The retirement of a political giant in the Northeast Ward sets up a closely fought Democratic primary for succession.
Many have challenged Mayor Pro Tem Vivian Burke for her seat representing the Northeast Ward on Winston-Salem City Council.
And many have gone down in defeat.
This is the first election since 1977 that Burke is not seeking reelection, leaving an open field for three candidates. The winner of the Democratic primary on March 3 in the majority-African-American ward will be taking the seat, barring a successful signature drive by an independent candidate.
Although named “Northeast,” the sprawling ward forms a hood along the northern fringe of the city, abutting Walkertown and Tobaccoville. The Carver Road corridor anchors its political base, but it also includes some of the poorest areas of the city, from 14th Street up to Ogburn Station Shopping Center, along with Smith Reynolds Airport.
Two of the candidates in the Democratic primary are connected to local political legends. A third operates a popular downtown market.
Barbara Hanes Burke is the daughter-in-law of the ward’s current representative, and the wife of Superior Court Judge L. Todd Burke. Barbara Hanes Burke is currently serving her first term on the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School Board.
Morticia “Tee-Tee” Parmon is the daughter of the late state Sen. Earline Parmon.
Keith King owns Kingz Downtown Market, and ran unsuccessfully against Vivian Burke in the previous two elections.
Both Burke and Parmon insist that they’re their own persons, and not riding on the coattails of the matriarchs in their respective families.
“My mother-in-law did an outstanding job,” Burke said. “I’m not Vivian Burke; I’m Barbara Hanes Burke. I will definitely be unique.”
Burke, who is 59, noted that she has a track record of public service of her own, including 30 years of work in public education. Before winning her seat on the school board in 2018, she served as an assistant principal at Carver High School. In her first year on the school board, Burke said she created a community volunteer literacy council to help improve third-grade reading, successfully lobbied the General Assembly to withdraw a bill that would have staggered school board elections and organized a college and career fair, while voting in favor of mandatory African-American studies and against limiting public comment at school board meetings (she was on the losing end of both votes).
Parmon, 43, said she grew up in awe of the black women leaders — she calls them “the Golden Girls” — in her mother’s orbit. She considers Evelyn Terry, a state representative, as an aunt. DD Adams, who represents the North Ward on city council, taught her to play tennis.
“It’s not about me trying to attain the family legacy,” Parmon said during an interview at Krankies. “My mama made her own legacy. No one will ever be able to fill her shoes.” But later, she added, “I was cut from the cloth of the late Sen. Earline Parmon. All I know how to do is fight for people.”
King, 53, has run Kingz Downtown Market for 13 years, defying naysayers who told him the business wouldn’t survive. A couple years ago, he added a lunch counter.
The store is located within a block of the Clark Campbell Transportation Center, and King said many of his customers are residents of the Northeast Ward.
“I am on the ground with the people,” King said during an interview in the cramped office at the back of his store. “People talk to me. I see how people live. I see eye to eye with them.”
His viability as a candidate is proven by the fact that he’s already been a contender, King said.
“I have run against the best — Vivian Burke,” he said, “and I did really well.”
In 2013, King collected about 7,500 signatures to get on the ballot as an independent candidate during the general election. He won only 14 percent of the vote, but still out-polled Republican Michael Owens. In contrast to the 7,500 voters who signed a petition to get King on the ballot, only 1,883 people cast votes in total in the Northeast Ward race.
Three years later, King ran in the Democratic primary and won 35.4 percent of the vote, compared to 64.6 percent by Burke. (In the Democratic primary for the previous election, Burke commanded 53.8 percent of the vote against two challengers.)
All three candidates emphasize education, and say the city needs to form a partnership with the school district to support schools and help improve third-grade reading levels.
Consistent with high levels of poverty, the inner-city portion of the ward is also home to some of the schools with the steepest academic performance challenges, including Ashley Elementary.
Although she has never held elective office, Parmon has a record of advocacy in education to stack against that of Barbara Hanes Burke.
