Featured photo: A recent mailer sent out by Justin Outling’s campaign promotes an outdated and misleading headline by the Rhino Times that critics say is being used to stoke fear amongst voters. (courtesy photo)

Editor’s note: Triad City Beat has never endorsed political candidates for elections and that continues to be the case for the 2022 elections. To read our 2022 Primary Election Guide, go here.

Casey Thomas was surprised.

When she got the first flyer in the mail addressed to her, she said she was annoyed but didn’t think much of it. It wasn’t until her husband got a different flyer that she decided to speak out.

“You have people who may decide to target based on race; some people decide to target based on a voter score; some people target based on the area that someone lives in,” Thomas said. “There are all sorts of factors that campaigns use to decide who might get what mailer. That’s not the thing I have issue with. It’s the stark difference in the values that are being communicated in each mailer.”

The flyers in question refer to two different styles of mailers sent out by Justin Outling’s mayoral campaign in the last week. Outling, who currently represents District 3 as a city councilmember, is running for mayor in this year’s election against incumbent Nancy Vaughan, as well as two challengers, Mark Cummings and Eric Robert.

One of the flyers shows Outling with the words “Fighting for you” on the front. In smaller text, a paragraph talks about his father’s experience working as a bus driver and his mother, who worked as a social worker. On the back, Outling promises to fight for access to “affordable housing,” “better paying jobs” and “equal opportunity and access for all.”

This first flyer is the one that was addressed to Thomas, a Black, female voter who is registered Democrat. The second flyer, however, came for her husband who is white, male and unaffiliated.

On the front of the second mailer is the image of a Greensboro police car. Layered on top of the car is a cut-out headline from November 2020 by the Rhino Times, a local conservative online news outlet that reads, “Greensboro ranked as state’s most dangerous city.” Under the prominent headline is a quote by Outling.

“The status quo has not solved Greensboro’s crime problem.”

The back of the second mailer shows Outling and a community member smiling with a Greensboro police officer. Compared to the first mailer that included short quotes about campaign promises, this flyer has more detailed initiatives about Outling’s “action on safety” including tackling the root causes of crime such as providing summer jobs, job training and affordable housing. He also mentions funding and training law enforcement, putting crime reduction at the top of the city council’s agenda and building trust between law enforcement and the community.

Given Outling’s public comments about public safety, the second flyer doesn’t come as a surprise. As TCB has reported, Outling has argued that the council doesn’t spend enough time on public safety during its meetings and has promised he would host monthly work sessions to address the increase in violent crime in the city.

However, some voters like Thomas say the difference in the mailers is a cause for concern.

Thomas noted how in the past, Outling voted against a $15 minimum wage for city workers and has not made the issue of Marcus Smith’s death a central part of his platform. To be fair, neither has his biggest opponent, incumbent Nancy Vaughan. But there’s a difference, Thomas said.

“Nancy voted against [Marcus Smith] too, but Nancy is not running as not Nancy,” she said.

Vaughan has supported a $15 minimum wage over the years.

If Outling is elected mayor, she said some voters may be surprised at Outling’s willingness to cater to a more conservative voting block.

“It was interesting to me because it seemed like he was trying to figure out a way to appeal very strongly to the left and the right, which is smart politics, but I don’t know if it gives people an accurate picture of what they’re being offered,” she said.

Thomas currently works as an organizer for Guilford For All, a nonpartisan, grassroots advocacy group based in the area. While the organization has endorsed several candidates in this year’s primary election, they have made no endorsement in the Greensboro mayoral race.

“The reason that Guilford For All decided to not endorse in the mayoral race is because we saw two very similar candidates in a lot of ways between the two front runners, Justin Outling and Nancy Vaughan,” Thomas said. “And we didn’t see enough alignment with anyone who’s running for office to make an endorsement that we felt would move us closer to a Greensboro that resonates with our values.”

Misleading crime data

Brandie Ragghianti told TCB that when she first received the mailer featuring the Rhino Times headline, she thought it was a flyer endorsing someone like Republican Ted Budd.

“I was really frustrated to receive this mailer,” she said. “I’m not a fan of a Democrat that is running for office who signals that they are conservative, which is what this mailer is doing.”

