Yvonne Johnson, Marikay Abuzuaiter, Michelle Kennedy, Tony Wilkins and Katie Rossabi (l-r) have all either confirmed plans to run for the three at-large seats on Greensboro City Council or indicated they’re considering.

This year’s Greensboro City Council election promises a well-matched contest for mayor and a free-for-all in District 3, where Council member Justin Outling is vacating his seat to challenge mayoral incumbent Nancy Vaughan.

In contrast, elections for the three at-large seats comprising the middle tier on city council look relatively predictable, with all three incumbents signaling their intention to run again.

Mayor Pro Tem Yvonne Johnson, executive director of One Step Further, was first elected to council in 1993 and served one term as mayor from 2007-09. A progressive who is grounded in social justice, Johnson has enjoyed broad-based support across the city and has dominated the at-large field in election after election.

Marikay Abuzuaiter, a former restaurateur, won her first election 2011 as a progressive activist but has evolved into one the council’s most steadfast police backers. She’s held the No. 2 position over the past decade. Abuzuaiter hasn’t ruled out getting into the mayor’s race, which would likely encourage a flood of contenders for her vacated at-large seat.

The third at-large seat has historically favored conservative candidates, but Michelle Kennedy, executive director at the Interactive Resource Center, defied the trend by unseating Mike Barber by only 102 votes in 2017. In her first term, Kennedy has distinguished herself as a forceful advocate for housing, and led an effort to field a mental health-crisis response team as an alternative to law enforcement after Marcus Smith died at the hands of police in 2018 as a result of cardiopulmonary arrest due to prone restraint.

Republican challengers enter the fray

So far, two challengers — both registered Republicans — have indicated they plan to join the at-large race. Tony Wilkins, like Abuzuaiter, hasn’t ruled out a run for mayor or for a district seat. He said his decision will likely rest on which option is the most “mathematically” feasible. Wilkins’ choice between an at-large or district run will be influenced by where the lines fall when new districts are drawn as required by the 2020 Census. Wilkins previously represented District 5, but lost his 2017 re-election bid to Tammi Thurm by 10 points. Wilkins would face an uphill battle in a rematch with Thurm, who announced her plan to seek reelection on Monday.

While Greensboro municipal elections are nonpartisan, Democrats currently hold all nine seats.

“I don’t see anyone on this council asking the questions that I did,” Wilkins told Triad City Beat. “I think that’s needed. As far as me being a fiscal conservative, I feel there is some balance needed.”

Wilkins said he is a Republican because of his identification as a fiscal conservative. In an interview, he only partially distanced himself from Donald Trump. The former president fanned unrest through months of false statements about purported election fraud, and incited an insurrection with an angry speech on Jan. 6 that prompted his supporters to storm the Capitol, resulting in at least five deaths and threats to murder lawmakers and Vice President Mike Pence.

“Yes, Joe Biden is our president,” Wilkins said, when asked about Trump’s false statements seeking to undermine the legitimacy of the 2020 election.

But when asked if he acknowledged that Trump incited an insurrection, Wilkins said, “I’ll leave that up to the court system. I don’t know that the speech was any more fiery than other speeches. That’s not my call. That’s up to the legal system to decide.”

Katie Rossabi confirmed her plans to run at large in an email to TCB. She said she decided to run “because I feel Greensboro is not the city it could be.” She added, “Rather than criticize and do nothing, I feel I should do my part to make a difference.”

Rossabi, who is also a registered Republican, said in an email: “Of course Joe Biden is president.”

She declined to say whether she personally believes that Trump incited an insurrection, writing, “I recognize the ruling of the democratically controlled Senate found former President Trump not guilty during his impeachment trial. Other than this, I will not engage with you about non-local issues that you are raising solely to incite divisiveness.”

