Nancy Hoffmann, a three-term incumbent seeking reelection in the central-west District 4, eviscerated the platform of a progressive political action committee vetting city council candidates at Smith High School on Saturday.
Standing at a podium in the school auditorium, alongside opponent Gary Kenton, Hoffmann started by insulting a linocut graphic on an older version of Democracy Greensboro’s tri-fold brochure depicting a man in a wide-brimmed hat scattering seeds under the heading “Sewing the seeds of change in Greensboro.”
“I must admit I found the graphics a bit off,” Hoffmann said. “I’m not sure I’ve seen many farmers sowing seeds like this in Greensboro. It made me think of socialist workers art from the 1950s.
“To me, the picture of Greensboro looks much more like this,” Hoffmann added, holding up a color photo of smiling college-age people of different races. “It’s the young people who are the future of this city.”
And she wasn’t done.
“Sadly, the platform also contains some hot-button language that I think does not help the cause,” she said. “Terms like ‘distributing the wealth’ and describing the equipment of the civil emergency unit as ‘military equipment’ is misleading to say the least — perhaps written for another community, not Greensboro,” Hoffmann said.
Hoffmann acknowledged that the police department maintains an armored vehicle, which she said is used in hostage situations like one that occurred last week on Huffine Mill Road. She said its purpose is “to get people out of harm’s way.”
Hoffmann continued: “A call to disband the civil emergency unit is a bit incendiary, at the least.”
Kenton responded: “No, I think rescinding DACA is incendiary. Building more privatized prisons is incendiary. And building more military might and bringing a national military presence to our police — I think that’s the incendiary part.”
Hoffmann said the city is already addressing 24 out of 31 points on agenda developed by Democracy Greensboro.
“What concerns me and should concern all of you is that the platform seems to be based on the false presumption that we are not acting fairly, honestly and transparently,” Hoffmann said. “Clearly, we need to do a better job of communicating as a city. The platform is generalized and sets no priorities.”
The Rev. Nelson Johnson, one of the organizers, said more than 100 people worked together to put together the platform.
About 150 people filled the auditorium for what was billed as a “candidate/platform conference,” in which candidates were invited to address the platform and tell the audience how they would implement it. Two candidates for mayor, excluding incumbent Nancy Vaughan who did not attend, and 11 out of 15 at-large candidates addressed the platform and responded to questions from the audience. Roughly 30 people remained for the breakout session for District 4 when Hoffmann made her remarks.
Justin Outling, the incumbent District 3 and the candidate endorsed by the Greensboro Police Officers Association, also did not attend the event. Florence Gatten, a former council member speaking on Outling’s behalf, said Outling was unable to attend because of previous commitments to attend Greensboro Pride and other events.
But Outling issued a statement in advance of the Democracy Greensboro event that echoed several of the points made by Hoffmann.
“Effective government is about finding solutions and working within constraints,” Outling said. “The bad news is the platform is extremely generalized, un-prioritized, and, in some cases, has incendiary language that detracts from its aspirational goals. And while it speaks often of the justice we all seek, justice cannot exist without harmony, and the tone of the document is often divisive.”
Hoffmann, a Democrat, won the seat in 2011 by upsetting conservative Republican incumbent Mary Rakestraw.
“We’ve had three very progressive — from my point of view — city councils,” Hoffmann said. “I think we’ve seen more activity in this city in the last five years than we’ve seen in several decades, and it’s been progress for the entire city.”
Kenton acknowledged that many constituents in District 4 rightfully view the current council as progressive for Greensboro.
“When Nancy says historically this is the most progressive, liberal city council we’ve ever had, that’s true, and I hear that in my district, so I’ve been out there trying to articulate why that’s not enough,” said. “It is historically the most liberal. It is not liberal enough. It is not moral enough. It is not transparent enough.”
Kenton has been active in Democracy Greensboro since its inception, and said he played an active role in developing the platform, but separated himself from the process when he decided to run for city council in July.
“There is no aspect of the platform that I would or could distance myself from,” he said.
Kenton acknowledged a disconnect between Democracy Greensboro’s priorities of addressing poverty and institutional racism, and the priorities of voters in District 4, which is more affluent and more white than the city as a whole.
