Greensboro Mayor Nancy Vaughan is facing her strongest challenge from District 3 representative Justin Outling in this year’s election.
In the first municipal election since the pandemic swept the world and historic protests against racial inequality erupted following the death of George Floyd, Greensboro’s incumbent mayor faces at least three challengers, with two others who might join the scrum if conditions look favorable.
Nancy Vaughan, the incumbent, will have served eight years when she completes her current term — the longest tenure since Keith Holliday’s run from 1999 to 2007. Prior to winning election as mayor, Vaughan served in the at-large position on city council with two mayors who held the office for only two years each. During her last campaign in 2017, Vaughan said she wouldn’t run again.
The upheavals of 2020 changed her mind.
“I’m one of the few people who have been through the recession before, and know what it took to get us out,” Vaughan said.
“This has been a term like no other term,” she continued. “We were faced with a tornado, a pandemic, social unrest, a business downturn. I have been able to juggle all those challenges. Greensboro is a different place than it was four years ago.”
Justin Outling, the current District 3 representative, announced his plan to challenge Vaughan for the mayoral position in December and is considered the strongest contender. Outling has charged that the current mayor “has lacked a coherent, inclusive vision” and emphasized “symbolism and quick fixes over long-term success.” Outling has lined up an impressive roster of endorsements, including former mayor Jim Melvin, former NC Supreme Court Chief Justice Henry Frye and developer Marty Kotis.
Two other Greensboro political veterans are also eying the mayoral position. Marikay Abuzuaiter, who was first elected to an at-large position on city council in 2011, has made no secret of her interest in running for mayor. She told Triad City Beat on Monday that she’s “weighing all options.” If she doesn’t run for mayor, Abuzuaiter said she’ll run at large again.
Tony Wilkins, who represented District 5 on city council from 2012 until losing his seat to Tammi Thurm in 2017, has announced his intention to run for council this year, although he hasn’t specified which seat. Greensboro elections are nominally nonpartisan, but Wilkins is a registered Republican; currently Democrats currently hold every seat on the council. Wilkins said he will be monitoring the decennial redistricting required by the Census to determine whether another District 5 run or an at-large bid would be most advantageous for him. And while he hasn’t completely ruled out the possibility, Wilkins said he hasn’t “seen a mathematical path to mayor.”
Along with Vaughan and Outling, two political newcomers have declared their intention of running for mayor.
Jermaine Wright, a student at NC A&T University who works as cleaner at Cone Health, was galvanized to run for mayor through his experience with the upheaval in the city following the death of George Floyd. On May 31, Wright said he witnessed a protester throw a bottle at police, who responded with teargas. He had trouble sleeping that night, and felt a responsibility to bring peace between the protesters and police. So, Wright staged a protest in front of police headquarters a couple days later. Wright spoke about his experience being racially profiled, and it ended with protesters and police praying together.
“After speaking — there’s a woman, she’s a pastor — she told me she saw such a bright light in me,” Wright recalled. “She said I was going to bring together the gangs and the corrupt and the crooked. She said she needs to pray. I said, ‘Let’s pray with the officers as well.’ It was such a spiritual and powerful moment. I’ve never seen anything like it. It was tears of releasing something, putting feelings aside. It felt new. It felt rejuvenating.”
Later, he met with police Chief Brian James.
“I told myself, I’m going to run for mayor,” Wright recalled. “I’m going to use this platform to unite the people.”
Ty-Quann Knight, an entrepreneur who is also a student at A&T, said his upbringing as “a young, Black male” who grew up in “inner-city Baltimore” and had the “opportunity to go to an HBCU” influenced his decision to run for mayor. “I just saw some needed changes in my community,” he said. “It wasn’t enough figures that looked like me, including people in my age group. We do have a lot of great and influential African Americans, but the age barrier wasn’t allowing us to see that young people can do great things as well. I want to be able to spark the mind to someone who looks like me to run.”
Tough decisions for an incumbent, a challenger who defies category
Vaughan presents herself as someone who’s not afraid to make unpopular decisions, including imposing a curfew after the first two nights of protests ended with property damage.
“That is not going to make me popular with a lot of people,” she said. “I thought it might be a time to take a step back. Calling for stay-at-home orders or masking. I have been willing to take a stand where I thought it was the best for the community. It’s more than symbolism; it’s taking a stand.”
While Outling has been honing a “symbolism without substance” attack line against Vaughan, the current mayor says she’s been too “focused on the critical issues facing our city” to give much thought to her campaign.
No mayoral candidates have echoed the call raised by activists over the summer to significantly redirect funding from policing to social services such as housing, employment and community health. But Vaughan said front-end efforts to reduce dependency on police were already underway before last summer’s protests, including contracting and then hiring mental health workers and the Cure Violence program to de-escalate conflict.
“They did come out of the general-fund budget,” Vaughan said. “We don’t really have a police department budget that is full of excess money. The fact is that we are low when it comes to per-capita police. We see the spikes in homicides and aggravated assaults. We know we need more detectives and police in cars.”
