Featured photo: (From top left to right) Justin Outling, Nancy Vaughan, Eric Robert and Mark Cummings (courtesy photos)

(UPDATED 3/18): This article was updated to include Eric Robert’s comments on our description of him as a “real estate developer.”

Two attorneys, the mayor and a local designer will be facing off in the primary for Greensboro mayor come May. And while the intro may sound like the beginning of a bad joke, the hotly contested race is one of the most important for Greensboro residents this year.

The candidates include incumbent Mayor Nancy Vaughan, who has held the seat since 2013, when she won against incumbent Robbie Perkins with 53 percent of the vote. Vaughan was re-elected in 2015 and 2017 and has served on Greensboro City Council off-and-on since 1997, when she was first elected to represent District 4. During her time as mayor, there has been a considerable amount of economic development in the city including the construction of the Tanger Center, LeBauer Park and partnerships with new businesses such as Honda Jet, Boom Supersonic and Toyota.

Another familiar face in the running is current councilmember Justin Outling of District 3. Outling has represented the district — which starts in the center of the city along Friendly Avenue and stretches north towards Lake Jeanette, Country Park and to Lake Brandt — since he was elected to the seat in 2015. Outling currently works as an attorney and partner at Brooks Pierce, a business law firm with offices in Greensboro, Raleigh and Wilmington.

Another attorney running for Greensboro mayor is Mark Cummings, who runs his own practice out of downtown Greensboro. Cummings formerly served as a Guilford County District Court Judge until December 2019 when he resigned after a yearlong state investigation into misconduct. According to reporting by the News & Observer, Cummings was investigated for having a clerk falsify a court document; accusing a state trooper of being racist, which forced prosecutors to dismiss a charge in the case; and changing the bond amount set by a Superior Court judge. The article noted that Cummings resigned under an agreement that he would never run for North Carolina judicial office again. When asked about the investigation, Cummings appeared to place blame for the falsified document on his court clerk.

“I never told the courtroom clerk what she should write in the note, nor did I see what she wrote,” Cummings stated in his response. “The court doesn’t know the language that the clerk uses, nor does the clerk inform the court of the language. In fact, the court never knew that the clerk certified anything.”

With regards to his resignation, Cummings responded that “when the then-chief justice improperly and without legal authority, suspended me from presiding over cases, and it was evident that the legal process that followed could take years to litigate and therefore prevent me from serving in any capacity to the great people of the city, I chose to resign and return to private practice where I could engage in the same righteous struggle….”

The last candidate running for mayor is Eric Robert, a local real-estate developer and designer at QUB Studios. Robert is seen by many as the outside candidate in this race as he has never held public office. He has also been vocal in calling out local leaders on social media, including Outling and Vaughan, who he says “have promoted self-serving extreme cronyism and an elitist environment.” Robert also notably sued the city of Greensboro in 2015, according to reporting by the News & Record, over federal redevelopment money to which he felt he had a claim. As a developer of the South Elm area including the former Daily Bread Flour building at 816 S. Elm St., Robert claimed that the city owed him part of the $6.6 million in federal funding the city received because they used the mill to apply for the funding. Robert eventually dropped the lawsuit.

(UPDATED 3/18): In response to being called a real-estate developer, which Robert does not see himself as, he told TCB this:

“As a designer, I conceptualize and create aesthetically pleasing and functional environments destined to support a specific product lines or brand image. I approach the rejuvenation of commercial buildings creatively, like a sculpture or a painting. I mostly employ recycled materials and care about the history and the quality of the finished product.

A real estate developer, at least in Greensboro, is a parasite feeding on our insecurities and tax dollars. Here they, too often, build insignificant cheap, mediocre shit as to maximize profits and returns leaving us with a vanilla landscape of mediocrity. They also have no regards for the community they come into, opting to get theirs at the expense of everybody else.”

Why are you running for mayor and what makes you the strongest candidate?

In her response, Nancy Vaughan noted her accomplishments as mayor for the last decade. She noted her leadership during the tornado in 2018, navigating the pandemic as well as reacting to the protests of 2020. And although she said that her decision to institute a curfew after protests broke out in downtown Greensboro in 2020 was difficult, she said she stands by her decision.

“That annoyed people on both sides of the aisle,” she said. “But we never had a repeat of violence unlike other cities. I am proud of the way our city reacted after that curfew.”

The ACLU of North Carolina took issue with Vaughan’s curfew, stating that it violated the First Amendment and “invites arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement against communities of color.” Other North Carolina cities as diverse as High Point and Raleigh also instituted curfews in the midst of the 2020 protests.

Black Lives Matter protests took place over the course of several days in the Triad after the murder of George Floyd.

Vaughan also pointed to the increase in investments that the city has seen in the last year including the contracts with Boom Supersonic and the Toyota megasite as some of her successes.

