by Brian Clarey, Eric Ginsburg and Jordan Green
Nancy Vaughan (i)
Nancy Vaughan entered politics in the 1990s as a neighborhood activist. In the early oughts she retired from council to raise her daughter, Catherine. When she ran for council again in 2009, she came across as a pragmatist with a strong sense of ethics. Later in that term she cast the deciding vote to keep the White Street Landfill closed.
Two years ago, Vaughan challenged Robbie Perkins for mayor — arguing for safeguards to protect taxpayers in the effort to build a performing arts center, a project championed by Perkins.
Vaughan won, and is now seeking a second term. The Steven Tanger Center for the Performing Arts is slated for completion next year, the most dramatic manifestation of growth in downtown, which is bookended by new brewpubs and restaurants on both the north and south ends.
Vaughan has embraced initiatives like raising the minimum wage for city workers and adding LGBT protections to the city ordinances, and tangled with the civil rights museum during her tenure as mayor.
As a testament to Vaughan’s resounding popularity, she received 87.6 percent of the vote against two challengers in a primary with 3.8-percent turnout. The odds are in her favor this time around as well.
And as a testament to the longstanding animus of hardline conservatives against incumbent Nancy Vaughan, Conservatives for Guilford County will back whatever candidate seems to have the best shot at upsetting the status quo.
They threw their support behind Devin King, who had never before voted in a Greensboro election. It likely didn’t hurt, and might have given him the 156 votes he needed to edge out perennial candidate Sal Leone during the primary. Still, King’s total only gave him 7.3 percent of the vote, meaning that he needs to multiply his support seven-fold to win the grand prize.
A registered Republican, King has emphasized neglect of poor, predominantly African-American areas of Greensboro, while also touting his support of small-government principles. Before he filed to run, no political observers had heard of him.
Yvonne Johnson (i)
The longest serving of the at-large members of council also — briefly — held the title of mayor. When Yvonne Johnson lost her reelection bid after one term as mayor in 2011, it came as a shock to her supporters, but most election observers would be even more surprised if Johnson didn’t run away with this year’s race.
There are three at-large seats, with the top vote getter named as mayor pro tem. It’s a title Johnson has held in the past, does currently and likely will after the election.
Johnson is a tireless advocate for more parity in the city’s contracting, pushing for minority and women-owned businesses to receive their fair share. Her community-based approach shows through in most of her stances, whether it’s pushing for participatory budgeting, supporting a wage increase, talking about food insecurity or extolling the benefits of additional job training programs.
“I supported the Renaissance [Shopping] Center with all my heart,” she said at a recent candidate forum. And who would disagree?
She also said the city could do more to incentivize developers to build affordable housing and create green spaces as a way to encourage infill development. She held up her move as mayor to create the International Advisory Committee.
Mike Barber (i)
When Mike Barber returned to city politics after a jaunt in Spain, running again for city council in 2013, he promised not to bring up the divisive issue of reopening White Street Landfill. Back before his sabbatical, Barber raised the idea while on council, but it was eventually defeated. True to his word, we haven’t heard a peep from him on the subject since winning in 2013, and he was reluctant to even talk about it during that last campaign.
Since then, the joke is that Barber doesn’t really show up. Like, misses council work sessions altogether with some regularity. City council implemented a new committee structure last month, and even though Barber vocally supported the idea from the jump, he doesn’t serve as a chair on any of the four committees, though he sits on the general government and public safety committees.
Barber said he would support the mayor’s idea for a bond to improve the city’s affordable housing stock, suggested the civil rights museum allow people to eat at the historic sit-in counter and suggested relaxing regulations on public consumption of alcohol to allow for more frequent festivals downtown.
Marikay Abuzuaiter (i)
After a few unsuccessful runs for city council, Marikay Abuzuaiter made it aboard in 2011, and won reelection in 2013. This year, her stances sound the same as every other time around: concern for the poor, a progressive impulse, a focus on sustainability and diversity, and so on. This time around, she may be most proud of the city’s move to increase wages of its lowest-paid employees and to support the opening of the Family Justice Center in partnership with Guilford County.
A strong supporter of grassroots causes like the Renaissance Community Co-op grocery store and participatory budgeting, Abuzuaiter has occasionally aligned with more conservative members of council on financial issues. She opposed city funding for the downtown performing arts center, arguing that more of the money should be raised privately. She has said that while she supports the arts, she held that the city should focus on more core needs to avoid cutting funding for things like the homeless.
In a recent candidate forum, Abuzuaiter said she wants the city’s parks and recreation department to look into gardening in some of the city’s parks, adding that she wants to address vacant lots too as part of a strategy to alleviate food insecurity. In general, things are moving in the right direction, she has repeatedly said, complimenting how well the current council works together while pointing to areas where more can be done.
Greensboro native and UNCG grad Sylvine Hill wants to bring more modern, technical and environmental jobs to the city, in part because it would help Greensboro become less of a transitional place for young people like herself.
