Featured photo: (L-R) Marikay Abuzuaiter (D), Yvonne Johnson (D), Hugh Holston (U), Melodi Fentress (R), Tracy Furman (D), Franca Jalloh (D), Dustin Keene (U), Katie Rossabi (R) and Linda Wilson (D).

UPDATE: This article was updated on April 26 to include responses from candidate Taffy Buchanan.

In the fight for the Greensboro city council at-large seats, three incumbents will take on seven additional candidates for the upcoming May 17 primary, with six advancing to the general election on July 26. Like the mayor, the three at-large members of city council are elected to represent the city as a whole and serve four-year terms.

The incumbents running for re-election for the at-large seat include Marikay Abuzuaiter (D), Yvonne Johnson (D) and Hugh Holston (U). While the Greensboro city council race is a nonpartisan race, for the purposes of this story, Triad City Beat has included the political party that each candidate has registered under as noted on their state voter registration. Those running to unseat the incumbents include Taffy Buchanan (U), Melodi Fentress (R), Tracy Furman (D), Franca Jalloh (D), Dustin Keene (U), Katie Rossabi (R) and Linda Wilson (D).

The candidates are listed in order of last name starting with the incumbents.

Marikay Abuzuaiter (D)

A long-time incumbent with ties to the police

Come May, this will be Marikay Abuzuaiter’s seventh time running for office and her fourth time running as an incumbent. Abuzuaiter began her political journey in 2007 when she first ran for city council and lost by about 100 votes. She ran a second time just two years later, in 2009, when city council seats were two-term seats and lost by 500 votes. Then, in 2011, Abuzuaiter was elected to one of the three at-large seats, which she has held for the last decade. Since then, she has come under fire for her alignment with local law enforcement, particularly after Triad City Beat co-founder Eric Ginsburg, broke a story in 2013 for Yes! Weekly finding that Abuzuaiter had worked as a confidential informant for the Greensboro Police Department. The story uncovered emails obtained by Ginsburg showing that Abuzuaiter forwarded information to police about activist gatherings in 2010 and 2011, often with projections about which groups and individuals would participate. According to Abuzuaiter’s campaign website, she has been endorsed by the Greensboro Police Officers Association. When asked about police reform in light of the 2018 and 2020 killings of Marcus Deon Smith and George Floyd, Abuzuaiter expressed her support for Greensboro Police Chief Brian James, who was first hired for the role in 2020.

“Our current Police Chief, Brian James, has done everything in his power to make sure that anything that will help bridge the gap between the community and the police department is implemented,” Abuzuaiter said. “On his first day as Chief, he changed many directives that needed to be revised and/or changed.”

According to reporting by TCB, the Greensboro Police Department had implemented five of the eight “8 Can’t Wait” policies — an anti-police violence platform that took off in the aftermath of the George Floyd murder — by mid last year. Abuzuaiter also noted that she supports the co-response team that assists officers on mental health calls as well as the police department’s homeless outreach team.

In addition to public safety, Abuzuaiter said her main objectives as a council member include economic development, infrastructure and housing for the influx of employees the city will see from its new business partnerships such as Boom Supersonic and the Toyota megaplant.

“We need to work with real estate developers to make sure that the appropriate type of housing/development is considered for our workforce and for the betterment of the community,” she said. “Most all developers have meetings with surrounding neighborhoods to make sure that everyone understands what is being planned and to make sure the neighborhood is supportive. This is where the city is most important in assisting the developer and the community to have those conversations.”

However, many of the councilmembers, including Abuzuaiter, have been noticeably quiet when it comes to the plight of the residents of the Hiatt Street mobile home park. Recently, Yes! Weekly reported that the remaining residents have until the end of this month to vacate the property. Reporting by TCB and other news outlets have shown that only Michelle Kennedy, a former city council member, has been actively involved in working with the residents throughout the process.

As far as her greatest accomplishments, Abuzuaiter noted her work on the Family Justice Center project, chairing the Metropolitan Planning Organization and the Piedmont Authority for Regional Transportation, and working with Crimestoppers as well as Mothers Standing Against Gun Violence.

