by Jordan Green
The outcome of the High Point municipal election demonstrates a pattern of racial and partisan voting, with majority-white electorate supporting both a pro-revitalization mayor and two anti-tax at-large candidates.
High Point voters chose Bill Bencini, a former council member closely associated with a decade-long revitalization project known as City Project, while also electing Cynthia Davis and Britt Moore, who have expressed skepticism towards public investment in revitalization, to the two at-large seats.
Bencini, a white Republican, expressed enthusiasm for a proposal to “diet,” or reduce the number of lanes and enhance walkability on North Main Street, and has said he’s willing to spend public money on projects that show a strong return on investment for taxpayers.
Davis, a conservative Republican, warned during the campaign that a street-dieting project would translate into a bond referendum and higher taxes. Like Moore, whose political registration is unaffiliated, Davis has said the private sector should step up to make investments in the core city rather than burdening taxpayers with the cost.
While questions over revitalization have roiled the current council and provided fireworks during the campaign, voters had other reasons for their choices at the polls.
“There’s a lot of cross-pollination between Bill Bencini, who was on the City Project steering committee for years and who voted to move the project forward, and those who have been fighting revitalization,” said Tom Terrell, a former City Project board chairman who has been involved with High Point politics since the 1980s. “Revitalization was not the focus. Voters were handed ballots from conservative and Democratic Party sources that had certain names on them. That appears to be the strongest factor.”
Voters in Ward 4 returned Jay Wagner, an outspoken revitalization proponent to council, against a more fiscally conservative challenger. In Ward 3, the opposite dynamic was at work, as Alyce Hill, a community volunteer eager to push forward with revitalization initiatives, unseated Judy Mendenhall, an incumbent who played a key role in sidelining City Project earlier this year. Yet Wagner and Hill’s victories did not translate into success for David Rosen, the only at-large candidate who championed revitalization, either in wards 3 and 4 or elsewhere.
Not only did voters support both the pro-revitalization and anti-tax candidates, the two camps found their deepest reservoirs of support in the same precincts.
Bencini, Davis and Moore — along with Latimer Alexander, who lost to Moore by only 30 votes — carried the predominantly white, affluent and middle-class neighborhoods that flank Westchester Drive and the northern suburbs to the east of Highway 68.
The election results showed a racial pattern, with Brandon and other African-American candidates carrying precincts in the predominantly black, southeastern corner of the city. Davis, who led balloting in the at-large race by a margin of 1,496 votes ahead of her nearest competitor, ran strong across the city, from the working-class West End neighborhood, where she lives, to the area around the Palladium on the north side. Promoting the concept of “a seamless city” — an idea that likely resonated in economically distressed neighborhoods that have been shut out of the prosperity experienced in both tony Emerywood and the booming northern suburbs. She carried three precincts in outlying areas on the east side that overlapped with Brandon’s base. Moore’s base radiated out from Emerywood and stretched northward along the west side of Johnson Street along the shore of Oak Hollow Lake to Skeet Club Road.
Rosen, the standard-bearer of revitalization, trailed other candidates in every precinct, but performed the best in those carried by Moore, an incumbent with a markedly cautious approach on revitalization matters. Rosen’s strongest returns came from Emerywood and the neighborhoods immediately to the north.
“With David Rosen, he was a newcomer without name recognition running against candidates who had ballot endorsement by the parties or who were incumbents,” Terrell said.
Even in Ward 3, where Hill unseated Mendenhall, Rosen drew few votes.
Ward 3 was an outlier, Terrell said.
“That’s because you had a challenger who came on surprisingly strong,” he said, “and the incumbent was not speaking to the voters aggressively.”
The Interstate 85 corridor through the southeast is traditionally a Democratic stronghold, even in the city’s nominally nonpartisan municipal elections.
“If you look at the data what’s interesting is that even in some of the precincts where the African-American vote was the strongest, Bill Bencini actually got a lot of votes,” Terrell said. “Marcus was the higher vote-getter in those, but he was on the Democratic Party ballot that was handed out. Bill had a mailer and he had newspaper ads with a very popular county commissioner, Bruce Davis, endorsing him. Marcus could have run well all over High Point. But he has never worked in High Point. He has never paid taxes in High Point. He just moved here to run for mayor. He’s never been a member of a church or a civic club in High Point. He has no roots whatsoever in High Point.”