Candidate Mike Barber emerges from political retirement
By 7:30 a.m. on Sept. 28 the sun had just risen over the shotgun start of the pro-am warmup for the Chrysler Classic. A chill kept dew on the grass but the players ‘— professionals and deep-pocketed amateurs’— dressed in summery polo shirts and baseball caps. Mike Barber pulled up in a golf cart grinning like the high school kid he was when he first skipped school to attend the golf tournament 28 years ago.
The lawyer, former county commissioner and chair of the Forest Oaks practice range arrived at the golf course at 4:35 a.m. Now a candidate for the District 4 city council seat, his day would end only after an evening forum hosted by the League of Women Voters. That morning, between the interruptions of the golfers all around, Barber did not present his campaign positions in sound bites. Instead he described a vision for Greensboro heavy on insights from his years in public office.
Barber attended his last Guilford County Board of Commissioners meeting the first week of December 2004 after Mike Winstead unseated him in the November election. His retirement from political life lasted eight months; he waited until almost the Aug. 5 deadline to file his candidacy to represent District 4. Janet Wallace and Joseph Rahenkamp, both of whom are vying for their first stint in elected office, are running against him to represent the northwest district.
‘“Every politician will say people have called me and asked me to run,’” he said. ‘“But this time it is true.’” Until people convinced him to run for city council, Barber said the thought never occurred to him.
‘“But I recognized within my heart that I’ve always been involved in the community,’” he said. Born in Greensboro, Barber has spent most of his life here. He started college at UNC-Chapel Hill and transferred to UNCG to complete his bachelor’s in economics.
After graduation he worked for IBM, which offered him a leave of absence to attend law school. He accepted with the understanding that he would return to work for the legal department. After his first year of law school at Campbell University, IBM introduced its first voluntary separation program to reduce the size of its workforce. They offered terms so generous that they paid for the rest of Barber’s law school and a car. Freed from his obligation to the company, Barber moved back to Greensboro where he has practiced law for 14 years.
Although Barber identified himself as a Democrat in the partisan county commissioners race, he said he prefers to duck political labels. He supports some deregulation of city building codes and offered his elimination of 116 county jobs as the greatest achievement of his four-year tenure. Reducing the size of city government is one of his campaign points in the contest for District 4.
‘“District 4 is the cash cow of Greensboro,’” he said. ‘“The residents use very few services and have a large residential tax base.’”
Although he will serve his constituents’ interests if elected to the city council, he expressed concerns about whether the district system best addressed the needs of the city. Residents in wealthy District 4 have interests that conflict with some of the poorer districts, he said. But most of his positions would help all Greensboro families, he added.
The hassle of renovating a 110-year-old home for his law office shaped his views on city building inspections. The codes are arbitrary, he said, and different inspectors’ interpretations of the code can add thousands of dollars to the cost of renovating a business.
‘“We’ve got to have a smaller government and less regulation,’” he said. ‘“It benefits families because it benefits small business.’”
Every house built is a burden on the tax base of a community, Barber said, because residents use city facilities like schools and landfills. Businesses support the tax base. Despite his desire to make Greensboro a more business-friendly community, he takes a nuanced approach to corporate incentives.
‘“Ten years ago there would not have been an incentive package I wouldn’t have voted for,’” he said. ‘“But it’s a brand new day.’”
The lawyer and politician also has an intellectual side. He recently completed his doctorate in business from Kennedy Western through the University of Georgia. He wrote his dissertation on the effects of NAFTA as seen through the eyes of politicians. Students in the ethics course he teaches at Elon University conducted phone interviews with the mayor and other local politicians.
‘“Ten years later a lot of the people who advocated it absolutely can’t stand it,’” he said. ‘“In Germany they saw many of their jobs disappearing. They had to go into high tech finished products, and we have to make a transition like that.’”
Greensboro went from one of the most prominent cities in North Carolina to one that struggled following the disappearance of jobs in textiles and tobacco, he said. The road back to success starts with a new marketing strategy and less self-criticism, he said. He wants to rechristen the Triad GreenPointSalem to differentiate it from other regions. Above all he wants to critically approach city spending and regulation.
‘“People talk about balancing the federal government and reducing waste,’” he said. ‘“If we can’t do it at the local level how can we do it nationally? We need to set an example by getting back to essential services.’”
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