Newcomers and incumbents flock to city council elections

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Jamal Fox (seated) will not seek reelection. His colleagues Sharon Hightower, Nancy Vaughan and Nancy Hoffmann (l-r) are in the race. (file photo)

Greensboro voters will choose the first city council to serve a four-year term in the upcoming general election on Nov. 7.

A sudden retirement and a returning veteran. A cohort of progressive newcomers. A mayoral race perhaps still developing. With filing more than a week out, the contours of this year’s Greensboro City Council election are gradually taking shape.

Several newcomers have signaled plans to run, while most but not all incumbents have indicated they will seek re-election in the upcoming contest, with filing opening on July 7. The next council, which takes office in December, will be the first in Greensboro to serve four-year instead of two-year terms.

Jamal Fox, who has held the District 2 seat since 2013, is the one incumbent who has announced he will not seek reelection. Fox did not give a reason for his decision in post on Facebook on June 22, but said he was making the announcement “with great sadness.” He added that he plans on “supporting a candidate in the very near future who I believe will and can keep us on the right path to greater opportunities.”

Jim Kee, a former council member and bitter rival whom Fox unseated in 2013, announced a couple days later that he plans to run for the District 2 seat, according to a report in the News & Record. The news about Kee, a developer, elicited an excited tweet from former Mayor Robbie Perkins: “Good news for economic development in Greensboro!”

Kee signed on as a defendant-intervenor to defend a controversial redistricting scheme promoted by state Sen. Trudy Wade to overhaul the city’s election system. Plaintiffs against the proposed change alleged that the proposed District 2 was an unconstitutional racial gerrymander. A ruling by a federal judge earlier this year did not address the claim about District 2, but found that the plan as a whole violated the Constitution’s equal protection guarantee to “one person-one vote” by overpopulating Democratic leaning districts “to maximize success for Republican candidates.” Kee and the other defendant-intervenors withdrew from the case before it went to court. Kee could not be reached for comment for this story.

CJ Brinson, who is employed as a community organizer with Greensboro Participatory Budgeting, had announced plans to run for the seat before Fox stood down. Brinson has played a prominent role in recent efforts to promote police accountability. He was among seven people arrested at Melvin Municipal Office Building in January during a civil disobedience to demand the city release of the investigative file surrounding an incident in which former police Officer Travis Cole tackled and punched resident Dejuan Yourse without provocation. Brinson has also helped publicize the case of Jose Charles, a 15-year-old who was involved in an altercation with police during the Fun Fourth Festival in 2016.

Brinson said if elected he will provide bolder leadership than Fox, but in an interview Brinson focused most of his criticism on economic development rather than policing. Brinson expressed reservations about the redevelopment of Revolution Mill — a former textile mill in District 2 that has attracted an upscale pizzeria and planned home base for Natty Greene’s Brewing that’s a major point of pride for Fox. Brinson, who is black, expressed concern that an influx of new residents attracted by amenities at the complex will drive up property values and displace the predominantly white retired millworkers who live in the area.

The at-large race has drawn at least two newcomers: Michelle Kennedy, the executive director of the Interactive Resource Center, and Dave Wils, a teacher employed with Guilford County Schools. Both are solid progressives who currently serve on the Greensboro Human Relations Commission, where they have grappled with contentious issues of police accountability in particular.

“I am and have been a supporter of Black Lives Matter,” said Kennedy, who is white.

“I would wager there won’t be anyone running for city council that has more experience with police officers,” she said. “I see police every day as someone who works with people who are experiencing homelessness. Wanting transparency for our police department is not an anti-police stance. It’s a stance of wanting the best for our community. Without transparency, we’re sitting on a tinderbox waiting for something to happen.”

Kennedy’s platform also includes an emphasis on safe and affordable housing, improving public transportation, addressing food insecurity, de-criminalizing poverty and raising wages for city workers to $15 per hour — the city has already committed to doing so by 2020.

