The Democratic primary for District A on the Forsyth County Commission will decide two of the seven seats on the county board. In 2010, one of the winners was determined by only three votes.
Voters in Forsyth County’s urban District A will, for all intents and purposes, choose their representation on the county’s legislative body for the next four years during the Democratic primary on May 8.
The multi-seat district with 78,073 registered voters — a third of the county’s electorate — sends two members to the seven-member Forsyth County Commission. With registered Democrats comprising 61.3 percent of the electorate, the two top finishers in the Democratic primary are virtually guaranteed seats on the commission.
Three candidates have filed so far for District A, which is roughly bounded by Winston-Salem’s eastern boundary and by Reynolda Road on the north side and Peters Creek Parkway on the south side. The contestants include Fleming El-Amin, who was appointed to fill the unexpired term of Walter Marshall last year; nonprofit leader Tony Lewis Burton III, who serves as executive director of the Northwest Child Development Centers; and Tonya McDaniel, a protégé of the late Winston-Salem politician Earline Parmon.
Everette Witherspoon, a two-term incumbent, is expected to file for re-election, but had not done so by press time. The voicemail for Witherspoon’s listed number on the county commission website was full, and he could not be reached for comment.
The District A election, along with one out of four District 4 seats, falls on a midterm primary, typically one of the lowest turnouts in the election calendar. The 2014 primary, which saw the reelection of Marshall and Witherspoon, drew only 14.8 percent of registered voters. Low turnout means that those who show up at the polls wield an outsized influence, and the results can be razor thin. In the 2010 primary, then-challenger Witherspoon unseated incumbent Beaufort Bailey by only three votes.
The legacy of the district’s former representatives weighs heavily on the race.
El-Amin said Mazie Woodruff, the first black person to serve on the county commission, encouraged him to run for a seat several years ago. El-Amin would go on to serve as a chairman of the Forsyth County Democratic Party and Democratic member of the county board of elections. He said both he and Marshall admired Woodruff, and El-Amin promised Marshall he would not run against him. Before he died, in early 2017, El-Amin said Marshall gave him his backing. El-Amin said his proudest accomplishment to date is persuading his fellow commissioners to rename the county social services building after Marshall.
As the goddaughter of the late Earline Parmon, McDaniel holds a connection to a Winston-Salem Democratic leader easily as revered as Woodruff. McDaniel managed Parmon’s successful 2012 campaign for state Senate. McDaniel currently serves as third vice-chair of the Forsyth County Democratic Party and second vice-chair of the Winston-Salem branch NAACP. Although McDaniel has plenty of experience managing other people’s campaigns, she said one moment earlier this year crystallized her decision “to get off the sidelines” and make her first run for elective office. During the Women’s March at Corpening Plaza in downtown Winston-Salem on Jan. 20, an organizer handed McDaniel a sign bearing the likeness of legendary civil rights organizer Fannie Lou Hamer that said, “Tired of being sick and tired.”
Burton points to his accomplishments as the basis for his qualification to serve in District A. He said his experience as a schoolteacher, group-home administrator, along with working with ex-offenders in a re-entry program and now executive director of a nonprofit that provides childcare in Forsyth, Stokes and Davie counties, prepares him to serve in community government.
“[The motivational speaker] Zig Ziglar says, ‘Success equals opportunity plus preparation,’” Burton said. “When opportunity and preparation come together, here’s the opportunity. The preparation happened in the last 24 years for me.”
In interviews, all three candidates highlighted economic growth and equity in the majority black district which encompasses downtown Winston-Salem.
The Northwest Child Development Centers, led by Burton, shifted its downtown presence from North Poplar Street in the Theater District to East 7th Street, adjacent to the Wake Forest Innovation Quarter. It’s a location that gives Burton a unique vantage point to observe the spectacular growth on the eastern flank of downtown.
Burton argued that the county government needs to promote development in the area linking downtown to Winston-Salem State University.
“I think we need some type of hotel, with the expansion of Winston-Salem State University and with the expansion of the Innovation Quarter,” Burton said. “I think that would be a great location for a hotel near Highway 52. I think we can bring in some gas stations and convenience stores, too.” Burton also said he would work with Forsyth Tech to prepare residents to take advantage of opportunities in the Innovation Quarter.
El-Amin highlighted the county’s economic-development group, which provides small-business loans through a partnership with the Experiment in Self-Reliance. He also said he’s asked staff for an audit of all development in the high-poverty areas of Winston-Salem, which fall within District A, so that residents can take stock of options for revitalization.
All three candidates also expressed concern about the last two tax revaluations since the onset of the 2009 recession, which have depreciated property values in predominantly African-American neighborhoods. McDaniel has experienced the issue firsthand. Her grandmother owned a house on Pleasant Street that she willed to the family, but McDaniel said they can’t sell it for an adequate price or refinance it because the value is so low. El-Amin is sympathetic.
“If you look at the greatest depreciation, it’s in the African-American community,” he said. “When you have property handed down from one generation to the next, it’s the main asset they have.” El-Amin said he arranged for Tax Assessor John Burgiss to answer residents’ questions during a community meeting at the Enterprise Center last year. Many residents didn’t know they could request a walk-through by county tax assessors if they disagree with their valuations. Some availed themselves of the opportunity, and got their values increased.
The two District A representatives have provided the most critical voices on the county commission when it comes to medical care in the Forsyth County Law Enforcement Detention Center, which is funded by the county. El-Amin and Witherspoon were the only members to vote against renewing Correct Care Solutions’ contract for medical services in the jail after two inmates died in May 2017.
McDaniel said she could easily imagine one of her children being put at risk in the jail. “Going to jail shouldn’t be a death sentence,” she said. “Some of these people are only being held until their court date.”
El-Amin said he was disappointed that Baptist Hospital declined an invitation to take over medical services in the jail because the cost of liability insurance was too high. After visiting the jail, El-Amin said he has become concerned that the facility is not adequately staffed to do adequate welfare checks on the inmates, and inmates have told him they experience favoritism when they signal that they need to talk to staff. The commissioner also said that at his prodding the county manager asked the department of public health to conduct a “quality assessment” of medical services in the jail to identify areas for improvement.
Burton agreed that medical services in the jail need to be closely monitored.
“We need to do an evaluation of what’s happening there, and maybe put that back out to bid,” Burton said. “I have not had the opportunity to see any type of evaluation that was done with regards to the service providers.”
The three candidates for District A are acutely aware of the balance of power on the county commission. Getting a majority vote on anything requires that the two Democrats in District A forge a coalition with either the moderates — Republican Martin and Democratic at-large Commissioner Ted Kaplan — or the three conservative Republicans.
“The key thing is you have to be willing to stand on principle coupled with compromise on those things that you want to move forward,” El-Amin said. “The principle comes first so that your counterparts know where you stand.”
El-Amin said sometimes he’s found himself making common cause with the conservative Republican faction. As an example, he mentioned a resident near Kernersville who complained about noise from a nearby agribusiness. After visiting the location, El-Amin concluded that the noise was negligible, and it was important to preserve agriculture. The first commissioner who supported his position was Richard Linville, a rural conservative Republican.
McDaniel said she appreciates Martin’s expertise on public education, which is partially financed by the county, and that he asks tough questions. She also said she would also reach out to the conservatives, specifically mentioning Commissioner Gloria Whisenhunt.
“We need to be having conversations with them,” she said. “I would be saying, ‘Gloria, is that fair? Is that equitable?’ If we’re not there having those conversations, we don’t matter.”