Over these last few months, Tony Wilkins’ hair has gone from charcoal gray to stark white. It’s like he’s aging in Obama years. Or seen a ghost.
The District 5 representative to Greensboro City Council has been living in a lonely world since state Sen. Trudy Wade unleashed her plan to reconfigure the city in the pages of the Rhino Times, with presumptive succor from both the editor and publisher.
As the only sitting councilmember to embrace — nay, espouse — Wade’s gambit, and the only one who hasn’t been double-bunked with one of his peers on council or displaced from his district in the new configuration, he’s an outlier, a lone voice in the woods, the pube in the soup.
Wilkins and his snow-white head of hair stoically took to the dais last week when council took comments from the public on the new law as it considered whether to sue the state under the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution.
Why should Greensboro be the one city in the state denied the right of self-determination?
Everybody who knows stuff knows that Wilkins would sooner sculpt his white hair into a spiked Mohawk than endorse this lawsuit, which goes against the wishes of Senate President Phil Berger the man he’s called “Big Daddy” in Raleigh; Wade, his political mentor; and a secret cabal of ‘business leaders” who have yet to make themselves known.
Wilkins has a cadre of boosters and useful idiots by his side on this one, too. They showed up early at city hall, some to stack the list of commenters and others to hold signs out front for the TV cameras. Their specialty is to create the illusion of greater numbers, like a mindless school of fish whose herd instinct has been triggered by fear.
Let’s be clear: Wade’s law eventually passed, a sleazy story unto itself; the governor, who is against it, has no opportunity to block this local bill; the lawsuit filed on Monday, which appears to have a 50-50 chance of success at this point, is the city’s only recourse against what looks and feels an awful lot like bullying.
Even before this public hearing, everybody who knows stuff knows that this lawsuit was as certain as spring showers. Not only has the new council makeup failed to gain public buy-in, as one local newspaper publisher put it — despite publishing the results of a crap poll saying exactly the opposite in that very same newspaper — but half the people on council would be gone under the new rules.
For the political class, having an office from which to operate is as essential as oxygen.
That knowledge made the Wednesday night council meeting something of a farce.
But like all good government meetings, the tale was in the subtext.
Former councilman and former state Rep. Earl Jones — incidentally, also a newspaper publisher — lobbied me on the way in, toeing the party line set by his business partner Skip Alston, possibly in the upstairs library of the International Civil Rights Center & Museum underneath their own portraits.
Inside Melvin Municipal Office Building, Alston had already staked out a space in the back near former Mayor Bill Knight, Alston’s ally in this cause who headed the failed conservative council that somehow managed to launch Wade into the state Senate.
To make these bedfellows even stranger, Knight chatted up community lawyer Luther Falls, who would later go on record against the new configuration, in the moments before the meeting began.
The chamber filled to capacity well before the hearing began, with an overflow crowd of more than 100 filling the lobby to watch on a closed-circuit screen. Media in the balcony had the opportunity to watch the proceedings below, while also hearing crowd reactions through the thin doors. Like when Mayor Nancy Vaughan announced Alston’s turn for comment, everyone in the lobby laughed. And while he was speaking through the microphone, they booed.
Former Mayor Robbie Perkins, who tied his unsuccessful re-election campaign of 2013 to Alston’s coalition, got similar treatment.
Their pitch — that the new district election could allow for more African-Americans on council — rings hollow, if only for the fact that the architects of this plan would never do anything that expressly benefited black people. Remember, this is the same crew that once wanted to reopen the White Street Landfill.
But really, no one knows for sure how these new districts would play out. And that’s part of the problem.
Marty Kotis, one prominent Greensboro businessman who came out against the plan from the get-go, hung by the perimeter of the lobby on July 8, and when the chance to sign up for a speaking slot arose he jumped at it.
He’s well known in the state as a supporter of Republicans and their causes, but when it comes to his hometown Kotis is neither red nor blue. He’s green.
The problem, he said, is not the shift in power from left to right, though he notes that Greensboro is and always has been a reliably liberal city going back to its Quaker origins. The problem is in not knowing where the districts are and who the candidates will be, and whether the real election will be in October or November.
Instability, he stresses, is bad for business. And thus far, besides the preternatural whitening of Wilkins’ hair, it has been the only byproduct of this most recent political takeover of Greensboro.
Nicole Crews returns in August with All She Wrote. Find her archive at triad-city-beat.com/all-she-wrote.