Hugh Holston (U)

A new incumbent with a focus on business

It hasn’t been that long since Hugh Holston has been a city councilmember. Holston was unanimously chosen for the seat in September 2021 after Michelle Kennedy resigned from the post in August to take a job with the city. Holston, who is registered as unaffiliated, formerly served as chair of the city’s planning and zoning commission and has served as chair of the board of adjustment. As part of his run for re-election Holston said he is focusing on “three pillars for progress: economic development, public safety and community engagement.”

He noted his track record in business, which includes 17 years as assistant vice president for AT&T as well as assistant vice president of Wells Fargo in Greensboro, as evidence of his skills in working with budgets and project management.

“My track record of over 30 years of finance and business experience affords me the skills to hit the ground running to understand the financials that will drive future decisions that impact Greensboro,” Holston wrote.

Holston argued that some of the main issues facing Greensboro include job creation, and making it easier to do business in Greensboro by designing effective public transit, housing and public safety. To recruit and retain college students and talent in the city Holston suggested supporting more incubators and opening workspaces to foster start-ups and small businesses. He also supported the idea of working with local universities to develop curriculums for a “talent pipeline” to the new businesses like Boom Supersonic and Toyota.

“While our identity was primarily textiles and manufacturing for so long, we are now adding technology and distribution to our identity,” Holston said. “Recent new business opportunities… are examples of this complementary mix…. The combination of high-quality research at our local colleges and universities, available land and infrastructure (especially in the east and southeast), workers with skills and a ‘can-do’ city council will well-position residents of Greensboro to live, work and engage into the future.”

Yvonne Johnson (D)

Current mayor pro-tem and the first Black mayor of Greensboro

As far as incumbents go, Yvonne Johnson touts the most experience of them all. First elected to Greensboro city council from 1993-2007 to an at-large seat, Johnson has since served as Greensboro’s first Black mayor (2007-09) as well as mayor pro tem, a position she currently holds — the mayor pro tem is the at-large member who gets the most votes.

Johnson has served as the executive director for One Step Further, Inc., a nonprofit that helps people convicted of crimes through mediation, nutritional programs, life skills classes and a teen-court program that provides trials for first-offenders aged 8-17.

In her responses to TCB’s candidate questionnaire, Johnson pointed to her decades of experience as evidence of her ability to help lead the city. She noted her efforts as part of the recruitment team that helped land the Honda Jet and Lab Corp. contracts as well as serving as the council liaison for the development of Willow Oaks, one of the city’s redevelopment housing projects. During her time as mayor, Johnson helped to start the International Advisory Council which helps facilitate conversations and understand the needs of the immigrant community in Greensboro.

In terms of what she still wants to work on, Johnson noted that economic development, including small businesses that pay workers a living wage, was high on her list. She also said she wants to help the police department develop a better relationship with the community. Last year, prior to Michelle Kennedy’s resignation, Johnson was the only other councilmember besides Kennedy who supported an independent investigation into the death of Marcus Deon Smith. At the time, she said that she wanted to settle the civil suit “at a rate that is reasonable and satisfactory to the family.”

On Feb. 1, the city settled with Smith’s family for $2.57 million.

Johnson also said that with so many colleges and universities in the city, she would like to see each of the institutions flex their creative muscles by installing street art or public art in their respective areas.

“I have extended experience and have experienced what works and what doesn’t,” she said. “I love Greensboro and want to see our city be one of the most viable cities in the US.”

Taffy L. Buchanan (U)

The largest issues facing Greensboro in Taffy Buchanan’s opinion, are homelessness, food shortages and unsafe living spaces. As a longtime resident of Greensboro, Buchanan said she’s fit to help lead the city because she has “witnessed firsthand all of Greensboro’s changes, both good and bad.”

“I know that I can help this city grow and I want to be at the forefront making sure that its growth is balanced, purposeful and headed in a direction that ALL of Greensboro will benefit from,” she said.

