Discontent, retirements open field for municipal elections

by Jordan Green

The Greensboro City Council faces a potential political realignment in November, with two members announcing they will not seek reelection, and a slate of challengers vying with two incumbents for three at-large seats. Councilman Mike Barber’s announcement that he does not plan to seek reelection will decimate the council’s conservative faction. Barber’s ally, Councilwoman Mary Rakestraw, has announced that she will seek the district seat, avoiding a potentially tough reelection campaign for her at-large seat, which she won by a margin of only 623 votes last time around. The contest will not be easy in District 4 either. Two other candidates have announced plans to run for the seat, including Joel Landau, a determined progressive with extensive civic experience. “If the voters are interested in someone who is thoughtful, informed and knows what he’s talking about, that’s me,” Landau said recently. “What I do is my platform.

Deep Roots Market, the store I manage, recently won 2009 small business retailer of the year from the Greensboro Merchants Association and the Chamber of Commerce. Council is always saying we need to support small business. That’s what I do.” Landau’s role as a co-chair of the Greensboro Sustainability Committee has raised his visibility, and campaign manager Nick DiVitci recently said almost all of nearly a dozen campaign positions have been filled. “I like Mary personally,” Landau said. “My impression is she is not the most informed person. There are a couple of things she’s against; I’m not sure what she’s for. I think she’s contributed to the dysfunction of the current council.” For her part, Rakestraw refrained from rhetorical combat. “I just don’t have a comment because I don’t know them,” she said. “Everybody’s nice.” Teresa Jobe, a self-described stay-at-home mother, has also announced her intention to run for the seat. She has taken the district’s current representative to task for putting up only token opposition against a rezoning that allowed a Dunkin’ Donuts to be built and has called on the city to take a hard line against street gangs.

A retirement announcement by Goldie Wells, a reliable liberal vote on council, has prompted the emergence of a host of declared and potential candidates ranging from center to left. After considering an at-large run, Ryan Shell announced he would seek the District 2 seat. A registered Republican, Shell nonetheless opposes reopening the White Street Landfill in northeast Greensboro to household waste, eschewing a fiscal conservative cause championed by outgoing Councilman Barber. Shell holds business, community and government bona fides as one of the Triad Business Journal’s “40 leaders under 40,” founder of Greensboro Community Watch and a member of the city’s board of adjustment. Ray Trapp announced plans to run for the seat soon after Wells let it be known she was stepping down, but has since taken a noncommittal stance. He told YES! Weekly recently that he was “not 100 percent sure yet” about a run. As incoming president of the Guilford County Young Democrats and 3rd vice chair of the county party, Trapp has solid ties to progressives. His service on the zoning commission gives him a working knowledge of the land-use cases that take up much of council’s time and energy. Trapp supports the protest petition, a provision recently restored by the NC General Assembly that gives Greensboro residents more clout to block rezoning requests, and the city’s Rental Unit Certificate of Occupancy ordinance, which provides for a certain level of official rental housing inspections. Both positions put him at odds with his former employer, the Triad Apartment Association, with which he put in his last day on May 15. Guilford County School Board member Deena Hayes has also allowed her name to be circulated as a possible contender. “I have heard from some people in my community that would like for me to run for that seat,” she said in a recent e-mail. “The conversation is still ongoing.” Outside of the two open district seats, so far the at-large race appears to be most competitive. Rakestraw’s abdication creates an opportunity for Marikay Abuzuaiter, who came within striking distance of winning in 2007, and who has stated her plans to make a second try. As a member of the city’s human relations commission, Abuzuaiter helped craft a successful resolution opposing immigration enforcement agreements between local agencies and the federal government that are used for anything but deporting the most dangerous and serious criminals. No at-large contender holds quite so much clout as Nancy Vaughan, who served two terms on the council from 1997 to 2001. Vaughan married then-Councilman Don Vaughan when the two served together, and retired from the council the first time around to become a mother. Since then, Don Vaughan has been voted off the council but won a seat last year to the NC Senate. Nancy Vaughan said she favors having the city attorney report directly to council, and describes ongoing controversies

surroundingthe police, fire and parks and recreation departments involvingallegations of racial disparities and discrimination “as valid issuesthat deserve some airing.” She chastises the sitting councilfor not effectively communicating its capital needs to the statelegislature, which controls some of the stimulus money allocated by thefederal government. “I was very upset with the way thelegislative agenda was handled,” Vaughan said. “The information thatwas given to our legislators was incomplete or incorrect…. Myhusband came home very upset about the stimulus package. He was upsetabout the lack of communication from the city compared to other cities.Other cities had their acts together, had their proposals ready.” Vaughanproposes to reform of the city’s public records process. “NorthCarolina is only one of 17 states that does not require a response timefor public records,” she said. “I would propose… that if you submit afreedom of information request that the city respond after 72 hourswith the information you requested or a reasonable written responseabout why it won’t be furnished in that time period. Also, we reallyneed to sit down and define what is covered under the personnelexclusion act. I believe the city uses that as a blanket to not supplymaterial.”