On racial justice and police accountability

The historic wave of protests in response to the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis opened a national discussion about redirecting funding from punishment to social needs, and uprooting white supremacy. But the event that defined police-community relations in Greensboro took place almost two years earlier, when police responded to Marcus Smith who was experiencing a mental-health emergency by hogtying him. A medical examiner ruled Smith’s death as a homicide, listing the cause as cardiopulmonary arrest due to prone restraint. Smith’s family has filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the city in the federal courts.

“The whole area of policing and justice and fairness is part of my heart,” Yvonne Johnson said without prompting in an interview. “One of the things I’d like to see us do is settle the case with Marcus Smith.”

She said she also wants to see more accountability.

“When police are in the wrong, they ought to be dealt with,” Johnson said. “It’s reached a point now where people across the country are really fed up with misuse of force. I think if you start really holding them accountable, [the abuse] may be lessened.”

Johnson said she pushed council to take a vote requiring officers to receive training on racism, which is in the process of being rolled out, and she wants to strengthen criteria for vetting new officers.

“On some things we’re moving in the right direction; on others not so much,” she said. “We know all this stuff. We don’t need to continue to talk about it. We need action; I’m for action. Institutional racism is alive and well, and very difficult sometimes to identify and often to correct.”

Abuzuaiter’s stance on racial justice in law enforcement often comes down to backing police Chief Brian James, who took the oath in early 2020, shortly before the beginning of the pandemic.

“I think our police chief has done an amazing job since Day 1,” Abuzuaiter said. “He changed several directives, including not shooting into cars that are fleeing and banning the use of the RIPP hobble [the device used to hog-tie Marcus Smith]. With mental-health issues, he has an internal group of officers trained in social work. They are an internal group going to mental-health calls. All of the things he has done have made Greensboro safer.” (Public Information Officer Ronald Glenn said the previous chief, Wayne Scott, discontinued use of the hobble, but James formalized the change in departmental directives.)

Soon after the death of Smith, who was a client at the Interactive Resource Center, Kennedy called for the city to establish a mental health-crisis response program.

“I certainly believe the dollars we invest in community-based support are dollars that aren’t needed for policing,” Kennedy said. “It was my baby. I feel strongly about it.”

Kennedy also cited Cure Violence, a program launched in Greensboro in 2019, as an example of redirecting funding from law enforcement to social needs. The program deploys so-called “interrupters” who work independently of the police to deescalate conflict. Cure Violence is administered by One Step Further which is run by Johnson, who has been recused from votes to allocate funding for the program.

“The outcomes are proving that it works,” Kennedy said.

While Wilkins said he was sickened by the manner in which Floyd died —  with a knee on his neck — he continued: “As far as defunding the police, I would not be in favor of that. In fact, I would be in favor of increasing funding to police. Some of that could include some of the psychiatric issues that are being addressed at this time.

“I think we all want fairness when it comes to the enforcement of the law,” Wilkins added. “Isn’t it a great country when we can peacefully protest?”

Rossabi said in a written statement to TCB that she believes the current city council has not supported the police department and its chief.

Echoing Abuzuaiter, Rossabi said, “I support policing changes that are initiated by people with experience in law enforcement. The great majority of the current city council has no law enforcement understanding or experience.”

Katie Rossabi is married to Amiel Rossabi, a Greensboro lawyer who has been involved in litigation against the city. Amiel Rossabi and his law partner Gavin Reardon are currently representing the Greensboro Police Officers Association in a case that is pending before the NC Supreme Court on whether city council members should be allowed to speak publicly about police-body camera video depicting an incident of alleged racial profiling that took place in 2016. And in 2018, Rossabi sued to try to block the city from condemning property for a parking deck connected to a downtown hotel development. The suit accused city council members, along with now-US Rep. Kathy Manning, of corruption. A spokesperson for the hotel developers called the statements “defamatory” at the time, and the suit was eventually dropped.

Amiel Rossabi is listed as the “keeper of records” in his wife’s candidate committee statement of organization on file with the Guilford County Board of Elections.