For the past four years, local leaders have been talking about a potential deal in which the city would sell land to the school district for a new Ashley Elementary. Replacement of the school was included in an early list of bond projects, but then cut before the referendum went before voters in 2016. In 2017, teachers at the school began complaining that they were getting sick because of exposure to mold.
In September 2019, Parmon addressed city council, asking why an item to sell land to the school district for a new Ashley Elementary had been taken off the agenda.
“I’m standing before you tonight, asking, pleading and even begging if you will please put the sale of the land for Ashley Elementary School back on the agenda,” Parmon said. “In good conscience, I would hope that you as a board would see that by not doing so this continues to put our children’s health at risk and it stops development in the Northeast Ward.”
Mayor Pro Tem Burke publicly disputed Parmon’s characterization of the proposal as being taken off the agenda. But at her prompting, an assistant city manager explained that the city was yoking the proposed sale to an application by the Housing Authority of Winston-Salem to replace the Cleveland Avenue Homes public-housing community.
A month later, the item was on the agenda for the city finance committee, and at the next city council meeting members voted unanimously to approve the sale of the property for the new school.
The three candidates take somewhat different stances on the housing authority’s application to the federal government for a $30 million Choice Neighborhoods grant. The agency has been turned down for the grant three years in a row, and is now applying for the fourth time. Some residents have expressed concern that the replacement of Cleveland Avenue Homes will result in displacement of poor people.
King said he’s satisfied with the assurances that he’s heard from the housing authority.
“As long as the people have somewhere to go and stay, it’s a good idea to have the federal government put $30 million into the project,” he said. “Just make sure people have the opportunity to come back.”
Parmon said she would always be open to dialogue with the leadership of the housing authority, which frequently comes before city council seeking financial assistance. But she expressed skepticism that all of the residents will be able to meet the criteria to move back in when the new project is completed.
“For those who don’t qualify, where are they gonna go?” she asked. “We already know there’s a shortage of housing.”
Barbara Hanes Burke said she’s already met with housing authority CEO Larry Woods to discuss the grant proposal. She said after the agency was turned down during the most recent grant cycle, she successfully advocated for the grant proposal to expand its focus to cover more areas of the Northeast Ward.
On many issues, the candidates are in accord.
All three expressed concern about a lack of access to healthy food in the ward.
“It’s a food desert,” King said. “The elderly, disabled and kids have a hard time getting fruits and vegetables.”
Parmon said the only grocery store in the Northeast Ward is a Food Lion in the Northside Shopping Center.
King said he wants to try to recruit a Food Lion to Ogburn Station Shopping Center.
“When we talk about development, the best they give us is another Dollar General and a liquor store,” Parmon said. “Those don’t sustain us.”
Burke mused, “It would be wonderful if we could get some businesses to come to the Northeast Ward, especially a restaurant that served healthy food.”
Parmon agreed. “We have a lot of fast food,” she said. “We don’t have a lot of sit-down-and-eat-healthy-open-up-a-menu type of places.”
All three candidates cited public safety as one the ward’s highest priorities.
Parmon said city leaders need to be willing to “speak truth to power” on the number of homicides in the city, which set a 25-year record last year, although only three took place in the Northeast Ward.
In 2014, voters approved a public safety bond to fund three police substations, located in the Southeast, North and Southwest wards. King said he wants to see a substation placed in the Northeast Ward with 24-hour staffing.
Burke is thinking along the same lines.
“I believe we’re going to have to work more closely with law enforcement,” she said. “We have done a great job in the city of placing police satellite locations. We probably need to increase that number.”
While the campaign is off to a spirited start, the tenor has remained respectful, reflecting the intertwined relationships among candidates.
Parmon said she has known Burke since she was a student at Carver High School, adding that Burke encouraged her to run for office, although perhaps not the same one she sought for herself.
“Outside of politics, we actually have a good relationship,” Parmon said. “Win, lose or draw, after March 3, we’ll shake hands and wish each other well.”