Dirty tricks in District 1
On the weekend before the special election for District 1 voters to consider the recall of Councilwoman Dianne Bellamy-Small, African-American residents received a mailing urging them to cast their ballots in favor of removing their elected representative from office.
Speaking on behalf of “the black citizens of District One,” the mailing outlined a handful of issues thought to be important to the black community and described how the councilwoman had failed her constituents on each count.
One of the claims would be considered false by almost any measure: “Small refused to work with the Warnersville Community to preserve the historic JC Price School.”
Otis Hairston, a Warnersville resident who has been the most visible opponent of plans by Greensboro College to build an athletic facility in place of a shuttered pre-desegregation school in the historic black neighborhood, expressed strong disagreement with the statement when contacted about the mailing.
“I was the one who helped Mr. Hairston,” Bellamy-Small said. “He came to me and asked, ‘What can we do to stop this?’ I said, ‘I’m not sure you can do anything to stop it,’ but I told him the only legal redress the community had was a third-party rezoning.”
The rezoning request, which would have placed the property owned by Greensboro College in a low-density residential designation and prevented the college from building its planned athletics facility, came before the Greensboro City Council in February. Most of Bellamy-Small’s colleagues were ready to put the matter to rest, but the District 1 representative moved that the request be continued so that the college and neighborhood opponents could continue to try to reach a compromise. Bellamy-Small’s motion died for lack of a second, and she cast the lone dissenting vote in an 8-1 decision by council to deny the request.
Other claims made in the mailing might be considered arguable or subjective.
“Small worked and voted to remove the NC A&T Homecoming vendors from Lindsay Street, resulting in the loss of $2.5 million to the Black community in Greensboro and the destruction of a 60 year old cultural tradition,” reads the first.
In 2005, Bellamy-Small spoke in opposition to a request by state Rep. Earl Jones, who formerly held her seat in District 1, to allow vendors at NC A&T University’s homecoming to continue to sell their wares on Lindsay Street, which runs past Aggie Stadium. As an alternative, Bellamy-Small suggested that the vendors should be accommodated in an off-street pavilion. In an interview earlier this year, Jones said he believes Bellamy-Small’s vocal opposition gave white council members political cover to vote against his request. After the vote, the Simkins Political Action Committee withheld its endorsement from Bellamy-Small, and she won reelection for a second term by only 50 votes, narrowly defeating challenger Luther Falls.
The second claim states that “Small failed to make a motion to support the [National Association for the Advancement of Colored People]’s request for the City Council to consider the establishment of a Police/Citizens Review Board with subpoena power.”
Bellamy-Small responded: “If the NAACP was going to make a request it would have been made to the full council, not just one member.”
The fourth claim echoes a common refrain of Bellamy-Small’s detractors.
“Small failed to communicate, be available and to be accountable to the concerns and needs of her constituents,” it reads.
In a March 6 interview with YES! Weekly, Jones leveled detailed criticism at Bellamy-Small on three of the four counts and mentioned the JC Price School as an issue important to the black community. Reached on Aug. 24, however, he denied any involvement in the campaign mailing.
“No, if I did, you would have known about it by now and it would have worked,” Jones said. “From day one, I have opposed the recall because I didn’t think it would do any good. My concentration has been on the November election. The recall doesn’t change anything with regards to the leadership of District 1.”
“I really thought she would lose,” he added. “And I thought it would be bad. If she lost the recall, that would have contaminated the [primary and general elections]. Some of the same residue – ‘outside influence’ and ‘racism’ – I thought would take people away from dealing with the issues that affect District 1.”
The content of political materials is of no concern to the Guilford County Board of Elections, Director George Gilbert said.
“Neither the state board nor the county board regulates the truth or falsity of political statements,” he explained. “Those things are sometimes hard to verify. That’s the role of the media and the candidates.”
Where the mailing may have run afoul of state election law is in failing to properly disclose who paid for it. In place of a return address, the mailing includes the organizational title, “African American Citizens of District One for “X” the Recall of T. Diane [SIC] Bellamy-Small.” Gilbert said no such organization is registered as a political committee in Guilford County.
“Any material fliers or anything like that should have identified a legitimate political committee as their source,” he said. “If they did not do that and someone complained to us then we would forward it to the state for investigation.”
Carl Walton, a spokesman for the US Postal Service, said the fact that the mailing’s pre-paid postage stamp bears the legend “Permit No. 3” indicates that the sender makes mailings on a fairly regular basis, but otherwise provides few clues to identify the source.
The Guilford County director of elections added that Bellamy-Small’s supporters might have similarly overstepped their bounds in their campaign efforts.
“I have heard about these things on both sides, but no one has brought us a document that we could look at,” Gilbert said. “I have heard that Dianne sent out a flier that was not properly identified. It’s supposed to have the legend ‘paid for by…’. I haven’t seen it. I heard that there was one that was sent by the Pulpit Forum, and they’re not registered as a political committee. A lot of things seem to have fallen through the cracks here.”
One flier urging voters to “stand against the falsehoods, slander and frivolous accusations against Councilwoman Bellamy-Small” includes the line, “Distributed by Citizens of District One and the Pulpit Forum of Greensboro.” Another flier contains the heading, “Why the Pulpit Forum Asks You to Vote Against the Recall.”
The state Board of Elections indicated an interest in the campaign materials sent out before the recall election.
“We’ve spoken to people from our Guilford office,” compliance specialist Adam Ragan said. “We’ve not had a complaint filed with our office. If and when we do receive a complaint we will investigate and make a determination.”
The recall election was also marred by allegations that at least one of the signatures collected by the “Recall Small” committee may have been invalid. Bellamy-Small’s supporters have questioned the legitimacy of the petition in the past but fresh allegations surfaced on the weekend preceding the vote.
Bob Foxworth said he and another volunteer talked to about 20 people whose signatures appeared on the petition, and one of them emphatically stated that he had not signed the document.
“He didn’t have any memory problems,” Foxworth said. “He said, ‘Let me see the petition.’ I told him we didn’t have the petition; we just had the list of names. He said, ‘I definitely did not sign the petition.'”
Jonathan Wagstaff, a gas station owner who led the recall initiative, did not return calls requesting comment on the allegation. Greensboro City Clerk Juanita Cooper declined to elaborate on how her office concluded that the signatures were valid and approved the special election, stating, “You’d have to look at the code of ordinances. I followed the code, okay?”
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