Church hosts mayoral forum

Published 9:49 pm Monday, October 24, 2016

Candidates for mayor of Suffolk answered questions from a crowd of about 30 people on Thursday evening.

The names and faces — incumbent Linda Johnson and challengers Brian Bass and Kerry Holmes — were familiar, but the setting was not. The forum was not only held at a church but also actually was hosted by the church.

“I did it, because I think it’s important for people to hear from the candidates, and most importantly for the candidates to hear from the people,” Suffolk Church of God Pastor Aaron Burgess said. “Informed decisions can be made on Election Day, and we’re not just voting out of popularity, but voting after being informed and spending some time with the candidates.”

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Religion and politics may seem incongruous to some, but Burgess feels differently.

“I believe the church should be more active in the affairs of the community and city and help to bring unity, oneness and peace,” Burgess said.

Burgess said he thinks the event went well. He got good feedback from the candidates as well as from audience members, he said.

“I heard from several that they wished there were more settings like that to give people the chance to hear from the candidates,” he said. “I personally believe that before we cast a vote, we need to make an informed decision.”

All five mayoral candidates had been invited, Burgess said, but Charlie Scott and Geral D. “Bishop” Staten chose not to attend.

The three participating candidates answered questions on topics such as term limits, development and the Black Lives Matter movement.

“After eight years, it needs to turn over,” Bass said on the topic of term limits. “That’s the only way you can have a transparent government. If the highest office has to have it, why not every other office?”
The other two candidates had mixed feelings.

“There’s value in someone that has long-term experience on a council, but there’s also a detriment when they’ve been there for 30 years,” Holmes said.

Johnson, the incumbent mayor, pointed to the fact she has been mayor for 10 years and only just completed her first term as chair of the Hampton Roads Transportation Planning Organization.

“You cannot build the relationships you need to build in four years,” she said. “At first, your voice is not heard. It takes time to develop the respect and the seniority.”

On development, the candidates said smart growth is needed in this diverse community.

“As a community, we need to realize we are an urban, suburban and agricultural community, and all of those voices need to be heard,” Holmes said.

Bass said smart growth technology available to the city needs to be put to use. Downtown also needs people who will invest in its future, he said.

“The city can help with that,” he said, adding the city needs to get away from “reactive infrastructure.”

Johnson rejected the suggestion that the city seeks to develop only the northern and eastern portions of its land.

“There are some areas of our city that will always want to be rural,” she said.

The candidates also talked about Black Lives Matter and addressed photos posted on social media last week from Nansemond River High School, picturing three female students dressed as police officers and one dressed as an inmate, holding a “Black Lives Matter” sign. They were responding directly to questions posed by an audience member, as well as by Burgess himself.

“It’s a very important movement,” Johnson said of Black Lives Matter. On the pictures, she said, adults need to be the leaders and teach children to make better decisions.

“We all need to be very careful and teach our children that words hurt and pictures last a long time, and anything that makes it to social media will not come back,” she said.

Holmes said the photos and the movement have started a conversation in Suffolk.

“Yes, it stings right now, but it’s a perfect opportunity for us,” he said. On the movement, he said, “I challenge the movement to get from that statement to action.”

Bass said he sees the photos as learning opportunities.

“Maybe it creates dialogue between black people and white people,” he said.

The church, which is located at 207 Kilby Ave., will host another forum from 7 to 8 p.m. Tuesday, when the four candidates for the Whaleyville Borough will answer questions. Email or call 934-2526 for more information.