“When I’m going around District 4, it’s very clear what issues are coming to me that people in District 4 care the most about,” Kenton said. “All those issues are pretty universal — concern about crime, concern about safety, concern about traffic, concern about economic development and jobs. I say it’s incumbent on people to look at our city and say that poverty, race and jobs — those are the main concerns for anyone, I think, on city council. It is incumbent on all of us to keep on raising those issues in every setting we’re in…. I continue to raise them, to hold up the platform and continue to explain when I need to why transparency relates to all these issues.”
Kenton said he would support the establishment of a police complaint review committee with investigative capacity and subpoena power — one of the points of the Democracy Greensboro platform.
“I find almost all elected officials are intimidated by the police,” he said. “They’re the ones with uniforms. They’re the ones with guns. They’re the ones with very strong unions…. We need police, unfortunately. It’s like being a patriot: A good patriot has to stand up and call out his country when it is not living up to certain standards. It’s the same way with the police, and historically city council has not been willing to stand up to the police.”
The Rev. Diane Moffett, one of two mayoral candidates at the conference, drew loud cheers, but her remarks spoke about her vision of a united and prosperous city, and talked mostly about her own platform instead of that of Democracy Greensboro.
“I will take your platform and I will make sure that investments that we have — because I am for business; I think business is important; it’s just that business has to invest in every community,” Moffett said. “I am for the people.”
The other mayoral candidate present for the conference will not be on the ballot. Billy Jones said he had expected Eric Robert, who owns the Daily Bread Flour Mill, to file for mayor. When Robert didn’t file, Jones said he decided to run as a write-in candidate because he was dissatisfied with the other three candidates on the ballot.
Jones said he especially agrees with Democracy Greensboro’s stance on transparency, and talked about his lawsuit against the city to obtain public records.
“Your community platform is excellent,” Jones said. “It’s excellent. I mean, this whole country was founded on the idea that government should be of the people, by the people and for the people…. The one thing your platform is lacking is a leader that is committed to giving you your platform. And I have been writing on my blog EZGreensboro.com ideas and ways to make things happen. You will find if you read my ideas that I agree with so much of what you’ve got to say. I agree. I agree. I agree. You couldn’t ask for a candidate that agrees with your ideas any more than I do.”
Nancy Vaughan, the incumbent, said in an email to Triad City Beat that she contacted the organizers ahead of time to notify them that she had a scheduling conflict. John T. Brown, the third candidate for mayor, also did not attend.
Eleven at-large candidates addressed Democracy Greensboro.
“I’m really a moderate with libertarian tendencies, so I’m not sure I’m going to match up well with this platform,” said Andy Nelson, a challenger.
“I’m completely for demilitarizing the Greensboro Police Department,” Nelson said. “That speaks to my libertarian tendencies.”
When challenged to address aspects of the platform that he does not agree with, Nelson responded, “I read this platform as government doing more. I’m mostly a libertarian, and I tend to want government to do less.”
Lindy Perry-Garnette, one of four human relations commissioners running for the three at-large seats as challengers, introduced herself by saying, “It feels good to be in this crowd because this feels like home.”
Before she was a candidate, Perry-Garnette attended a meeting of Democracy Greensboro in May when someone in the audience called out, “Lindy Garnette for mayor!”
Perry-Garnette spoke about giving a voice to poor people and having the courage to speak one’s convictions, but her remarks didn’t address the platform directly.
“Every person in Greensboro needs to feel like they are part of Greensboro, that they belong here, that we will embrace them and support them, that we will walk their journey with them, whatever their journey is, even if it doesn’t look like our own journey,” she said. “So thank you very much for your platform. Thank you very much for being here and for what you’re doing.”
Alluding to the economic justice section of the platform, Dianne Bellamy-Small noted that she prodded city staff to complete a parity study to compare the east and west sides of Greensboro during her time on city council from 2003 to 2013. She reminded the audience that she fought to keep the White Street Landfill closed — one of the planks in the platform.
Dave Wils said the three main points in his campaign platform — small business growth, affordable housing and food security — all align with Democracy Greensboro’s agenda. As a member of the human relations commission, Wils noted that he’s dealt with police accountability, a strong theme of Democracy Greensboro’s platform.
