By Chad Nance
Polling place shenanigans and political dirty pool have always been a part of the sometimes rough and tumble way Winston-Salem does democracy. The 2013 municipal elections have proven to be no different, but currently one candidate has stooped to levels so petty and asinine as to raise serious questions about her fitness to serve in any capacity. The very Mickey Mouse nature of the way failed gubernatorial candidate and Camel City mayoral hopeful Gardenia Henley has been going about her business is shameful and frankly beneath the office she currently seeks.
A perennial candidate of late, Henley’s last foray into politics was the 2012 gubernatorial race. Following that campaign she was fined $20,750.00 by the North Carolina State Board of Elections for not filing the campaign finance reports required by law. Henley blamed the over sight on her campaign treasurer, but that did not dissuade the NC BOE. Most of her candidate filings show little financial support for her efforts beyond small donations from individuals. According to Henley’s campaign filings, she self-finances most campaign expenses.
CCD has heard from voters who have reported being “harassed” by Henley poll workers during early voting. Following these complaints and statements from campaign poll workers about inaccurate statements coming from Henley poll workers, I decided to see exactly what kind of tactics the Henley campaign was employing. August 30th, I began by exercising my right as a citizen to cast my own votes in the primary.
Upon reaching the County Government Center, Mayor Joines’ campaign workers gave me a flier that included an endorsement by State Senator Earline Parmon and former State Rep. Larry Womble. Henley’s campaign workers then gave me her usual, star-spangled flier and upon seeing the Joines flier in my hand, told me that the Mayor, Parmon, and Womble were all under investigation. I asked by whom and the worker added “for corruption”, but didn’t elaborate on who might be investigating them.
After I voted I went back to my vehicle, put on my press pass, and grabbed my camera. All of Henley’s paid poll workers then refused to talk to me saying “No Comment” and when asked about investigations they responded, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Follow up with state agencies who might be investigating Joines, Parmon, or Womble and came up with nothing. None of the three is currently under any official investigation in North Carolina or Forsyth County. The only investigations currently being conducted are Henley’s own “investigations” which form the basis of the “Henley Reports,” a collection of conspiracy theories so strained that they would make even the most hardened wing-nut theorist laugh uncontrollably into their tin-foil hat. Henley has told me personally that her Henley Reports contain blockbuster revelations of systemic corruption in Winston-Salem city government. These “reports” of her “investigations” are collection of documents in which Henley makes tenuous and vague connections between incidents in order to spin her conspiracy theories of official corruption. She wants to come off like a 21st Century Deep Throat or Serpico and just ends up reminding me of a drunk guy spouting at the end of the bar, or that libertarian nephew we all have who fills our facebook newsfeed with Ron Paul and 9-11 “truther” conspiracy youtube links.
I had been trying to get in touch with Henley for some time, and thought I would finally have a chance to speak with her when I saw her at the MLK Remembrance event downtown. I just wanted to ask a simple question that day- since Henley came out in support of HB589, which African American Democrats have been vocal in identifying as a major civil rights issue and an effort at minority voter suppression, I found it interesting that she would attend an event which was in part a political rally against HB589. Henley is quicker on her feet that one would think, she got away from me before I could speak to her.
Later, at an event organized by the Hispanic Democrats of Forsyth County which I attended, Henley began her remarks with the statement of an obvious question. “Why did I want to run to be the Mayor of Winston-Salem?” Henley looked straight at the audience and without an ounce of irony said, “Number One- because I can.” The candidate’s performance then became fairly silly and included references to time spent in South America and “The Honduras” as well as expanded resume’ claims that now include her work as an intelligence officer in South America. Henley came off odd- like the Camel City’s own Chuck Bariss, minus the self-aware wink.
On Thursday Sept. 5th, when I returned to the government center, the Henley crew was once again out full force at both entrances to the building. Henley, herself, was moving around inside of the 25 foot politicking limit that is supposed to provide voters with a buffer between campaign rhetoric, slander, and aggressive lobbying and the actual polling place where there should be no one but the citizen and their own conscience.
CCD confirmed with two voters and poll workers from other campaigns that Henley had injected race into the 2013 Mayoral contest in a most base and nasty way. Her campaign workers were targeting African American voters with a pitch that they vote for Henley in the primary because she is black. One campaign worker told me that Henley’s people were telling voters that Mayor Joines had not put his picture on one of the hand-out cards because he wanted to try to fool black voters into thinking he is African American. Of course, this is silly considering that the Mayor has his face plastered on campaign signs all over Winston-Salem, but Henley’s poll workers didn’t seem too concerned with that sort of context.
A little bit later, the candidate herself was seen walking around the second floor where early voting is being held, wearing campaign paraphernalia and carrying voter registration forms. One stop registration and voting was occurring in a room at the top of the escalator as Henley circled the mezzanine of that floor under the pretense of registering voters.
I finally managed to speak to Henley, even though as soon as she had seen me standing in the lobby speaking with a security guard and she rabbited out the door. I caught up to her in the parking deck. I informed her that I would be running this column today and that I’d love to give her the chance to defend herself against these charges. Henley just kept mumbling that she was in a hurry and was almost running toward the Henley-mobile. I ticked off the accusations:
ME: “Sign wars shenanigans?”
HENLEY: “I don’t know what you mean?”
ME: “Are you claiming that Joines, Parmon, and Womble are under investigation?”
HENLEY: “I don’t know what that is about.”
ME: “Are your poll workers telling African American voters to vote for you because you’re black?”
HENLEY: “No comment.”
ME: “Were you campaigning inside the building today?”
HENLEY: “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
The candidate then hopped into the Henley mobile and the last thing I heard was the slamming of her car door.
The continuing petty behavior at the early voting polls and previous campaign filing errors are not the only ways Henley has had trouble with ethics surrounding election activities. Security officers at the building confirmed that there have been complaints about Henley including an incident on Thursday where her personal vehicle was blocking the exit to the parking deck. Also, according to the campaign of Mayor Allen Joines, 800 of the Mayor’s campaign signs have disappeared in East Winston and other neighborhoods across the city. Additionally, Henley has engaged in questionable tactics in another, unrelated incident during events surrounding the 2013 property tax assessment scenario, when she engaged in nakedly exploitive efforts to try to use the recent issues as a way to inject energy into her mayoral campaign.
The schemes being employed by Henley are simple-minded and sleazy, but aren’t a crime. They are, however, an example of the kind of low-rent tactics the people of Winston-Salem might not appreciate in their Mayor.
Is this stuff ridiculous? Petty? Absolutely. To be 100% straight up I struggled as a journalist with even writing it. The reality, though, is that Gardenia Henley – no matter how fundamentally goofy she really is- does find herself in a campaign for the Mayor of a city that I love. A city and a community that deserves better than having a conspiracy spouting, low-grade ankle biter as the face of Winston-Salem.