Three candidates are vying for the position of High Point mayor as the city’s municipal election gets underway.
Bruce Davis, a Democrat and former Guilford County commissioner, came tantalizingly close to winning the mayor’s race in the 2017 High Point municipal election.
One fluke of elections in Guilford County’s second city is that it bleeds into three other counties. So, although Davis carried Guilford County, the prize slipped away when the votes were tallied from neighboring Davidson. (High Point also includes parts of Forsyth and Randolph, but election results show no one from those two counties voted in the 2017 election.)
“I like to say that we won High Point by 114 votes, and then two hours later Davidson County numbers came in,” Davis told a group of voters at a candidate forum hosted by Indivisible Guilford County at the High Point Public Library on Sunday afternoon. “And it flipped the script from a 114-vote win for High Point — Bruce Davis as your mayor — to Davidson County picking who your mayor is, from a 114-vote win to a 41-vote loss. So, I always say, ‘It won’t happen again.’”
Joining Davis in the quest for the city’s top leadership post is Carlvena Foster, another Democrat who currently serves on the Guilford County Commission, and shares Davis’ focus on addressing gun violence and promoting affordable housing.
Although Republican Jay Wagner won the seat by less than 0.5 percent two years ago, his campaign for re-election is likely to benefit from a visible resurgence in the center city, where he led a successful effort to build a stadium, forging ahead even as Guilford County declined to provide financial assistance. Where only seven years ago, a majority of city council opposed any intervention by local government to jumpstart a downtown renaissance, now the only debate is how to ensure that the prosperity benefits all the city’s residents.
High Point voters will winnow the field from three to two candidates during the Oct. 8 nonpartisan primary, and then the top vote-getters will face off in the Nov. 5 general election. The winner will serve a four-year term.
“We always called the stadium our ‘Catalyst Project,’” Wagner said in an interview with TCB. “There’s evidence showing we were right. Currently, the estimate is that there’s $180 million of new private development in the pipeline. There are companies moving back downtown. There’s already new, small-scale manufacturing in the southwest part of the city that’s going to benefit a lot of minority communities.”
Foster acknowledged the success of the Catalyst Project during the Indivisible forum.
“We have the stadium that has High Point booming,” she said. “This project is full of momentum and full of excitement, and great opportunity for city residents. But we have to interweave what is happening with downtown and the Catalyst Project with the inner city of High Point. All citizens are not benefitting from what goes on downtown. Our focus has to be more deliberate and inclusive of all of the outlying areas to connect inner city with the success of that project.”
Incumbents on the city council have banded together across party lines, not only on economic development but also on the issue of gun violence, where 12 people have been killed in the city of 109,849 since the beginning of the year.
During the candidate forum, Wesley Hudson, a Democrat who was elected to council to represent Ward 4 in 2017, used some of his time to spotlight Jason Ewing, his Republican colleague in Ward 6. (The seats at the front of the meeting room facing the audience were reserved for registered Democrats, along with most of the speaking time, but Ewing and an unaffiliated candidate sat in the back and were given limited time to introduce themselves and answer questions.) Hudson highlighted Ewing’s role as chair of the Prosperity & Livability Committee in shepherding new investment through incentives to small and medium-sized manufacturing concerns in the southwest quadrant, which qualifies for tax breaks through the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.
And Hudson gave the Republican mayor, who did not attend the candidate forum, a boost as a byproduct of a compliment to fellow Democrat Chris Williams, who is seeking reelection in Ward 2.
“Chris has come up with a youth-mentoring program to grab middle school, high school-age kids that are prime targets for not only drug addiction, but gang activity,” Hudson said. “If you can believe it, 12 years old is usually where they get hooked by the gangs. So this mentoring program is made to grab them before they get into the gang stuff. That’s Chris and Mayor Wagner’s initiative.”
