With new council districts, candidates adapt

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The new, eight-district map.

by Eric Ginsburg

With a radical redistricting plan approved, Greensboro City Council members and candidates are preparing for the upcoming election.

When most of the Greensboro City Council members talk about the election this fall, they talk in terms of “if.” Even though the state General Assembly passed a bill dramatically reorganizing how council is elected in a myriad of ways, council members point to a public forum scheduled for Wednesday and suggest the fight isn’t over yet.

Mayor Nancy Vaughan, who has been at the forefront of opposing the redistricting pushed by state Sen. Trudy Wade, said elected officials will continue discussing the issue with legal counsel and soliciting feedback from residents.

“I’m not a lawyer so I really can’t say what the next step is,” she said. “I’m really not sure what our chances are at an injunction [but] I think there are constitutional arguments to be made and I think there are voter disenfranchisement arguments to be made.”

But in the meantime, almost all council members are preparing to run.

The redistricting eliminates three at-large positions and creates eight new districts, nearly all of them radically different from the five that previously existed. Though the number of total city council seats remains the same, the new map puts most sitting council members in unfamiliar territory.

Except for Tony Wilkins, the most conservative member on council. City council elections are nonpartisan but Wilkins, a Republican, inherited his existing District 5 from Wade when she left council to serve in the state Senate. Wade’s plan left District 5 the most intact, and Vaughan says it’s no accident.

“The only council member who really remains unscathed in any shape or form is the lone Republican,” she said.

But what concerns Vaughan and others on council more is that the four black members of council were double-bunked in District 1 and 2. Justin Outling, who is black, was recently appointed to fill out the remainder of councilman Zack Matheny’s term when Matheny resigned to run Downtown Greensboro Inc. Wade’s initial proposal would have drawn Outling into a new District 7 that snaked through downtown, but not long after his appointment, a new map appeared that carved his precinct into a majority-minority district with black Councilwoman Sharon Hightower.

Hightower and Outling both say they will run in the new District 1 in southeast Greensboro.

“It gives me a new spectrum of people to serve but a lot of them I have already served,” Hightower said. “I will miss some of my district, but I’m still here. I’m here for everybody. Whatever transpires, I’m ready to go.”

Outling, who said he would run in the fall when council appointed him, said the demographics of a district don’t concern him.

“I’m going to run in the fall regardless of where the lines fall,” Outling said. “The city needs new leadership to provide pragmatic leadership to complex problems. I have the experience and skills to develop those solutions whether it’s in District 1, or 3 or any other district. The problems that we as a city deal with are problems that all of us share and all of us have to develop solutions to overcome.”

Mayor Pro Tem Yvonne Johnson and Councilman Jamal Fox, who are both black, were drawn into a new District 2 in northeast Greensboro, but Johnson said she would not seek reelection if the redistricting stands.

“I know we’re having a public hearing on Wednesday… but if we fight it in the courts I don’t know what will happen,” Johnson said. “If it holds, I won’t run. I just don’t care to run against [Fox]. I would rather not do it. I wanted to serve one more term, but if that happens it happens and if it doesn’t, it doesn’t.”

Johnson was initially elected to city council in 1993, serving continuously until she was elected as the city’s first black mayor from 2007-2009. After losing a reelection bid in 2009, she was reelected to council at large in 2011. She also participated in the civil rights movement in Greensboro as a student at Bennett College.

Bellamy-Small (left) and Perkins (front)
Bellamy-Small (left) and Perkins (front)

It is unclear how the new district system, with eight districts and the mayor elected at large, will affect overall black or minority representation on council. Previously two out of five districts represented majority-minority areas of the city, with Johnson elected citywide. But former councilwoman Dianne Bellamy-Small, a black former police officer and gospel singer, is the only candidate to publicly announce for District 6 so far. Bellamy-Small lost to Hightower in 2013 by a dozen votes, and initially said she would run in District 1 again. The new district map approved by the state places Bellamy-Small in District 6, however.

“My desire was to return to council,” Bellamy-Small said. “My desire was not about [Hightower] or trying to eliminate her, but it was about trying to get back on council to provide much-needed leadership and experience.”

