Photo courtesy of Roth campaign

Justin Outling, the Greensboro City Council member who represents District 3, is giving up his seat to challenge incumbent Nancy Vaughan for mayor in November. Already, the political vacuum has attracted two heavyweight contenders, and the first punch has been thrown.

Chip Roth, a former senior advisor to President Obama, filed paperwork with the Guilford County Board of Elections last year announcing his intention to run for the District 3 seat. After confirming his candidacy to Triad City Beat, Roth leveled criticism at his anticipated opponent. Zack Matheny represented District 3 from 2007 to 2015, when he resigned to take the job of president of Downtown Greensboro Inc. Matheny hasn’t confirmed that he plans to run for his old seat, but neither has he ruled out the possibility.

“I think he shows tremendous lack of judgement while attempting to run DGI while sitting on city council,” Roth told TCB. “The inherent conflict of interest will make it messy. The business community downtown is going to want security and safety. What does that mean for the business owners on Battleground Avenue? He’ll have to recuse himself again and again.”

In a fundraising email addressed to “a select group of friends that have supported our family through the years” on Sunday, Matheny indicated he had already consulted with his family and the board of directors at Downtown Greensboro Inc. about his plans. In the email, he wrote that in addition to serving as president of Downtown Greensboro Inc., “as a city council member, my focus for the next four years includes” economic development, public safety and communication.

Matheny said in an email to TCB on Monday that in the next couple weeks he expects to “determine if I am firmly running” and that at that time he would potentially “have an official announcement about running.” The former council member also acknowledged that he’s reached out to the city attorney to see if returning to city government would conflict with his duties as president of Downtown Greensboro Inc. Matheny cited Mayor Pro Tem Yvonne Johnson and Councilmember Michelle Kennedy, who lead nonprofits — One Step Further and the Interactive Resource Center, respectively — that have dealings with city government in rejecting Roth’s charge.

Zack Matheny

“Regarding Mr. Roth’s uninformed comments: It is not surprising that a candidate would start spreading these false accusations,” Matheny told TCB. “Personally, I have spoken with the city attorney and he sees no direct conflict of interest. Similar to Michelle Kennedy and Yvonne Johnson, if there is a vote regarding the organization’s specific budget, then you ask the attorney if you should recuse yourself. You do not depend on hearsay. As you are aware, the budget is only voted on one time a year and a specific line item can be separated from all other budgets. It has not been a problem for Michelle or Yvonne, nor has it been a conflict for our neighbor in Winston-Salem, [Mayor] Allen Joines, who is the executive director of the Winston-Salem Alliance.”

Matheny declined to comment further about his potential campaign plans.

Roth enters the campaign with extraordinary national political connections that he says he will be able to leverage for the benefit of the city. Chip Roth and his wife, Denise Roth, built significant inroads in government, business and labor in Greensboro before Washington DC beckoned in 2015. Chip Roth isn’t shy about touting his political connections at both the federal and state level, or connections he’s built through his wife.

In the late 2000s, Denise Roth worked as a lobbyist for the Greensboro Partnership, a role that put her in contact with Greensboro government. Then, she took a job as assistant city manager, eventually serving as city manager from 2011 to 2015. (Denise Roth’s tenure in city government overlapped with that of Matheny, her husband’s future political rival.) During the same period, Chip Roth worked for the Teamsters union, where he negotiated contracts, including one with Anheuser-Busch.

Chip Roth followed his wife to Washington, when she accepted appointment to head the General Services Administration — essentially the federal government’s real estate manager — in 2015.

“That gave me extraordinary access to the White House,” Chip Roth said. “I worked so much with the White House that they recruited me to serve as a senior advisor for small business.”

After leaving the White House following the 2016 election of Donald Trump, Chip Roth opened a business-strategy consulting firm. The couple and their son returned to Greensboro in 2018.

“A unique perspective that I think I bring to the city of Greensboro is my deep relationship with the Biden administration,” Chip Roth said. “Denise worked closely with Biden when she ran the GSA. I intend to use these relationships to facilitate working with the Economic Development Administration of the Commerce Department. That is one of the primary vehicles by which the placement of large business occurs.”

Roth praised Matheny’s leadership at Downtown Greensboro Inc., but he wants to look beyond downtown as an economic driver to move the city forward.

“I want to help make the Piedmont Triad a priority for the EDA,” Roth said. “What I’m looking to do is create transformative change for our community. We only do that if we expand our focus beyond where it has been. Our needs are bigger than downtown. Downtown is important, but to create transformative investment, we need our megasite to become a target for not just the Economic Development Administration, but also our state leaders. I’ve got a very strong relationship with Gov. [Roy] Cooper. I’m going to work with state leaders on an economic strategy that recruits businesses to invest in Greensboro.”

While Roth’s economic vision for Greensboro heavily leans on his connections with insiders, he emphasizes a social ideal that is progressive and inclusive. Asked where he stands on issues of police accountability and funding in light of the historic protests for racial justice over the summer, Roth cited both his family and relationships with police officers.

“My son is mixed race,” Roth said. “His destiny is my north star.”

But in response to the specific policy demands of the movement, Roth said: “I’m concerned that some that seek local public office may find false security in engaging a national discussion. I am not a proponent of defunding the police. I am a proponent of refining our approach to the challenges that police officers commonly face. We should expand to the capacity for us to bring mental health services to our citizens.”

Roth has represented police officers in Raleigh, Durham and Wilmington as a union representative.

“What I found is there is a desire for excellence in the best departments,” he said. “They want to develop partnerships with the mental health community. I think I am uniquely situated to develop the sorts of relationships that can bring relationships with the African-American community.”

This story has been updated with text from a fundraising email sent out by Zack Matheny on Sunday, Feb. 7.

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