved to Chapel Hill for several years but returned to Winston-Salem to provide end-of-life care for her mother in 1996.

She became active as a neighborhood leader in 2007, when Konnoak Hills experienced what Highsmith described as “our first crime wave ever” — the unintended consequence of police clearing drug houses from the old Brookstown neighborhood to make way for BB&T ballpark, and displacing them to the south. At the police’s suggestion, Highsmith formed several neighborhood-watch groups serving 100-200 households each. Eventually, the newly activated neighbors brought the watch groups together under the umbrella of the newly formed Konnoak Hills Neighborhood Association.

“When you begin to address the factors that create crime, you being addressing all the socio-economic factors,” Highsmith said.

Highsmith’s involvement in the South Suburban Area Plan further burnished her leadership credentials.

Against the recommendation of the planning department, Highsmith said a group of developers pushed for commercial development on both sides of Peters Creek Parkway south of Interstate 40. Highsmith and other residents supported the original plan, which limited commercial development, and saw it through to approval in 2011.

“That’s when I stepped out from being a neighborhood leader to being a community leader,” Highsmith said during an interview under a gazebo at Konnoak Hills Moravian Church.

Larson has also experienced some success as a community leader. When the NC Department of Transportation announced that one of the interchanges of the Business 40 downtown expressway would be decommissioned, Larson made a vocal plea for it to be the Main/Liberty interchange — the corridor that runs through Old Salem. Greg Errett, a transportation-planning director for the city, advocated instead that the Cherry/Marshall interchange close because of concern that funneling more vehicular traffic will disrupt the pedestrian experience on the West Fourth Street Restaurant Row. Many of the city’s institutional players ultimately took Larson’s view, which prevailed in the final planning document.

“I worked very hard to protect the Main Street exit and have Cherry/Marshall be the main connector,” Larson said. “Main Street will be the cultural corridor. It needs to be a core anchor. You will be able to take that historical corridor and tie it back to the city. The first step is to take Main and Liberty back to two-way.”

Larson noted that the corridor connects downtown to Old Salem, Salem College, UNC School of the Arts, and residential neighborhoods like Washington Park and Konnoak Hills. He added that mothballing the ramps on and off of Business 40 will allow for infill that makes the pedestrian experience more seamless, with wider sidewalks and enhanced street lighting.

Both Larson and Highsmith cite owner-occupied single-family homes as an anchor of neighborhood stability, and both expressed sensitivity to the needs of residents in outlying areas of the ward who might not see a direct benefit of the spectacular resurgence of downtown, with its burgeoning parks, art galleries and fine-dining scene. Both also want to see the downtown renaissance continue.

Preservation comes up as a central theme of Larson’s campaign, while Highsmith talks about the widening class divide in Winston-Salem, worrying that people who live far away from downtown will feel increasingly left out.

Leight said one of the most gratifying aspects of her service on city council is her observation “that there are fewer neighborhoods buying into fighting City Hall because the city has been so proactive in helping neighborhoods and doing things to maintain quality of life in neighborhoods.”

Highsmith doesn’t exactly see it that way.

“I’m passionate about people where they live and their economic survival,” she said. “I’ve been a grassroots community organizer. You can make a lot of impact as a grassroots community organizer, but there are decisions made for us at a policy level. If I’m on city council I can make a bigger impact.

“We have a thriving cultural scene, a great restaurant scene,” Highsmith continued. “That’s a fruition of the vision of some movers and shakers 20 years ago. That’s kind of a top-down vision. There’s a widening gap with Winston-Salem having a high level of poverty. I’ve seen the gap in the South Ward.”

Larson said Winston-Salem needs to take care to preserve “reference points” that undergird the city’s unique cultural identity such as Old Salem and the Reynolds Building.

“Size is not what this is about,” he said. “It’s about quality experience. I think Winston-Salem is a quality experience. All the people who have invested their lives in this city need that advocacy. It doesn’t matter what their race is. It doesn’t matter what their economic status is. All we’re asking for is a mechanism to move this city forward in a rational, progressive way.”

Larson’s election to the South Ward seat would likely reinforce the cohesion and steady forward movement of the current council, but if Highsmith wins she said she’ll make sure the working class has a voice.

“It really is the people versus the elite,” Highsmith said. “They’ve got their vision, but they really need to hear mine, too. We want to build on the success, but if we’re not careful we won’t recognize this city in 25 years.”