“As part of the Boom and Toyota recruiting team, we were committed to making sure that our residents would be gainfully employed,” she said.

Being able to handle large projects like that and make the hard decisions takes an experienced leaders, Vaughan argued.

“In order to get anything accomplished you must be able to work with city council members, staff and stakeholders,” she said. “I have built relationships based on trust and cooperation. I know how to build a case for issues that are important to our city and our residents. I know how to get things done.”

A significant portion of Justin Outling’s responses targeted Vaughan’s “kind of mayoral leadership.”

Outling, who has far outraised any other candidate with $144,992 cash on hand at the end of the 2021, argued that he has the “broadest coalition” of support within his campaign. And while it’s likely that Outling could have run easily won re-election to seat in District 3 this election cycle, he said that he was running for mayor because he can offer “leadership that [he hasn’t] seen during [his] time on council.” He specifically noted how the mayor is able to set the agenda for city council meetings and thus able to direct the focus of what council members will deliberate on. And he wants to be that guy.

“It’s a lack of mayoral leadership and a lack of priorities,” Outling said.

Candidate Mark Cummings pointed to both Outling and Vaughan’s tenures on city council and lamented that they had “failed to solve any of the problems that confronted Greensboro when they first got the opportunity to serve.”

He mentioned the economic disparity between the northern and northwestern parts of the city compared to the south and southeast and the increase in violent crimes. He also noted an exodus of “intellectual capital because recent graduates don’t see a place for themselves in the city.”

Eric Robert pushed for transparency and creative thinking if he were to be elected mayor. He argued that the current city council members, including the mayor, make decisions outside of the public realm and the only people who know what is going on within city politics are the well-connected few.

“Unlike the other candidates, I believe city hall culture must change and most city departments must be retrained to be reminded that their sole purpose is to serve and facilitate our common evolution,” he wrote. “I am not a lawyer, or a current politician. I am a designer, a creative with an economics degree and an MBA. We all know our city could use a little more creativity in all aspects. Not corporate creativity but pure creativity paired with the willingness to look at paramount problems with a fresh perspective and new players.”

On public safety and policing

One of the biggest issues that the candidates noted as part of their platforms was the issue of public safety and policing. According to data collected by the city and the State Bureau of Investigation, Greensboro’s violent crime rate has been increasing for the past couple of years. In 2019, Greensboro logged 2,453 violent crimes according to SBI data compared to 2,714 in 2020 — a 10.6 percent increase. As of last week, Greensboro police logged 1,313 crimes against persons — including homicide, rape, assaults and kidnapping — which signified a 7 percent increase compared to the same period in 2021. Compared to the last five years, there has been a 17 percent increase for the same category.

To combat these increasing numbers, Vaughan noted that she wants to make sure that the police and fire departments are well-funded and employees are happy. That’s why she pushed for take-home cars for officers because “that’s considered a big benefit.”

Nancy Vaughan (courtesy photo)

Additionally, Vaughan said that she worked with the police department to change some of the policy directives after the murder of Marcus Deon Smith in 2018. Those included the discontinuation of the use of hogtying as well as the use of verbal informed-consent searches. However, during conversations about whether to change the policy to include written consent, Vaughan voted against the measure, noting that it was a step backward in the era of body-worn cameras. At the time, Outling supported the written-consent measure, but in the end, the proposal failed.

Neither Vaughan nor Outling have made the issue of Marcus Smith a significant part of their campaign for mayor. When former council member Michelle Kennedy pushed for an independent investigation into the death of Marcus Smith, Outling said he didn’t support the investigation because the facts surrounding the incident were already “out there.” He also stated that at the time of Smith’s death, he didn’t think the officers violated any policies. In October 2019, after activists made repeated remarks during the public comment period at city council meetings about the Marcus Smith case, Vaughan instituted new speaking rules that some said violated their constitutional right to free speech.

The new rules prohibited “comments primarily focused upon the performance of particular city employees that [the mayor] deems to be an attack as well as commentary on matters that are in litigation.”

At the time, Outling questioned Vaughan’s new rule.

“I know you can limit speech that incites violence or insult,” he said. “My concern is that these rules go beyond that.”

In the aftermath of 2020 with renewed calls for police reform, Vaughan said she would continue to support the co-response model of policing that was implemented in the city in 2019 and even look into an alternative response model that doesn’t use armed officers if re-elected.

“I believe that we should always do continuous improvements,” she said.

Her answer to the Cure Violence initiative was more measured, stating that she supported the endeavor but that “the difficult thing with Cure Violence is that it’s hard to say something didn’t happen. If they’ve stopped something there’s no way to quantify.”

“When you look at other cities across that have a violence interrupter program, it really takes a few years to hit its stride because it changes the mindset of a community,” she continued.

Outling made repeated claims that city council has not properly addressed the issue of public safety during his time on council.