The mayor said in an interview that about six months ago he and Williams started working on an initiative to get the various churches and nonprofits that provide mentoring programs through youth sports to communicate and cooperate more with each other. The two elected officials also led two focus groups, one each for youth and parents, and are leading an effort to develop a social marketing campaign to promote an anti-violence message. The mayor also said that next summer he would like the city to provide a jobs program for at-risk youth.
Foster named “violence and public safety” as her top priority, adding that she recently met with a grieving mother.
“We can’t go into these houses and tell people what they need to do with their children, but we can empower them,” Foster said. “We can provide access to them so that they are not afraid to do and say what they need to do to rescue their children from gun violence, from drug violence, from gangs.”
Davis told the audience at the Indivisible forum that his own family has dealt with gun violence not once or twice, but three times. While saying that young people exposed to violence are traumatized, Davis said, “As mayor, I will be taking a very close look at that, creating a task force that will pan out, look at why we’re having the problems we’re having, go to the root causes and address it.”
Foster and Davis both said they want to promote economic opportunities for black residents in High Point.
Foster said someone recently asked her why there are no black-owned grocery stores or corner stores in the city.
“That’s something that we need to look at as a city,” she said.
Davis said he would create a Minority/Women-Owned Business Enterprise program to ensure that people of color and women get a fair shot at city contracting opportunities.
“That department will not be under Purchasing,” Davis said. “MWBE enterprise will be under the mayor. They would report directly to me.”
Responding to a question from former Mayor Bernita Sims, both Democrat candidates for mayor said they would support a low-income housing bond.
“Although I’m concerned about the turf battles between gangs, I’m a little more concerned about the turf battle between the rich and poor,” Davis said. “There’s a landgrab going on, and it will soon move into gentrification if we’re not careful. That is the next phase of development that has repeated itself time and again in every major city that we can think of. A bond referendum to address specifically housing for lower-income [residents] would certainly offer opportunities for those folks with middle to lower incomes being able to afford a house with the assistance of that bond.”
Foster said the city’s current programs to promote home ownership “do not reach the masses of people that need to be reached for affordable housing.” She continued: “I think a bond referendum specifically directed as Bruce said to that would be what we would need to do, and I would certainly support that.”
Asked if he would support a housing bond, Wagner noted that $6 million out of a $50 million bond on the ballot this fall will go towards tearing down the Daniel Brooks public housing community and replacing it with affordable housing.
The issue that has generated the most heat in the election so far is Wagner’s proposal to study whether High Point should establish an independent school district 26 years after the merger with Greensboro schools to create Guilford County Schools. In an official statement on the issue, Davis noted that Wagner’s proposal “comes on the heels of the High Point community rallying to support the principal at High Point Central High School after a small group of parents unsuccessfully sought to remove her.”
Wagner said the recent episode at High Point Central High School has nothing to do with his interest in exploring the move.
“Really the roots of it is that many High Pointers have expressed concern to me — it comes up in a discussion of the schools — there’s a feeling that High Point was better off when we had control of our schools,” he said. “There have been safety concerns. When the schools merged, it reduced the city council to the role of advocate. We don’t control their budget. All of that coming together caused me to believe that it’s time after 25 years to step back and see if the merger’s been good for High Point.”
Foster, who previously served on the Guilford County School Board, noted during the candidate forum that she attended High Point City Schools.
“And I can say that I know exactly what that looks like,” Foster said. “It feels like segregation.”
Davis and Foster both said they oppose making High Point an independent school district, arguing that residents would have to pay higher taxes to fund it.
“We have the highest poverty schools in High Point,” Foster said. “So, again, there’s no way that we could sustain a school district on our own.”
Davis added, “We can hype about, ‘Oh yeah, High Point used to have its own schools. It used to do this, do that.’ I grew up during that time. I don’t think we want to go back to those times. When we look at why we went to county schools — city of High Point schools were not being funded correctly. As a county commissioner I watched businesses help subsidize and help schools in Greensboro. Very little of that help from the High Point business community. Let’s just talk real.”