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Conspicuous silence in District 1 race about recall election

by Amy Kingsley

The challengers running to unseat District 1 incumbent Dianne Bellamy-Small in Greensboro have spent the last month talking jobs, crime, taxes and blight. They’ve discussed the environment, economic development, police staffing and neighborhood character.

But for all the serious discourse, there’s been an almost eerie silence concerning the incumbent herself, a figure who has been the subject of public conversation since her reelection almost two years ago. Bellamy-Small squeaked past Luther Falls, Jr. in 2005, winning by only 50 votes in the run-off. Since then, she’s been accused of leaking a confidential report to the News & Record, intimidating a rookie police officer who pulled her over for speeding and demanding preferential office accommodations at city hall.

At-large Councilwoman Florence Gatten publicly called for Bellamy-Small’s resignation, and a former supporter of the embattled District 1 representative spearheaded the recall effort that culminates on Tuesday. Through it all, Bellamy-Small has maintained her innocence.

She received a public relations boost when the Pulpit Forum, an association of prominent African-American religious leaders, took up her cause. The group submitted a letter on her behalf to the US Justice Department protesting that the recall was an effort to dilute the strength of minority voters.

Three of the four challengers in District 1 have publicly distanced themselves from the recall effort – which is separate from the upcoming election. The fourth, James Carpenter, did not return phone calls by press time and did not appear at a forum on Aug. 9.

Charles Dayton Coffey, a plant machinist at Industries of the Blind and president of the Lee Street Merchants’ Association, said some people have accused him of being involved with the petition.

“I never had anything to do with it,” he said. “I thought it was a little bit too close to the election, and thirty thousand dollars is a lot of money to spend.”

Coffey said he’s been happy to focus on the issues, and, he says, what he can positively contribute to the district. He said he dislikes mudslinging, and doesn’t know how the Pulpit Forum’s support of Bellamy-Small has impacted the role her personal conduct would play in the upcoming election.

“It may very well have been a bigger issue,” he said.

Falls issued a statement after the recall effort was launched stating his opposition to the petition.

“It really brought a different dynamic to the campaign,” Falls said. “Everyone has to make an assessment of whether that is going to be a part of their campaign.”

For his part, Falls has said he is interested only in the councilwoman’s voting record, and not in dredging up any of the accusations regarding her personal conduct. Falls held a fundraiser on Aug. 18 at Coffee at the Summit to kick off the last month and a half of campaigning before the primary election. During the month and a half preceding it, he touted his connections in the business community and his deep roots in District 1. He hasn’t mentioned Bellamy-Small.

Falls attends Genesis Baptist Church and said he considers the Rev. Gregory Headen his spiritual advisor. Headen is also a member of the Pulpit Forum and has been outspoken in his opposition to the recall effort.

“The recall election is something that very much needs to be defeated,” he said. “There are not enough serious allegations to warrant it.”

Whether or not Bellamy-Small survives the recall election, the councilwoman will still be on the ballot in October. If she finishes in the top two in the primary election, she will face the other top vote-getter in November. The District 1 race is the most crowded of all the district races except District 3, where the incumbent is retiring.

“I think [Falls] understands the implications of the recall for himself if he is ever sitting around that city council table,” Headen said.

Tonya Clinkscale, a political newcomer, said a lack of effective leadership in District 1 inspired her campaign. But she said she is saving her criticism of Bellamy-Small until after the recall.

“I did not want to make this a cat fight between two black women,” she said.

Clinkscale moved to District 1 seven years ago and lives in the Warnersville neighborhood. She described her neighborhood as an area plagued by gang violence and crime. She said she’s sought help addressing the gang problem – she proposed building a youth resource center – but avoided associating her cause with the controversial city councilwoman.

“I couldn’t go to Dianne Bellamy-Small at the time because people didn’t want to work with her,” Clinkscale said. “I asked myself, ‘Do I have an effective leader?’ The answer was no.”

One of Clinkscale’s five children, a son, is in prison because of criminal activity he got involved with while living in Warnersville. The candidate said she tried everything to keep her son on the straight and narrow. She even committed him to Butner Psychiatric Hospital for 30 days when she realized he was out of control.

Clinkscale said the city needs a resource center where parents can get help before their children are in the criminal justice system. Often parents in middle-class families have few resources, she said, because they don’t have access to social workers through public assistance. She said she’s appealed to several city council members, but never to Bellamy-Small.

Clinkscale acknowledged that criticizing Bellamy-Small’s performance on council has become a political minefield. Candidates have to be careful to emphasize that their criticisms are related to her performance on council and are not leveled against her personal conduct.

Both Clinkscale and Falls said they are waiting until after the recall election to kick their campaigns into high gear. Part of that is a consequence of the recall, and their concern that voters will interpret their campaigning as anti-Bellamy-Small.

But another factor is the usual political schedule. Municipal elections, even hotly contested ones, don’t usually generate much interest until about a month before voters head to the polls, Falls said.

The Pulpit Forum’s support of Bellamy-Small does not mean the incumbent is untouchable, he added. Clinkscale said she wants to talk to that organization and to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to make sure all the candidates get an equal opportunity to air their concerns after the recall election.

“I’m hoping that the main issue going forward will be about our community,” Clinkscale said. “I’m hoping that they will put the same effort into the crisis facing our youth as they have into opposing this recall election.”

To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at amy@yesweekly.com.

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