City critic weighs run for council


Johnny Cunningham, a candidate for Rocky Mount City Council Ward 3, poses on Friday at the Frederick E. Turnage Municipal Building.


Staff Writer

Sunday, May 12, 2019

An often outspoken opponent of some council members says he is strongly considering a run for a seat on the Rocky Mount City Council.

Johnny Cunningham, a well-known advocate for impoverished communities, rehabilitated housing and a frequent speaker at City Council meetings, has his eyes set on the council's Ward 3 seat.

The seat is held by Richard Joyner, who was appointed to the position last year after Lamont Wiggins stepped down when he was appointed to be a Superior Court judge.

The City Council chose Joyner over four other candidates: Bronson Williams, Gwen Wilkins, Nellene Richardson and Tamisha Patterson.

Williams is running for mayor. Wilkins has announced a campaign for the Ward 3 seat. Richardson has expressed interest in running in Ward 3 as well. Patterson's political plans aren't immediately clear.

Cunningham said in a crowded field, he's the best choice.

"Lots of friends and acquaintances come up to me and ask me to run, so I’m giving it a lot of thought and prayer," he said.

Cunningham said he shares the viewpoint of the heretofore silent but increasingly vocal majority of citizens in Rocky Mount who are upset with a culture of self enrichment and conflict of interest by some City Council members.

“The City Council position should be citizen government — not an inside track to receive government funding for projects that benefit the council member," Cunningham said. "I talk to the common man in Rocky Mount every day. They are sick of lip service of helping the poor, with no results, while lining their own pockets.”

Cunningham pointed out that Joyner is not from Ward 3. Joyner moved into the ward last year just prior to his appointment.

"He helicoptered into town from Conetoe just in time to be appointed, and everybody he promised that he would be independent and fight the corruption of Andre Knight and Reuben Blackwell are very disappointed that he has been turned and does not stand up for the poor folks in Ward 3," Cunningham said.

Cunningham said he's a strong advocate for the private sector partnering with the local workforce to create change.

"I want to do everything I can to get private investment like the Brew Mill into Ward 3 and the rest of declining areas of Rocky Mount," Cunningham said. "Government can’t do it alone. The white business community can be a strong ally to the black citizens if the dialogue and doors are open and welcoming, not hostile and adversarial."

Cunningham suffered the loss of both parents before he turned 15. He's open about his teenage life on the streets, some run-ins with authorities and poor decisions that resulted in a period of incarceration.

Cunningham said his experiences have made him passionate about helping the younger generation avoid or recover quickly from the ways of the streets.

"Even though it was over 35 years ago, I think about my past every day — but what I want to do is hope God works through me to help others avoid the pain I went through and be positive with their life," he said.

A Ward 3 resident for more than three decades, Cunningham founded ReGroup 1, a charity organization with a core objective to help people trying to rebuild their lives and be productive members of society through work training in the construction industry.

ReGroup 1 focuses on rehabilitation of existing housing with a goal of keeping the residents in the same neighborhood after renovation. A large portion of ReGroup 1's projects have been in Ward 3.

Cunningham also is involved with a group taking local children who have never seen the ocean to Atlantic Beach. The effort has generated a whirlwind of support from across the city, with many local businesses contributing both financially and with volunteerism to make it a special event for the children.

“Rocky Mount has a lot more loving and giving people than get written about in the press and social media," Cunningham said. "I have been amazed and touched by the enthusiasm of both black and white citizens of our area to help make this dream trip come true."