No pay-to-play for Councilwoman Hightower

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Councilwoman Sharon Hightower being sworn in (courtesy of Hightower's official Facebook page)

Backers of Greensboro’s initial Renaissance Center deal provided the majority of Sharon Hightower’s funding, but it won’t influence her vote tonight, she said.

The bulk of Greensboro City Councilwoman Sharon Hightower’s campaign money arrived all at once.

[Photo: Councilwoman Sharon Hightower being sworn in, courtesy of her official Facebook page. Don’t miss the other campaign finance items at the bottom of this post!]

Four separate money orders for $500, all dated Sept. 11, 2013, swelled Hightower’s funds before the District 1 council election, which was decided by a mere 12 votes.

There’s no accompanying information other than the names of donors —former Renaissance Center investor Shahzad Akbar, Mohammad Ashraf, Choudhary Ashraf and Asma Ashzar — except for a note that Hightower’s campaign unsuccessfully tried to nail down the donors’ addresses. Together, the $2,000 was more than half of Hightower’s funds at that point.

A similar influx of money to Robbie Perkins’ unsuccessful mayoral reelection campaign appears on his reports — four checks for $500 on Nov. 1, days before the election. Akbar, Ashraf, Suhira Alam and Shehzad Quamar kicked in, though their contributions didn’t account for a significant amount of Perkins’ funds.

To a casual observer, the donations might appear unremarkable, but Akbar and Quamar were the in the midst of negotiations with the city to purchase the Renaissance Shopping Center.

“I think collectively we made some donations or something,” Akbar said. “We were at a fundraiser, one for Hightower and one for Perkins.”

Akbar said their vision for the city in general aligned with Hightower and Perkins, but said the financial support was unrelated to the Renaissance Center deal, which formally fell apart after the new council was elected.

“I have businesses here in [former councilwoman Dianne] Bellamy-Small’s neighborhood and we were kind of disappointed with her support for businesses,” Akbar said. “There was not any kind of support for small businesses… and her attitude on city council was all negative.”

Putting it more bluntly, Akbar said the donations were not an attempt to gain political influence.

“If you’re asking did I pay money to buy votes, no, that’s not what happened,” he said.  “In no way or sense were we trying to buy votes.”

Akbar said he couldn’t recall the specifics of the two clumps of donations but made reference to working with associates to support both campaigns and possibly others. Perkins’ campaign report lists Akbar and Alam at the same Greensboro address and provides a Virginia Beach address for Choudhary Ashraf.

Other donations connected to the failed Renaissance Center deal — which council initially voted to pursue in August 2013 but later backed away from — helped Hightower and council members who initially voted in favor of the plan.

Former Guilford County Commission chair Skip Alston represented Quamar and Akbar in the Renaissance Center plan. Gwendolyn Alston, who works for Skip’s company Alston Real Estate, donated $200 to Hightower shortly after her opponent Bellamy-Small voted against the deal in August. She also contributed $200 to then-councilman Jim Kee and $300 to Mayor Pro Tem Yvonne Johnson in September, both of whom voted in favor of the plan.

Council critics raised repeated concerns about an informal pay-to-play system between council members and their financial backers. The allegations irritate council members, who deny them, but questions and accusations persist anyway. With Hightower’s biggest individual donations and the majority of her overall funds coming from what appear to be supporters of the city’s previous plan for the shopping center, one might expect her to vote against the latest proposal for Self Help Ventures Fund to take over the center. But that isn’t the case.

“I think I’m going to support the proposal to go into contract negotiations with Self Help,” Hightower said today before the council meeting. “I certainly support it. I have some concerns as I think we all do but I think it’s going to be a great project. We’re heeding what people are saying they need in the community. The east needs attention and you need to start somewhere.”

Hightower said that it shouldn’t be surprising that she will support the Self Help proposal regardless of what her backers may think.

“I can’t be bought,” she said. “In needing money for a campaign you’re not going to turn them down but there’s nothing written, stated or unstated where it says you have my vote. Anybody who really knows me knows that the community has always been my main concern at heart.”

Hightower said there are still details that need to be “hammered out,” but added that it is clear the surrounding community wants the deal to go forward.

Self Help submitted the only proposal for the current round of proposals, and it is expected to pass council easily tonight. Though Akbar isn’t involved anymore, he said his partner attended the city’s community meeting on the center last month. Skip Alston attended as well.

Akbar said he opposes the Self Help proposal as a citizen who doesn’t want to see the city waste taxpayer money on a plan he said won’t work. If Self Help’s proposal doesn’t pass or falls through for some reason, Akbar said he is “absolutely” interested in “being part of a solution” but emphasized that the process last fall made him cautious of getting in the middle again.

“When we jumped in it all became so political,” he said. “I don’t know what was the reason. Skip Alston and Jim Kee came to us. All of the sudden we became the bad guys in the picture. I had never been exposed to this political warfare. Maybe it was because we were working with Skip Alston or Jim Kee.”

Tensions ran high between supporters of the Renaissance Community Cooperative, who backed Kee’s successful opponent Jamal Fox in the election, and the plan Alston represented. Hightower, who wasn’t on council during the initial process, said she thinks the plan could have worked but ended up being divisive and lacked necessary communication. Like Akbar, she said it may have been an issue of personalities.

“I’ve always said this — don’t turn down the plan because you don’t like the man,” she said. “You’ve got to look at the bigger picture. You have to back up and I guess, as they say in football, you’ve got to punt.”

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Digging through campaign finance reports always reveals something interesting, and a few things popped out that are unrelated. Here are two random, intriguing aspects of the reports:

• Kee’s financial report lists Marlene Sanford, who contributed $49 in 2009 during his first campaign and again in October, as a “home maker.” That’s odd, considering Sanford is the president of the Triad Real Estate & Building Industries Coalition. Wally Sanford, listed at the same address, also donated $49 on the same days as Marlene in both races, according to the finance report.

UPDATE: When I called Marlene Sanford she confirmed the donation and burst out laughing when I told her she was listed as a home maker.

“I’ll have to show that to my husband,” she said. “It will give him his biggest laugh of the week.” She added that it was likely an accident by the treasurer.

• The best way to back a winner is to wait until the election is over, and that’s exactly what prominent lawyer Henry Isaacson and his son Marc did. Each of them contributed $100 to Hightower’s campaign fund a month after she defeated Bellamy-Small, around the time she was sworn into office.