“In 2020, we had a record number of homicides,” Outling said. “We had a grand total of two work sessions on violent crime…. If you’re not going to work to solve these issues, you’re not going to make progress.”

Vaughan pushed back against this assertion by stating, “There were at least seven where we worked on public safety in some shape or form.”

However, Outling said that if he were elected mayor, he would push to have monthly work sessions focused on public safety.

Over the course of his campaign, Outling has repeated called Greensboro “the eighth most dangerous city in the country,” citing data from a US News & World Report article. The piece ranks Greensboro as the eighth “most dangerous place to live” based on metropolitan areas, which includes Greensboro and High Point. However, FBI statistics that rank cities across the country based on violent crime found that in 2020, Greensboro ranked 44 among a list of 65 major US cities. To that, Vaughan said that Outling’s data point is “damaging to the community.”

“We have problems, but I think it’s a shame when a candidate goes out of their way to alarm the population with false information,” she said.

Outling did not comment on the clarification between Greensboro as a city versus the Greensboro metropolitan area. Instead, he said, “when confronted with the daily reality of Greensboro’s surge of violent crime, the mayor consistently tries to change the subject by arguing about data sources and points in time.”

Outling did mention he would schedule work sessions to talk about the co-response model, Cure Violence and diverting armed officers from certain situations like those that involve traffic crimes.

“Those should be addressed by other public safety professionals,” Outling said.

More broadly, he mentioned focusing on how to help lower-income neighborhoods who are impacted most by violence.

“We have to focus on the root causes of crime,” he said. “When you have a portion of the city in poverty, particularly the Black community, you’re not going to see violent crime surge the next day, but you will see it a while from them. The council needs to recognize that much of the violent crime occurs during the summer months… and it disproportionately involves young persons in certain parts of the city.”

To combat this, Outling suggested a youth jobs program where teens are guaranteed a job during the summer months to “get them off the streets.”

This is similar to a city program that started in 2021 called the “500 Jobs for Teens” which pairs 14- to 21-year-olds with summer jobs. Vaughan also pointed to the program as a way to reduce violence in the city.

Justin Outling

Outling mentioned how some of the violent crime that took place in 2020 could be attributed to a rise in domestic violence. That has made him rethink whether or not some people should be released on bond.

“Is it that persons who are on parole or out on bonds shouldn’t be out on bonds?” Outling asked. “And what can we do to help to ensure people who are out on bonds should not be out on bonds and should appropriately stay in jail until they get their hearing date? But that work and analysis by the city council is not happening now.”

Cummings, too, mentioned the rise in crime as one of his biggest concerns, stating he supports police reform, not a defunding of the police.

“The largest issues facing Greensboro are the rise in crime and the increases in economic inequality,” Cummings said. “In many ways, these two issues overlap each other, for where you find lack of economic opportunity, you will undoubtedly find crime.”

As mayor, Cummings said he would enact a three-part plan that would strengthen the bond between law enforcement and the community, increase the pay of officers and increase the level of oversight and accountability to ensure that “the goal of our police is truly to protect and serve everybody.”

Robert also supported the notion of police reform and not a defunding of police because the latter “is simply not a viable and realistic option.”

He argued that the current compensation programs for city police are “laughable,” stating, “we get what we pay for.”

In terms of reform, Robert pivoted to the bigger picture, reiterating his cause to reform the “entire current municipal government which is currently enabling, ignoring and doubling-down on inhuman treatment.”

He said that he supports body-camera footage being made available to the public immediately as well as a civilian oversight board.

Currently, all law enforcement body-camera footage can only be released for viewing via a court order initiated by family members of victims or members of the public. There is also a civilian oversight board in Greensboro called the Greensboro Criminal Justice Advisory Commission, also known as GCJAC, but the commission cannot investigate claims against police officers on their own. GCJAC can only review complaints filed against GPD officers after they have been investigated by the police department’s professional standards division.

What about conflicts of interest?

One of the arguments that Vaughan brought up against Outling was the fact that her opponent has had to recuse himself on a number of votes as part of city council during his tenure. As an attorney for Brooks Pierce, Outling has recused himself on votes that involve Brooks Pierce’s clients such as Toyota during the megaplant deal and local developers like Andy Zimmerman.

“There’s a big difference,” Vaughan said. “I have been on the recruiting team for these projects; he has been working for the law firm.”

Outling did not confirm whether or not he plans to continue working for Brooks Pierce in any capacity if he is elected mayor.

Instead, he responded by stating that it “is not at all unusual for attorneys to serve as mayors of major North Carolina cities.” He pointed to mayors in Raleigh and Charlotte who worked in law firms during their tenure.

“It is worth noting I have served seven years on council without notable issues in this regard,” Outling stated. “And members of council other than myself also routinely excuse themselves from votes.” Outling also noted that Vaughan has not recused herself from any votes related to her ex-husband, Don Vaughan’s law practice.