Dave Wils, Kennedy’s colleague on the human relations commission, has earned the backing of District 1 Councilwoman Sharon Hightower. Like Kennedy, Wils wants to serve on council to promote safe and affordable housing, and to address food insecurity.

“As a teacher I’ve experienced all too often kids who come to school hungry” he said, “because they can’t afford food or they live in one of the food deserts.”

Wils takes a slightly more conciliatory stance on police accountability than Kennedy.

“There’s been some concerning trends among some members of the council, where they seem to be choosing from a false choice,” he said. “They are afraid to take the side of the community lest they be seen as anti-police. There are those in the community who believe that if you’re supporting the police, you don’t support them. I think that’s a false choice.”

At least two incumbents who currently hold the three at-large seats on council are planning to run for reelection.

“I think we need to revamp the police review process, and they are working on that,” said Mayor Pro Tem Yvonne Johnson, who has served on city council since 1993, including one term as mayor from 2007 to 2009 (she sat out two years from 2009 to 2011 after her unsuccessful bid for reelection as mayor). “Secondly, I really want to see a meaningful job training program in parts of the city that have high unemployment. That’s going to take some more time.”

At-large Councilwoman Marikay Abuzuaiter, who is completing her third term, said she looks forward to continuing in her role as chair of the Municipal Planning Organization, a regional transportation planning board.

Alluding to the council’s role in releasing information and video concerning police interactions with citizens, Abuzuaiter said, “In all cases that affect the whole city, there are going to be some people for it and some people against it. I truly believe that this council has been attentive and I will say as best as we can — given the restrictions of state law — we’ve really tried to do the right thing.”

Mike Barber, the most conservative at-large member, could not be reached for this story. Barber led the successful effort to dramatically increase pay for police and firefighters in the recent budget. As a longtime council member and former Guilford County commissioner, Barber is widely considered one of the few politicians with the name recognition and fundraising experience who could successfully challenge incumbent Mayor Nancy Vaughan, who has announced her intention to seek reelection.

Robbie Perkins, who was unseated by Vaughan in 2013 after one term as mayor, told Triad City Beat he is “not considering running at this time.”

Conservative District 5 Councilman Tony Wilkins, who has courted speculation in the past about whether he might launch a mayoral bid, said in a text to TCB: “Most likely I will be filing to run in District 5.”

Vaughan has attracted one challenger who is producing videos to promote his candidacy — a conservative general contractor named John Brown.

“I spent my whole life in the building industry,” he said. “I’m not a politician. In no way. This is my first time running for anything.”

He said he’ll take a close look at city spending and leverage his experience in the building trades to provide more rigorous oversight of capital improvement projects.

“If you look at the fact there’s really no leadership among any of the council members, there at one council meeting you may find total chaos and people screaming at each other, and at another one you may find a majority of the items are being pushed off,” he said. “The ping-pong effect between the city manager and the mayor is incredible. The mayor may say, ‘Mr. Manager, what’s your thought on things?’ He’ll say, ‘I was waiting on you.’ How’s that getting anything accomplished?”

Kendrick Turner has filed organizational papers for a mayoral run with the Guilford County Board of Elections.

Council members Sharon Hightower, Justin Outling and Nancy Hoffmann, who respectively represent districts 1, 3 and 4, said they plan to run for reelection.

Tammi Thurm, who is employed as the business administrator at the Hagan Barrett & Langley law firm, said she decided to seek the District 5 seat because the incumbent, Tony Wilkins, ran unopposed in the last election.

As a member of the Greensboro Minimum Housing Commission, Thurm said she would like to find ways to provide residents with access to more affordable housing. She also wants to improve transparency and find ways to increase employment with “quality jobs.”

“My whole career has been in small business,” Thurm said. “I think it would be helpful to have some additional business experience on the council — someone who understands how the city can help and inadvertently hinder businesses as they’re growing.”