Crowded mayoral race signals lack of popular mandate in Greensboro politics

by Jordan Green

District 3 candidate Jay Ovittore (right) and Guilford County Republican Party Executive Director Michael Picarelli chat outside of the board of elections office. (photo by Jordan Green)

Two new candidates entered the Greensboro mayoral race before filing closed last week. Chris Phillips is an African-American conservative who participated as a presenter in a county government spending reform summit organized by Conservatives for Guilford County.

Bradford Cone, 31, is a longtime Democratic Party volunteer.

Wearing a 2009 MerleFest T-shirt, Cone handed over his check to a clerk at Guilford County Board of Elections less than an hour before the filing period closed.

“I’d like to look into making Greensboro a sanctuary city, so illegal immigrants would not be afraid to call Social Services, and I believe it would reduce crime because they wouldn’t be afraid to report crimes or come forward as witnesses,” Cone said.

Cone said the fact that there were no other Democrats in the race factored in his decision to run. He plans to spend less than $1,000 and use social media to reach voters.

Chris Phillips was a presenter at the People First Spending Reform Summit hosted by Conservatives for Guilford County in May and is the author of a book entitled Take Over Liberalism in America.

He sidestepped the possibility that he might shave off support for Bill Knight, the conservative Republican incumbent in the race, in a recent interview.

“I feel that Greensboro needs new leadership,” Chris Phillips said.

“Mayor Knight is an excellent man. He’s a nice man. And I think he’s a very principled man. But I’ve been a resident of Greensboro for 20 years, and I haven’t seen the job growth.”

Knight is serving his first term as mayor.

The two other candidates are Councilman Robbie Perkins and former Councilman Tom Phillips. Both are registered Republicans. Of the three candidates with experience on council and name recognition, Knight is the conservative choice. Perkins frequently votes with the liberal end of the council.

Tom Phillips was often considered a lone staunch conservative during his tenure on the council in the 1990s and 2000s, but the city’s politics have moved to the right since his retirement from council in 2007. He opposes current plans to reopen the White Street Landfill and alienated some conservatives by backing former City Manager Mitchell Johnson’s handling of discrimination complaints by black police officers.

The lineup in the mayoral race changed two days before the end of filing when Dianne Bellamy-Small pulled out and filed to run in District 1 instead. The feisty councilwoman has represented the district since 2003. She has frequently found herself aligned with Perkins, her onetime opponent, and the two have worked in tandem to try to keep the White Street Landfill closed. Considering that Perkins announced his intentions to run for mayor more than a year ago, many observers questioned the strategic wisdom of Bellamy-Small entering the race and whether the two would siphon votes away from each other.

“After further consideration of my filing for mayor of the city of Greensboro and more discussions with the constituents in District 1 and in Greensboro, I have decided I can strategically be more effective on the city council as part of a tactical team to bring sensibility back to city government by rescinding my filing for mayor and becoming a candidate for District 1 for a fifth term,” Bellamy-Small wrote in a letter to the Carolina Peacemaker last week.

This election marks the first time Greensboro will have seen an election primary since 2003, when Mayor Keith Holliday faced two challengers.

Jay Ovittore began filling out paperwork for the District 3 seat on council at 11:15 a.m., with 45 minutes to go before the noontime cutoff on Aug. 12. He asked board of elections staff to wait until literally the last minute to allow him to file in the event that no one stepped up to challenge incumbent Zack Matheny. A rumored challenge from the right did not materialize, so Ovittore made the jump into the race. Ovittore ran for the seat two years ago, but was eliminated in the primary. Ovittore said he couldn’t allow Matheny to run unopposed. A video game sales associate and musician who formerly served on the city’s human relations commission, Ovittore predicted he won’t be able to campaign as hard as he did two years ago “because I have a household and a family that I’m supporting.”

“I’m still really miffed about the teen curfew downtown,” he said. “It wasn’t teens downtown causing problems. It was adults with guns and knives. We did nothing but send kids home.”

Ovittore changed his registration from Democratic to unaffiliated after filing for council, citing disappointment with Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue’s failure to veto a Republican bill that will make it more difficult for municipalities to provide internet service.

Michael Picarelli, executive director of the Guilford County Republican Party, had joked that he might file for the District 3 race as a friendly challenger to keep Ovittore out. Before Ovittore filed, Facebook and the blogs had been abuzz with agitation for competition against Matheny from the right.

A post by conservative blogger Joe Guarino titled “Still no opponent for Matheny?” prompted a chiding comment from Picarelli.

“We have an extreme leftist agenda attacking us at all angles in this election,” he wrote.

“Dianne cut a deal with Robbie today to back out of the mayoral race and push her support behind him. Mary is under fire from two candidates that are causing a stir and threaten her seat. In the at-large race we have several left-wing activists who stand a good chance of winning. Yet we are putting our voice behind ousting Matheny. Now, I understand you are no fan of Zack, but District 3 will be fine. We need to be using all of our political influence in the community to assure the other will not take over council and not worrying about what jacket Zack is wearing. Please try and rally the troops and let us focus on the big picture.”

Rakestraw, a proponent of reopening the landfill, faces two challengers. Tony Collins is a general contractor who has served on the city’s zoning commission, while Nancy Hoffmann serves on the human relations commission. Considering unhappiness with the landfill controversy and an unpopular and botched redistricting play coupled with the fact that she came within 277 votes of losing two years ago, Rakestraw is considered the most vulnerable of the district incumbents.

Trudy Wade, a conservative ally who represents District 5, also has two challengers, but both hold significant handicaps. Jorge Cornell is the North Carolina leader of the Latin Kings street organization, which is likely to play out as a liability with the electorate. David Crawford has filed to filed for several offices but has run erratic campaigns and sometimes disappeared from public view before balloting. Neither shows strong potential for fundraising.

District 2 Councilman Jim Kee, an ally of Perkins and Bellamy-Small, has faced criticism for not displaying more vociferous opposition to efforts by the conservative majority to reopen the landfill. He faces two challengers: Dan Fischer, who ran for the seat in 2009, and C. Bradley Hunt II, a 24-year-old local NAACP officer who is an acolyte of the Rev. Cardes Brown, an outspoken civil rights leader.

Only two races will not have primaries. In districts 1 and 3 there are only two candidates apiece, so there will be no need to narrow the field before the Nov. 8 general election. Two years ago, Dianne Bellamy-Small fended off five challengers, while Matheny bested Ovittore and candidate George Hartzman. Two additional candidates, Christopher McLaughlin and Marlando Pridgen, also filed in the at-large race on the last day, bringing the total number to 14. Mayor Pro Tem Nancy Vaughan and at-large Councilman Danny Thompson are running seeking one of the three at-large seats, along with former Mayor Yvonne Johnson and a host of other well organized and qualified candidates.

Other notable challengers include Wayne Abraham, a former human relations commissioner; Marikay Abuzuaiter, who narrowly missed winning seats in two previous elections; Cyndy Hayworth, a zoning commissioner with previous election experience; Chris Lawyer, a young conservative who has been campaigning since April; and Sal Leone, a Thomasville police officer who has proven approachable with the press.

All together, this year’s city council race has attracted 32 candidates — one short of the total in 2009.