Eric Robert, who is a real-estate developer himself, pointed out that many other developers, lawyers and prominent Greensboro citizens “represent the largest campaign contributors” to the mayoral campaigns. In fact, according to Outling’s campaign finance records for 2021, Greensboro developer Marty Kotis has contributed $2,000 to his campaign. Frank Auman of Signature Property Group and Timothy Burnett of the Bessemer Improvement Company have also donated a total of $2,500 to Outling’s campaign. Several Brooks Pierce attorneys have donated as well. When asked how closely city council and the mayor should work with real estate developers, Outling redirected his response to Vaughan’s recent action to hold a work session to address developer Andy Zimmerman’s concerns about parking space given the new Lidl contract.

Eric Robert

“The problem is not developers, it is the mayor’s priorities,” Outling said.

Vaughan said that the city depends on “private investments to grow the tax base which in turn provides funding for city services and programs.”

As of Feb. 8, Vaughan reported $29,290.48 ending cash on hand. Dawn Chaney, the owner and CEO of DS Chaney Properties has contributed $1,000 to Vaughan’s campaign as has Gordon Craig, the chief financial officer for the Koury Corporation. Craig donated $2,500. Marc Isaacson, an attorney with Isaacson Sheridan — which represented the recent sale of the Hiatt Street Properties in Greensboro — also donated $500 to Vaughan’s campaign. She said that the difference in her and Outling’s funding was because she has been “doing the job of mayor.” “It’s hard to run for mayor when you are mayor,” she said. Of the comparisons to Outling, she responded, “I have a good record to run on. I’m not running against him; I am running on my record. Especially these last four years, and the way we have turned the corner, that is a record that many in this country cannot hold up.”

Detailed campaign finance information for Robert and Cummings was not on file with the State Board of Elections or the Guilford County Board of Elections.

Robert argued that the issue with many developers in the city is that they “too often have no taste, just money and political influence.”

“Such access and influence are alarming as some elected leaders forget that their constituency actually includes more than just the three or four rich guys,” Robert said.

On the role of area colleges and universities

As the home to seven institutions of higher education, Greensboro plays a significant role in educating future employees. Vaughan pointed to Campus Greensboro, which is a “high-touch jobs, mentorship and soft skills summer program” implemented by Action Greensboro that works to prepare college and university students for a professional environment as an example of an initiative that can help students thrive in Greensboro. She also noted the recent announcement $500 “Access Amazing Scholarship” by GTCC which would help cover costs for eligible students so that they didn’t pay more than $500 to attend school.

Outling, who attended Duke University Law School and UNCG, said that he wants to see an innovation corridor that stretches from NC A&T State University to the Nussbaum Center for Entrepreneurship. (Editor’s Note: Triad City Beat rents an office in the Nussbaum Center.)

“I want to ensure we are prioritizing that area in East Greensboro with the necessary infrastructure in improvement so it can attract talent and employers,” Outling said.

Cummings said that he is concerned about the mass exodus of “intellectual capital after every graduation season in this city.” To combat that, he envisions a “Learn Here, Earn Here” initiative that would work to create incentives for companies that hire recent graduates from local colleges and universities. He also mentioned developing a grant program for start-ups whose founders obtained their education from a local institution.

Robert echoed Cummings’ sentiments about the lack of engagement with local students.

“In a city with such a large number of students, we exclude them from the conversations destined to shape policies that will directly affect them, should they decide to stay in the area,” he said.

What is Greensboro’s identity?

Both Outling and Vaughan pointed to the city’s diversity as its key characteristic.

While Vaughan pointed to the city’s immigrant and refugee population as well as its civil rights history, Outling called Greensboro “the most progressive-minded city in North Carolina.”

“We don’t need to forge a new identity,” Outling said. “We need to return to our historical strengths.”

Mark Cummings

However, both Cummings and Robert argued against this point. Both mentioned that they don’t feel that Greensboro has a strong enough identity.

“That is one of the problems with Greensboro and evidence of the lack of leadership shown for years by the current and past city councils,” Cummings said. “Greensboro does not currently have an identity. Charlotte, Raleigh, Durham and now even Winston-Salem have a very marketable and accepting identity. My administration would work tirelessly to create one for the city.”

Robert suggested that a clear mission has to be implemented for Greensboro to find its true identity.

“Our identity as a municipality needs to address evolution, social equity and awareness as part of our economic growth while promoting innovation, compassion and creativity in all initiatives,” he said. “It is imperative to evolve and refresh Greensboro’s soul. The current elected leaders simply do not have the capacity to understand the true power of a genuine, well thought out branding exercise.”

The primary election takes place on May 17. The Greensboro city council general election will take place on July 26. To read Triad City Beat’s other election coverage, go here.

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