Featured photo: GSO city council candidates from left to right, top to bottom: Sharon Hightower, Chip Roth, Tracy Furman, Nancy Hoffmann, Tammi Thurm and Zack Matheny (file photos)
Incumbents plan to seek re-election in at least three of the five district seats on Greensboro City Council, although it’s unclear what the districts will look like, or when the election will even be held.
Redistricting is required by state law and under the US Constitution after every decennial census. And due to the fact that delivery of the census data has been pushed back to late September — well after the statutory filing deadline — it’s not even clear when the next city council election will take place.
But three sitting council members — Sharon Hightower in District 1, Nancy Hoffmann in District 4 and Tammi Thurm in District 5 — have confirmed plans to run for reelection. Justin Outling, the current representative in District 3, is planning to challenge incumbent Nancy Vaughan for mayor, setting off a scramble to fill his vacant seat. Goldie Wells has not indicated whether she plans to seek re-election in District 2.
Hightower said she recently made up her mind to run for a fourth term. While ticking off some accomplishments, she said other efforts are beginning to come to fruition and she wants to see them through.
“The fact that we’ve really been having serious conversations around racial equity, and we’ve created the Ad-hoc Committee on African-American Disparity” helped sway her decision, she said. Hightower is the city council liaison to the committee. She said the city’s $15-per-hour minimum wage, which was implemented two years ahead of schedule, will help close racial disparities in the city, and touted the decision to make Juneteenth a paid holiday as a step forward. She said she wants to continue to be involved with the city’s Minority Women Business Enterprise program to keep pushing the city to provide more opportunities for minority contractors.
Hoffmann, who is completing her fourth term, said she sees her role in the next term as that of a “senior counselor.”
“Experience matters; I know that it makes a difference,” she said. “Whenever you start a new job, there is a learning curve. I think experience matters, and knowing your way around counts for something.”
She also has personal reasons for wanting to stay involved.
“It may be a curse, but I have a brain that doesn’t seem to turn off,” she said. “I’m always noodling on different ideas, thinking about different things. I want to continue to do that.”
Tammi Thurm, who is completing her first term, also plans to run again.
Chip Roth, a business consultant with ties to the Biden and Obama administrations, kicked off the District 3 race in early February by launching an attack against potential candidate Zack Matheny, raising concerns about a possible conflict of interest with his job as president of Downtown Greensboro Inc. Matheny defended the propriety of serving in both positions, saying he has cleared it with the city attorney. Matheny sent out a campaign fundraising email on Feb. 8, but said in an email to Triad City Beat on Tuesday that it’s still too early to confirm whether he’s officially running.
Tracy Furman, a former candidate for Guilford County Commission and executive director of Triad Local First, initially announced her candidacy for the District 3 seat in mid-February but switched her intentions to the at-large seat this week.
Pushback against ‘defund the police’
As the representative of District 1, one of the two majority-minority districts in the city, Sharon Hightower’s constituents expect her to consistently press the case for racial equity. The position typically requires the representative to point out disparities, and also to gauge incremental gains. But the killing of George Floyd shattered the illusion of progress in Black communities across the country.
“Why are Black people having such a hard time?” Hightower asked. “Why has every other group progressed, and we haven’t progressed? We say we have arrived, and then an incident like George Floyd occurs, and we say, ‘If we’ve arrived, why are we having to deal with this continuously?’”
But Hightower, who is perhaps the most progressive member of council, rejects the demand raised by many of the protesters in the summer of 2020 to defund the police.
“When we talk about defunding the police, it’s really not ‘get rid of the police’ because we need policing,” she said. “I think it’s really a conversation around, can we do both? Can we have policing, but also have the resources that the community really needs to strengthen their community, whether it’s more community recreation centers, more mentorship, more education.”
Hightower pointed to racial-equity training undertaken by the Greensboro Police Department, along with investments in affordable housing, job training, mental-health services and the Cure Violence program as examples of how the city is addressing systemic racism.
“‘Defund the police’ is a bumper-sticker phrase,” said Nancy Hoffmann, the District 4 representative, while asserting that city council has addressed some of the concerns about systemic racism. For example, she noted that she has supported the Cure Violence program, which deploys violence “interrupters” to mediate conflicts independently of the police and head off problems before the police need to get involved.
Tammi Thurm, the District 5 representative, cautioned against comparing Greensboro to other cities across the country that are reducing police budgets.
“Look at a city like Austin that has defunded their police,” she said. “They were spending 86 percent more than we were per citizen. I do not foresee us moving any significant funds from police to other services. Our police department is struggling with funding now.”
Tracy Furman, an at-large candidate, said she supports police reform, but not scaling back the force.
“I am not for carte-blanche taking money away and putting it someplace else,” she said. “I think it’s a both-and question, not either-or. Our police department needs reform.” She added that she is impressed by Chief Brian James’ leadership, citing the new Homeless Assistance Resource Team, whose officers are encouraged to refer people experiencing homelessness to services rather than make arrests.
“There’s only two police officers assigned to it,” Furman said. “When I am on city council, I would definitely move to expand that. When it comes to racial justice and mental health, we definitely need to address them. We need to make sure all of our departments and services support equity.”
Roth has mentioned that his son is mixed-race in answer to a question about the demands raised during the protests for racial justice last summer.
“I’m concerned that some that seek local public office may find false security in engaging in a national discussion,” he said. “I am not a proponent of defunding the police. I am a proponent of refining our approach to the challenges that police officers commonly face. We should expand to the capacity for us to bring mental health services to our citizens.”