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Elizabeth Cook: City election defies predicting

We head into the home stretch of this election season with almost too many choices in the city of Salisbury. More viable candidates have entered the race than there are seats to fill.

That’s the way elections are supposed to go, right — lots of good candidates? But this number has turned the election outcome into a roll of the dice. Even if incumbents have the usual advantage, it’s hard to tell how the vote might split.

The council has five seats, and so far no teams of five have jelled. Not even teams of two have come together. Everyone is running individually. Add in the possibility of single-shot votes, and the situation gets more unpredictable.

That’s OK. That’s why they hold elections. Every vote will count. Small town elections often produce razor-thin margins.

The voters who usually turn out for city elections tend to be very status-quo minded. They don’t rock the boat. If this were an ordinary city election year, voters might well load up the council with incumbents and former council members.

One could argue that such a group — made up of Karen Alexander, Maggie Blackwell, Mark Lewis, Scott Maddox and Brian Miller — is far from “status quo” thinking. They consider themselves change agents working to improve the city’s quality of life. Others would disagree and see that group as stagnant.

The biggest problem with that group is it includes no black council members, while African Americans make up nearly 38 percent of the city’s population. (Hispanics, account for nearly 11 percent, but there are no Hispanic candidates.)

One of the strengths of this election cycle has been the number of black candidates — five. That shows strong civic participation. If black voter turnout increased proportionately — and people voted for candidates most like themselves — we could have five black leaders on the council: Kenny Hardin, Constance Johnson, William Peoples, Troy Russell and Jeff Watkins. That’s unlikely — 48.6 percent of city residents are white — but anything is possible

Pete Kennedy, a black businessman first elected to the council in 1993, is stepping down. Will Salisbury once again elect only one black council member, five, none or some number in between? Some people will say race does not matter, but it makes sense for people to feel better represented if they see someone of their race in the city’s leadership. That is crucial in a city like Salisbury.

A council made up entirely of people who have never been on council could be any combination of the following: Stephen Arthur, Roy Bentley, Kenny Hardin, Constance Johnson, Rip Kersey, Todd Paris, William Peoples, David Post, Troy Russell, Tamara Sheffield and Jeff Watkins.

A solid council could emerge from that group; so could chaos, if the dynamics are wrong.

Whatever combination of five comes out of this election — incumbent, new, former, black, white — they need to be able to put their egos aside and work as a team. A lot of that will depend on their leader.

That would be the city’s mayor — or, as David Post puts it, the “accidental mayor.” Salisbury elects five council members and lets them choose a mayor from their ranks, usually the top vote-getter.

Salisbury has had many fine mayors, but some served in the office only briefly and decided not to seek re-election. Post’s theory is that the full-time nature of the job did not jibe with their careers. He’s probably right.

Following that pattern, after four years at the top current Mayor Paul Woodson is not seeking re-election so he can spend more time with daughter Kristy, an up-and-coming novelist, and her family. He also has a business to run, Vogue Cleaners. And he will tell you that he attends literally hundreds  of meetings and ribbon-cuttings and conferences and other events each year, often several a day.

Turnover in the mayor’s office is not necessarily a bad thing. But it would make more sense for voters to choose a mayor from a slate of candidates who want that full-time (but largely volunteer) job.

Here are some quotes from last week’s candidate forum, to give you the flavor of the discussion:

• Karen Alexander: “Education is the No. 1 driver of economic development.”

• Stephen Arthur: “I know what people go through.”

• Roy Bentley: “Schools have a really bad habit of needing money.”

• Maggie Blackwell: She would “take a fine-tooth comb” to a city property list and sell. “We’re struggling to fill potholes.”

• Kenny Hardin: “Officers need to get out of the patrol car.”

• Constance Johnson: “Youth need to be distracted by good, positive activities.”

• Rip Kersey: “All available resources should be focused” (on fighting crime). 

• Mark Lewis: “The city needs to be at the table” in regional development discussions.

• Scott Maddox: “We gotta give kids hope … then they don’t need criminal activity.”

• Brian Miller: “We tend to form circular firing squads in our community.”

• Todd Paris: “Have you tried to sell property in Salisbury lately?” 

• David Post: “Salisbury needs change; it’s why we have 16 people running.”

• Troy Russell: “Trust is not there” between the community and police.

• Tamara Sheffield: “Fibrant doesn’t have its own profit and loss statement.”

• Jeff Watkins: “Everyone is not going to college. … It’s common sense, y’all.”

Elizabeth Cook is editor of the Salisbury Post.

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