During a candidate forum held by the League of Women Voters, Hill frequently complimented the current city council’s approach to issues and concurred with statements from the incumbents. Hers is not a campaign based on dissatisfaction, it appears, but of trying to bring more ideas to the table.
She proposed a partnership with college students to research vacant, rundown homes to help improve the city’s housing stock, argued that the civil rights museum should do more to advertise itself and could stand to collaborate with the city’s historical museum, said the city should explore alternative energy sources such as solar and produce more media about recycling and create more educational programs in general.
Hill aligned her comments most closely with incumbents Marikay Abuzuaiter and Mayor Pro Tem Yvonne Johnson, suggesting she is likely the most progressive challenger in the field.
Winston-Salem native Brian Hoss, who is 31 and still works in the Camel City, wants to see downtown Greensboro grow and thrive like in Winston. He would be the first openly gay member of city council if elected, and at the beginning of the campaign season a focal point of his GOTV campaign involved having a booth at a downtown Pride event.
During a recent candidate forum held by the League of Women Voters, Hoss appeared to be ill informed about the mechanisms of city government and to lack concrete ideas for how to actually go about making some of his big-picture ideas happen. That was most apparent as he repeatedly answered that he would pursue federal funding for different projects, an abstract notion that in many cases is either already happening or not applicable.
Hoss would like to make Greensboro a safer place for LGBT residents, and suggested the creation of a center/safe zone in the city. He also suggested that coordination between downtown events and the civil rights museum could help boost the museum’s profile — not a bad idea for a partnership between entities, especially given that the museum was apparently closed during the massive National Folk Festival surrounding it a month ago.
Retired from the Greensboro Police Department after 29 years, Marc Ridgill has more public service credentials than any of the other at-large challengers this election. And during a recent forum, he appeared to be the most informed about city government issues among the other newcomers, too.
The lifelong Guilford County resident says he is “one step right of center” but he is registered unaffiliated. He made remarks during a League of Women Voters forum last month that he doesn’t support the city shipping its garbage so far away and doubts a mega-site landfill will work, alluding to his potential openness of reconsidering the controversial White Street Landfill. Ridgill also said the city needs more housing inspectors to force landlords to comply with housing code, a stance in line with what community advocates would likely propose.
During the forum, he emphasized that the election is not a foregone conclusion — with the incumbents sweeping to victory — and claimed that he has spoken to more people in the city than all the other at-large and mayoral candidates combined.
We’ll see on Nov. 3.
Sharon Hightower (i)
Sharon Hightower took the mantle of District 1 in 2013 when she defeated incumbent Dianne Bellamy-Small by a mere dozen votes, raising a coalition based on grassroots credentials and dissatisfaction with the Bellamy-Small’s [abrasive?] governing style.
In this first term she found her footing on efforts for affordable housing and development in east Greensboro, for which a plan was formally approved in April.
Hightower voted for the city’s final loan payment to the International Civil Rights Center & Museum and has been advocating that the city remains hands-off when it comes to the operation of facility. She took a position against renovating the Cascade Saloon on Elm Street.
She’s differed from her predecessor in both temperament and style, which is where most of the daylight between the two exists.
Before losing to Hightower, Dianne Bellamy-Small served five terms in Greensboro’s District 1, defeating Belvin Jessup in 2003. Earl Jones, who went on to serve in the NC House, previously held the seat.
Jones, who co-founded the International Civil Rights Center & Museum that Bellamy-Small has said should become financially independent, will likely not be endorsing her.
Most constituents in District 1 remember their former councilwoman as a strong fighter who successfully beat back efforts to reopen the White Street Landfill and championed rental-unit inspections. Or they might remember her as the one who refused to move out of the corner office, survived a recall election and wouldn’t take a polygraph when a confidential document was leaked to the press.
Small’s style at council meetings could be disruptive and confrontational. And though she earned a reputation as being difficult with the press, she seems to have come around. Since losing in 2013, Bellamy-Small ran unsuccessfully for the Guilford County Commissioners.
Jamal Fox (i)
First elected two years ago, Jamal Fox is now just 27 — the youngest member of city council. His initial campaign focused on a variety of needs for the northeastern, majority black district, including transportation issues, the Renaissance Community Co-op and shopping center and greater student involvement in city government.
He’s had some accomplishments on those fronts, including major progress for the shopping center and the creation of a college commission with full participation of the city’s higher-ed institutions. And there is some economic development in the district — most of it still in the early stages and some of it still just an idea — that Fox points to as evidence of progress.
But other things are moving more slowly. Sidewalk construction, long a frustrating subject for some District 2 residents, will begin soon but will take several years. There’s some progress to point to on the Downtown Greenway, namely related to artist selection for a cornerstone piece rather than where the path itself comes through the district. And when it comes to the bus system, there’s nothing new to be proud of.
