Mount Airy residents are going to the polls today to decide one of the most hotly contested city elections in recent memory, with a former candidate adding to the last-minute drama with a mass-mailing campaign.
Bruce Springthorpe, who ran unsuccessfully for North Ward commissioner in an Oct. 6 primary, has sent an open letter to South Ward residents asking them to help avert what it calls a takeover of city government by a “small group of wealthy businessmen.”
An ongoing controversy regarding a redevelopment plan for the former Spencer’s industrial property downtown is the basis for his concern.
“I am no longer in this race,” Springthorpe said in the publication distributed to about 1,800 South Ward voters, “but felt this was important enough to spend the last dollar of my campaign’s money to send this to you.”
Blast from past?
During the 2015 municipal election season, clear battle lines have been drawn between three incumbent commissioners seeking to hold on to their seats in non-partisan contests today, Jim Armbrister, Shirley Brinkley and Dean Brown. They favor only the redevelopment of the Spencer’s site, now owned by the city government, and not a broader plan that includes private property in the same area which could be taken by eminent domain for revitalization purposes.
Opposing the incumbent commissioners are three candidates who support the larger plan, Jerry Taylor, write-in candidate Joe Reid and N.A. Barnes. Their elections would give them majority control over that issue on the five-member board of commissioners. The only present member in favor of the full plan is Commissioner Steve Yokeley, who is running for the mayor’s seat against David Rowe, another backer of the limited approach.
The coalition of Taylor, Reid, Barnes and Yokeley has been actively promoted in campaign literature claiming that support for them is a “vote for progress.” But there are allegations that some local businessmen are working behind the scenes to get those candidates elected to further their own interests, to which Springthorpe’s letter alludes.
“In my opinion, a small group of wealthy businessmen in Mount Airy are attempting to take over our city government by sponsoring and financing candidates for city commissioner,” the letter states.
“This is because the current commissioners have said they do not agree with what these businessmen want to do,” it adds.
“I have no problem with someone being wealthy, but do have a problem when they try to use that wealth to buy our government. We cannot allow that to happen.”
Springthorpe elaborated on that Monday by pointing to how Mount Airy operated in the past, when textile and other local industries were in their heyday.
Depending on the outcomes of today’s election, Springthorpe said Mount Airy could be reverting back to the days when much of what happened was influenced by “eight to 10 mill owners in this town.”
Those individuals never served in elected offices of local government. “But they influenced it,” Springthorpe said.
“I don’t want to see that kind of situation arise again, and I think that’s where it’s headed.”
His open letter urges support for Rowe, Armbrister, Brinkley and Brown.
Springthorpe said he targeted the South Ward for the mass mailing because he believes getting citizens there to come out and vote is the key to derailing the opposition’s plans. He thinks turnout in the North Ward will be high, but that South Ward voters historically are less apt to journey to the polls.
Only 12 people bothered to vote in one South Ward precinct in the October primary, according to Springthorpe. “The South Ward has never voted and they need to vote and that’s why I did it,” he said of the mail campaign that cost between $400 and $450.
“All my life I’ve heard people in the South Ward complain that the north side of town runs our city. That is about to become far worse than it has ever been,” the ex-candidate’s letter to ward residents states.
“To stop this, people in the South Ward, that’s you, must come out and vote (today),” it continues.
“This election is very close and this time your vote can make a difference. These people are depending upon you NOT voting so that they can get their way.”
Springthorpe has expressed concern about eminent domain in the past. On Monday, he also cited fears that if the three incumbent commissioners are unseated, their replacements will deplete the city’s fund reserves trying to make the redevelopment a reality, including tearing down buildings.
Votes can be cast today from 6:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. at five different polling locations, which local officials expect to be busy in comparison with recent municipal elections.
“We are hoping for a higher-than-normal turnout,” Director Susan Jarrell of the Surry County Board of Elections said Monday, adding that all signs point to this happening. One is the fact that 526 people cast ballots during a one-stop early voting program that ended Saturday in both Mount Airy and Dobson. “We were very pleased,” Jarrell said of that participation.
“With early voting, we’ve (already) had an eight percent turnout,” said the elections director, mentioning that this is the same percentage for the entire municipal election the last time one was held in 2013.
Today’s primary will be decided by voters in seven precincts, who’ll cast ballots at five sites across the city, including:
• The Municipal Building, where citizens in the Mount Airy No. 1 precinct will vote.
• L.H. Jones Resource Center, the polling place for those in the Mount Airy No. 2 precinct.
• Grace Moravian Church, the Mount Airy No. 3 precinct.
• The Greenhill Road Substation of the Franklin Volunteer Fire Department, Mount Airy No. 4.
• Faith Baptist Church on South Franklin Road, the usual polling place for the Mount Airy No. 8 precinct, with those in the No. 7 and No. 9 precincts also to vote there today.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.