Only two out of nine seats in this year’s Winston-Salem City Council election are contested. While Democrats have consolidated power on the council over the past 20 years, the distance between the candidates in two partisan races is not as wide as you might think.
While a presidential election, both epic and bizarre in its contours, thunders down the homestretch, Winston-Salem voters may not realize they have another decision at the ballot box that will determine vital issues like police protection, investment in beleaguered parks, property taxes and job growth.
The inclusion of the city council race at the bottom of the ballot came about because of legislation filed in 2011 by Dale Folwell, then a Republican state lawmaker, revising the municipal election schedule from odd years to presidential election years. The realignment imposes additional hurdles on Republican candidates vying for seats on the Democrat-dominated council considering that Democratic turnout peaks on presidential election years and tends to taper off during odd years and mid-terms. Folwell, who is running for state treasurer this year, said his sole purpose in imposing the new election schedule was to reduce the cost of election administration and increase voter participation. Whether the election schedule puts his fellow Republican candidates at a disadvantage, Folwell said, “was the last thing on my mind.”
Only two out of nine seats are contested this year — the lowest number going back to 1997, when the city had a Republican mayor and two Republican council members — are contested. The GOP’s standing in city politics has steadily eroded over the last 20 years. In 2001, Democrat Allen Joines ousted Jack Cavanagh, the Republican mayoral incumbent, by a margin of 56.8 percent. Joines ran unopposed in the next two elections, and improved his spread to 69.2 points in 2013 against a Republican challenger who was caught using a racial slur against an election worker.
The 2001 election also saw Democrat Dan Besse swipe the Southwest Ward seat from Republican incumbent Steve Whiton. And four years later, Democrat Molly Leight ousted Republican Vernon Robinson, a black Republican who gained national notoriety for installing a statue of the Ten Commandments in front of City Hall in the middle of the night. The 2005 election whittled Republican representation down to the West Ward seat.
Republicans made an unprecedented push in 2013 — one year after the GOP took control of state government and sponsored a successful ballot initiative to ban same-sex marriage that was officially opposed by city council — contesting seven out of nine seats and sustaining double-digit losses. The Republican Party’s best showing was in the Northwest Ward, where Democrat Jeff MacIntosh, the hand-picked successor to Councilwoman Wanda Merschel, defeated Republican Lida Hayes Calvert by 16.8 points.
MacIntosh, a 58-year-old real-estate broker, is the only incumbent with an opponent on the ballot this year.
He faces Eric Henderson, a graduate assistant at Wake Forest University who teaches physics. The other contested race, for the South Ward seat, features Republican Michael Tyler, a 42-year-old restaurant equipment servicer, and Democrat John Larson, 67, who is retiring from his position as vice president of restoration at Old Salem Museums & Gardens. Joanne Allen, a longtime critic of the Winston-Salem political establishment, is challenging Joines for mayor as a write-in candidate, but failed to collect the required number of signatures from registered voters in the city to get on the ballot.
Notwithstanding the dearth of Republican candidates on the ballot for city council, Forsyth County Republican Party Chairman Mark Baker rejected any notion that an anticipated tide of Democratic voters puts his party at a disadvantage.
“Polls are showing that Mr. Trump has a very good chance of winning this election,” Baker said in an email to Triad City Beat, in contradiction to a raft of recent polls that show Clinton with a slight edge in North Carolina.
“We have never seen the excitement at our headquarters for a candidate like this before,” he continued. “The response we are getting from the public is great. As an example, we can’t keep Trump items stocked at the Dixie Classic Fair.”
The two Republican candidates in contested city council races this year have both made an issue of police and firefighter pay, which members of the current council acknowledged as a problem in late 2015, when a human resources study revealed that the city was losing employees to neighboring municipalities because salaries were not competitive.
“My opponent is technically a newcomer to council, but he’s not a newcomer to politics,” said Henderson, the Republican running for the Northwest Ward seat. “Everyone knows he’s good friends with the woman who served for 16 years before him, and she picked him for the positions. The problems in the city budget are easily corrected. They’re issues of pay, and he’s had three years to correct them.”
