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D1 challengers take on longest continually serving incumbent

by Eric Ginsburg

 eric@yesweekly.com

Greensboro City Councilwoman Dianne Bellamy-Small has weathered her share of elections — including a recall vote in 2007 — and wasn’t sure she would run again this year. Bellamy-Small, the District 1 representative and the longest continually serving council member, said the tipping point was 20 teenagers.

Speaking at NC A&T University to a group of teens the Monday before filing ended, Bellamy-Small was thinking it might be time for someone else to serve Greensboro’s southern district. It was right after the George Zimmerman verdict, and the teenagers wanted to talk about Trayvon Martin and the curfew, she said. They didn’t know who she was at the outset, but after two hours of discussion, they asked Bellamy-Small to run again even though they’re too young to vote for her, she said.

“It brought me to tears,” Bellamy- Small recounted. She filed three days later.

Two first-time candidates, Sharon Hightower and Tigress McDaniel, will face Bellamy-Small in the Oct. 8 primary.

Only two candidates will proceed to the general election a month later.

It may be Hightower’s first time running for office, but it isn’t her first campaign — she helped Bellamy-Small defeat the recall effort in 2007. Dissatisfaction with plans for the Florida Street extension project near her house — that A&T’s board shot down earlier this month — and a desire to extend her community service motivated her to run.

A half-sheet campaign flyer with gray stars and some pink lettering lists some of her civic engagement: president of the College Forest neighborhood watch, executive board member of the NAACP, Evans Blount Community Health Center board member and elections board precinct judge. Below that, a list of groups she’s a part of, like Concerned Citizens of Northeast Greensboro and the Greensboro Voters Alliance.

McDaniel emphasized her community engagement too, saying she is often a volunteer at the front lines and doing a lot of work behind the scenes. Sitting at the Ham’s downtown, she named several of the things she’s involved in: organizing the Fusion Cultural Aware ness

Program, volunteering with Saturday Night Lights, creating the Thriving Artist Movement and offering Business 101 trainings.

Encouraging entrepreneurship has been one of her primary objectives, something she would like to continue doing as a council member, challenging the status quo that she said just pays lip service to small, local businesses and entrepreneurship.

McDaniel, 36, is the youngest of the three candidates in District 1, and like Hightower and Bellamy-Small, expressed concerns over the teen curfew.

“I don’t even understand why that has been an issue anyway because most of the crime in our city hasn’t happened downtown,” she said. “It sounds political and driven by certain interests and not the issue at hand of youth having something worthwhile and useful to do.“ Stepping up anti-bullying campaigns and dealing with peer pressure would be must more effective, McDaniel said, and would be longer lasting than event programming because it would deal with behavior.

Hightower also questioned the logic of a downtown curfew, saying if the concern was safety that it should have been instituted been citywide. She accidentally drove into the “fracas” on East Market Street soon after the curfew was passed and noted there was no emergency meeting like when the teen fighting was downtown. With the fighting and police blue lights everywhere, “It looked like some Bruce Willis movie,” she said.

“You convey the wrong message to the people on this side of the city,” Hightower said, adding that people in her district felt excluded from downtown.

Bellamy-Small was the only city council member to vote against the curfew and called a community meeting afterwards because there wasn’t enough chance for community input, she said. At the time of the vote, the councilwoman said that council can’t legislate parenting and that some people felt it was discriminatory.

Noting that she has a nonprofit that works with ex-offenders, Bellamy- Small said she will push for the city to decriminalize penalties for violating the curfew instead of putting something on a teenager’s criminal record.

“I don’t think that’s what we want to do to these kids,” she said. We need to figure out what our other avenues for kids to have productive things that they can do on Friday and Saturday nights are. Are we making these laws because of one or two violations?” Hightower said teens that violate the curfew should have to do community service instead of being charged.

The three candidates don’t agree on everything though, with Hightower emphasizing that she’s supported Bellamy-Small in the past but that it may be time for a change and for someone who would carry on the same advocacy but with a different style. McDaniel was more willing to criticize what she said were shortcomings in the incumbent’s record.

While Bellamy-Small touted her years-long work on a parity study, which she said will guide muchneeded resources into the historically marginalized district, McDaniel said there wasn’t enough action.

“We have individuals in high places that don’t need to be because they only think from one side of the brain,” she said. “You have to be very careful that you don’t just get in that psychological left-brain research arena and stay there. I’m not really impressed by any studies. Until we see implementation our job is not done. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see the disparities all throughout our city.”

Bellamy-Small said she worked closely with former District 2 Councilwoman Goldie Wells and Mayor Robbie Perkins to push the parity study through and to have it adopted by council. Adding that Well’s predecessor Jim Kee has shown less interest in the work, Bellamy-Small said without the study, the same discussions about uneven economic development would continue endlessly.

Hightower and McDaniel both named sidewalks as a high development priority in the district, with Hightower describing her aspirations as building on Bellamy-Small’s previous work, like expanding the councilwoman’s annual newsletter into quarterly meetings throughout the district. McDaniel said the city focuses too much on luring outside developers and should instead utilize empty office space and talented, out-of-work locals and sell properties seized through eminent domain for specific entrepreneurial purposes.

McDaniel said the city could do more to regulate the kinds of businesses in District 1, saying there were strip clubs that ran off other business, lots of churches, multiple Family Dollar stores on one block and rundown motels that didn’t indicate wise development and set the district back. Council is overly concerned with commercialism, she said, and allegedly crony deals have left places like the Randleman Road Plaza that could be thriving behind.

Hightower, who said she would approach issues differently than Bellamy-Small, described herself as accessible, approachable, lighthearted and someone who doesn’t take things personally. McDaniel also mentioned her sense of humor, saying that she is “bougy-hood,” bridging class divides, and said people who know her jokingly call her “Mayor McDaniel.” McDaniel, whose Twitter handle is @Queen- GetErDone, said she’s a natural leader, objective and genuine. Describing her concern about backdoor dealings on council, said, “Even my presence makes people’s standards higher.”

Hightower brought up the possibility of raising something else: the minimum wage. Economic development is usually approached from the top down, but she said it was important for wages to go up to spur and sustain other development.

“I understand from a worker’s point of view what it takes to survive,” said Hightower, who has worked three to four jobs at a time. “To me, it’s degrading for people to live in poverty. Until District 1 reaches a certain level, we can’t be a whole city. We may not have the same type of wealth as the west side… but we still want the same things over here.”

Hightower said she signed the petition to raise the minimum wage several years ago, a failed grassroots effort to convince council to implement a citywide increase. She also stressed the importance of development, transportation and other city projects being guided by input from adjacent communities.

“A lot of the projects that happen over here, the neighborhood knows nothing about,” Hightower said.

The challengers mentioned their education — Hightower is enrolled at Liberty University for accounting and McDaniel has a masters in agricultural economics from A&T — while Bellamy-Small talked about various aspects of education she’s received as a councilwoman, attending various trainings and conferences. Those experiences, she said, have helped lead her to take initiatives on things like a homeless day shelter. She also mentioned other accomplishments, like the city’s gun turn-in events that she thought of after the Newtown Massacre.

While Bellamy-Small ultimately decided to run for reelection this year, with the help of a group of teenagers, she said she is looking for someone to be her successor one day, someone that isn’t in it for themselves and would be a servant leader rather than a politician, she said.

In the meantime, the three women will square off in the primary.

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