In terms of police reform, Buchanan said that everyone in the community was hurt by the death of Marcus Deon Smith. She said no one should die at the hands of police and that there needs to be reform on a “sensitivity level.”

“Officers need to be better trained on de-escalation and on how to recognized mentally ill persons,” she said. “Unfortunately, this did not happen but the appropriate reform/training is definitely a step towards preventing this from happening in the future.”

Mentioning the recent growth the city has seen with major contracts like Boom Supersonic and the Toyota megaplant, Buchanan said she would continue to work with programs like “NCWorks to ensure that our community have a the opportunities to receive proper training and acquire skills that will allow them to be able to equally compete and benefit from this growth.”

Melodi Fentress (R)

A vaccine-skeptic and farm lover focused on public transportation

Melodi Fentress is one of two registered Republicans who are running for the at-large seats in this race. Fentress currently works as the owner of Rainbow Magic Alpaca Farm, a business that “specializes in environmentally conscious fiber production, compassionate animal-centered care and alpaca therapy for exceptional children and adults,” according to the business’ website. Fentress has also previously worked for the Blind Tiger as a marketing manager and as the gallery director for a local art shop.

When asked why she was running for office, Fentress said that the “current city council has been in power for too long and has made it clear they serve their special interests and the interests of big business over the interest of their constituents.”

Fentress noted the city’s crime rate, improving the public transportation system and combatting food deserts as some of her key platform ideas.

For the crime rate, Fentress suggested investing in the police department to “crackdown on violent and property crimes.” She stated that the “most egregious area is the vast shortage of officers on the force leaving police and citizens vulnerable.” She also said that the police department should be “fully funded,” and should prioritize combatting violent and property crimes rather than non-violent drug offenses.

When it comes to public transportation, Fentress pointed out that the current system doesn’t “provide transportation from low-income neighborhoods to areas of the city where there is access to decent-paying jobs.” She also commented on the lack of bus shelters overall in the city.

As a farmer herself, Fentress advocated for easing restrictions on the rules for community gardens and urban farms. She said policies and fees needed to be reduced to encourage more of these types of farms and also advocated for the addition of bus stop markets to combat food insecurity.

While the city of Greensboro has not had a mask mandate for several weeks, Fentress notes on her campaign website that she supports medical freedom.

“I will never support the mandate of medical devices or treatments, including but not limited to mask mandates and vaccine passports,” Fentress writes. “I will advocate for and support defunding and removing all city-sponsored COVID-19 testing, tracking and tracing.”

On her Facebook, Fentress has shared COVID-19 misinformation including misleading posts stating that masks harm children physically and psychologically, as well as statistics that attempt to downplay COVID-19 by stating the survival rate of the world population. She has also compared the influx of migrants at the US-Mexico border to the Russian invasion of Ukraine in a Facebook story.

(photo by Vanderveen Photography)

Tracy Furman (D)

Nonprofit leader with a background in public policy

Tracy Furman first entered the political realm in 2018 when she ran for Guilford County Commission, barely losing to Republican Justin Conrad by less than one percentage point.

In February 2021, Furman announced her intentions to run for the District 3 city council seat but later switched to running in the at-large race. She is the executive director of Triad Local First, a nonprofit that promotes local businesses, a position she previously told TCB she would keep if elected to council.

In her answers to TCB’s questionnaire, Furman stated that she would bring new ideas to combat issues that pertain to housing, jobs and transportation in the city.

“I have studied public policy at Johns Hopkins and will bring that knowledge to the job,” she said. “I have also been on the Minimum Housing Standard Commission for three years…. I bring both the work and the academic knowledge that no one person has.”

Furman mentioned the lack of access to shops and retail in east Greensboro and a need to improve the public transportation system, including allowing college and university students to use the bus lines for free.

“We need better connectivity between schools and businesses for internships and employment,” she said.

She mentioned the need for better-priced housing for students as well as a need for council to keep its overarching goals for the city in mind when it comes to working with developers.

