Lowe and Johnson dominate contest to fill vacant state Senate seat

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by Jordan Green

A favorite emerges in the local Democratic Party contest to fill a vacant state Senate seat following Earline Parmon’s resignation to take a job with US Rep. Alma Adams.

To say there’s a Forsyth County Democratic Party political machine doesn’t necessarily mean that the candidate it elevates is the most qualified.

Effective political machines minimize interparty strife by promoting favored candidates and preserving strength through transitions. The Democrats may be out of power in Raleigh, but party leaders in Winston-Salem are keen to send a fighter to the General Assembly to replace Earline Parmon and, if possible, select a tactician who can help the party regain its majority before the next round of redistricting in 2021.

As the state senator for urban District 32, Parmon is the highest-ranking Democrat in Forsyth County. News reports late last week that she was resigning to handle local constituent services for US Rep. Alma Adams set off a succession scramble, with a public candidate forum on Monday, and a vote by local party leaders to select a replacement scheduled for Thursday at 6:30 p.m. at Kennedy High School in Winston-Salem.

Parmon, who received a standing ovation during the Monday night candidate-forum at the Mazie Woodruff Center, has remained officially neutral. Asked if any of the candidates were tipped off in advance of her plans to resign, Parmon gave a coy response.

“If anyone, Ed Hanes, because he was my colleague,” she said, referring to her fellow Democrat in House District 72.

Derwin Montgomery, one of five Winston-Salem council members who attended the forum, said Parmon’s resignation came as little surprise to many Democratic elected officials, as talk of her move has quietly circulated for some time.

Not to say that the process is rigged, but sentiment among the 80-some active Democrats at the forum seemed to clearly favor the Rev. Paul Lowe, a pastor with prominent leadership experience in the local party, over Joycelyn Johnson, a former Winston-Salem city council member with a reputation for charting her own course. A cohort of women in the audience enthusiastically cheered Lowe’s responses while chattering over Johnson’s talking points. And Lowe’s answers decisively connected to questions submitted in advance by audience members, while Johnson’s responses often sailed past the query. To sum up, a short campaign with an election decided by about 130 members of the executive committee — local party officers and precinct leaders — tends to favor an insider over a maverick. A third candidate, Wilbert Banks, ran unsuccessfully for the seat in 2012, but seems unlikely to gain traction this time around.

“Our current senator, Ms. Earline, our highest-ranking elected official, even when she’s been down in Raleigh she’s never forgotten our local party,” said retired Judge Bill Freeman, who moderated the forum. “She’s been a tireless worker.”

Segueing from the tribute to Parmon, Freeman asked how the candidates will participate in local party activities and how they saw their role in the party as the highest-ranking local elected official in the county.

Lowe mentioned that he’s currently serving his second term as Democratic chair for the 5th Congressional District.

“One of the things I’ve been able to do is to create training programs to begin to train folk in GOTV — how do you get out the vote,” he said. “Because I believe that eventually the Republicans are going to slip up. And if we’re ready, we can win.”

Johnson either missed the opportunity to talk about her work on behalf of the party or chose to emphasize other aspects of her public service.

“Even when I lost to Councilman Montgomery — times two — I have still been running in this community and doing a lot of things,” she said. “I am currently working with Piedmont Together. That’s a regional consortium in our 13 counties to look at economic development, to look at transportation, to look at infrastructure. So I continue to work because that’s where my heart is.”

While nominations will be accepted from the floor before the vote on Thursday, county party Chairwoman Susan Campbell touted the three candidates on the dais for the forum, which also included Wilbert Banks.

“I want you to take into consideration that Rev. Lowe, Ms. Johnson and Mr. Banks have stepped forward to take your questions,” Campbell said. “So that says a lot.”

A fourth potential candidate stepped aside. State Rep Ed Hanes Jr., who had previously expressed interest in the seat, came in late and did not come to the dais when a final call for candidates was issued.

“The executive committee had a lot of meetings, and they decided I wasn’t one of the candidates they wanted to consider,” Hanes said after the forum, adding that he chose not to exercise his right to nominate himself. “What it really comes down to as an elected official is that you don’t want to insert yourself in the process. It comes down to a comfort level that the executive committee had with the other three candidates that they didn’t have with me.”

Hanes might have been a controversial candidate in one sense; his support of educational vouchers has frustrated some members of his party.

Lowe’s position on that question unequivocally toed the party line.

“I believe vouchers take money away from public education,” he said. “I’m against them.”

Johnson noted that she received a scholarship to Bennett College, a private institution, after attending public schools through 12th grade, eliding the question.

Banks, an employee of Industries for the Blind, fumbled several questions. Responding to a query about why he wanted to serve in the Senate, he spent two minutes discussing the falling price of gas and ran out the clock just as he was warming up to his main point about job recruitment. He mentioned the chamber of commerce in response to a question posed to the candidates about which committees they would like to serve on. And on the topic of Medicaid expansion — a slam-dunk for virtually any Democrat — he took a pass, explaining, “I’m not really that familiar with Medicaid.”

Johnson suggested tweaking eligibility criteria, so more people can qualify. Lowe took a more direct approach.

“I support the Medicaid expansion,” he said, “and I think it’s important to continue to fight for the expansion.”

The three candidates presented a united front on social issues.

“I think women should have the right to do what they want with their bodies,” Johnson said. “You have the right to choose, guys. And it’s always the guys that decide for the women.”

Lowe said, “I believe that a woman should have the right to choose.”

Banks added, “I think a woman should have the right to choose.”

On LGBT rights and same-sex marriage, Lowe said, “I believe that discrimination is wrong in all of its forms. I believe folks ought to be able to marry who they want. And that’s all I really have to say.”

Johnson said, “It’s your right to choose to do what you want to do.”

Banks, who is blind, said no group has experienced more discrimination than blind people. “If a man and a man want to marry or a woman and a woman want to marry, as long it stops the discrimination, I’m for it,” he said. “Discrimination is ugly; I don’t care how you look at it.”

Lowe and Johnson both argued that they are eminently qualified to provide constituent services.

“Try 25,000 people for 16 years, and the differing opinions that they will have,” Johnson said, referring to her service on Winston-Salem City Council.

Lowe cited his role as a clergyman at Shiloh Baptist Church, where he has served as pastor since 1991.

“As a pastor of a black Baptist church, constituent services is one the most important things you do,” he said. “And I’ve been doing it for a long time.”

After the forum, as Johnson worked the room, Lowe gave Banks a ride home, underscoring the gentility of their rivalry.

Observing the contest from the sidelines, Hanes commented that whatever push he may have received from the party leadership, Lowe has been preparing for the role for years.

“A couple years ago, when I first ran for my seat, if we had been in the same district and he was running,” Hanes said, “I think we would have gotten together and said, ‘You run for Senate and I’ll run for House,’ or something like that.”