Kennedy wins historic 11th term on City Council

SALISBURY — With his historic re-election to Salisbury City Council a week ago, William “Pete” Kennedy is tied with the late L.F. Cox as the only councilmen to serve 11 terms.

Kennedy already had made history in 2011, when he became the longest consecutively serving City Council member with 10 terms in a row. Cox, who served on City Council from 1949-53 and 1955-1973, is next with nine consecutive terms.

During his tenure, Kennedy also has been the only African American elected to City Council. Darrell Hancock was appointed to complete Hap Alexander’s term on the council for eight months in 1995. During that period, Hancock and Kennedy served at the same time.

Other than that, Kennedy has been the only African-American councilman since his election in 1993. Hancock served three elected terms from 1985-1991 and served as mayor pro tem from 1987-1989. 

Kennedy has come in second, third, fourth and fifth in his City Council elections and once held onto his seat by just a handful of votes over the late Bob Martin, former Rowan County sheriff.

This year, Kennedy finished a strong fourth, earning 1,802 votes, 149 votes behind top vote-getter Mayor Paul Woodson and 116 votes behind third-place candidate Karen Alexander. Mayor Pro Tem Maggie Blackwell held onto second place, and Councilman Brian Miller kept his seat with a strong fifth-place finish, well ahead of the nearest challenger.

Kennedy called the re-election of all five incumbents an endorsement of the city’s leadership and initiatives, especially Fibrant, the new high-speed broadband utility that Kennedy helped create.

“I’m ecstatic the citizens of Salisbury have re-elected me to another term, and I will continue to be a servant leader,” Kennedy said.

The former educator and small business owner said he doesn’t consider himself a record-setter and doesn’t view his 20-year tenure as especially long.

“I don’t think of that as being history,” he said. “To me, it has been a very short 20 years because I enjoy serving the people and enjoy what we’re doing in the city. I see so much progress taking place.”

When he first won election, Kennedy said the city was not growing or progressing. Since then, City Council has put initiatives in motion that have helped spur growth and create an environment for economic development jobs, he said.

Although the new Gildan textile manufacturing plants, which should bring 384 jobs and investment worth $173 million to Rowan County, are outside the city limits, Kennedy said Salisbury deserves credit for helping land the project, as well as luring new interest to the county-owned Summit Corporate Center. A new shopping center addition anchored by Belk recently opened in Salisbury, and the same developer is considering a second retail hub in nearby Summit.

Kennedy and other City Council members have pushed to make Salisbury more “business-friendly,” including a new one-stop shop for developers and business owners and a quicker turnaround on requests for rezoning and permits.

“The city is the county seat, and people look at the county seat to determine the vibrancy of the community,” Kennedy said. “Rowan County is only as strong as its county seat.”

Salisbury is “ready for the retail explosion” and the jobs that will come with it, he said.

Although he’s the only African American on City Council, Kennedy said he tries to serve all communities equally well.

“I do have the perspective of being a black American, and I have articulated that the best I can,” he said.

When he was first elected, Kennedy said he quickly learned that many of the decisions made by City Council are based recommendations made by the city’s citizen boards and commissions.

“My task has been to try to recruit and nominate people of color so they would have a voice and offer a different perspective,” Kennedy said.

He said he’s proud to have put more than 100 African Americans on City Council-appointed groups in the past two decades. Kennedy said he also has helped guide City Council to solicit opinions from minority neighborhoods and help empower people.

When he was first elected, City Council went to Gethsemane Baptist Church and met with leaders of the West End neighborhood. Now, city leaders regularly go to neighborhoods to work with citizens, and many African Americans are on a first-name basis with City Council members, Kennedy said.

Woodson, who has served with Kennedy for 16 years, said Kennedy has been his mentor. When he was first elected, Woodson said he relied on Kennedy for months to help him wade through City Council agendas and understand issues in a historical context.

“He helped me get up to speed and was really a gentleman,” Woodson said. “He knew so much.”

Kennedy is the quietest City Council member and rarely seeks the spotlight during meetings.

“He doesn’t speak out a lot and doesn’t cause controversy,” Woodson said. “But when he says something, we all listen. We feel like he’s saying something important.”

Woodson says Kennedy brings stability and a sense of calm to City Council, as well as his encyclopedic knowledge of Salisbury.

“He’s one of the most reasonable people I’ve every met,” Woodson said.

That voice of reason can be heard when Kennedy addresses the ongoing feud between the city and Rowan County. Kennedy has repeatedly urged the city to extend an olive branch to Rowan County commissioners, after battles over 911 call center consolidation, de-annexation of the airport, where to put the school central office and now, the county’s impending purchase of Salisbury Mall.

“I think we need to step back and let the county make their decisions and the city make our decisions and the school board make their decisions,” Kennedy said. “Things have gotten personal, rather than doing what’s best for the county.”

While Kennedy said he would love to have the central office downtown, “it’s simply not our decision.”

The school board chooses the location, and the county commissioners provide the funding, he said.

Kennedy opened his comments at a recent candidate forum with the Serenity Prayer, and he recited it again when asked about the central office debate after his historic re-election.

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and wisdom to know the difference,” Kennedy said. “Some things, you just cannot change.

“You have to know when to step back and let other people do their jobs.”

Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.-

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