by Jordan Green
Bill Bencini, a veteran political leader who has rallied the city behind a platform of retaining young people and expanding High Point’s tax base, won election as the city’s next mayor, cobbling together a coalition of pro-business Republicans and revitalization proponents.
Bencini, a Republican who serves on the Guilford County Commission, fended off a spirited effort from Marcus Brandon, a Democratic state lawmaker who capitalized on high turnout among black Democrats in east High Point. A business owner who manufactures components for the furniture industry, Bencini served on High Point City Council from 2000 and 2010 before running successfully for county commission.
Bencini won with 55.8 percent of the vote, compared to 34.8percent by Brandon. Jimmy Scott placed a distant third with 8.8percent of the vote.
“Time to get it started,” one supporter cried out as supporters cheered Bencini’s victory in the swanky courtyard of the JH Adams Inn.
“It will be a miracle, if we can get it started,” Bencini said.
Bencini, whose candidacy has been closely linked with revitalization efforts, acknowledged that there are a lot of different ideas about how to accomplish the goal.
“All the voters in the mayoral campaign, regardless of who they supported, are interested in revitalization,” he said. “I’m not sure anybody has the answer.”
He added, “I’m hopeful the council can come together and work together as a team.”
Increased turnout among Democrats and African Americans during early voting failed to carry Brandon to victory. As a Democratic lawmaker with strong recognition in High Point, high turnout among the party faithful likely boosted his candidacy, as did an election flier handed out by Guilford County Democratic Party volunteers at polling locations under the banner “Reclaim North Carolina.”
Intense interest in the city council election was evidenced by a marked increase in turnout at early voting locations in High Point, compared to Guilford County as a whole since 2010 — the last time a US Senate race was at the top of the ballot. Early-voting turnout in the two High Point locations increased by 49.8 percent, compared to 29.9 percent across the county.
When Bencini is sworn in as the city’s next mayor in December, he will automatically enjoy a stronger mandate than Bernita Sims, who was elected two years ago out of a crowded field of five with only 32 percent of the vote. Sims’ term was marked by division and dysfunction, with racially divided votes calling for her resignation and turmoil over revitalization efforts. Sims eventually resigned in September, just before pleading guilty to writing a worthless check.
The new mayor, along with the remaining eight members of city council, will serve a three-year term through 2017, thanks to a vote in a referendum by voters to change the city’s election system, adding a primary and changing the contest to odd years.
Cynthia Davis, a conservative Republicanmaking her second run for city council, bumped Britt Moore, a cautious independent, to secure one of the at-large spots, according to incomplete returns. As of press time, Moore was leading Latimer Alexander, a Republican with a similarly cautious temperament and a demonstrated track record of support from voters during his previous service on council from 2002 to 2012, for the other at-large seat by 32 votes with all precincts reporting.
Davis had planned to go to bed after the polls closed, but she was persuaded to join fellow conservative candidates Jim Davis and Jason Ewing at Rixter’s Grillto watch the returns.
Cynthia Davis, who chairs the city’s planning & zoning commission and regularly attends city council meetings, has taken a skeptical view of revitalization projects like street dieting. Her win on Tuesday night tapped into a wave of conservative discontent and anti-tax sentiment in High Point.
Five other revitalization candidates — Orrick Quick, David Rosen, Edward Squires, Reginal Chahal and Michael Holmes — fell short.
Revitalization proponents at the JH Adams Inn were cheered by Bencini’s election, and that of Alyce Hill and Jay Wagner.
A community volunteer, Hill unseated Judy Mendenhall, a former mayor and former executive director of the High Point Market Authority. Mendenhall’s role in reassigning City Project Executive Director Wendy Fuscoe from the Ignite High Point master plan to a position with more diffuse responsibilities angered many revitalization proponents. The reluctance of Mendenhall and other members of the current council to undertake bold revitalization initiatives was part of what inspired Hill’s run for council.
“I had a large number of fantastic and hard-working volunteers,” Hill said. “I think that reflects that so many people love this city and want to see positive change.”
Wagner handily fended off a challenge from Jim Bronnert, a conservative who was skeptical of public investment in revitalization, particularly a proposal to reduce the number of lanes on North Main Street to make it more pedestrian friendly. Often finding himself the lone vote, Wagner found himself campaigning against the current council as an incumbent, while Bronnert, the challenger, championed the current course.
“Right now, I kind of feel like I’m on my own,” Wagner said. “One or two more people who are allies will make me happy.”
With Bencini as mayor, Wagner said, “It’s a chance to hit the reset button and see what we can accomplish working together. To Bill’s credit, he’s a strong leader.”
The one candidate on the revitalization slate who did prevail was David Rosen, who ran at large.
Leaving the election gathering at JH Adams Inn, one celebrant exulted, “Bill, yes! Alyce, yes! Jay, yes! David, not so much. The scary thing is Davis and Alexander.”
Jim Davis, a popular incumbent who is currently serving as mayor, won easily in suburban Ward 5. A conservative intent on cutting taxes, Davis defeated Roger Sims, an insurance agent aligned with the pro-revitalization slate. With three out of six precincts reporting, Davis had 73 percent of the vote.
Davis spent the day greeting voters at Deep River Recreation Center. He said the polling location is in the middle of several neighborhoods where he knows a lot of people. He won his election two years ago by working the precinct, and said he didn’t want to jinx his chances by changing tack.
Jason Ewing, an incumbent conservative in neighboring Ward 6, also appeared to win his race by a wide margin.
In Ward 2, Jerry Mingo held a slight lead over Chris Williams at press time, in a race to fill the seat being vacated with the retirement of Foster Douglas. Meanwhile, Ward 1 incumbent Jeff Golden won reelection against two challengers, Willie Davis and Jo Williams, by wide margins.
The election inspired passionate interest among volunteers eager to improve their city — and sharp differences.
Mary McInerney, had been up since 5:30 a.m. transporting volunteers to polling locations for at-large candidate David Rosen, and was exhausted by 10 p.m.
“We are relatively new to High Point,” she said. “I just got tired of people when I’d tell them that I live in High Point rolling their eyes. I ran into David at a town-hall meeting and he seemed to be seriously committed to changing that. It did get ugly today. Somebody egged David’s car, and one of Jay’s signs was set on fire.”
UPDATE, Nov. 5, 11:48 p.m.: Chris Williams won the Ward 2 race over Jerry Mingo, 54.6 percent to 45.1 percent.