As a white, unaffiliated voter, Ragghianti believes that she and her spouse were targeted for their demographics.

“It definitely made me less likely to vote for Justin Outling,” she said. “I don’t know that his policy positions are any different from Nancy’s, but I’m concerned that he may be more likely to sway to the right if he’s going to send these kinds of mailers to voters.”

As TCB has reported before, as part of his campaign strategy, Outling has repeatedly shared either misleading or outdated data when it comes to violent crime in Greensboro. He has made a World News Report article that cited Greensboro as the eighth most dangerous city in the US, a large part of his rhetoric. However, the article itself is misleading because it uses data based on metro areas, which in this instance, includes the city of High Point. When asked about this discrepancy before, Outling failed to comment.

Now, in this latest mailer, Outling again uses outdated data that some say is aimed at stoking fear amongst voters.

The 2020 article by the Rhino Times cites data by BestLife, an online website that used statistics including rate of violent crime, pedestrians killed in traffic accidents, natural disasters and COVID-19 deaths to come to their conclusion. Based on all of these data points, the BestLife article found that Greensboro ranked the worst in the state. However, in their 2021 article using the same data points, Greensboro doesn’t even make the list. Moreover, when looking just at total crime indexes for North Carolina cities for 2020, Greensboro does not make the top of the list.

According to SBI data that looks at both violent and property crimes year over year, from 2019 to 2020, the Greensboro Police Department saw a 1 percent increase in crime. While many law enforcement departments saw a decrease during that same time period, other municipalities such as Winston-Salem and Forsyth County saw a much larger increase of 3 percent and 74 percent respectively.

That’s why using information like this for quick hits can be misleading, according to the FBI, which compiles these statistics every year. In their guide on how to properly use their data, the department cautions against creating “misleading perceptions which adversely affect geographic entities and their residents.”

“Data users should not rank locales because there are many factors that cause the nature and type of crime to vary from place to place,” the FBI notes. “UCR statistics include only jurisdictional population figures along with reported crime, clearance, or arrest data. Rankings ignore the uniqueness of each locale.”

UCR refers to the FBI’s uniform crime reporting data.

When asked about his use of the Rhino Times’ outdated and misleading headline as a prominent part of his flyer, Outling argued that what he did was “factually true.”

Justin Outling has served District 3 on Greensboro City Council since 2015.

“What I did was I cited the Rhino Times, I took out an excerpt and included it with the mailer. Full stop. Period. That is what it is,” he said. “The factual truth is that the Rhino Times had an article that had that headline, and their article therein discusses their study and just like with any study, you can analyze it and disagree with it.”

And while Outling’s use of the Rhino Times’ headline can be argued as a falsehood, that’s not to say that the city doesn’t have a violent crime problem.

According to data collected by the city and the State Bureau of Investigation, Greensboro’s violent crime rate has been increasing for the past couple of years. In 2019, Greensboro logged 2,453 violent crimes according to SBI data compared to 2,714 in 2020 — a 10.6 percent increase. But inflating the problem, particularly when it comes to violent crime, is a common tactic used by political parties to stoke fear.

According to an article from 2015 by Slate, voters are often motivated by fear and it affects the kind of information they pay attention to.

“When people are anxious, they seek out news that they believe will be helpful in resolving their anxiety,” said Shana Kushner Gadarian, a political scientist at Syracuse University in the piece. “However, they are most likely to seek out, remember, and agree with threatening news, which may not actually help lower their anxiety.”

And the messaging of the political parties can differ, too.

“The issues Republicans focus on lend themselves to provocative messaging — the kind of fears that hit home quickly,” the article states. “A terrorist. A criminal. A job-stealing border crosser.”

And that’s why critics say Outling’s flyers, and the differences between them, hit a nerve.

“It does not feel good,” Ragghianti said. “It feels divisive for the city.”

When asked whether she has voted in this year’s election, Ragghianti said that she hasn’t yet because she can’t decide who to vote for in the mayoral race.

“We feel like we have no good choices, but this flyer made us very unhappy,” she said.

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