Fox has helped push forward some road-connectivity projects, he said, which will improve access and increase opportunities for economic development but which don’t get to the core issue of public transit for the district. But in less than two years, and coupled with progress via several initiatives including a raised wage for city employees that Fox supported, he believes it’s a strong start to build on.
Challenger Thessa Pickett, who is self employed, emphasizes her grassroots credentials and social-justice mindset first. She’s tied to activist groups like Black Lives Matter and the Queer People of Color Collective, but also to the city’s committees for things like the Commission on the Status of Women.
Pickett charges that Fox has been absent when it comes to important issues facing the majority black residents of District 2, either by not showing up for community meetings or declining to take a strong public stance on a variety of topics, including policing and racial profiling [isn’t this the same issue, or have other institutional actors involved in racial profiling been called out?]
If elected, Pickett said her service wouldn’t be about her stances on the issues. Instead her positions would be driven by feedback from grassroots groups and constituents, she said. She has said she would work diligently to address the needs of the chronically homeless, among others.
The current city council has made the right decision on several key issues, to be sure, Pickett said, but the credit belongs to the network of residents who pressured council to do the right thing. She describes her bid for office — this is her first time running — as an extension of that bottom-up power.
Justin Outling (i)
When Justin Outling was appointed to replace Zack Matheny — who resigned from city council in June to head Downtown Greensboro Inc. — he became the first African-American to represent the district. Outling dominated the balloting during the Oct. 6 primary, grabbing 60.2 percent of the vote against two other contenders.
His service to the city as former chair of the minimum housing standards commission, along with his history-making accomplishment in breaking the colorline, makes him an appealing candidate to progressives, but Outling is far more complex than the optics might suggest. Starting with his professional background, as an attorney with Brooks Pierce, Outling specializes in business litigation and white-collar criminal defense.
Moving on to his short voting record, Outling’s was one of only two votes cast against raising the minimum wage for city workers and instituting a participatory budgeting program. Bill Burckley, a veteran political consultant, has remarked that Outling’s voting record is consistent with that of Tony Wilkins, otherwise the lone conservative member of the body.
Like Justin Outling, Kurt Collins has served on the leadership committee of the SynerG young professionals group. Collins entered the campaign modeling himself after Matheny, albeit slightly more conservative.
Coming into the primary he earned the support of Conservatives for Guilford County, a tea party-inspired group dissatisfied with the current orientation of the city council. Collins garnered 23 percent of the primary vote, pulling strong support in the suburban Lake Brandt and New Irving Park. The latter neighborhood votes at Lawndale Baptist Church, where the local tea party movement was launched and where Rep. Mark Walker was pastor before being elected to the US Congress..
Collins holds strong civic experience as a member of the human relations commission, where he sits on a panel that hears complaints against the police department. Currently employed as a fraud analyst in the special investigations unit at United Guaranty, Collins also holds a realtor’s license. Like Outling, he’s relatively young.
There’s not much to distinguish the two candidates’ platforms, but the political establishment has largely swung behind Outling, who has been on the job for only about four months. With Conservatives for Guilford County backing Collins, he has embraced the role of the candidate of change.
Nancy Hoffmann (i)
Progressive Nancy Hoffmann ousted conservative Mary Rakestraw in a hard-fought race in 2011, and coasted to victory over deposed conservative mayor Bill Knight when he ran for the seat in 2013. Now seeking her third term, Hoffmann is one of two candidates running unopposed.
In the meantime, Hoffmann has aligned herself with developers while maintaining a progressive voting record on issues like raising the minimum wage for city workers and protecting LGBT people from discrimination in housing and other arenas.
Considering her lack of competition, recent expenditures on advertising and consulting suggest she has her eyes on a bigger prize than Greensboro City Council. Our best guess is that she’ll take a run at state Sen. Trudy Wade.
Tony Wilkins (i)
Like Justin Outling in District 3, Wilkins initially came by his seat in District 5 by appointment, after Trudy Wade vacated it to run for the state Senate in 2013. He subsequently won his first election in 2013. Wilkins had been Wade’s campaign manager in that election and served as executive director of the Guilford County GOP before that.
Since joining council, he’s pushed a plan for an international restaurant row along High Point Road, and contributed to a successful plan to rename the street as Gate City Boulevard.
As a reliable conservative voice in the city’s most conservative district, he voted against raising the minimum wage for city employees and against the city’s financial involvement in the International Civil Rights Center & Museum, though he has said he would soften his stance when it came to dealing with food insecurity in this hungriest area of the nation.
“I tend to be a little bit more agreeable when we’re talking about feeding hungry people,” he said in February during a discussion about the Renaissance Community Co-op.
He was also the lone councilmember to support Wade’s plan to radically alter the way council is structured, how it functions and the way it is elected.
Love him or hate him, we’re stuck with him. His challenger, Maureen Washington, moved out of the district over the summer, making her ineligible for the seat.
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