Incumbents all sail to victory in Greensboro council race

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by Eric Ginsburg, Jordan Green and Brian Clarey

Across the board, voters returned Greensboro City Council incumbents to office by resounding margins in Tuesday’s general election. Voters also approved doubling council terms to four years, beginning in 2017.

This is the first time since 2005 that Greensboro reelected its mayor.

Nancy Vaughan, who was elected as mayor in 2013 after several terms on council, will stay in office after crushing challenger Devin King in the general election this week. It’s been a full decade since the last time an incumbent mayor won; Keith Holliday, who showed up at the old Guilford County Courthouse to watch the results with Vaughan and others, had the honor.

Vaughan actually received a slightly higher percentage of the votes than she did in the Oct. 6 primary when she still had two challengers, winning on Tuesday with 87.7 percent of the vote, a 0.1 percent improvement from last month.

Devin King, a political newcomer backed by the fringe group Conservatives for Guilford County, received 2,232 votes to Vaughan’s 17,995. Other candidates backed by the tea party group and other right-wingers lost hard as well.

Vaughan, Outling, Hoffmann and Abuzuaiter celebrate
Vaughan, Outling, Hoffmann and Abuzuaiter celebrate

A few other things stand out from the otherwise predictable election results: Justin Outling became the first black person elected to represent a district that isn’t majority-minority, Jamal Fox won with a higher percentage than any other candidate with an opponent and Sharon Hightower dramatically increased the gap between herself and her rematch opponent.

Only one race featured a rematch of the candidates from the last city council election; in District 1, former councilwoman Dianne Bellamy-Small returned to challenge Hightower this year after Hightower won by a dozen votes in 2013.

A few voters in the district who voted towards the end of Election Day on Tuesday told Triad City Beat that they admired both candidates. While voting at bellwether precinct Bluford Elementary, Gary Kellogg declined to say who he voted for in the district race but expressed overall satisfaction with the city’s direction.

“It’s good to have competition,” he said of the District 1 race. “It’s good to have qualified candidates. It shows that we are involved in our election process and that our community is taking responsibility for progressing.”

Tristan Smith, who voted at Trinity AME Zion Church an hour before the polls closed, couldn’t decide between the two candidates.

“I closed my eyes and crossed my arms while I was voting, so you’ll have to ask my finger who I voted for,” he said.

But that’s not what most voters in the district did — a large majority of those who turned out intentionally voted for incumbent Sharon Hightower, delivering 63.7 percent of the vote to her, with 2,448 votes to Bellamy-Small’s 1,384.

Watching the results come in at the courthouse, Bellamy-Small wasn’t pleased.

“This was scary,” she said. “The early voting, we only had 3,236 people for the whole city. That’s like 1.8 percent. That’s not good.”

Hightower, who initially watched the returns at a hair salon with friends and supporters, arrived last to the courthouse, triumphantly hugging Mayor Vaughan and clearly proud of her unassailable victory.

“I love the numbers, are you kidding?” she said.

“How many times can you multiply by 12?” she added, referring to the 1,064 votes separating the two candidates as compared to just 12 votes last time around.

When asked by Rhino Times Editor John Hammer why so many more people voted for her, Hightower responded without hesitation: “Because they didn’t read the Rhino!”

Jamal Fox was one of only two council members who didn’t show up to the courthouse to participate in the collective rejoicing. Incumbent Tony Wilkins, a conservative and sometimes a loner on council who had no challenger to represent District 5, captured 95.3 percent of the vote, more than Councilwoman Nancy Hoffmann (93.9 percent), who also ran unopposed. In the 21 precincts in Hoffmann’s District 4, 4,210 people voted for her while 272 wrote in a candidate. That’s significantly more votes than Wilkins received — 2,040 while 101 people wrote in a candidate out of 23 total precincts.

Fox waited for the results to come in from a watch party he hosted at Revolution Mill in his District 2. From the jump as early voting results showed on the screen, he held a commanding lead. By the time it ended, Fox held just over 88 percent of the votes, beating his opponent, first-time candidate Thessa Pickett, by a higher percentage than even Mayor Vaughan did in her race.

In a victory speech, Fox called the high percentage “a true testament” to everything he’s done since beating incumbent Jim Kee in 2013.

“This has been a long two years,” Fox said. “But I’ll tell you what the next two years is going to look like for our community is, it focuses on economic development. Everything that we’ve talked about as far as bringing jobs, we’re gonna see that happening.”

Fox’s challenger and some of her supporters criticized him for not being vocal enough about issues raised by Black Lives Matter and other local activists, but he objected to the characterization in his speech.

“I have to address something,” he said. “A lot of people had a lot of criticism. They said I don’t speak up enough, I’m not black enough, or you know, I’m not radical enough. Well, you know, I don’t have to be radical to be a leader in this community, to lead us to the next generation. Because, guess what, it takes all of us working together. And this community will come together in unity.”

SONY DSCDistrict 3 ended up being the most interesting of the district-level races. After receiving 60.2 percent of the vote in the October primary while running against two Republicans, Democrat Justin Outling actually improved on his percentage on Tuesday, walking away with 64.8 percent of the vote while challenger Kurt Collins only garnered 34.8 percent. That could be in part due to the fact that Michael Picarelli, the former head of the Guilford County GOP, threw his support behind Outling after being eliminated in the primary.

But Collins, who was supported by Conservatives for Guilford County, said other factors likely played into the contest as well. For starters, Outling out-raised and outspent him significantly, receiving a large number of donations from colleagues at Brooks Pierce law firm, where he works.

“It’s hard to beat money, right?” Collins said as he watched the results from the corner of the room at the downtown courthouse. Collins said the media provided favorable coverage of Outling and said his opponent also benefited from name recognition from being appointed to council during the summer to fill the remainder of councilman Zack Matheny’s term.

Still, he welcomed the results that put him above 30 percent, and said he would be back, though maybe in a different contest.

“I’ll run for something,” he said. “I don’t know what yet. This won’t be the last you see of me.”

Nobody who knows anything about city politics is surprised that Mayor Pro Tem Yvonne Johnson roared into first place in the at-large race. With three seats available — all of them filled on Tuesday by incumbents — Johnson still received more than 2,000 votes above Councilwoman Marikay Abuzuaiter and more than 3,000 votes above Councilman Mike Barber.

Abuzuaiter, who was elected to her third straight term on council, rose from the bottom of the winner’s pool to best Barber, but he was unconcerned.

“You run for the spot,” Barber said, crediting his tough stance towards the International Civil Rights Center & Museum with losing him a chunk of the black electorate. “I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to serve Greensboro for two more years.”

Barber still walloped the three newcomers who challenged the incumbents; collectively they received 18.7 percent of the vote, with former police officer Marc Ridgill leading the pack, while Barber walked away with 24.4 percent of the vote. He will spend the upcoming term focusing on raising the city’s level of customer service and working to make sure that projects have urgency behind them rather than languishing indefinitely.

“You want these projects to move at a private-sector pace,” he said.

And like other council members during the race, Barber emphasized that this council works harmoniously together and is moving Greensboro in a positive, progressive direction. Apparently that sounds good to the residents, at least the 11.3 percent of registered voters who participated.