The district covers several precincts she is unfamiliar with, but some she traversed as part of a failed run for a county commissioners seat last year.

Marikay Abuzuaiter, a progressive who currently serves at large, will be pushed into a new District 8 in the north-central part of the city, which is not where her power base lies and favors Republicans.

“I am running no matter what transpires in this, and I would run in District 8, but I am very frustrated that the demographics of that district do not reflect the demographics of Greensboro,” she said.

Data about the new districts, courtesy of the city of Greensboro
Data about the new districts, courtesy of the city of Greensboro

So far, she has no publicly known challengers. But Anita Bachmann, a senior vice president at Optum, a division of UnitedHealth Group, who was the volunteer campaign coordinator for the unsuccessful 1/4-cent for schools bond item last fall, is considering a run. Bachmann asked to be considered to replace Matheny before council appointed Outling.

“I will be making a decision soon about whether I will run,” she said. “I understand that the filing time has been extended. I will be making a decision very, very soon.”

Filing was initially scheduled to begin Monday but the state pushed it to July 27 under Wade’s plan.

George Hartzman, a perennial council critic who ran for mayor in the last election, lives in the new District 8 as well. He said he is unsure whether he will run for the seat.

Councilman Mike Barber, who serves at-large with Abuzuaiter and Johnson, now lives in a central District 3, as does Councilwoman Nancy Hoffmann. Barber could not be reached for comment. Hoffmann, who had announced her plans to run for reelection in District 4, says she will run no matter what.

Michael Picarelli, the former chair of the Guilford County Republican Party and a city human relations commissioner, also sought to replace Matheny, saying at the time he would run for council in the fall. He still lives in District 3, but could not be reached to confirm if he will run against Hoffmann and possibly Barber. Tom Phillips, a former city councilman who was considered to replace Matheny as well, said he is not interested in running for council.

There are rumors that former mayor Bill Knight, a Republican who served one term back when Wade was on council, may run. He lost a district race against Hoffmann in 2013, and would face her again if he ran in the new District 3, where he lives. He could not be reached for comment.

Former county commissioner Skip Alston, who backed Wade’s initial plan, is also rumored to be a possible candidate. He lives in the new District 6, which would pit him against Bellamy-Small. Alston, a prominent black political figure who runs the Alston Realty Group and co-founded the International Civil Rights Center & Museum, has butted heads with Bellamy-Small numerous times, and backed Hightower against Bellamy-Small last council election. He could not be reached for comment.

Guilford County School Board member Deena Hayes-Greene, who also chairs the board of the civil rights museum, said last week she wouldn’t run and would be supporting a woman who hasn’t announced her candidacy yet.

“I was going to run if I thought nobody else would run who was going to support some critical issues,” she said.

But Hayes-Greene hadn’t seen the approved map last week and was only familiar with Wade’s initial proposal. The final redistricting plan approved by the state places Hayes-Greene in a new District 4 in the south-central part of Greensboro, an area with no incumbents and no public contenders so far.

It was also rumored that Robbie Perkins, a former mayor and councilman who backed Wade’s plan at the outset, would run for office, either challenging Vaughan who unseated him as mayor or in a new District 3. But Perkins said neither is happening.

“Life’s too good,” he said.

Perkins did appear with Bellamy-Small to back her recent campaign announcement.

Conservative Councilman Tony Wilkins, who currently represents District 5 and still lives in the redrawn district, wouldn’t explicitly say that he is not going to run for mayor.

“Although I haven’t made a final decision, I am certainly leaning toward running for re-election in District 5,” he said.

With the elimination of at-large seats, his only other option for running would be for mayor. He dodged the question about whether he would challenge Vaughan.

“The No. 1 requirement to run for mayor, in my mind, is that you have to want to be mayor,” he said vaguely. “My political ego currently extends to the borders of District 5. Being considered by nearly everyone as the most conservative council member would naturally cause some conservatives to request that I consider running for mayor.”

But to an explicit request to clarify if that meant he would not run for mayor, Wilkins said simply: “I didn’t say that.”

Read next week’s issue of Triad City Beat for a comprehensive guide about what changes for you — and how to vote — under the new plan.