Greensboro voters nudge council to the left with Kennedy and Thurm

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At-large candidate Michelle Kennedy celebrates a narrow victory at the Old County Courthouse on election night. (photo by Lauren Barber)

Greensboro voters elevated two progressive women onto city council on Tuesday, while evicting the two most conservative members of the body.

Michelle Kennedy, a 42-year-old nonprofit leader who made fighting poverty her signature campaign issue alongside racial equity and police accountability, squeaked past incumbent Mike Barber to secure one of the three seats on city council by only 100 votes. The margin is within 1 percent, meaning that Barber has the opportunity to request a recount.

And in District 5, Democrat Tammi Thurm ousted incumbent Tony Wilkins, the only Republican on the nonpartisan body, by a convincing 10-point margin.

“I think this has been a clear message Greensboro is ready for new leadership that better reflects the values of the community,” said Kennedy, who wore a UE Local 150 Greensboro City Workers Union T-shirt as she celebrated in the Old County Courthouse with other victorious candidates.

Thurm, an administrator at a law firm, said she was surprised by her win, and expected the result to be much closer. She downplayed ideology as a factor in the outcome for District 5, previously considered a conservative stronghold.

“I think people want to be represented by people that care about them,” Thurm said. “The fact that we spent so much time going out to talk to voters weekend after weekend made a difference.”

In other races, the center-left coalition held firm, with voters returning Mayor Nancy Vaughan to a third term over challenger Diane Moffett by a vote of 67.2 percent to 31.6 percent. Yvonne Johnson and Marikay Abuzuaiter easily held onto the top two spots in the at-large category, and incumbents prevailed in the remaining four district races, with percentages ranging from 67.1 percent to 84.4 percent.

“I don’t think there’s going to be a huge learning curve on this council,” Vaughan said.

The new council is the first that will serve for four years instead of two. Speaking in the hallway outside the Blue Room in the Old County Courthouse where candidates and supporters watched the returns come in, Vaughan laid out a brisk agenda for the next term. She said the council will hold a vote to move forward construction of the Tanger Performing Arts Center next month. A potentially thorny issue on the agenda is revamping the police community review board in response to widespread discontent with the process for handling citizen complaints of police abuse.

Vaughan said the council will rededicate itself to tackling poverty, which has remained stuck at a stubborn 20 percent since the onset of the Great Recession. She said she’s working with Councilwoman Sharon Hightower, who represents District 1, to bring in a consultant to facilitate a series of town-hall meetings. And she wants to create an office of equity to ensure that every decision made by the city is done so with an eye towards equity.

The balance between change and stability reflected in the results Tuesday night echoed a sentiment by Marshall Nelson, a Lindley Park resident.

“I’m fairly happy with how the incumbents have done, and how they’ve stood their ground against the politicians in Raleigh,” he said. “There is a new girl, Michelle Kennedy. She walked the beat in the neighborhood, and I like what she had to say. Her platform on facilitating affordable housing is a good thing.”

Longstanding frustration with Republican state lawmakers, who have held power in Raleigh since 2013, and shock at the election of Donald Trump last year at the national level, may have nudged Greensboro politics to the left in this election.

“I think Greensboro has always been a progressive city,” Mayor Vaughan said. “Given the national situation, that has driven that a little further to the left.”

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Tammi Thurm (left) celebrates with Nancy Hoffmann on election night. (photo by Lauren Barber)

The ouster of Wilkins and Barber — assuming Barber’s result isn’t overturned in a recount — means there will be no white men on the council in the next term. Eight out of nine seats will be held by women, with the exception of Justin Outling, who is black. Outling said he remains proud to be the first Democrat elected to represent District 3 and the first person of color to represent a district where people of color are not the majority. Outling was appointed to the seat in 2015, and then won his first election the same year.

Outling said the outcome of this election, with voters favoring incumbents in seven out of nine contests, confirms that the citizens want results-oriented government, not platitudes.

“This city council has been very progressive on social issues,” said Outling who prevailed over challenger Craig Martin, 72.6 percent to 27.0 percent. “In the campaign season I didn’t hear a lot of ideas about how people might further what we’ve done. It’s different to say you support affordable housing than to show how you’re going to do it. We pushed an affordable-housing bond that was passed overwhelmingly in 2016. This city council, we all agree on the platitudes, one to nine, Republican to Democrat. What matters is how you get it done. An overwhelming number of the constituents appreciate that.”

Nancy Hoffmann, who was first elected to council in 2011, also easily won her race with 67.1 percent of the vote, over challenger Gary Kenton, who took 32.5 percent.

Hoffmann said she considers her win a repudiation of criticism by Kenton that she and other incumbents failed to demonstrate transparency on policing issues and were not sufficiently willing to stand up to bullying by the state General Assembly.

“Serious candidates talk about serious issues,” she said. “They have a vision and they talk about the future. This negative stuff — voters never want that.”

Hoffmann said she wants to continue to work on economic development, adding that the city is poised for impressive growth.

Goldie Wells, a former city councilwoman who was appointed to fill the unexpired term of Councilman Jamal Fox, will hold the District 2 seat after voters gave her 71.2 percent of returns. Wells came through a bruising primary in which Black Lives Matter candidate CJ Brinson was narrowly eliminated by Jim Kee, a conservative developer and former city council member. Kee switched his voter registration from Democrat to Republican shortly after the primary. The primary campaign featured a robust debate over economic development and police accountability, among other issues.

“I plan to get input from the district to make it our priorities,” Wells said on Tuesday. “I want to work with the other council members from the districts to bring equity. We all want a city that is not divided; city council has to be the example.”

  • Sookie Sookie

    “Outling said the outcome of this election, with voters favoring incumbents over more left-leaning challengers in seven out of nine contests”

    This is incorrect – 3 of the incumbents were not challenged from the left during the general election: Yvonne Johnson, Goldie Wells, and Sharon Hightower. In other words, movement folks got 5 of their candidates elected, while only 4 incumbents managed to beat their more progressive challengers: Mayor Vaughan, Justin Outling, Nancy Hoffman, and Marikay Abuzuaiter.

    • Jordan Green

      You’re right. I’m happy to correct this. To be fair to Outling, I take responsibility for the breakdown, although the quote accurately reflected that Outling said the outcome of the election confirmed that citizens want results-oriented government.

      • Sookie Sookie

        Thanks, Jordan. (The quick correction is backwards tho – voters favored incumbents in 7 out of 9, not 2) We all appreciate your reporting on the election so quick!

  • I’m looking forward to my town getting a chance to vote for our state reps. Many of them don’t reflect the values of Greensboro citizens

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