The seven candidates in the High Point City Council at-large race range from a 73-year-old veteran of the 1960 Woolworth lunch-counter sit-in to a 25-year-old admissions employee at Wake Forest School of Medicine.
High Point voters will get the opportunity to vote in a municipal primary for the first time in at least 10 years on Oct. 10. In the case of the at-large contest, that means a field of seven candidates will be narrowed to four, who will vie for the two available seats in the general election in November.
During the last election, in 2014, Cindy Davis overwhelmed the opposition with a total of 9,219 votes, forcing the retirement of then-incumbent Britt Moore. Latimer Alexander edged out Moore for the second seat. This year, Alexander is retiring, leaving Davis as the sole incumbent.
As the most popular at-large council member, the 48-year-old Davis has found herself in the odd position of voting as an outlier, suspicious of big government, on a council friendly towards public spending designed to stimulate private investment and expand the city’s tax base. She cast the lone no vote against spending $15 million to acquire land and design a site for a multi-purpose stadium at the north end of downtown that boosters are promoting as a “catalyst” project.
Davis argues that the private sector should foot the entire bill for the stadium, and the only way she would support public financing would be if citizens had the opportunity to vote on a bond referendum.
“We, as representatives of the people, our primary role is services like police and fire,” Davis said. “We’re supposed to be working to keep the cost of those as low as possible so that businesses want to come to our city. The higher we increase taxes, the harder it is to keep the poor working and middle class above water. We’re killing our middle class.”
The other six candidates represent a range of views on the role of city government and different levels of public-service experience. At the more seasoned end of the spectrum are Britt Moore, a 54-year-old property manager and developer looking to reclaim his seat, and Mary Lou Andrews Blakeney, a 73-year-old activist who was one of the 26 William Penn High School students who launched the 1960 sit-in movement at the Woolworth’s lunch counter in High Point.
Moore describes himself as a pro-growth advocate, but during his four years on council from 2010 to 2014, he took a cautious stance towards public investment. He said he’s not inclined to second-guess the decision made by the current council to move forward with the stadium project, and wouldn’t support a bond referendum at this point. He noted that similar projects in Winston-Salem and Greensboro have spurred “collateral” private investment.
“At this point, we have to look at where it is in the stage and what the other opportunities are if the initiative doesn’t go forward,” Moore said. “What does the reality look like and what are the options for addressing this in the next 20 years? High Point has had some great growth in the greenfield areas. We’re meeting Kernersville; we’re meeting Greensboro and Jamestown. The core brownfield area, if you look at the total overall numbers, has kept us behind our other neighbors in total growth. Something has to be identified. It all comes down to the tax base and the tax rate. We’ll have another assessment soon; it’d be nice to see ours going up.”
Mary Lou Andrews Blakeney has also previously served on city council, and lost her seat to Moore after serving one term from 2008 to 2010. She’s also the immediate past president of the High Point Convention & Visitors Bureau, and was the first African American to hold that position.
Blakeney said she got involved in local politics because she didn’t see anyone else advocating for senior citizens. She’s an enthusiastic supporter of the stadium project, although her primary concern is still senior citizens, and she wants to enhance housing and public transit to make it easier for seniors to stay in their homes and remain active.
“The cost of long-term care facilities has gone up; they are quite expensive,” Blakeney said. “Somewhere around $6,000 per year is a low average. That’s a lot of money. Many of the seniors would prefer to stay in their houses if they could. Seniors are living longer. It’s projected that by 2020 we will outnumber teenagers. What are we going to do? Preparing ahead of time will probably serve us better.”
Although Don Scarborough is a political newcomer, the 68-year-old comes to the race with the advantage of powerful connections and fundraising acumen as a recently retired vice president of planned giving at High Point University. With a reported $3,099 in cash on hand, including a $1,000 contribution for downtown property manager Coy O. Williard Jr., Scarborough has dramatically outpaced his opponents in fundraising. In fact, with the exception of one other first-time candidate, none of the other candidates — including Davis, Moore and Blakeney — have reported any fundraising so far.
Like other candidates, Scarborough emphasizes support for the police department as the city reels from record-level gun violence. He supports the stadium project, arguing that it’s not an option to allow the core city to remain underdeveloped.
If elected, Scarborough said he would approach his role as a council member as a listener, particularly as the stadium project develops.
“We have to keep our hands on it,” he said. “We have to encourage the other citizens to submit their ideas.”
Michael Holmes, a 42-year-old lean manufacturing expert at Ikea, ran unsuccessfully for the same seat three years ago, finishing last among eight candidates.
While the stadium project has “potential,” Holmes said he’s “not really sold on it yet,” adding that he’s yet to hear anyone articulate a compelling vision for it.
“I’m a guy who moved to High Point about nine years ago because the Southwest [Guilford High School zone] was ranked one of the best,” he said. “I’m now part of High Point. High Point is where I’m raising my family. I want High Point’s future to be bright, not just because I live here but because everyone lives here. I want to make sure we have a growing, thriving city for everyone.”
Daniel Gardner, a 26-year-old community branch banker at BB&T in Greensboro, has been involved in politics since he was in middle school. He’s worked polls for conservative High Point politicians like Chris Whitley and Jim Davis; the latter is running for mayor this year. With the exception of Scarborough, Gardner is the only at-large candidate who has reported any fundraising to date, including a $99 check from former Guilford County School Board member Ed Price.
Gardner takes a skeptical view of the stadium project. He said he would favor rescinding the vote to provide public funds for the project, and allowing citizens to have a voice through a bond referendum.
“One of the big issues we have is transparency,” he said. “People I’ve talked to say the city is not being transparent. Citizens are very aggravated that this stadium was not brought to them.”
Sarah Jane Otte, who works in admissions at the Wake Forest School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, is the youngest candidate at 25 and the only one to secure the endorsement of Equality NC. She moved to High Point 18 months ago and bought a house with the assistance of a grant from the NC Housing Finance Agency to help cover her down payment.
Otte said she’s ambivalent about the stadium project.
“I’m really torn on my feelings when it comes to the stadium,” she said. “Revitalizing that part of town is a great idea to get more tourists. I don’t know if a baseball stadium is the best solution. Winston-Salem already has the Dash, and Greensboro has the Grasshoppers. What about a soccer arena? We have a large number of people interested in soccer.”
Otte said she’s not trying to land high-dollar contributions to finance her campaign.
“I am running a total grassroots campaign, just me and my dog,” she said. “I talked to my mom and she said, ‘That should be your campaign slogan.’”