Justin Outling made history in 2015 as the first African American elected to represent District 3. Two years later, Craig Martin — a white progressive — is challenging him from the left.
Appointed to fill the unexpired term of Zack Matheny in the summer of 2015, Justin Outling made history later that year by becoming the first African-American elected to represent District 3, which has the highest percentage of white voters.
Outling finds himself seeking re-election to a second term as part of a bloc of incumbents that coalesced into a center-left team beginning around 2011. Like other incumbents in the three majority-white districts, Outling is defending his seat against a more left-leaning challenger.
Craig Martin, a Guilford County public defender, faces an uphill challenge based on the results of the Oct. 10 primary, where he took 21.8 percent of the vote compared to Outling’s commanding majority of 69.1 percent. Martin’s campaign has received a boost from endorsements by the Triad Labor Council and Guilford County Association of Educators, while Outling has received the coveted endorsements of the city’s police and firefighter associations.
“My opponent and I, we may both be attorneys, but that’s where the similarities end,” Martin told voters during a candidate forum hosted by the Greensboro Neighborhood Congress before the primary. “I could have chosen to be a corporate attorney and defend corporations, but I wanted to do more. I wanted to help people. So that is why I chose to become a public defender.”
Outling didn’t shy away from the “corporate attorney” tag in his introduction.
“I work at a law firm called Brooks Pierce,” he said. “I’m essentially a problem solver representing corporations and professionals dealing with their trickiest problems.”
Outling heaped scorn on Martin’s portrayal of his legal work as a public service, including volunteering as a legal observer and participating in a “know your rights” training at UNCG.
“I get paid every day to use my legal training,” Outling said. “That legal training is not my entree into community service. What is, is my history of serving this community.” Before he joined city council, Outling noted that he had been active with SynerG, an organization that works to attract and retain young professionals, and that he chaired the Minimum Housing Standards Commission.
On a recent Saturday, Outling wended through a crowd at the Morehead Trailhead as well-wishers clapped his shoulder and offered encouragement. As a volunteer for the Run 4 the Downtown Greenway, he shared the stage with UNCG Chancellor Frank Gilliam and called out the names of the top finishers.
Before emceeing the award ceremony, Outling sat on the deck at Morehead Foundry and exulted about the rapid growth of downtown, expressing particular appreciation for the greenway, which he called “transformational” and “a rousing success.”
The trailhead and foundry, a complex of restaurants that also includes a bakery and a bar, is part of Outling’s district, which covers most of downtown, but the vast majority of voters live outside of downtown, from the exclusive Irving Park neighborhood to suburban communities clustered around a series of lakes at the north end of the city. Outling said whether they come downtown or not, most of his constituents are happy with city council’s investment in downtown, including the greenway, the planned Tanger Performing Arts Center and a parking garage to support a new hotel.
“They overwhelmingly recognize that for our community to be successful we need to have a vibrant downtown,” he said.
While Outling spent the day making appearances in the center city, including the Elsewhere artist collaborative’s annual extravaganza, Martin focused on residential neighborhoods along Battleground Avenue. Working off a voter list obtained from the board of elections, Martin has been contacting people who voted in the last city council election in 2015, but did not vote in the Oct. 10 primary.
“I’m focusing on the precincts that I did the best in so I can get people to talk to their neighbors,” he said. He found about five voters on his list in a neighborhood to the north of Country Park, but discovered to his chagrin that several lived in apartment complexes that prohibited soliciting, so at 3 p.m. he decided to go home and work the phones for rest of the day.
Martin said his focus on systemic racism and police accountability has received a polite hearing from white voters but a more enthusiastic reception with blacks in the district.
“Given the New York Times coverage and issues with police body-worn camera video, a lot of [white] people are interested, if not personally affected,” Martin said.
“It’s been more welcomed in [the black] community because they personally have experience with the police, so they come to it with a different perspective than their well-off white neighbors,” he added.
Outling said the main difference between the two candidates is that while his opponent talks about values, he gets results.
“I, like many of you, was very frustrated that the Greensboro Police Department was the first police department to be outfitted with body-worn cameras, yet a grand total of just about zero footage had been released,” Outling told voters at the Greensboro Neighborhood Congress forum, recalling the time when he joined city council in the summer of 2015. “So, I along with others made it a mission to try to figure out how we could release as much body-worn camera footage as possible.
“While Greensboro was releasing video, in Charlotte they were not taking proactive measures; there was a [police-involved] shooting, [and] they had riots in the streets that resulted in the death of a citizen in Charlotte,” he added.
Martin has argued on the campaign trail that the city’s policy on police body-worn video — which was mooted by a state law shortly after it was approved — was nothing to brag about. He challenged voters to try to find a difference between the policy authored by Outling and the state law that replaced it. The city’s policy “still had presumption that the body-worn camera footage would be private and not open to the public,” Martin said. “And that is exactly what’s wrong with our current law around body-worn camera video, and that was exactly what’s wrong with Greensboro’s body-worn camera policy.”
Martin also said members of the current council shouldn’t congratulate themselves for releasing video of an infamous incident last year in which a police officer subjected Dejuan Yourse to excessive force.
Martin argues in response that council members voted to release the police body-camera video more because of public pressure than due to their own initiative.
Outling says he will continue to work with state Rep. John Faircloth, the author of the state law, to loosen restrictions on public access to police body-worn video, while Martin says the city should provide assistance to help citizens access the video through the courts.
Martin has also attempted to draw a distinction between himself and his opponent by highlighting a vote to set aside a request for proposals that would have awarded a city contract for medical plan administrative services to Cigna Health Insurance. A consultant found that Cigna’s proposal would have saved the city $650,000 per year compared to rival United Healthcare, which is based in Greensboro and employs 3,500 people locally. Outling made the motion to set aside the RFP, which passed 6-3. When council took a vote a month later to award to the contract to United Healthcare following the revelation that his law firm had represented the healthcare company, Outling recused himself citing a conflict of interest. Both Outling and City Attorney Tom Carruthers declined to answer a question from Councilwoman Sharon Hightower about why Outling had been allowed to vote on the matter previously.
Addressing voters at the Greensboro Neighborhood Congress forum, Martin said, “While I’m on council I can guarantee you that each and every decision I take will be to the benefit of the people of Greensboro, not corporations like United Healthcare. I will never use or abuse my power to benefit corporations at the expense of taxpayer dollars.”
Responding to his opponent’s criticism during an interview at Morehead Foundry, Outling said he followed the city attorney’s advice about whether he should vote or not, and that he voted to prevent the contract from going to Cigna because he was concerned about the integrity of the award process. He suggested that Martin’s criticism amounts to a distraction from the real issues of the campaign.
“Politics is so interesting,” Outling said. “I focus on getting results.”