Column – Smithfield voters send strong message
Published 6:34 pm Monday, November 21, 2022
Watching hundreds of dejected, angry citizens file out of the Smithfield Center on a hot July night in 2021, this scribe, then a new observer of local politics, pondered two possibilities.
Either Mayor Carter Williams had amassed political capital unlike anything I’d seen in four decades of covering small-town politics, or he was in deep trouble come the next election.
As the council ignored massive opposition and approved an 800-unit housing development on the eastern edge of town, Williams, who wielded the gavel during a contentious meeting, personified what many in the crowd saw as town leaders’ indifference to, even disdain of, the will of the people. The mayor was gruff, impatient and disinterested as one speaker after another fretted about the potentially harmful effects of the housing development on their way of life.
It’s been said that voters have short memories, and Election Day was still 16 months away that fateful night. This time, they didn’t forget.
Williams finished dead last in a five-candidate field, a cruel ending to a distinguished tenure in public service. Between the Mallory Scott approval and the election, Williams was honored by the Rotary and Ruritan clubs as Smithfield’s Citizen of the Year, evidence of his loyalty and love of his hometown. It could be argued, reasonably, that he deserved better than what the voters inflicted on Nov. 8.
A common characteristic of small-town leadership like Smithfield’s that’s been in power a while is paternalism — the notion that they have the town’s best interest at heart, uniquely understand what’s right and what’s wrong and don’t really need to know what the commoners think. When that mind-set creeps in, transparency is its first victim. Why should we make government more accessible when we already have the answers?
No one I know was surprised that Steve Bowman, a beloved and respected former town police chief and lifelong lawman, claimed one of the election’s four seats on the Town Council. That he torched the rest of the field and was the runaway top vote-getter following a campaign focused on openness and transparency sent a strong message, though, reinforced by voters’ selection of newcomer Jeff Brooks, who’s lived in Smithfield about as long as I have. Brooks, like Bowman, promised a new era of responsiveness in town government.
It wasn’t a coincidence that Councilman Wayne Hall, who opposed the Mallory Scott project, was the top vote-getter among incumbents on the ballot.
None of this is to suggest that elected officials should always be constrained by public opinion. There are rare cases in public service (perhaps Mallory Scott was one) that require a vote of conscience rather than of expediency. But when you cast it, you best not be smug and dismissive of your constituents. They’ll remind you just who’s in charge.
Steve Stewart is publisher of The Smithfield Times. His email address is email@example.com.