“We need a broader plan for the whole city and while we need to work with developers to see the plan through, we need to keep the interest of the city as the guide,” she said.

When it comes to the growth the city has seen in the last few years, Furman said that she wants to make sure the city is utilizing small businesses to support these larger entities coming into the city.

“This will be an enormous time for engineering firms, machine-making facilities and all other times of supporting industries and we need to foster that growth as well,” she said.

With regards to police reform, Furman was the only candidate who alluded to the fact that the GPD killed another unarmed man back in November 2021 — Joseph Lopez. She said she wants to make sure the culture of the police department is “one of community policing and not militant enemy/combatant.”

“I’m sure the police chief believes what they have is community policing but my experience with the training during the city academy told me otherwise,” Furman said.

She pointed to the STAR program, which stands for “Support Team Assisted Response” and will act as an extension of the already existing co-response model of policing that the city has in place, as a good start. The city received $330,000 as part of the state budget to expand that program at the end of last year.

Franca Jalloh (D)

Immigrant advocate with a background in police reform

Although this is Franca Jalloh’s first time running for political office, she’s no stranger to city government. Jalloh, who has more than 15 years of legal experience helping the immigrant community, has served as the chair for the city’s International Advisory Committee — the first woman to do so — and currently serves as a commissioner on the city’s Criminal Justice Advisory Committee as well as a board member of the Police Community Review Board. She, like Tracy Furman, is a graduate of the city’s police citizens academy.

As a Black, Muslim immigrant from Sierra Leone, Jalloh has built her reputation working on behalf of the local immigrant community, namely through her work as the founder of the nonprofit Jalloh’s Upright Services of North Carolina, an organization that supports international, low-income immigrant and refugee community members by connecting them with resources. Using this background, Jalloh told TCB that she is running to remove barriers and “support initiatives investing in job training opportunities and resources that will help make our most marginalized communities have what is needed to survive and thrive.”

In terms of specific campaign platforms, Jalloh listed education equity, economic opportunity, housing security and justice and public safety as her top priorities.

As a member of GCJAC and the PCRB, Jalloh said that in order to promote public safety, the city needs to address the root causes of crime such as economic disparities. To do so, she supports eliminating cash bail and decriminalizing homelessness and mental health issues. She also stated that she would fight back “against hostile law enforcement agencies that seek to tear our immigrant families apart.”

When it comes to the influx of large companies to Greensboro, Jalloh said the city “has done a great job of incentivizing business to come here,” but that she wants to make sure to hold those businesses accountable and also invest in minority and women business enterprises. She supports city workers making a living wage and incentivizing businesses to prioritize hiring residents who need second chances.

When asked about working with developers, Jalloh had the most direct response of any of the candidates. She mentioned unsafe housing conditions, holding negligent landlords responsible and increasing municipal support for repairs so homeowners can stay in their homes.

“I believe it’s a conflict of interest for city council representatives to work closely with real estate developers who only seek after making profits rather than securing the best interest of the people they serve,” Jalloh said.

(photo by Katie Klein Photography)

Dustin Keene (U)

An entrepreneur with broad ideas, no political experience

Despite the fact that Dustin Keene is entering the political realm for the first time, he is a fairly well-known entity in the Greensboro community. Keene is the owner of both Common Grounds Coffee Shop, which has been open since 2013, and the Flat Iron, a music space in downtown Greensboro which opened in 2019.

As an entrepreneur and artistic spacemaker, Keene describes himself as a “champion of the arts” and talked about utilizing the city’s creative and innovative leaders to enact change, much like in the way of mayoral candidate Eric Robert, with whom Keene is close friends. Many of Keene’s talking points expressed broad views of change rather than specific policy initiatives, alluding to his lack of political experience.

One of the more specific answers Keene gave pertained to his thoughts on police reform. To that, he mentioned that the department should invest in an education approach and officers should learn “how to de-escalate any situation.” He also supported paying police officers more.

