In calling out city-funded nonprofits, a councilman plays to his audience but loses the rest of the crowd.

When the new Greensboro City Council came in last year, many observers thought it marked a definite departure from past councils that propelled divisive issues and played an ugly brand of racially-tinged politics to ply apart the electorate.

Councilman Tony Wilkins of District 5 broke the détente last week with a motion to gather information about payroll for nonprofits that receive city support.

On the surface it seems in character — Wilkins has positioned himself as the council’s lone conservative, a mouthpiece for the small but vocal band of voters who similarly identify themselves. Who better to act as custodian for our tax money?

Add to that the impetus for the request — an in-depth probe of the financial dealings of the International Civil Rights Center & Museum — and you’ve got what we in the journalism business call a “beat-sweetener.” The conservatives who make up Wilkins’ cohort have an almost pathological dislike for the ICRCM, which hits the trifecta of extreme right-wing hot buttons: It concerns civil rights, it gets taxpayer support and there are a whole lot of black people involved. If they were handing out birth control in there, one of these wingnuts might just burn it to the ground.

Besides the dog-whistle to his constituency in District 5 and beyond, Wilkins’ motion also had the effect of a perceived swipe at two of his colleagues on council — at-large Councilman Mike Barber and Mayor Pro Tem Yvonne Johnson, both of whom head up nonprofits, neither of which regularly receives city money. And neither one of them was present at the work meeting where Wilkins brought up his motion.

When the two had a chance to discuss the motion at last week’s council meeting, Wilkins’ pugnacious words seemed designed to further fan the flames.

“Just explain to the public why you want to hide this information,” he said to Barber.

It played well with his constituency and shored up his conservative credentials, but every beat-sweetener comes with a price. Wilkins may have scored points with the local GOP, but he alienated himself from two longstanding councilmembers, which could come back to him down the line. And because the information he requested is already public — most information on nonprofits is available on — he looks pretty silly in the eyes of the informed voters. But clearly, that’s not who he was playing to.

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