Mount Airy voters have decided to stay the course by re-electing incumbents to the city council Tuesday — including Mayor David Rowe and South Ward Commissioner Steve Yokeley, who each overcame vigorous challenges.
A third candidate in the 2017 municipal election, Commissioner Jon Cawley, who was running unopposed, also was re-elected, although a number of write-in votes were cast for his seat.
Rowe staved off an upset bid by political newcomer Ivy Sheppard, a local radio personality, to capture his first four-year term as the city’s chief executive. Yokeley, meanwhile, faced a city government veteran, Todd Harris, a former South Ward commissioner who served 12 years from 1999-2011.
Final, but unofficial totals released by the Surry County Board of Elections just before 9:45 p.m. Tuesday showed Rowe defeating Sheppard by a vote count of 860 to 458 (65 percent to 35 percent), and Yokeley winning against Harris 829-455. That was a percentage of 64.31 percent to 35.30 percent.
Nearly 1,000 votes, 995, were cast for Cawley, with 92 write-in votes showing up against him.
Turnout among Mount Airy’s eight precincts was nearly 20 percent, relatively high for a municipal election.
Candidates involved in the contested races had universal praise for the clean campaigns run by all, in contrast to the last city election in 2015 which grew bitter at times.
Mayor applauds opponent
“Obviously, I’m happy about the way it’s turned out,” Rowe said Tuesday night in reaction to his victory involving the office he’s held since 2015, when elected to complete an unexpired term of Mayor Deborah Cochran, who had resigned.
“I appreciate the voters of Mount Airy for giving me another four years,” added the incumbent, who is president of the local Smith-Rowe construction company.
One issue that emerged during the race between Rowe, 73, and Sheppard, 37, was youth vs. experience, and the mayor said Tuesday night he believes that proved to be the difference among voters.
“I think experience had something to do with it,” he said of his 50-year career in business and civic affairs, which has included serving with the Mount Airy Board of Education along with municipal government.
A related factor is that Rowe thinks citizens wanted to maintain the present leadership to keep ongoing projects such as the city’s redevelopment of the former Spencer’s industrial property on track. “There’s so much work we started on that needs to get finished.”
At the same time, Rowe spoke well of his opponent, Sheppard, who is a radio show producer, professional musician and small business owner.
“I do appreciate Ivy’s stepping up to the plate and running — anybody who does that, you have to appreciate what they’re doing,” the mayor said. “I expect you’ll see her again.”
While being happy about Tuesday’s outcome, Rowe said he was looking forward to city government tasks awaiting.
“There’s lots of work to do and we need to roll up our sleeves,” he said. “I just hope the board can move on together.”
Sheppard reacted positively to Rowe’s victory.
“I’d like to congratulate Mayor Rowe on a race well run,” the challenger commented. “I’m sure he will use his years of experience in local government to make the very best decisions he can.”
Sheppard also thanked all those who had supported, helped, volunteered and contributed to her campaign.
“I’ve made some wonderful friends, and I’ve enjoyed every second of these past few months learning at high speed. What a wonderful few months it has been knocking on doors, meeting folks, listening and learning as much as possible about what it means to be a leader in city government,” Sheppard added.
“I look forward to staying involved and working with the city and Mayor Rowe in the coming years. I will continue to look for ways to serve our community and the great city of Mount Airy.”
Yokeley cites continuity
One area of contention in the South Ward commissioner race between Yokeley and Harris was the Spencer’s redevelopment, which started with the municipality’s purchase of the former industrial property in 2014 and also was the central issue in the 2015 election. Most recently, officials have pursued new uses for the site including a four-star hotel/banquet center and an upscale apartment complex.
Harris made it known during the campaign that he was opposed to the city’s present involvement in the slow-moving project, including its buying of the Spencer’s site. Rather than taking such a direct role in economic development, Harris has said municipal government should instead provide the climate for growth by private business, limiting its input to efforts such as grading industrial park pads for new companies.
But Yokeley, 70, a retired dentist who is now a real estate broker, said Tuesday night that he believed his re-election to a third four-year term was a signal that voters approve of Mount Airy’s present course for Spencer’s.
“I think people realize that the Spencer’s project is such a big changer for everything,” he said, including its potential impact for Surry County and the surrounding area in addition to Mount Airy. “I think they want it and they just didn’t want to change in mid-stream and maybe jeopardize that.”
Yokeley also commented on the tone of the campaign by all candidates involved.
“I was very pleased that all the races went the way that they did,” he said, using words including “cordial” and “respectful” to describe the approach by office-seekers. “I just want to thank all of them — I want to thank Todd for running a nice campaign.”
Yokeley said he is looking forward to seeing city operations running smoothly and getting some “things done.”
Harris, 56, was gracious in defeat.
“I wish Steve the best and I wish the city the best,” he said. “I’m going out with class, the way I tried to run the entire campaign.”
Yet Harris thinks that his candidacy did allow an alternative point of view to emerge which needed to be highlighted for the public.
“The biggest difference, of course,” he said of his and Yokeley’s campaigns “was our vision for Spencer’s — I have grave concerns over Spencer’s.”
Harris reiterated Tuesday night his opposition to the city’s ownership of the former industrial site and the costs it will face bringing redevelopment to fruition.
“I think the town needs to stick to the bread and butter stuff,” he said of supporting activities such as grading pads. “But for some reason, that didn’t resonate (with voters).”
Going forward, Harris believes citizens should view the Spencer’s project with “a keen eye.”
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.