“I’m in 100 percent agreement with this platform,” said Irving Allen, who serves on human relations commission with Perry-Garnette and Wils. “So my comments about the platform will be brief. The majority of things in this platform are things I have fought for as a community organizer in this community for about nine years. I’ve been the champion of many of these issues, including reentry, where we developed a program with the human relations department called ‘Thrive GSO’ for reentry.
Michelle Kennedy, the fourth candidate who serves on the human relations commission, said, “Most of my career is completely in line with the platform, but more importantly, my life is aligned with this platform.”
Mentioning her role as executive director of the Interactive Resource Center, Kennedy also addressed a plank addressing providing resources to help previously incarcerated people reintegrate in society.
“One of the ways I took a leadership role in that was creating employment opportunities for those folks,” she said.
On the topic of housing, Kennedy said, “There should be policies in place that maintain our housing, that make sure safe, decent and affordable housing is accessible for everyone in our community.”
Jodi Bennett-Bradshaw did not directly address any parts of the platform. Noting that she did not prepare remarks, she echoed Allen’s declaration that “black lives matter,” and voiced a commonly expressed desire to close the economic and social gap between the east and west sides of the city.
Marikay Abuzuaiter, an incumbent, said she agrees with the plank calling on the city to “support immigrant communities and help immigrants become an integral part of the life of the city by providing oral and written information about city services in a variety of languages.”
“You know what,” Abuzuaiter said. “When I was on the international advisory committee — which Mayor Pro Tem [Yvonne] Johnson, when she was mayor, implemented — we did just that. We had all of our public safety brochures translated into four different languages. Do we need to do all departments? Of course we do.”
Abuzuaiter, who has received the endorsement of the Greensboro Police Officers Association, did not mention Democracy Greensboro’s police reform platform in her remarks.
“There are certain things in the platform that I think we can all agree on 100 percent, but I also think there are some things we should all sit down and talk about,” she said.
One audience member, citing Abuzuaiter’s support for a raise passed for police officers in the current budget, made sure she addressed the issue, asking, “Given your unwavering and seemingly unconditional support of the police, how can marginalized communities depend on you to be fair and equitable in dealing with the ongoing racism and violence of the Greensboro Police Department?”
Abuzuaiter didn’t directly address the question about the trust of marginalized communities. She responded that the city needed to offer better pay to attract more a more diverse workforce to the department, which would in turn make it more accountable, adding that without pay increases Greensboro was at risk of losing officers to other cities like Durham.
Tijuana Hayes said she agrees with the platform, highlighting two points. Referencing the plank to expand public transportation, Hayes said the city needs to move to round-the-clock transit services. She said she agrees with the plank to support community gardens, adding that the resource encourages self-sufficiency.
Yvonne Johnson, an incumbent, ran down a list of actions she’s taken as an elected official that support Democracy Greensboro’s agenda. She said she’s led the fight to pay city workers $15 an hour, while acknowledging that the city still has work to do. She said she “led the charge” to implement participatory budgeting, adding that she wants to expand it although she wouldn’t commit to the figure of around $2.5 million requested by Democracy Greensboro. She said she was the city council member who asked the city attorney in closed session to sue the state, leading to a successful order to block an unpopular redistricting plan. She noted that she created the Community Sustainability Council as mayor, and that she voted for a police review board.
“Let the work that I have done speak for me,” Johnson said.
Sylvine Hill, a challenger, said he biggest priorities are transparency and infrastructure.
Hill was asked by an audience member if she would stand up to bullying of local municipalities by the NC General Assembly, even when the law was against the city, and whether she would reach out to other cities like Charlotte or Fayetteville to mobilize opposition to state government overreach. She said she would.
“I can turn on NPR right now and hear something that puts North Carolina on the same level as Cuba or the Dominican Republic in terms of our democracy,” she said. “It’s embarrassing.”
Mike Barber, an incumbent, along with challengers MA Bakie, James Ingram and Dan Jackson, did not attend the conference.
At the end of each session, audience members turned in cards rating each candidate on a scale of 1 to 5. Organizers said they plan to tally the scores and release the results early next week. Jeff Jones, a member of the steering committee, said organizers have yet to determine whether Democracy Greensboro will endorse candidates, but a decision is likely to be made at the group’s next meeting on Thursday.