Challengers upend incumbents in mayor’s race, districts 1 and 2

by Eric Ginsburg @Eric_Ginsburg

Most of the candidates and supporters had already left the old Guilford County Courthouse when the final results came in for District 1 just before 10 p.m.: As the county elections staff pulled up the last precinct, challenger Sharon Hightower slipped past incumbent Dianne Bellamy- Small with 15 votes.

Elections staff originally thought they had the results from Bluford Elementary, a bellwether precinct in east Greensboro, before realizing the full results weren’t in. Technical difficulties on a screen upstairs in the courthouse led many to believe the races were over early. In the end, Hightower came out with 2,655 over Bellamy-Small’s 2,640, while 14 people wrote in candidates in the race.

Hightower spent part of the afternoon standing outside of Bluford, greeting voters in a light drizzle after 5 p.m. She lost the precinct by 7 votes, but her strong showing there was enough to help her rise to the top.

“If you don’t take care of District 1, I know where to find you,” a Bluford precinct voter joked to Hightower as she left the building.

Because the race is within 1 percent, Bellamy-Small can legally call for a recount. She could not be reached for comment on election night.

In another narrow win, challenger Jamal Fox unseated Councilman Jim Kee in District 2 by 143 votes, winning 2,367 to 2,220.

“I believe what put me over the edge was the community hearing my vision and understanding it,” Fox said. “This is a win for the community and now it’s time to get to work and deliver.”

Fox added that his mother’s birthday was Monday, and this is the best present he could possibly give her.

In the rest of the city, it was all about the Nancys.

At-large Councilwoman Nancy Vaughan upset Mayor Robbie Perkins to become the next mayor of the Gate City, while Councilwoman Nancy Hoffmann defeated former mayor Bill Knight in District 4. Incumbents held on throughout the rest of the city, with former councilman Mike Barber taking a vacant seat to join Yvonne Johnson and Marikay Abuzuaiter in an at-large position.

Vaughan said her campaign strategy of focusing on the issues clearly worked as she pulled off a significant victory against Perkins with close to 60 percent of the vote. In all, Vaughan received 18,583 votes while 12,599 people voted for Perkins.

Turnout in the primary fell almost 3 percent in the primary, with only 8.1 percent of registered voters turning up last month. Tuesday’s election drew about 34,202 total voters (or 16.7 percent), a dramatic decrease from 42,326 (or 20 percent) in 2011. Vaughan walked away with 5,984 votes over Perkins, an improvement on her 1,600-vote lead in the primary.

Perkins said in the primary that high turnout in east Greensboro would favor him, a claim backed up by the vote breakdown. Comparatively lower turnout across the city and the lack of a divisive election issue like the White Street Landfill likely contributed to the downturn in participation.

Bill Burckley, a campaign strategist for Vaughan, said he predicted the turnout almost exactly, comparing it to the 2009 council race. Burckley said her win is due to “a lot of hard work,” laying out plans in March, deciding not to focus on personal issues and saving money for the general election.

Perkins attributed his loss to his bankruptcy and an ugly divorce, saying it couldn’t be about his performance as mayor, which he described as “extraordinary.”

“I’ve been dinged pretty hard for a year and a half in the press for things in my personal life,” he said, adding that there is a long list of things he accomplished in one term.

Perkins said it wasn’t the right time to talk about whether he would run for office again in the future or what council should focus on: It’s not his place to define council’s priorities as the outgoing mayor, he said.

Vaughan disagreed that voters chose her because of Perkins’ personal issues, saying she explicitly ran on public issues and not personalities.

“I went out of my way not to focus on his personal issues and he held a news conference on it,” she said.

It’s unclear exactly which issues propelled Vaughan to victory, though Perkins received criticism for his strong touting of a planned downtown performing arts center and for initiating noise ordinance revisions in 2012. Vaughan did enjoy broad support from area newspapers, receiving endorsements from YES! Weekly, the News-Record, the Rhinoceros Times and the Carolina Peacemaker.

Vaughan and Perkins worked well together in the past though both pulled several punches during the later stages of the race, but far less light shown between them than Perkins and former mayor Bill Knight in the 2011 contest.

Perkins is the third mayor in a row to be ousted at the polls after only serving a single term. The last mayor of Greensboro to win a reelection campaign was Keith Holliday in 2005.

Massive independent spending by the NC Homeowners Alliance may have improved Perkins turnout, but it didn’t make enough of a difference to tip the scales. The group spent tens of thousands on the mayor’s reelection bid, a far closer race than Councilman Zack Matheny’s stroll to reelection in District 3 that the organization also donated towards.

Hoffmann fended off a challenge from Knight, 5,040 to 3,649. The councilwoman maintained the lead she established in the primary, dwarfing Knight’s fundraising and drawing considerable support in some of Knight’s key precincts. Hoffmann carried all but four precincts in District 4, including a few strongholds for Knight from his failed 2011 mayoral reelection campaign.

No other district race offered a distinct choice between viable conservative and progressive candidates. Voters rebuffed Knight, along with at-large conservative candidates Chris Lawyer and Jean Brown, keeping District 5 Councilman Tony Wilkins as the only strong conservative on council.

As expected, Johnson and Barber received the most votes at large as they did in the October primary, while progressive Abuzuaiter eased to victory with more breathing room this year, again beating out Lawyer for the remaining at-large seat, 17,815 to 12,901. Brown, along with Ben Holder, came in behind Lawyer, both with fewer than 6,000 votes.

District 3 Councilman Zack Matheny may be a Republican, but he crushed his more conservative competitor Wendell Roth and isn’t as far right as Knight, Lawyer or Brown. Mayor Robbie Perkins, another Republican on council, is alienated from the conservative base in town, part of the reason turnout for him in east Greensboro wasn’t enough to keep him in the seat.

The election proved to be a cakewalk for Matheny and Wilkins, who both received a little more than 73 percent of the vote. Significantly more people came out to the polls in Matheny’s District 3 — 8,955 — while only 4,473 came out in District 5.

Knight was the only challenger to look threatening in the primary last month, but with no primary in District 2, it remained difficult to gauge how much of a battle challenger Jamal Fox would be able to mount. Councilman Kee won his last two races handily, but Fox overcame him in the end.

Fox enjoyed considerable support from community activists, including proponents of the Renaissance Community Cooperative grocery store in northeast Greensboro and former District 2 Councilwoman Goldie Wells. A robo-call from Wells just before the election may have helped push Fox over the edge.

NC A&T University suspended Fox with pay a week before the election, saying he violated the UNC system’s political activity policy by not notifying administrators of his bid for office. It wasn’t immediately clear what, if any, impact the election would have on Fox’s employment, but he said previously that Kee was behind the move.

In a press conference before the election, Fox blamed Kee for “running a smear campaign,” and said he refused “to be bullied or silenced. “ Kee contradicted himself about the role he played in bringing up Fox’s actions with A&T administrators, providing different timelines and accounts in an interview with YES! Weekly and in a press release a few days later.