“As for my husband, Amiel Rossabi, he is a well-respected attorney who acts in the best interests of his clients without any involvement from me,” Katie Rossabi told TCB. “Similarly, I will act in the best interests of the citizens of Greensboro without any involvement from him.”

Responding to the pandemic’s effect on local businesses, housing

With restaurants and other small businesses struggling to keep their doors open amid the pandemic, candidates have displayed caution in broaching possible local government solutions to help sustain them.

“Local businesses are the backbone of our city, our economy,” Kennedy said. “Those dollars stay in our city. We need to do all we can to prop those businesses up.

“Looking at some things that happened statewide — giving restaurants the ability to serve drinks to go, that wasn’t super popular, but it allowed restaurants to find some other areas of revenue,” she said. “Allowing outdoor dining, which we did, also helped.”

Abuzuaiter said she wished the city was able to make grants to assist businesses that are struggling to survive, but cited a list of outside grants published by the Greensboro Public Library as an asset.

Wilkins commended Abuzuaiter for setting up a Facebook page to publicize restaurant takeout options in the city.

“I think that was true leadership,” he said. “I heard many good comments.” He added that he will research potential subsidies for small businesses as the campaign unfolds.

Rossabi indicated in an email that she favors relaxing restrictions on businesses.

“I support opening businesses, with appropriate safeguards for those populations at high risk,” she said. “I do not support the decimation of small business based upon politics.”

Johnson said city council needs to take its cues from business owners.

“Sometimes they know more about what they can do and what they need,” she said. “A collaborative effort with small-business owners works best. With restaurants, let’s come up with a list of safety precautions, and let them open up. I don’t want anybody to catch this coronavirus, but as more people are getting vaccinated, I think it’s time to prepare.”

The at-large incumbents are looking at a variety of strategies, both short- and long-term, to prevent a potential wave of evictions and to shore up the city’s affordable housing stock.

“Housing and homelessness is my wheelhouse,” Kennedy said. “It has been priority No. 1 for me since long before I ran for city council. This council has done more to advance issues around affordable housing and homelessness than any other.”

Like Mayor Nancy Vaughan, Kennedy wants to put a new housing bond on the ballot for voters to consider this year. The bond would provide financing for permanent supportive housing, and if approved Kennedy said Greensboro would the third city in the state to launch such a program.

“Safe, affordable housing” was the first priority named by Johnson.

The city of Greensboro recently received a $9 million grant from the federal government for rental assistance, and Johnson said she’s confident Congress will pass a new stimulus package that will include additional funds to cover back rent and utility. Those funds should help landlords and property investors avoid foreclosure, she said.

Some of the solutions presented by Johnson and other candidates are outside the purview of city government. Johnson said her nonprofit recently received a grant to mediate evictions.

“We’re going to do all we can to avoid people getting put out on the street,” she said. “That only intensifies the homelessness problem.”

Abuzuaiter cited an idea floated by District 4 Council member Nancy Hoffmann to encourage faith communities to sponsor families experiencing homelessness.

In response to a question about what role city government should play in supporting affordable housing, Rossabi turned the focus to household income.

“The answer to the housing crisis lies to a great extent with economic recovery,” she said. “I will work to address this issue.”

Notably, the two strongest advocates for safe, affordable housing are also focused on the jobs and income side of the equation.

“Jobs and job training, getting more business and industry to pay livable wages is another [priority],” Johnson said.

Kennedy said: “For me, the economic situation and housing go hand in hand. Those two things have to be addressed in tandem. Living-wage requirements — that still doesn’t get you there if you don’t have housing that supports people at that wage amount.”

Wilkins said he needs to research the options for preventing homelessness and protecting the city’s housing stock.

“That’s something we are going to have to face,” he said. “The exact answer I wouldn’t know until I’m presented with the facts. That is going to be a major concern for the next city council.”

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