North Carolina mayor ready to lead during historic diversity

GASTONIA, N.C. (AP) — When Gastonia Mayor Walker Reid was first elected into the office two years ago, he became the city's first black mayor since 1985.

With his re-election to a second, longer term Tuesday, Reid became part of another wave of change. He will now preside for the next four years over what will unquestionably be the most diverse Gastonia City Council in terms of race and gender that has existed in history.

Even in its most varied form over the last few decades, Gastonia's chief governing body has only had one female representative at a time, and one to two black council members serving together at most. But once Donyel Barber and Charles Odom are sworn in as the two newest council members next month, the board will feature a ratio of four white and three black officials, made up of five men and two women. It will also continue to include Councilman Robert Kellogg, who was the second openly gay man elected to the Gastonia council after Todd Pierceall.

Barber, a 45-year-old Gaston County native, broke an additional barrier Tuesday by becoming the first black woman elected to Gastonia City Council.

"I think in the city of Gastonia, the mindset and dynamics are changing," said Reid. "Because a lot of people are moving here from other areas where they experienced more diversity."

Reid, 62, is a retired firefighter and a Gastonia native who served 16 years as a city councilman from 1995 to 2011, winning election seven times. After taking some time off from the political world, he ran a successful campaign for mayor and won a two-year term in 2017.

Reid said he's yearned for and pushed for a greater level of diversity on City Council for many years.

"I think it says a lot about the city and it shows how much we've grown," he said. "When I ran for mayor in 2017, one of my campaign issues was addressing diversity and inclusion in our city. We have a very diverse city, but you would never know by what you've seen on the surface."

Reid's entire 18-year tenure on City Council has been spent as the lone black representative. He said it has been "lonely" as the only minority, though it's no different than what he faced in his professional life as a fire marshal and fire service instructor.

"I think there have been (minorities) who've had the desire to run for office in the past, but there's been some fear about getting involved," he said.

Reid believes the strides in diversity have been multifaceted, as proven by Pierceall and Kellogg's previous elections. He also pointed to Jennifer Stepp's election as a female candidate in 2017.

Barber said she is excited about the opportunity to serve as the city's first elected black councilwoman, and she sees it as a reflection of where Gastonia needs to be in this day and time.

"I feel like our board should reflect our community," she said. "I've talked a lot about the fact that if you don't know the experiences of the various people who live here and reflect the diversity in Gastonia, then you really fall short of being a true representation of what we need. That's what this win means to me."

Barber said achieving diversity not only pertains to race and gender, but also to including people of various ages, and those with disabilities.

"You need leaders who are in touch with your community," she said.

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Information from: The Gaston Gazette, http://www.gastongazette.com