Incumbents triumph in Greensboro primary

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Picarelli, left, concedes to Collins

by Eric Ginsburg

The incumbents win big in Tuesday’s Greensboro City Council primary, with Devin King and Kurt Collins trailing significantly but still advancing in the mayor’s race and District 3 respectively.

 With only two contests on the primary ballot for the Greensboro City Council election on Tuesday, the results couldn’t have been more different.

As expected, Mayor Nancy Vaughan ran away with the election, throttling her competitors with 87.6 percent of the vote. Devin King, her challenger, survived the primary with just 7.3 percent of the vote, carrying just one precinct — an area in southeast Greensboro where a mere seven people voted.

Incumbent Justin Outling enjoyed a strong lead in District 3 as the results came in, finishing with 60.2 percent of the ballots cast, but the two other contenders traded second place all evening. With two precincts reporting, Michael Picarelli and Kurt Collins were tied with 45 votes each, then Collins pulled ahead slightly 115 to 110, but with 6 of the district’s 22 precincts tallied, Picarelli held a 33-vote lead. That changed once 14 precincts in District 3 reported, with Collins on top 356 to 300.

Kurt Colins
Kurt Collins

Collins and Picarelli — like Vaughan and three more city council members who won’t be on the ballot until November — watched the results come in at a side room at the old Guilford County Courthouse where the board of elections is housed. The two conservative District 3 contenders sat on opposite sides of the Blue Room, and with 14 of 22 precincts in, Collins started smiling.

Picarelli could feel the election slipping through his hands.

“If [precincts] 21 and 22 are in, he’s got it,” Picarelli said. The results scrolled on a projection screen at the front of the room, but the details didn’t include which precincts were in. If the area around Kirkwood and Irving Park had reported already, like precinct 22 where he lives, Picarelli said he was in trouble.

“I don’t think I can make up the deficit,” he said, standing and leaning with both arms on the chair in front of him, staring at the screen.

Collins seemed coolly confident, saying that he would be fine either way and had enjoyed the process.

“I know I worked my tail off,” he said, adding that throughout the day he visited 18 of the district’s 22 precincts and didn’t see anyone working the polls for other candidates. He had 10 volunteers reaching out to incoming voters at polling places, he said, but his strategy had relied on starting in the northern part of the district and working his way south, assuming that Outling enjoyed a base of support near downtown and Picarelli would carry areas near his home turf.

Vaughan talks with former Triad Business Journal editor Doug Copeland while Vaughan's daughter checks her phone.
Vaughan talks with former Triad Business Journal editor Doug Copeland while Vaughan’s daughter checks her phone.

Minutes later the county elections website updated, and Picarelli knew it was over even with a few precincts unreported. Collins was up by nearly 100, and Picarelli quickly made his way over to shake Collins’ hand and concede. Collins appeared surprised, saying it wasn’t over yet, but Picarelli could tell, and promptly headed for the door.

All told, Collins received almost 23 percent of the vote to Picarelli’s 16.8 percent — or in raw numbers, 551 votes to 403. Outling, meanwhile, came away with 1,443 votes totaling 60.2 percent.

Despite previously serving as the head of the Guilford County GOP, Picarelli said part of the reason he fell behind is due to Republican and tea party support of Collins. Both men serve on the city’s human relations commission. As the lowest vote-getter in the race, Picarelli was eliminated and Collins and Outling will face each other in the general election next month.

Even if Collins picks up Picarelli’s voters, he still has about a 20 percent gap between himself and Outling. He believes his grassroots campaign efforts can make the difference.

Noting that Outling has raised about 10 times as much money, Collins said he will try to win by getting in front of people, adding that he believes a higher turnout rate will help him.

“It’s just a straight grassroots campaign, and that’s what the people really want,” he said, adding that he may pay for door-hangers, mailers and possibly a robo-call to help get out the vote in addition to knocking on doors.

Outling, right, talks to a reporter while Vaughan takes a photo of the results with her phone.
Outling, right, talks to a reporter while Vaughan takes a photo of the results with her phone.

Outling, who walked into the Blue Room after most attendees had left, said he was encouraged by the results. Though he was appointed to fill the remainder of Zack Matheny’s council term this summer when Matheny resigned to run Downtown Greensboro Inc., Outling had never run a campaign or won an election before.

“This is my first time around, you know,” he said. “I’m just excited.”

In the mayor’s race, two first-time candidates squared off against Vaughan, who has served on council off and on since the mid-’90s. Her last primary, in 2013 against incumbent mayor Robbie Perkins, was a nail-biter. This year the contest for second place in the race wasn’t ever particularly close.

With the endorsement of Conservatives for Guilford County in his pocket, newcomer Devin King walked away with 518 votes overall, considerably less than Vaughan’s 6,212 but still a few clicks better than Sal Leone’s 362. But Vaughan isn’t resting easy.

“The general election can be a completely different animal,” she said. “It depends on who comes out to vote.”

Vaughan and Collins
Vaughan and Collins

Vaughan pointed to the voter turnout percentage for the primary — a mere 3.8 percent of registered voters, the worst rate in recent memory — calling it “abysmal.”

“That means 96 percent of the city is letting 4 percent of the people decide the fate of the city,” she said.

Primary turnout rates are always lower than the general election, though usually hovering around 10 percent even in a slow year. Two of the five district races will be uncontested on the November ballot, which may contribute to a level of voter apathy, but the addition of Districts 1 and 2 as well as the at-large contest should draw a much higher number of people to the polls. That’s why even with close to 90 percent of the vote and a relatively unknown challenger, Vaughan plans to crunch numbers and develop a strategy to win in November before the week is out.

Collins and Outling are both attuned to the same unpredictable reality.