Nancy Vaughan dominates Greensboro mayoral primary

Challengers find cracks in at-large and District 5 races

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Mayor Nancy Vaughan (left) and Councilwoman Sharon Hightower watch returns at the board of elections. (photo by Jordan Green)

Greensboro Mayor Nancy Vaughan deflected challengers from both the left and right with a solid 61.5 percent of the vote in unofficial results from Greensboro’s municipal primary on Tuesday night.

“I’m feeling very happy,” Vaughan said, as fellow council members congratulated her at the board of elections in the Old Courthouse. “I believe it’s validation that the city is on the right track.”

The Rev. Diane Moffett, a pastor with no prior experience in elected office, earned a place on the general election ballot thanks to her second-place finish in the mayoral race. She claimed 21.6 percent of the vote in a three-way contest that eliminated conservative businessman John T. Brown.

The three at-large incumbents held the top three spots in a contest that allowed the top six out of 15 finishers to advance to the general election, although challenger Michelle Kennedy trailed incumbent Mike Barber by only 11 votes. The two other challengers who made the cut are Dave Wils, a public-school teacher active in the Democratic Party, and Dianne Bellamy-Small, who previously served on city council as representative of District 1 from 2003 to 2013.

Leading the pack of at-large candidates was Yvonne Johnson, a former mayor who transcended a split between the old guard and political insurgents by earning high ratings from voters at a conference of the progressive political action committee Democracy Greensboro.

“When things come into my path, I analyze it and pray about it, and come out where I’m comfortable,” Johnson said about her decision to court Democracy Greensboro voters. “They have a lot of points that are reasonable, democratic and fair, and some that are going to take some work.”

Johnson won 10,553 votes — only three short of mayoral candidate Vaughan — and more than a fifth of the at-large vote in the 15-candidate scrum.

Marikay Abuzuaiter, a progressive who took criticism from Democracy Greensboro voters over the perception that she’s too close to the police department, also performed well with a second-place finish and 14.7 percent of the vote.

Barber, a conservative Democrat who has publicly clashed with police reform activists, goes into the general election with a razor-thin lead over Kennedy, an outspoken advocate for police reform and policies to make the city more hospitable to poor people. Kennedy goes into the general election with the largest campaign war chest — $13,002 — among the at-large candidates, trailed by Wils, with $9,496; Abuzuaiter, with $9,357; Barber, with $6,838; Johnson, with $4,276; and Bellamy-Small, with $1,128.

Bill Eckard showed up at the Lindley Recreation Center at 6:30 p.m. to hold a sign for Kennedy, who is his neighbor.

“I’m not dissatisfied with the progress [the city council has] made,” he said. “It’s a cohesive city council. Michelle would be a good addition. She would be the conscience. We do need more transparency on policing. I’m an old guy, so I do like some stability. I don’t want it to be too left.

“My goodness, there’s some good candidates,” he added, also mentioning Wils.

Kennedy watched the results from home.

“Tonight’s results show that Greensboro is ready for a change in leadership,” she said in a text. “We will continue talking to residents where they are about Greensboro’s most pressing issues. I’m thankful for the outpouring of support tonight, but the real work begins now.”

Bellamy-Small greeted voters outside the Christ United Methodist Church near the Friendly Center during the after-work rush.

“In the current political environment, it’s almost as if we don’t want honorable people to serve,” she said. “I believe I have the expertise to make a difference for this city. I have a track record of making sure the council addresses the needs of all the people, not just downtown or the west side.”

Although the results will not be finalized until the official canvas, Tuesday’s returns indicated a shutout of the two Black Lives Matter candidates. Irving Allen placed eighth in the at-large balloting, 1,118 votes behind Bellamy-Small. CJ Brinson, who ran to fill the open seat in District 2, came much closer, falling only 19 votes behind second-place finisher Jim Kee, a former council member.

