A few jabs taken in Greensboro District 5 race

by Eric Ginsburg

Name any kind of low-end job, and Alex Seymour has held it. Picking tobacco, washing dishes, working at a convenience store or a rubber factory, cleaning Wal- Mart bathrooms and even dressing up as Clifford the Big Red Dog. And you better believe that costume is hot, he said.

Seymour and Sal Leone, the other challenger in the primary for the District seat on Greensboro City Council, pointed to a similar reason for running — most people are disenfranchised and feel like local government is corrupt, they said, and both of them argue they would bring strong, grassroots, street-level knowledge to Greensboro’s southwestern district.

The “man of the people” campaign isn’t a new tack for new candidates, but it may be a difficult one to push against Tony Wilkins. That’s because Wilkins, a smallbusiness owner, isn’t exactly a career politician — he ran for Guilford County Commission and lost in the Republican primary before being appointed to replace Trudy Wade in District 5. Still, Seymour said Wilkins is very entrenched in county politics — he chaired the Guilford County Republican Party — and while Leone didn’t mention Wilkins by name, Leone said in an interview he’s running for office because “I’m tired of people that run for office that have big money or business interests behind them.”

Seymour and Leone referenced Wilkins’ relationship to developer Marty Kotis, who hosted a large fundraiser for Wilkins last week, made an in-kind donation of $400 in billboard space for Wilkins’ ads and also had business before council recently. Seymour said that while Wilkins’ vote — to reimburse Kotis for water and sewer costs he incurred before the city annexed his property — was not illegal, it was unethical. He’d like to see the city change the rules about a council member’s conflict of interest to prevent people from donating to campaigns within 12 months of having business before the city, a policy he said other cities have adopted.

Wilkins said he would consider Seymour’s proposal but said allegations that any council members, himself included, are swayed to vote a certain way by relatively small political donations doesn’t hold up to members’ voting records. Wilkins also said the vote to reimburse Kotis was “about as routine as it gets.”

Leone, a police officer in Thomasville, also distanced himself from Seymour, saying he is concerned about Seymour’s voting and criminal history. Leone furnished a list, that is publicly available on the state elections board website, showing that Seymour didn’t vote in the council primary and referenced different criminal charges Seymour has faced.

Seymour said he’s faced some charges that have been thrown out, had a few moving violations when he was younger and lost his license a few times, as well as a plea to breaking and entering in the late 1990s when he was hanging out with a “bad crowd” in Rockingham County.

The two challengers didn’t spend the majority of their time slinging mud. Seymour said that in fiscal matters, his votes would likely mirror Wilkins’, who distinguished himself in his nine months on council as the conservative voice, and has said he is the conservative candidate in the district. It’s hard to disprove him, given his relationship to the county GOP and endorsement from the tea party-related Conservatives for Guilford County.

“The people in District 5 don’t have to guess where I stand,” Wilkins said.

Wilkins, who has run Furniture Connection for 30 years, said he was thrilled with the turnout his fundraiser last week, listing several prominent conservative politicians who attended — such as US Rep. Howard Coble, NC Reps. John Blust and Jon Hardister, and Guilford County Commissioner Hank Henning — along with left-leaning city council members Yvonne Johnson, Marikay Abuzuaiter, Jim Kee and Nancy Vaughan.

District 5, which cups the southwestern side of the city and stretches from the northwest to the south, is the most conservative district in the city, but Leone is hoping that voters who don’t traditionally turn out in strong numbers in the area — specifically Democrats and black residents — will boost him through the primary election on Oct. 8.

Wilkins pointed to his record, focusing on his lone vote against a water-rate increase and against the budget because it maintained the current property tax rate. He also attempted to pass a resolution on a proposed performing-arts center stipulating that no taxpayer money would go towards funding the project in the future, but his motion failed because no other member would second it. The city plans to generate funds to build the center without directly using taxpayer money but Wilkins raised concerns about a future operating budget deficit.

Leone hit a few fiscally conservative notes, saying companies are being taxed “to death..” and proposing the elimination of business privilege licenses. Leone also repeatedly stressed the importance of dealing with poverty, unemployment, homelessness and unequal development.

If the city is going to incentivize companies to create jobs, he said, the jobs need to go to Greensboro residents. The city should encourage or help businesses hire people in poor or under-privileged areas, he said, suggesting that putting the performing arts center in east Greensboro could be one way to achieve that.

Leone even came up with a different acronym for the Greensboro Performing Arts Center, or GPAC — “Greensboro’s Poor Also Count.”

Seymour said he is concerned about poor and working-class residents he feels don’t have a voice, too, but the city’s movement towards limiting people’s freedoms is what propelled him to run for office. As a cook at Grey’s Tavern, Seymour said he organized downtown business owners and stakeholders against a teen curfew and remained politically active around other restrictive legislation such as busking, panhandling and noise ordinances or limits on speakers at council meetings.

While he is fiscally conservative, Seymour said he is socially liberal and differs with Wilkins on the teen curfew, which Wilkins pushed to move citywide and Seymour opposes entirely. The Rockingham County native, who like Wilkins is married with two kids, said he’s concerned that the city doesn’t see people like him as downtown stakeholders even though he helped build it up from a “slum” with restaurants like Natty Greene’s, Ganache and Grey’s.

Besides mentioning several key votes or his service on thr economic development and audit committees, Wilkins mostly talked about his ideas for the future, some of which are related to High Point Road.

He said he’s proud of a rebranding effort to change the road’s name to Gate City Boulevard and will continue to push it forward, arguing it will help with economic development. The city is contributing $50,000 to the initiative and another $100,000 is coming from the state, but Leone called it wasteful and “ridiculous” when people are poor and going hungry.

Wilkins said that while “I’m not one to spend a lot of money,” the amount was minimal for the overall benefits and that it is important not to have a major thoroughfare named for a city Greensboro competes with for development. Wilkins also said he would like staff to look into capitalizing on the High Point Road corridor’s culinary diversity and said he will continue to push for upgrades for the street.

Leone also mentioned ethnic and racial diversity, saying that many people feel isolated and that he wants to work to involve and represent them, suggesting the city’s diversity should be reflected in commissions and boards rather than a city government that just serves rich, white donors, he said.

“I want to go against the establishment of just the same old people,” Leone said.

Leone and Seymour offered thoughts on other issues that are important to them too — for Leone, the struggling Bessemer Center deal and his support of the Renaissance Community Cooperative and for Seymour, police accountability.

While the patrol officers are good people and he mostly takes issue with directives like the curfew, Seymour said he saw police beating a suspect in an alley and they ordered him and others to stop watching. Another time, a mistake at a checkpoint made him late to work until an officer realized the error. Seymour said he supports the call for a citizen’s review board of the department with subpoena power, adding that it should have access to the footage from the new “cameras on cops” program.

Wilkins, who has lived in the same ZIP code for his whole life, said the city’s current spending spree, especially a raise for Coliseum Director Matt Brown, is a slap in the face of police officers and firemen, even if Brown is “probably the Michael Jordan of the industry.”

As the three men head into the primary election, there may be some more jostling of each other’s history — Seymour referenced Wilkins’ past as a blogger, for example — and other times the challengers may try to ride Wilkins coat-tails by appearing similarly conservative on fiscal issues, at least through the primary.