BENTON HARBOR — The five challengers and incumbent mayor may have been at two different locations for Tuesday’s Benton Harbor mayoral debate, but many of the topics they talked about were the same – community policing and education.

Mayor Marcus Muhammad was at the Benton Harbor Library, the initial scheduled location of the debate. At the Benton Harbor Arts and Culture Center less than a half a mile down the road were the five challengers – City Commissioners Juanita Henry, Ron Singleton and C.F. Jones along with Marjorie Carter and Jamie Davis.

Muhammad will face the five challengers in the Aug. 6 primary, with the top two vote-getters moving on to the Nov. 5 election for the four-year post.

Why the division?

Library officials said they started getting complaints that one of the original organizers, Gwen Swanigan, “liked” a Facebook post supporting Singleton as mayor. Benton Harbor Library Board President Mamie Yarbrough said that after consulting with Berrien County and state officials, they sent Swanigan a letter ending her volunteer relationship with the library’s event. 

She said state law requires libraries to be neutral in politics.

Yarbrough said she’s uncertain what will happen to library board member Ethel Clark-Griffin, who also “liked” the Facebook post supporting Singleton as mayor.

The Facebook post was posted by city Commissioner MaryAlice Adams on June 7. It states, in part: “I will be supporting this Movement choosing Ron Singleton as Mayor. Because he just like me knows we as a Community should be further ahead for The People than we are.”

On Monday, Swanigan told people that the mayoral debate had moved to the Arts & Culture Center. 

She said that she had done most of the work to put the debate together, and it was unfair to remove her over a Facebook “like.”

The challengers

During introductions, Singleton said he’s running for mayor because the community doesn’t need any more campaigns.

“After the election, the campaigns are over with and things go back to being the same,” he said. “What came to me and came to my heart is that this community needs a movement.”

If the city is going to come back from poverty, he said it starts from the inside.

Henry, who has been a city commissioner since 2006, said she saw a lot during those years, including the state sending in an emergency manager in 2010.

“I got to see how the state took our democracy away,” she said. “And when you hear our mayor talking about his plan and what he did, he did not do it alone. He had a body of young, intelligent commissioners that worked with him. So we pushed the state of Michigan out of Benton Harbor. It was not a one person deal.”

She said the reason three city commissioners are challenging the mayor is because there’s a lot of stuff going on behind closed doors that isn’t right.

Jones agreed. He said those leading the city need to be more transparent and helpful. 

In addition, he said he would follow up on complaints residents have against law enforcement. 

“A lot of people are scared to talk up,” he said. “This is the time to start talking up.”

Davis said there’s a lot of confusion between law enforcement and residents in Benton Harbor.

“When I walk the streets, what they’re communicating to me is that there’s some issues when it comes to law enforcement and how they’re being treated,” he said. “... We as a people all over the place are under siege everywhere. This is our land. We are the copper colored people of America. The true so-called natives of this land. It is ours.”

He said voters should choose the most honest and trustworthy candidate.

Carter said that if she’s chosen as mayor, the people can count on her to listen to them one-on-one.

The mayor speaks

At his event, Muhammad said this election is pivotal.

“It is probably the most important mayoral election in the history of Benton Harbor,” he said. “This election is going to dictate and determine what Benton Harbor will look like in the next 20 to 30 years.”

He said the city is on the brink of greatness.

“But we could slip back to the old (ways), with lawsuits, and fire the manager, you name it – police corruption, even,” he said. “Or we can choose leadership that is moving the city of Benton Harbor into a whole new reality that’s going to work with residents, work with the stakeholders, work with the clergy, work with businesses, work with different agencies of government to make Benton Harbor an entirely new city.”

Brenda Layne from WHFB 102.5 FM/1060 AM moderated the event at the library.

Swanigan and Ray Bell from the Young Black Leaders of Benton Harbor moderated the event at the Arts & Culture Center.

Contact: lwrege@TheHP.com, 932-0361, Twitter: @HPWrege