District 2 voters clearly decided that Goldie Wells was gold. The longtime community activist, who has led successful efforts to close the White Street Landfill and to establish a community cooperative, claimed 53.7 percent of the vote. Wells, who previously served on council from 2005 to 2009, was appointed to fill the unexpired term of Councilman Jamal Fox in July. Meanwhile, Kee and Brinson each came away with about 20 percent of the vote.

Voters in districts 3 and 4 signaled resounding support for incumbents. Justin Outling, a corporate lawyer who has represented District 3 since 2015, tripled the performance of his closest rival, public defender Craig Martin, 69.1 percent to 21.8 percent. Antuan Marsh and Payton McGarry, who respectively carried 5.9 percent and 3.3 percent of the vote, were denied the opportunity to advance to the general election. Outling said the results validate his socially progressive and fiscally conservative approach to governance.

Similarly, District 4 incumbent Nancy Hoffmann trounced challenger Gary Kenton, who has called on the city to demonstrate more transparency in policing matters. Hoffmann won 67.3 percent of the vote, compared to Kenton’s showing of 28.1 percent. The two candidates will advance to the general election, while third place finisher Andrew Belford was eliminated.

Some District 4 residents have faulted Hoffmann for voting to approve a rezoning that would have allowed commercial development to extend westward on Friendly Avenue. Trader Joe’s was expected to be the tenant, and the coveted store ultimately decided against coming to Greensboro.

“I have really tried to represent our district and to make the best decisions for the our city,” Hoffmann said. “Occasionally, those two clash.

“In order to keep our tax rate where it is now we have to grow the tax base,” Hoffmann added. “We have to plan for the future, which is residential and commercial development. We don’t have enough housing stock. To have lost Trader Joe’s four years ago — it’s a grocery store, but it says something about a city to have one, and it says something to not have one.”

Sharon Hightower, the incumbent in District 1, dominated voting in her race, grabbing 78.2 percent of the vote, with one challenger dropping out and two others mounting only nominal campaigns. Paula Ritter-Lipscomb, the second-place finisher with 13.7 percent of the vote, advances with Hightower to the general election.

The night’s big surprise came in District 5, where Tony Wilkins, the sole Republican on the council, was upset by progressive Democratic challenger Tammi Thurm. Thurm led balloting with 46.0 percent of the vote, trailed by Wilkins, with 42.6 percent. The primary winnowed out two other candidates, Sal Leone and Tanner Lucas, setting up a fierce contest between Thurm and Wilkins for the general election.

Bill Burckley, a political consultant who is working on Wilkins’ campaign, showed up at the board of elections in subdued mood.

“Definitely surprised,” he said, describing his reaction to Wilkins’ showing.

One District 5 voter said his perception of a Republican candidate running in a local contest had been poisoned by the party’s track record at the state and national level.

“You’ve got my vote,” Ray Rimmer told Thurm outside the Faith Presbyterian Church polling place. “I appreciate you running to represent us in this largely red district. I wish you well, Tammi. God bless you.”

Rimmer, who served in the military during the Vietnam War, said Trump’s election feels like a replay of the Nixon era.

“At the state and national level, Republicans have taken such a hard right turn I don’t think I’ll be able to vote for anyone with an ‘R’ behind their name from now to the grave,” Rimmer said. “There’s a whole lot of division, and I don’t blame Democrats as much as I blame Republicans. I haven’t seen anything as poisonous as the way Republicans treated President Obama in the past eight years.”

  • Phillip

    I’m a bit disheartened by the at-large incumbents winning (I know, there’s still an election in Nov). I think it’s just time for some new blood — and 4 of the 6 at-large candidates are more GSO’s past than future. The D5 race — wow! Obviously it can all change in Nov, but If Councilman Wilkins goes down — well, I’m sure he’ll pop up again somewhere else.

  • Billy Jones

    Someone repainted all the Nancy Vaughan for Mayor signs on the entire block in front of the court house to read “Write in Billy Jones 4 Mayor” and Nancy and the media are scared to report it because then they’ll have to admit I’m running.