Katie Rossabi (R)

Conservative who says Marcus Smith was treated “humanely” by police

While Rossabi did not answer TCB’s candidate questionnaire, she has spoken to TCB in the past and her website offers her views on a number of topics, namely policing.

In a previous article for TCB, Rossabi said she didn’t feel that the current city council has supported the police department and its chief.

“I support policing changes that are initiated by people with experience in law enforcement,” Rossabi said at the time.

On her website she supports increasing pay for officers and “will speak out against those who wrongly try to vilify them.” She also notes that she would support any police reform by experienced law enforcement.

In one of her campaign videos posted last year, Rossabi alludes to the Marcus Deon Smith case, disparaging the forthcoming $2.57 million settlement that was reached earlier this year.

“What you shouldn’t see is our city council and mayor trying to decide on an unwarranted settlement amount,” Rossabi says in the video. “A settlement that would go to the family of a man who was on drugs and had serious health issues. A man who died in the ambulance after police officers humanely helped him get assistance.”

As TCB and many other outlets have reported, Marcus Deon Smith was killed in September 2018 after he was hogtied by police. Smith’s death was ruled a homicide despite the city’s findings that officers had not violated any departmental policies. Hogtying was banned by the police chief shortly after Smith’s death.

In the same video, Rossabi also laments the use of funds to support Cure Violence and the Interactive Resource Center that are run by Mayor Pro Tem Yvonne Johnson and former councilmember Michelle Kennedy respectively. Studies and data have shown that Cure Violence, a violence disruptor program, works as an alternative to policing. The Interactive Resource Center is a nonprofit that works with unhoused individuals during the day. In her video business growth and development, Rossabi appears to place blame for how “dirty” the city is on a downtown that is “overrun by the homeless due to the city council and mayor gutting the homeless ordinances.”

Past city ordinances targeting panhandlers were alleged to violate freedom of speech, equal protection and due process against the city.

Part of Rossabi’s stance on policing may be influenced by her husband Amiel Rossabi, who has supported the Greensboro Police Officers Association through his work. As reported by TCB in the past, Rossabi and his partner Gavin Reardon currently represent the police association as part of a North Carolina Supreme Court hearing which would decide “whether city council members should be allowed to speak publicly about police body-worn camera footage depicting an incident of alleged racial profiling that took place in 2016.” Rossabi and Reardon, as part of Rossabi Reardon Klein Spivey law firm, argued to maintain the gag order which would prohibit council members from publicly discussing the contents. TCB and roughly a dozen other community organizations signed onto an amicus brief that supported the city of Greensboro’s appeal which argued that the gag order subverts the right to self-governance. The case is currently ongoing.

Linda Wilson (D)

NC A&T alumna with years of leadership experience

An Aggie through and through, Linda Wilson brings years of medical administrative experience to her role as a city council candidate. Wilson currently serves as the executive director of the Sebastian Health Center on NC A&T State University’s campus where she attended and received her Bachelor of Science, master’s degree in guidance and counseling and PhD in leadership studies and adult education.

While she doesn’t have any political experience, Wilson said that she has extensive management experience, namely in the healthcare field, and was recognized for her efforts with a North Carolina Governor’s Award for Excellence. In addition to working as the executive director of the student health center, Wilson has served as the interim director of alumni affairs at NCA&T, as well as the assistant athletic director for the athletics department.

In her candidate responses, Wilson said she would focus on economic development, expanding public transportation and improving safety. With regards to policing, Wilson said she supports providing police offices with mental health training, cultural sensitivity and equity and inclusion training.

In terms of economic development, Wilson said she supports news businesses coming to Greensboro, but that council should “make sure every stage of development is mindful of the environment and energy resources.” She also noted that when working with developers, that city leaders should “err on the side of caution” and identify areas where “there may be a difference in what the city needs and what the real estate developers offer.” Part of recognizing the needs of the community includes being attuned to the immigrant and refugee populations, which Wilson said she would do by working with nonprofit agencies like the Center for New North Carolinians.

Early voting for the May 17 primary begins on April 28. The general election for all Greensboro city council races will take place on July 26.

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