There was no 800-pound gorilla in the room, and also no elephant, but a looming presence permeated the proceedings at a city candidates forum nonetheless before eventually coming out into the open: racism.
It emerged as a topic during the Tuesday night event when all five people running in the 2017 municipal election in Mount Airy gathered behind a table on the stage of the Earle Theatre downtown.
They responded to questions written on slips of paper, drawn randomly from a big glass jug and then read aloud — a process that involved Randy Collins and Adam Martin of the Greater Mount Airy Chamber of Commerce, the forum sponsor. The questions had been submitted by corporate backers of the event in addition to audience members and others.
Even under that spontaneous format, one got the impression that racial issues — which have been brought to the forefront locally in the past year due to a Washington Post interview with Mayor David Rowe published in January — somehow would surface Tuesday night.
And sure enough that happened during the forum when Martin asked each candidate to comment on race relations locally, while not specifically mentioning the Post interview. The five candidates had 90 seconds to respond, as was the case with all the questions.
“I need 90 minutes,” Rowe said of the time limitation to explain his foray into racial issues.
The mayor made reference to the article published in the Washington newspaper, in which he was quoted as saying that African-Americans sometimes bring problems on themselves. Rowe told the reporter that he wouldn’t, for example, hire a young black male wearing sagging pants at his construction company.
“I made a mistake,” Rowe said during the candidate forum as his opponent in the mayor’s race, Ivy Sheppard, sat alongside him. “I regret it and I have apologized profusely for it,” he added.
“But it taught me something,” the mayor said of the ordeal that included some local residents, particularly members of the African-American community, calling for his resignation after the Post article emerged. “I found out that I do have a racist attitude.”
Rowe indicated that this was due to adopting thought processes over the years which he‘s endeavored vigorously to change. This has included his formation of a diversity committee earlier this year which meets regularly in addition to field trip and other activities that help its members of all persuasions better understand one another.
The mayor said he has learned that all basically have the same goals in life regardless of color, and before his time limit for the question expired, added that his goal of improved race relations is an ongoing, positive process.
“I’m sorry I only have 90 seconds — so stay tuned.”
Other candidates, including Sheppard; South Ward Commissioner Steve Yokeley and his opponent, former city councilman Todd Harris; and North Ward Commissioner Jon Cawley, who is unopposed, also offered views on the racial issue Tuesday night.
Sheppard said the mayor’s comments did open the door for a meaningful dialogue in the community across racial lines. “I think a pretty important conversation was started several months ago,” she said of the Washington Post incident.
“That was a good thing that happened” out of something negative, the mayoral challenger continued. “So let’s keep that connection going.”
Harris also weighed in on the matter, saying he believes race relations locally are much better than they are in the U.S. as a whole, while acknowledging that Rowe’s quotes did bring the city unfavorable publicity on the national scale.
Yokeley, the man Harris is seeking to unseat, also downplayed the notion that racial differences are a major issue in Mount Airy.
“I think the problem is economic differences,” he said, which can occur for a variety of factors such as lack of access to higher education by individuals which leaves them disadvantaged. “It’s not their fault.”
Sheppard alluded to that, too, in pointing out that a full employment situation locally would offset any chasms between different classes in the community.
“If everybody was working and everybody’s life had purpose, I think there would be less social problems,” she commented.
Cawley also revealed his concern about the issue at hand when he and other candidates were asked what they would do if they had a magic wand. He listed race relations as his top priority.
Yokeley said he’d used his magic wand for much the same purpose:
“First of all, I would have everyone to just get along.”
Distrust of government
Another question fielded by the candidates Tuesday night, focusing on the degree of trust Mount Airy residents have in their city government, drew mixed responses.
Sheppard, for one, said she has heard citizens express distrust for it during her travels on the campaign trail.
However, the alleged lack of trust is at least partly due to situations beyond municipal officials’ control, Rowe suggested.
“Some of the level of trust is destroyed by the regulations under which we work,” he explained.
This includes those for closed meetings held on economic-development and other sensitive matters by the board of commissioners. This makes it look as though officials are being secretive, it was acknowledged during the forum.
And while saying he hasn’t seen anything during his two years in office to justify any feelings of mistrust, the mayor does think community-government relations could be better.
“There is a disconnect between the board and the citizens,” said Rowe, pointing out that the city government disconnect further includes the Mount Airy school system and the chamber of commerce.
Yokeley also said he hasn’t seen any basis for constituent mistrust.
“I think a lot of the problem is there isn’t enough involvement with the public,” he said, noting that council meetings generally aren’t well attended unless a controversial issue is on the agenda.
Harris said he thinks all five candidates for the municipal election are trustworthy.
“But,” he added while looking out over the forum audience, “we can do a better job of earning your trust than we have in the past.”
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.