Bernita Sims resolutely pledged that she would not resign as mayor of High Point when a criminal investigation into her handling of family estate funds turned into an indictment. Then, last week, she resigned before entering a plea of guilty to a felony worthless-check charge.
It’s easy to forget, considering Sims’ tumble from grace during her turbulent 19 months as mayor, that before that she served capably for a decade as one of the most thoughtful, even-tempered and levelheaded members of High Point City Council. What happened?
“Bernita is an extremely intelligent and articulate woman,” former Councilman Latimer Alexander IV told me. “Why she made the mistake she made, I am speechless, and I do not know that. I sent Bernita a letter the other day, and I told her that I loved her and will love her in the future, and whatever she needs in the future I will be glad to help her as she goes through her phase of punishment.”
Alexander and Sims developed a friendship as candidates in 2002 and served together on council for 10 years. After two years out of office, Alexander is running for a seat on council again this year.
She wasn’t the first African American to win a citywide election in High Point — Mary Lou Andrews Blakeney won an at-large seat on council in 2008 — but she holds the distinction of being the first black mayor of High Point.
What did she accomplish?
The answer to that question depends in large part on the vested interest of the person who is asked. For Alexander, the answer is intertwined with the process of local governance. Both Sims, a black Democrat, and Alexander, a white Republican, embraced a philosophy of nonpartisan cooperation in service of a greater civic good.
“Bernita was always a passionate advocate for the citizens of High Point,” Alexander told me last week. “I saw her be passionate on the dais [at city hall]. I saw her be passionate in the legislative halls on Jones Street [in Raleigh].”
For the Rev. Brad Lilley, a former Black Panther who pastors a church on the east side of High Point, Sims’ record of service is bound up with her representation of the black community.
“She took a stand with the city council as a council member and as mayor to represent High Point and to represent the black community,” Lilley said. “She was not a sellout. I think she was for real. I think she really wanted to make things happen in High Point.”
I asked Lilley to cite a specific accomplishment, and he came back with something best described as an incomplete effort.
“When she first took office for mayor she brought up the issue of naming a street after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,” he said. “She wanted that to happen. It didn’t happen. She didn’t shy away from that issue. She stood behind that.”
The ideological distance between Councilman Alexander and the Rev. Lilley represents the needle that Bernita Sims had to thread to remain a viable black politician in a city that is majority white and in many ways conservative.
Like many of the most gifted and well-intentioned elected officials, she was hemmed in by political realities beyond her control. Yes, she stonewalled the press on any inquiries into any number of minor personal scandals. I got a taste of it when I looked at a state investigation into illegal electioneering activities by a political action committee linked to Sims.
But in private conversations, I found her to be someone who cares deeply about racial profiling and the corrosive effects of strained police-community relations.
I found that she keenly recognized important historical assets in the black community like the Kilby Hotel, and made a good faith effort to leverage them towards redevelopment. But like everyone else, her matchmaking abilities proved insufficient to the task of brokering a deal between the building’s eccentric owners and prospective developers.
Her shining moment, perhaps, was bringing about a major expansion by Polo Ralph Lauren when it opened an internet order-fulfillment center off of East Kivett Drive — a predominantly black and Latino area saddled with high unemployment.
How could such a smart woman do something as stupid as writing a $7,000 check to her own sister that she couldn’t back up?
As a person and as an elected official, she has proven to be all too human. That Bernita Sims, of all people, could wind up a convicted felon probably proves that any of us can fall if we allow ourselves to be seduced into the myth of infallibility.