Henderson added that he would like to see a “reprioritization process” to ensure that the city is covering basics like police, fire, garbage pickup and infrastructure. Only when council ascertains that basic services are being covered should the city take on additional responsibilities, he said.
MacIntosh said what has surprised him the most in his three years in office is how difficult it is to gauge public opinion before moving forward with decisions, but has been pleased by the collegial spirit on city council.
MacIntosh said he’d like to see the city do a better job of marketing itself. “Mast General Stores — they’re in a lot of communities that we compete against,” he said. “They were so complimentary of us. People who do get a good look at our city are blown away. We’re affordable, we have low taxes, we have great healthcare — all these things everyone wants.”
The Democratic incumbent said his opponent is a “nice guy,” but comparatively inexperienced. “I applaud him for taking the step — it’s a fair amount of work,” he said. “I don’t want to sound negative: The difference between him and me is the amount of time and energy and experience I have in the community. If he’s not successful, I hope he stays engaged and involved. I don’t think he has a lot of experience in affordable housing and business creation.”
While Robert Clark, who represents the West Ward, is the lone Republican on council, he holds an influential position as chair of the finance committee. In that role he often finds himself voting differently from his Democratic colleagues, but said he doesn’t think adding one or two Republicans would dramatically change council’s direction.
“If you take the whole budget, you might find 5 to 10 percent going differently,” Clark said. “Recently, I’ve been the only no vote on a couple things. The city has allocated a million dollars to start a hydroponics greenhouse project. I voted against that, and I think other Republicans probably would as well.”
Tyler, the Republican candidate running for the South Ward seat, downplayed party affiliation in a recent interview, striking a contrast with the often combative Vernon Robinson, who was the last Republican to hold the seat. Tyler said he’s gotten to know Councilman James Taylor, the Democrat who represents the adjacent Southeast Ward, and found many areas of potential collaboration.
“I got a sense from speaking with Mr. Taylor that they’d be willing to work with us,” Tyler said. “You already have a friendship, compared to going in blind. It’s kind of you scratch my back, I scratch yours. You help me get things done in my ward, I help you get things done in yours.”
Tyler grew up in the South Ward and graduated from Parkland High School. He left home to join the Marine Corps, and wound up moving to South Carolina. He got involved in politics there, and received appointment to the position of athletic commissioner, where he successfully lobbied the state to allow mixed martial arts matches. He also hosted a fundraiser for Gov. Nikki Haley with Andrew Card, former White House chief of staff to President George W. Bush, as the special guest. About two and a half years ago, Tyler returned to Winston-Salem to help his father with his business because of his parents’ declining health.
“I noticed the South Ward hasn’t changed a lot since I left 20 years ago,” he said. “I feel there needs to be a lot of improvements. We need to clean the area up and beef up security. To do that we’re going to have to give our police raises.
“We need to clean our playgrounds up,” he added. “We’ve got dilapidated playgrounds that don’t have anything for children to play on.”
Larson, the Democratic candidate, is a South Carolina native who moved to Winston-Salem in 1976 to work for Old Salem. As the preferred candidate of Molly Leight, the sitting council member, Larson began his campaign last December touting his experience working with city council and talking up his preservationist background at Old Salem. Over the course of a bitterly contested Democratic primary against Carolyn Highsmith, a neighborhood leader with a populist sensibility, Larson has received an education on the wide-ranging constituencies in the ward.
“I’ve been campaigning for 11 months,” he said. “The thing that I’ve learned that I didn’t know before is the depth and diversity of this ward. The backbone is Peters Creek Parkway. There are 1,700 businesses. Most of them are four employees or less. It tells you something about where we should put our emphasis. If each of those businesses hired a single employee I’d have a hell of a jobs program.”
In many ways, Larson’s concerns align with those articulated by Tyler. Both said the current council hasn’t acted with enough urgency on police and firefighter salaries, traffic signals on Peters Creek Parkway need to be better coordinated, and parks in the South Ward need attention. Larson called the 91.5-acre Hobby Park “an embarrassment.”
“Where I might bump up against other council members,” Larson said, ‘is I might say, ‘A lot of bond money is being spent; I don’t think it’s being spent in South Ward parks. I want to see a master plan for the park. If you go south of [Interstate 40], where do you go for recreation? That’s it.”