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.”

Map of the South Ward. (courtesy of Forsyth County Board of Elections)

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

Valuing police

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

“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

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

“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

“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

“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.

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