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Bellamy-Small and Clinkscale fight for soul of District 1; mayoral hopeful Johnson feted

by Jordan Green

Charles Robinson, an elderly resident, spoke for many when he rose in the crowded fellowship hall at Trinity AME Zion Church on Greensboro’s East Florida Street last night and named Yvonne Johnson the candidate of choice for mayor. The predominantly African-American audience included a smattering of white faces, and all engaged in a passionate and at times unruly dialogue about the fate of the city’s less-affluent east side.

“I helped to put her in,” Robinson said. “Before, we only had districts one and two, but then she came along and won at large. If a fellow won’t show up, that’s not our fault. We are going to put her in. It’s going to take more than just us, but if we get behind her she’ll win.”

The “fellow” to whom Robinson referred was Johnson’s opponent, Milton Kern. Moderator Ralph Johnson told the audience that both mayoral candidates, along with all candidates for at-large and district council seats, had been invited.

Kern’s campaign manager and organizers of the Trinity AME Zion Church forum gave conflicting explanations for the candidate’s absence. Forum organizer Dorothy Ray said she spoke to Kern last week and he told her he an another event to attend. Campaign Manager Stacey Ofsanko said Kern first learned about the Trinity AME Zion Church forum at a reception hosted by the chamber of commerce earlier that evening.

Running as a perceived underdog, Kern has recently ratcheted up the stridency of his campaign. Earlier this week, a glossy mailer landed in voters’ mailboxes featuring a photo of Kern wearing an expression reminiscent of the 1960s movie action hero Charles Bronson and the declaration: “My top priority is keeping our streets and neighborhoods safe.”

“A good community can be ruined when citizens live in fear of crime and gang violence,” the mailer states. “But when people feel safe, businesses, neighborhoods and schools can thrive.”

The broadside strikes notes that might appeal to both sides in the ever-widening divide over whether City Manager Mitchell Johnson deserves support for holding former police Chief David Wray accountable for racially-charged allegations of mismanagement or Wray should be lauded for attempting to ferret out corruption on the part of black police officers, promising, “I will sponsor a thorough and open review to weed out corruption and discrimination from the police department.”

An official statement distributed by the Kern campaign on Oct. 29 takes direct aim at Johnson on another front by suggesting she’s too cozy with developers who have funded her campaign and frequently come before council with rezoning requests. The statement makes note of generous campaign finance outlays to the Johnson campaign by local developers such as a $1,000 donation from Bill Kotis, along with checks for $500 from John Kavanagh and $250 from Portrait Homes General Manager Zachary Tran.

“As it is widely known that Kern has been the backbone of downtown Greensboro’s redevelopment and has been in the construction business for more than 40 years, it seems strange that fellow developers would not be financially backing their colleague, and furthermore that they are instead backing his opponent,” the statement reads. “Could this be due to his adamant stance that his vote on the city council will not be bought?”

Johnson didn’t hesitate to fault Kern for his absence at the Trinity AME Zion Church.

“I’ve never been one to be negative, but I have to speak the truth,” she said. “My opponent has missed four forums. I have been at every forum, as I have been in every segment of the community. Something is wrong when a candidate says he wants to represent you but can’t show up at a forum.”

Her pronouncement was met with applause and refrains of “that’s right.”

The Trinity AME Zion Church forum also featured a sharp debate between incumbent Dianne Bellamy-Small and challenger Tonya Clinkscale over the preferable style of representation for beleaguered District 1; a confident performance by District 2 representative Goldie Wells fending off challenger Lance Jones; a feisty display of moxie and policy finesse by District 5 incumbent Sandy Carmany, who derided her better funded and more popular opponent Trudy Wade; and presentations by six anxious at-large candidates.

Wade left before her turn on the dais came around. She said she had to respond to an emergency call related to her veterinary business. Also missing was District 4 incumbent Mike Barber, who is running unopposed, and both candidates for District 3.

“I have been through the fire,” Bellamy-Small said in response to a question about what distinguishes her from her opponent, summoning a wave of applause.

“I’m not going to be apologize for being different,” she said. “You wanted somebody who would be different…. This is a dog-eat-dog arena, and I have tried very hard to keep my dignity. I think you wanted someone who would stand up when people say, ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about,’ and say, ‘I’ll find out for myself.'”

An elderly African-American man took offense at part of Bellamy-Small’s formulation.

“I’m insulted,” he said, before stalking out. “Is she calling another councilmember a dog or those who opposed her?”

Clinkscale characterized herself as a better team player, while describing some scrappy attributes of her own.

“One of the biggest [differences] is I have a more personable spirit,” she said. “I’ve worked with gangs…. I’ve gone down there with parents and got kids out of gangs. I’ve been out there at two in the morning rescuing babies from their crack-addicted mothers.”

Wells said her grassroots activism sets her apart from challenger Lance Jones. She cited successful efforts to close the White Street Landfill and her involvement in the steering committee for the city’s comprehensive plan as examples of her effective leadership prior to winning election in 2005.

Her opponent proffered that he possessed “street knowledge, in a law enforcement sense,” and deployed rhetoric of uncompromising militancy to contrast Wells’ posture of polite collegiality. A correctional officer, Jones talked about his interactions with gang members behind bars, and complained that the percentage of city contracts given to minority-owned businesses is too low.

“When you cry out that gang violence is going up – hmmm? – when you cry out that only three percent of the contracts are going to minorities, then we need a change. I’ll be that change. Vote for Jones.”

Carmany argued that her longstanding residency in southwest Greensboro and her immersion in policy issues sets her apart from challenger Trudy Wade.

“I’ve lived in southwest Greensboro in a working-class neighborhood for thirty-six years,” she said. “My opponent moved into Grandover recently.”

Carmany also argued to the primarily African-American audience that the current council has made a concerted effort to bring economic development to the east side of the city.

“One of the main roles that council can play is to make sure the basic infrastructure is in place,” she said. “We fought long and hard to make sure that Painter Boulevard would be built. Secondly, we need to make sure that the support is there. That is what the incentives are for. We have been actively working on sites on the east side.”

At-large candidates fielded questions on topics ranging from human relations and public safety to economic development. One questioned concerned the city council’s handling of the truth and reconciliation process to examine the causes and consequences of the 1979 Klan-Nazi shootings.

“I am not trying to place blame on one side or the other,” said Robbie Perkins, a former councilman who voted to reject the truth process in 2005. “For a large part of our community there needs to be some healing, but I don’t think it needs to tear apart our whole community.”

Marikay Abuzuaiter, a first-time candidate, gave a strong endorsement to the truth process.

“If that many citizens have gone to the trouble, it demands that we as a counsel look at it,” she said. “It must be attended to.”

The candidates were also asked if they would support the creation of a police review board with subpoena power.

The lone incumbent Sandra Anderson Groat, along with Bill Knight and Kevin Green – both first-time candidates – responded with unequivocal nos. Abuzuaiter said she had reservations about giving an independent panel subpoena power, but would support a review function.

Perkins said, “I think it’s worthwhile to study it.”

Many of the at-large candidates – none of whom reside in districts 1 and 2 – tried to show empathy with constituents on the poorer east side.

“Opportunities is what we all need,” said Kevin Green, who is employed with Yost & Little. “Whatever happened to families sitting down for a meal at five p.m. and having the opportunity to talk about the day? I am a realtor. We understand how important homeownership can be.”

To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at jordan@yesweekly.com.

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