The three Democratic candidates in Winston-Salem’s South Ward come from different backgrounds, and offer different leadership styles.
Two of the candidates in the Democratic primary for the South Ward seat on Winston-Salem City Council have met on the field of electoral battle before.
John Larson and Carolyn Highsmith engaged in a bruising fight for the then-open South Ward seat in 2016. In that primary, which was like this year aligned with a Democratic presidential nominating contest, Highsmith led Larson by eight votes in the final balloting. But election officials threw out the results because of significant irregularities, including voters being misdirected to the wrong ward, and in a special, do-over election Larson handily defeated Highsmith, 63 to 37 percent.
Highsmith is back this year to challenge Larson, who is now a one-term incumbent. Joining the fray is a third candidate, Mackenzie Cates-Allen.
A South Carolina native, the 71-year-old Larson moved to Winston-Salem in 1976 to work for Old Salem Museums & Gardens, a living replica of the Moravian settlement that laid the foundation for the city. Larson retired as Old Salem’s vice president of restoration in 2016.
Highsmith, 67, lives in the Konnoak Hills, the same neighborhood she moved to as a child with her parents in 1963. A wave of break-ins caused by the displacement of crime from redevelopment efforts in preparation for BB&T Ballpark in 2007 catapulted Highsmith into a position of community leadership.
Cates-Allen, 33, grew up in Greensboro, and moved to Winston-Salem to attend Salem College. She worked for Downtown Winston-Salem Partnership for a couple years, and then left to start her own organization, Winston-Salem Ambassadors. Cates-Allen said the nonprofit’s mission is “to forge relationships in an authentic way so that people fall in love with Winston-Salem.”
Highsmith isn’t campaigning against Larson so much as she’s running against the status quo — a consensus led by Mayor Allen Joines over the past two decades that promotes business-friendly policies with socially progressive values.
“Only a certain number of businesses are benefiting from the largesse of city council,” Highsmith said during an interview at Footnote, a coffeehouse and lounge operated by Foothills Brewing on West Fourth Street. “They tend to be developers or the pet projects of certain city council members. The rest are getting left behind. This gets to the haves and have-nots.”
In stark contrast to Highsmith’s populism, Larson projects a message of unapologetic boosterism.
“We’re recognized as one of the best places to retire,” Larson said during an interview at Acadia Foods in the heart of the Historic Washington Park neighborhood. “We’re one of the most affordable places in the South. We’re the safest city in the state. The trajectory is that Winston-Salem is a city that’s reinventing itself.”
As evidence of progress, Larson points to the boom in downtown apartment building construction, increased tourism, and the city’s colleges and universities, including Piedmont International University, a Christian institution in the South Ward that has grown rapidly in recent years.
“We can look at the dark side, but where does that get us?” he asked. “Let’s stop moaning about this, and build on the progress we’ve made.”
Cates-Allen expressed the same glass-half-full perspective, but in a different way.
“I feel really strongly that city council sets the tone for the city,” she said during a recent interview at the Central Library on West Fifth Street. “If you come across as, ‘We’ve lost all these headquarters — we’ve lost Krispy Kreme, we’ve lost BB&T, woe is me,’ how is that going to come across to people who might want to move here?”
She cited start-ups like Cam’s Coffee Co., a coffee stand in Winston-Salem that provides employment opportunities to individuals with intellectual and physical disabilities.
“Those are the innovators I want to talk about,” she said. “It’s our job as a city council to let people know the opportunities.”
The three candidates largely align on issues of public safety, expressing appreciation for the police and concern about improving retention of officers.
Highsmith said public safety is her top priority.
“I think we have a great relationship with the police,” she said. “I’ve always promoted neighborhood watch. We value the police.”
With last year’s 31 homicides setting a 25-year record, Highsmith said it’s unacceptable that the police force is still short about 40 officers, while acknowledging that city council has worked to increase pay so that officers aren’t lured away by other agencies.
“We’ve got the worst crime in 25 years, and the police are understaffed,” she said. “That’s not good.”
Larson, who has received the endorsement of the Police Benevolent Association, downplayed the record-setting homicide total, echoing a statement by Mayor Allen Joines that Winston-Salem’s crime rate compares favorably to other cities.
To address police staffing challenges, Larson said he proposed a policy to provide a signing bonus to military veterans who join the police department. The council voted to implement the policy and the city has made some progress, but Larson acknowledged there’s still a significant shortfall.
Cates-Allen said she would like to see more officers patrolling downtown to keep up with population growth in the center city.
She expressed admiration for the multiple roles officers assume, adding that she has been struck by “how dedicated they are.” She said she wants to organize a public campaign through Winston-Salem Ambassadors to express support for law enforcement.
“We need them,” she said.
Housing and community development
Candidates in the South Ward race expressed a range of views on housing, but they don’t differ significantly on policy prescriptions.
Highsmith said the city needs to address gentrification, while Larson said investment increases neighborhood stability. He said he shies away from the word “gentrification” because it has a negative connotation.
