|James Lee Knox|
James Lee Knox received his wife’s blessing to run for mayor of Winston-Salem, but not the Republican Party’s.
Knox filed about an hour before the deadline on July 19, taking on a popular Democratic incumbent with solid backing in the city’s business community and among liberal constituencies, including African Americans and many seniors.
Long active in the Forsyth County Republican Party, the 56-year-old Knox drives a wrecker for Coliseum Towing, a company owned by his wife that contracts with the city, among other clients. He said he disagreed with the Republican Party’s strategy four years ago to allow Mayor Allen Joines to run un-challenged.
“I’ve had probably a couple hundred people who have said it’s terrible that we didn’t have anybody run,” Knox said. “I said, ‘Yeah, I hope we can find someone.’ Apparently the party didn’t want to do that.”
Knox declined to discuss in detail conversations within the party, but said, “The chairman isn’t happy with me, but I’ll get over it.”
Republicans ranging from Lida Hayes-Calvert, a successful businesswoman with strong institutional backing, to Michael Owens, an unemployed self-generating candidate with no civic volunteer experience, have filed in all but one ward race. Forsyth County Republican Party Chairman Scott Cumbie did not return calls seeking comment on the party’s electoral strategy.
Five days before filing, Knox signed up to address city council during public comments in the most recent meeting. He took the council to task for voting to approve a resolution designating Winston-Salem a “compassionate city.”
“You can talk compassion, but where does that help us bring us jobs?” Knox asked. “Where do the jobs come from? How does that reduce crime rates? How does that help us with our streets? We can look at compassion in many ways, but compassion is a word. Where is the action? How do you do an action from that? How do you translate that into something positive for the citizens of Forsyth County? I know there are people who are discriminated against, and that’s good for them. This will probably help them. But for the average person out there — the average Joe — how does this translate into jobs for the people who are unemployed or lost jobs at Dell or whatever?”
City Manager Lee Garrity, who knows Knox well from his business dealings with the city, kidded him: “That sounded like a campaign speech.”
Knox is no political rookie. Last year, he won election as a Forsyth County Soil & Water Board Supervisor. And he ran unsuccessfully for the North Ward seat on city council in 1985 and 1989.
Knox said he’s modeling his candidacy on Republican Jack Cavenagh’s ousting of Democratic Mayor Martha Wood in 1997. That year, Republican candidates Vernon Robinson — known as “the black Jesse Helms” — carried the South Ward and Republican Steve Whiton prevailed in the Southwest Ward — seats that are both occupied by Democrats today.
“I’m going to be running an aggressive campaign — low money, but aggressive,” Knox said. “Think of Jack Cavenagh running against Martha Wood. He ran a low-money campaign, but attacked, attacked, attacked.”
The strategy worked in 1997 until the next election, when savvy challenger, former City Manager Allen Joines, turned the tables on Cavenagh.
Visiting with constituents at a campaign event hosted by fellow Democrat Dan Besse on Sunday, Joines indicated he relishes the opportunity to meet Knox in the general-election contest.
“Good,” the sitting mayor said. “It worked real well for [Cavanagh]. I won with 78 percent of the vote.