Woodson leads Salisbury vote

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, November 8, 2011

By Emily Ford
SALISBURY — In an election day surprise no one saw coming, Paul Woodson leapfrogged over Mayor Susan Kluttz and Mayor Pro Tem Maggie Blackwell in the race for Salisbury City Council to become the top vote-getter and, by tradition, the city’s next mayor.
All five incumbents were re-elected to the council, validating the city’s launch last year of Fibrant, a controversial $33 million broadband utility.
Two challengers had called for an independent board to oversee Fibrant, and another challenger wanted to sell the fiber-to-the-home network. All were unsuccessful in their election bids.
Kluttz has been mayor for seven terms. She and Woodson were elected together for the first time 14 years ago.
“I’m stunned, absolutely stunned,” Woodson said after learning Tuesday night that he had surpassed Kluttz in the final four of 15 precincts.
Tradition says the council elects the top vote-getter as mayor. Kluttz said she will support Woodson as mayor.
Woodson won by 35 votes. He garnered 1,928 votes, or 14.69 percent. Kluttz followed with 1,893 votes, and Blackwell had 1,853. Brian Miller came in fourth with 1,821, and William “Pete” Kennedy earned 1,570.
The closest challenger was Rip Kersey with 1,451 votes. Ben Lynch, who promised he will run again, had 1,355.
Kluttz, Woodson and Blackwell were neck-and-neck throughout the evening, with Kluttz leading and Woodson and Blackwell trading second place until the final precincts came in.
For the first time in 22 years, Salisbury will no longer have a mayor named “Kluttz.” Susan Kluttz and Margaret Kluttz served as mayor for a combined 11 terms.
Woodson said this was his toughest campaign ever, and he wasn’t convinced he would even be re-elected.
“I came in here tonight hoping to get back on the council. I swear to you, ask my wife,” Woodson said. “I was just hoping to get back on the council.”
Woodson said the challengers forced him to work harder in this election than any other. Challengers called for more transparency from city government, and several said the incumbents were too inaccessible.
“I worked as hard as I’ve ever worked. I worked harder than the first time I ran,” Woodson said. “I really put it in high gear.”
Woodson called Kluttz a great, strong leader.
“Susan has done a wonderful job for the city,” he said. “ … She’s represented the town so well.”
As mayor, Woodson said his priorities will include hiring a Fibrant director from the private sector, not government, and hiring a new city manager. Both Fibrant and the city have interim leaders.
A businessman, Woodson said the budget also tops his list of priorities.
“We are going to have some real tough budget battles coming up,” he said.
Owner of Vogue Cleaners, Woodson said he will have to strike a balance between serving as mayor and running his business. Neither Susan Kluttz nor Margaret Kluttz held a job outside City Hall during their terms. Woodson said he likely will hire additional help at Vogue, where he does nearly all the maintenance.
But he said he would not be able to keep the hours the previous mayors have held and doesn’t think people will expect him to.
Kluttz called this campaign one of her toughest.
“This was a very nerve-wracking race. It’s been a very difficult race,” she said. “We’ve had a lot of controversial issues for last six months, so I really wasn’t sure I could be the top vote-getter as far back as last summer.”
She said she decided she could quit by not running again, or stick it out one more time. Whether she served as mayor or a council member, Kluttz said, her 14 years of experience are valuable in the search for the new city manager and the effort to promote Fibrant.
“I knew it was risky, as far as where I would come out,” she said. “But I still felt like I wanted to give the city two more years.”
Kluttz said she never would have run for mayor, and the tradition of electing the top vote-getter gave her the opportunity to lead the city.
“It has been a wonderful 14 years for me, and I’ve loved every minute of it,” Kluttz said. “It’s been a great honor and been very exciting, but I did get it by tradition. So I want to pass that tradition along, so I will be voting for Paul.”
Blackwell said the challengers were “change agents,” and she will support some of their ideas.
“They brought to light some things that some of us have been saying privately for some time and haven’t been able to get movement on,” she said. “ … I anticipate perhaps we may bring some of those changes about, and I look forward to that.”
Specifically, Blackwell said she will pursue more accessibility for council members, including government email addresses on the city’s website, as well as later meeting times so people who work can attend. The City Council meets at 4 p.m., and she has proposed moving the meetings to 5:30.
Miller said he was relieved, humbled and happy to be re-elected. He said his priorities will including meaningful regulatory changes to make the city more business-friendly, as well as “getting Fibrant right.”
While voters swept all incumbents back into office, Miller said he doesn’t want to read too much into the overall vote.
“But I’ll take it for what it says about the job I’ve done — they approve of it,” he said. “ … It’s validation that the work you put in was recognized by somebody as being valuable.”
Kennedy said the incumbent sweep is a signal that voters like the direction the city is headed, and they support Fibrant as a utility.
“I am elated the citizens have shown the confidence in me to return me to the council,” said Kennedy, re-elected to his 10th term.
The incumbents are a good team and work well together, he said.
Top challenger Rip Kersey said he was disappointed with the turnout, which was 9 percent overall. While too soon to say if he will run again, Kersey said he hopes the council will adopt some of his ideas, including building partnerships with Rowan County and others.
Kersey said he wasn’t prepared for how much a City Council campaign can cost.
“It takes much more money to run for an office in this city than it should,” he said.
Challenger Ben Lynch already has decided to run again for office. He just doesn’t know which one.
“Politics is very deeply ingrained in me,” he said. “I’ll be back.”
Lynch said later meeting times, more accessibility and a better environment for business are all ideas the community has rallied around and the council should adopt.
After losing his second campaign, challenger Blake Jarman said he was disappointed and surprised. With all the dissatisfaction he heard from voters about Fibrant and the city’s lack of transparency, Jarman said he expected a different outcome.
“This was the time to make change,” he said. “We had some really good candidates.”
Jarman said he hopes the incumbents will take to heart the issues that coalesced toward the end of the campaign — more accessibility, less regulation and independent oversight for Fibrant.
Challenger Dale Stephens, in his first bid for public office, earned 438 votes.
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.