News: CJ Exclusives

High Point Mayoral Race Promises Fireworks

High-profile contenders ponder challenging incumbent Sims — if she runs

The past year may have been the most contentious in the history of High Point politics, which in turn should make the mayor’s race in the November municipal election a hot one.

High Point continues to struggle from the decline of the furniture and textile industries, leaving the future uncertain for the city of 104,000 residents. The plan by a flamboyant Miami architect to transform the city is stalled, putting the fate of the nonprofit overseeing that transformation in question.

Adding to High Point’s problems was the controversy surrounding incumbent Mayor Bernita Sims. In October 2013 the City Council approved a resolution requesting her resignation following a State Bureau of Investigation probe into the handling of her late sister’s estate. The 6-3 vote was along racial lines, prompting accusations of racial bias against the city’s first black mayor.

Sims did not respond to a request for an interview, but in October she told Carolina Journal “it is not my intention to step down. It’s not going to happen.”

Whether or not she will seek re-election remains to be seen. Filing does not start until early July, and Sims has not declared her intentions.

The only candidate who has stated his intention to run for mayor is Guilford County Commissioner Bill Bencini.

Bencini has served on the Board of Commissioners since 2010 and is a former High Point City Council member. He decided not to seek re-election to the commission after General Assembly Republicans redrew the districts. Much of High Point was excluded from his new district.

Bencini also did not respond to several requests for an interview, nor did fellow Commissioner Bruce Davis, who in June told the High Point Enterprise he was contemplating a run for mayor.

Davis already is in campaign mode, since he made a run for the Democratic nomination for the 6th Congressional District seat currently held by retiring Rep. Howard Coble.

Davis was defeated in the primary by Laura Fjeld, a relative unknown in Guilford County politics. Davis protested his defeat to both the county and state election boards, claiming his defeat in his home Guilford County “defied credulity.” Davis also raised the possibility that someone swung the election to Fjeld by hacking the county’s voting machines.

Both elections boards rejected Davis’ protest.

One other public official is pondering a run for High Point’s highest office — state Rep. Marcus Brandon, whose 60th District covers a good portion of High Point.
Brandon decided not to seek re-election to the General Assembly, opting instead to make a run for the 12th Congressional District seat that opened up when Rep. Mel Watt took a position with the Obama administration.

Though Brandon came up short in the primary — Greensboro state Rep. Alma Adams will face Republican challenger Vince Coakley in November — Brandon nonetheless was encouraged by the support he received from his High Point constituency.

In a phone interview, Brandon told CJ his congressional run “was an amazing experience, although we came up short.

“We still won High Point,” Brandon said. “I am so proud they stuck by their representative. It gives me a lot of confidence.”

But Brandon’s decision to run hinders on another factor — he promise not to run if Sims seeks another term as mayor.
Brandon told CJ he regards Sims as a “hero,” and the way she handled the firestorm surrounding her “made her an even stronger mayor.

“You’re talking about a family issue,” Brandon said. “I don’t think her decision to run for mayor should have anything to do with that.”

Whether or not Brandon runs for mayor, he said he still has a passion for High Point and many ideas on how to help the city move forward.

His biggest issue is High Point’s public schools. High Point schools are operated by the Guilford County school system, which also runs Greensboro’s schools. Having two significant cities operating under one school system is a challenge, Brandon said.

With that in mind, Brandon maintains the responsibility for High Point’s schools lies with the city, although it has no legal authority over the schools.

“Obviously we cannot rely on the state government, the federal government, or even the school board to deal with the issues concerning High Point schools,” Brandon said.
Brandon believes a public-private partnership — along the lines of Charlotte’s Project L.I.F.T, an organization that provides money, mentoring, and educational tools for parents of at-risk students — would benefit High Point schools.

“The responsibility lies with High Point,” Brandon said. “My goal is to bring all the stakeholders to the table.”

Whoever the next mayor is, he or she will have a full plate. The City Project — the city-funded nonprofit charged overseeing downtown revitalization—commissioned architect Andres Duany to provide his vision of a High Point that would attract the millennial crowd.

While some of Duany’s suggestions are practical — such as a “pink code” that would lighten the bureaucratic red tape for entrepreneurs looking to relocate to High Point, others — such as structures made from sea cans — were a bit unorthodox. Another would be expensive — “dieting” Main Street, i.e., making it narrower. In theory, cars would drive at slower speeds, presumably making it more likely drivers would stop to enjoy downtown shops and restaurants.

But the City Council is showing reluctance to move forward with Duany’s plan. In May, the council voted to cut City Project’s funding, prompting an an outcry from project supporters.

Brandon called the City Project “not a bad project,” but is still concerned that any economic development efforts should involve the entire community, not just downtown.

“Getting people trained and getting them skilled is the way you help make a sustainable city,” Brandon said.

Sam A. Hieb is a contributor to Carolina Journal.