Abuzuaiter, who is weighing a run for mayor, also adamantly opposes reducing the police budget.
“When I hear ‘defund the police,’ I look at our crime rates,” she said. “I don’t think we need to defund the police. We need to re-fund the police, and train them as they need to be trained.”
Outling’s stance on police accountability resists easy categorization.
As a District 3 candidate in 2017, he received the endorsement of the Greensboro Police Officers Association. So, it might come as a surprise that last year he voted in favor of requiring written consent for police searches. Outling was on the losing end of the close vote, with Vaughan joining those who prevailed to kill written consent.
“The breadth of those who support me can be confusing,” Outling said. “Respecting police and calling for police accountability at the same time shows that I’m someone who can bring people together.
“I judge each of the things on their merits and substance,” he added. “Certainly I have received the support of the police organizations in the past. That’s always been notwithstanding that on certain issues we might disagree.”
Like his opponent, Outling cites efforts on police accountability that long predate George Floyd.
Outling took the lead on a police body-camera policy that was established in Greensboro for a brief period in 2016 before it was overridden by a state law sponsored by Rep. John Faircloth. (R-Guilford).
The Dejuan Yourse case made national headlines, and Greensboro City Council acted.
“There was a situation where an officer assaulted and battered a gentleman on his mother’s porch, and in my view the officer had no justification,” Outling said. “We released that video. The public was able to process anger, hurt and disappointment. Ultimately, it provided greater confidence in our police leadership. At the same time in Charlotte, they were dealing with the death of gentleman, Keith Lamont Scott. They were not prepared to release the video. There was greater distrust in the community. It resulted in protests, property destruction and one person being killed during the protests.”
Wright, who facilitated the prayer session with Greensboro police and protesters, outright rejected the idea of shrinking the police force.
“A lot of people want to defund the police,” he said. “I don’t see an issue of having to defund anything.” Wright added that he shared his dream of standing up a mental-health counseling program with Chief James, and the chief promised that when the time came his officers would be there as partners.
“Let’s all come together collectively for the things we need,” Wright said.
Knight said he embraced the message of the racial justice movement that surged last summer, but the issues aren’t new to him. He said he wrote a letter to the governor six or seven years ago outlining his concerns.
“A lot of people in the inner city are familiar with mass incarceration and systemic oppression,” Knight said. “Poverty is something that is placed on you. Take the youth from the inner city — it could be anybody, a Caucasian kid — he gets thrown at the mercy of the court system. Let’s start programs.”
Speaking as a self-published author who has launched clothing lines and operates a cleaning company, Knight said he sees economic opportunity as the best antidote to criminalization.
“I know the biggest thing that alleviated crime is having capital,” he said. “I feel like poverty and crime goes hand in hand.”
Along with the issue of written consent for police searches, the two leading candidates for mayor also differ on what degree of involvement the city council should have in pursing reforms.
Vaughan has dropped a goal for city council to pass a resolution in support of the national #8CANTWAIT agenda for police reform, which she had held up as a priority in the weeks after the protests began.
“I believe we have a good police chief,” she said. “I believe that he wants to have the best police force. He is making the right move to protect the people of this city. He is not going to stand for subpar police officers. He’s already made those changes; he made them without the resolution.”
Vaughan’s position has evolved towards the position on that policy should be left up to the chief, while Abuzuaiter was a staunch proponent back in June. “No, absolutely not,” she responded when asked whether the council should set policy on reforms.
“We need to hire the police chief to do his or her job,” Abuzuaiter said. “I believe our city manager hired the best person for the job. The chief on his own is changing directives and policies. I don’t think we need to micromanage our police department.”
Outling argued that leadership by city council is essential.
“The next police chief could change it on the first day,” Outling said. “The difference between council-led action and department-led action is fundamental.”
Housing first, or jobs?
As Greensboro emerges from the COVID pandemic, Outling is emphasizing employment as a focal point for rebuilding while Vaughan talks about strengthening the city’s housing stock.
When VF Corp. announced it was moving its headquarters from Greensboro to Denver in 2018, Outling said city council members should have been talking in an intentional manner about how it could have been avoided and what to do to make sure the city is equipped to sustain the next shock.
“One of our largest employers, Cone Health, announced it’s merging into a Virginia-based company, Sentara,” Outling said. “We’ve been here before. We know what the possibilities can be in terms of high-paying jobs no longer being in our community. That’s a fundamental issue.”
Vaughan said housing has always been one of her top priorities.
“We have to make sure people have safe places to live and our housing stock is secure,” she said. Noting that a previous city program called Rental Unit Certificate of Occupancy was disbanded by a state law, Vaughan said the city is going back to the legislature this year to seek permission to enact an ordinance wherein “if someone is going to rent a unit that has a history of housing violations or they are using a rent subsidy that it would require an inspection.”
She also wants to put a new housing bond on the ballot this year — the first since 2016.
“We need a housing bond that will support permanent supportive housing,” Vaughan said. “It will leverage private dollars so people at the lower end of the spectrum will have housing. We have a great 10-year housing plan, which was updated for COVID, but we want to look at some long-term funding.”