“There’s continuous displacement,” Highsmith said. “Slumlords understand the markets are better, so they’re raising rent.” As an example, Highsmith said an acquaintance was forced to move from West Salem to Rural Hall because her rent became too high.
Larson said, to the contrary, that he does not believe significant displacement has occurred in West Salem, a mixed-income neighborhood adjacent to downtown.
In contrast to the candidates in the North Ward, who want to increase density so that residents have more opportunities to access employment and retail, both Larson and Highsmith are skeptical of such efforts, having opposed past proposals to relax zoning regulations that would allow property owners to build auxiliary housing.
Cates-Allen says the city needs to revisit the Revitalizing Urban Commercial Areas, or RUCA program, which provides low-interest or forgivable loans to renovate struggling shopping centers.
Larson, in turn, said that he has reservations about Transforming Urban Residential Neighborhoods, or TURN, a similar program that provides financial assistance to qualifying households, both owner-occupied and investor-owned, to address deteriorating housing stock.
“I’m not a big fan of giving money to absentee landlords,” Larson said.
Highsmith said her primary concern about the program is that even with relatively low interest rates, the loans might be out of reach for many struggling homeowners.
While Highsmith questioned city council support for a hydroponics project — an initiative championed by North Ward council member DD Adams to provide food and employment, Larson and Cates-Allen spoke in favor of it. Larson recently voted to allocate an additional $500,000 for the project. The council had previously voted to allocate $962,000 to launch the initiative, in 2016, before Larson was seated.
“It’s a statement of optimism, and a statement that we’re going to embrace the future,” he said.
Parks — funding and improvements
The two challengers both leveled criticism at the city’s parks and recreation program.
“Below Interstate 40 we don’t have the lovely parks like Washington Park,” Highsmith said. “We only have one recreation center in the South Ward: Georgia Taylor. They have decimated the parks and recreation program. When we have a youth-gang problem, we need recreation programs to keep them off the street.”
Cates-Allen said she took her children to play in Bolton Park, which is located in the Southwest Ward, and was shocked to discover one of the slides was covered with plywood, and the metal was warped. She said she talked to a father, who told her the playground equipment had been like that for weeks, but he hadn’t contacted his ward representative. Cates-Allen said she wants to improve engagement with residents, so that they’ll advocate for their interests and compel the city to be more responsive to their needs.
Larson dismissed Cates-Allen’s criticism, arguing that the plywood is evidence that the park is under renovation.
“You’ve got break the egg to make the omelet,” he said.
Larson said his three years serving on council have taught him that everything takes longer than he at first expected.
“It’s all about planning, scheduling and work,” he said. “If you can’t get something on the board and add it to the capital improvement list, it doesn’t happen. You have to have a feasibility study. We had to do a master plan for Hobby Park and Washington Park. Everything needs to happen with public involvement. You’ve got to go through city-county planning, finance committee, and bidding. Everything takes longer than you think.”
Done with ‘Dixie’
The decision to remove the word “Dixie” from the name of the city’s annual fair stirred up considerable passion last year. Larson was one of only two council members who voted against the name change.
Cates-Allen volunteered during her interview that she would have voted differently. Even with public comments leaning against the name change, she said, there are some issues where council members have to vote their conscience. She said she recognizes that the name is offensive to many African Americans.
“You have to be brave enough to do the right thing,” she said.
Cates-Allen said she recognizes her white privilege, and that as a white person she has a lot to learn about race relations.
“I will always err on the side of lifting up our brothers and sisters of color because they’ve not been lifted up so long institutionally and systematically,” she said. “I know I’m going to make mistakes.”
During his interview, Larson declined to address the issue.
“I’m done with that,” he said. “I don’t want to feed this fire anymore. It’s been decided. We’ve got a good name and a good logo.”
Highsmith said she was suspicious of the city council’s decision last year to consider renaming the Dixie Classic Fair. The request was brought to city council by Bishop Sir Walter Mack Jr., pastor of Union Baptist Church.
“Why are you bringing up the renaming of Dixie Classic Fair unless you’re trying to create a wedge issue for this election?” Highsmith asked.
She said she spoke to residents, both black and white, who told her they didn’t find the name particularly offensive, but nonetheless she said she would have voted to change the name had she been on council at the time.
When Democrats go to the polls on March 3 to choose what is likely to be the South Ward’s next representative, they will the opportunity to choose among three distinct styles of leadership.
“I care about the community as a whole, not just the rich and not just the developers,” Highsmith said.
Cates-Allen said she will bring a fresh perspective as a millennial.
“Everything for me is about service,” she said. “I say a lot of cliché things, but I believe them.”
While citing his experience as an advantage, Larson refused to concede any ground to his younger opponents.
“I’ve got the energy,” he said. “I’m committed to making the city better.”
Candidates for the South, Southwest, North and Southeast wards will address voters tonight during a forum hosted by the African American Caucus of the Forsyth County Democratic Party at 6 p.m. tonight at Central Library in downtown Winston-Salem.