Mayoral and City Council hopefuls vied for support Tuesday during a forum hosted by the Hispanic-American Democrats.
A strong showing of municipal candidates expounded upon their backgrounds, expertise and viewpoints during the nearly two hour-long event at the Forsyth County Democratic headquarters on Burke Street. City Council candidates Denise “DD” Adams, Dan Besse, Jemmise Bowen, Vivian Burke, Phillip Carter, Brenda Diggs, Laura Elliott, Carolyn Highsmith, Joycelyn Johnson, Derwin Montgomery, Noah Reynolds, Bill Tatum and James Taylor and Gardenia Henley, a Democratic candidate for mayor, were in attendance at the gathering. Mayor Allen Joines and South Ward representative Molly Leight — both of whom were out of town, were represented by supporters.
“Our goal is number one, to educate Hispanics here in this community to make sure they understand politics here in the United States and understand how the system works,” said Hispanic American Democrats President German Garcia. “…This is great because we’re getting to know our candidates for the municipal election here in this great city of Winston-Salem.”
Each candidate was asked to give a brief introduction of themselves and tell the audience why he or she is the best person for the job.
“I am running a campaign where I am listening, connecting and celebrating the citizens of the South Ward,” said Highsmith, a community activist who is challenging Leight for the seat. “…My only special interest is the people of the South Ward.”
Noah Reynolds, a Democrat running for the Northwest Ward seat that is being vacated by Wanda Merschel, said his business background and innovative approach to governing make him an ideal candidate.
“I believe I’m a fresh face. I have fresh ideas and a fresh perspective for Winston-Salem,” Reynolds declared. “…I’m a CPA. I have degrees in accounting, economics and finance, and I believe that I can bring those skills to you here, to make sure that we have a good, accountable budget.”
Phillip Carter, one of three Democrats vying for the East Ward seat that is currently occupied by Montgomery, touted his experience as a community activist for more than a decade.
“I believe the East Ward needs leadership,” Carter said. “Now, there’s a difference between leadership and representation. Leadership not only guides, but it participates with, and that’s what the East Ward needs, someone that would be their first responder, someone that will be their advocate, and I believe that I am that person.”
Montgomery said his record speaks for itself.
“Over the past four years, I have been challenged to do the things that many believed could not be done in our community. We have tried to navigate some of the issues that we have in the community and press those things forward,” Montgomery said. “We’ve made great strides, but there’s a whole lot left to do.”
Mayor Pro Tempore Vivian Burke, the city’s longest serving public official, highlighted her experience and success as a representative of the Northeast Ward, including the construction of the Wal-Mart on Hanes Mill Boulevard, which Burke said has been a key economic driver.
“As I listen to you and hear people talk about what they plan to do, I’m going to tell you what I have done,” Burke said. “We spent $1.3 million but we got a $56 million investment — the Wal-Mart. For the community, we got all of those jobs that you see, and I’m very pleased about all of that.”
Fellow Dem Brenda Diggs, a city native who is also running for the Northeast Ward seat, said her record of community service and efforts to boost inclusivity in Winston-Salem set her apart from the competition.
“Diversity is important,” said Diggs, a retired Wachovia employee. “I’m proud to stand here and say to you that I have championed diversity in the for-profit sector as well as the nonprofit sector of this community, because we all are important people.”
Tatum and Taylor, both of whom are running for the Southeast Ward, home of the city’s largest Hispanic population, traded words about the economic development of the area, which Taylor has represented since 2009.
“I want to see transparency,” Tatum said. “Nobody can tell me how many jobs that these incentives have brought to the city of Winston-Salem.”
“We’ve had over $620 million in economic development,” Taylor fired back. “…Sure, we’ve had problems, but the question I heard asked in the last election was, ‘Are you better off than you were four years ago?’ and the answer in the Southeast Ward is ‘yes.’”
The candidates were asked to answer two of the three pre-scripted questions posed by the Hispanic-American Dems about issues that impact the local Hispanic community. Hispanic Dems Advisor Mary Dickinson asked whether they would support a resolution calling for students who qualify for deferred action immigration status under federal law to be eligible for in-state tuition rates in North Carolina. The question received an affirmative response from those on hand.
“With a trained workforce, we can do great things,” said Johnson, who is running to reclaim the East Ward seat she held from 1993-2009. “If we’re going to move forward, everyone must be trained to their fullest.”
Elliott, a chaplain for The Children’s Home running for the seat Mershel is vacating, said, “My faith informs me that all young people deserve the same opportunities for future employment.”
Candidates were also asked to weigh in on employers’ use of the E-Verify system to confirm the legal status of employees. Bowen, a city native and North Carolina A&T State University alumna who is running for the Northeast Ward, said she objects to using the system.
“E-Verify is the reflection of a problem here in Winston-Salem and across the state,” she said. “That does not offer those who are not legal (an opportunity) to clear their status.”
Group leaders also questioned the candidates about their position on the controversial stationary license checkpoints the Winston-Salem Police Department had utilized heavily in communities of color. Although new Police Chief Barry Rountree has stated that the checkpoints procedure has been changed, Henley said that as mayor, she would urge the chief to go a step further.
“‘Winston-Salem wants you to put a stop to racial profiling, and it needs to stop immediately,’” Henley said she would tell Rountree. “I am going to work with the new chief, if elected as mayor, to put a stop to it.”
As of The Chronicle’s press time on Tuesday, 514 city residents had cast their primary ballots at the early voting site at the Forsyth County Board of Elections. The primary, which will be held Tuesday, Sept. 10, will be the deciding factor in several races, including that of the mayor, the East Ward and the West Ward, where three Republicans are competing for incumbent Robert Clark’s seat.
Early voting for the municipal primary began August 22 and will run through Saturday, Sept. 7 at the Board of Elections, 201 N. Chestnut Street. Citizens may cast their primary votes at the Government Center Sept. 3–6 from 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. and on Saturday, Sept. 7 from 10 a.m. – 1 p.m. The Municipal General Election will be held on Tuesday, Nov. 5.