Anotherconfirmed at-large candidate is Julie Lapham, who managed YvonneJohnson’s mayoral campaign in 2007. Lapham said the city needs to bemore proactive in pursuing green energy programs, adding that the cityshould look for more efficient ways to dispose of its garbage such ascooperating with Guilford and Forsyth counties in a regional compact. “It’smy understanding that the technology is about a year away from beingable to completely utilize waste product and convert it to things likemethane and biodiesel fuel.” She also said the city should seek ways tohelp residents who have lost jobs and fallen victim to foreclosure,while also looking for new ways to save the taxpayers’ money such aspartnering with Guilford County and with nonprofits. A fourthchallenger is Max Benbassat, a 27year-old production analyst at BentexMills. One incumbent, Mayor Pro Tem Sandra Anderson Groat, has declaredher intentions to run again. Along with District 3 Councilman ZackMatheny, Groat holds one of two swing votes on council, and the twomediate between the threemember conservative bloc and the fourmemberliberal faction. In February, Groat engineered the departure of formerCity Manager Mitchell Johnson. “This is my fourth year,” saidGroat, who first won her seat in 2005. “I think I know a lot about thecity, some of the things we need, and in two terms I’ve learned abouthow a city council works. I really feel I’m geared to make adifference.” At-large Councilman Robbie Perkins said he hasnot decided whether to run for reelection. The mayoral race has seemedto be almost an afterthought this year, perhaps because underGreensboro’s governing structure a mayor who doesn’t enjoy the supportof an effective bloc on council wields little power. And Johnson’slow-key leadership style, which draws upon her background in conflictresolution, has left room for a whispering campaign that her heart maynot be in the race. Despite the mayor’s denial, Rhinoceros Times EditorJohn Hammer has repeatedly published a rumor that Johnson plans to stayin the race until just before the close of the filing period and thenbow out to allow Perkins to run in her place. “That’s a bonafide lie,” Johnson said, noting that she plans to kick off her campaignon May 31 at the Greensboro Coliseum Complex. “I don’t know where itcame from. I don’t presume to know where or when, and I don’t worryabout it either.” She added that she “wouldn’t be spendingthis kind of money if I were not going to do what I said I was going todo.” Perkins simply dismissed the rumor as “a fiction, like a lot ofother stuff that’s printed.” Conservatives have urged Barberto run for mayor, but so far the councilman has stood by his vow not tostand for elective office. Another conservative, Bill Knight,who placed sixth in the at-large race in 2007, has done nothing todampen speculation that he plans to challenge Johnson. Thethree odd-numbered district seats remain the most stable in theelection so far. District 1 Councilwoman Dianne Bellamy- Small evaded aquery about her campaign plans by refusing to speak to this reporter ata recent council meeting. Since she was first elected to the seat in2003, a host of challengers have attempted to unseat Bellamy-Small, whoalso survived a recall attempt in 2007. None of those challengers havebeen able to match the incumbent’s political moxie or her direct,sometimes blunt, exposition of the issues.

District3 Councilman Zack Matheny surfed to an easy victory in 2007 on thestrength of both his civic involvement and the enthusiastic support ofdevelopers and lawyers. Cyndy Hayworth, a member of the city’s zoningcommission who once served with Matheny on that board and ran againsthim in the 2007 election, had considered a run for council this timearound but said the recession has forced her to focus instead onfundraising in her position as president of Junior Achievement ofCentral North Carolina. A formidable fundraiser, Matheny’s campaignsreceipts totaled $46,358 amount in 2007, and he has announced his plansto run again. District 5 Councilwoman Trudy Wade is widelyexpected to also seek reelection, and has developed a reputation as afearsome opponent. That’s thanks in part to her tough handling of SandyCarmany, whom she unseated in 2005, and to her bitterly contestedcounty commission election in 2004, in which the courts eventuallyforced her concession to John Parks. As the only council member namedas a co-defendant in a discrimination lawsuit filed against the city by39 black police officers, Wade is considered one of the council’s mostpolarizing members, but she holds the advantage of running in one ofthe least politically engaged districts whose lines were redrawn lastyear to make it even less so. Wade’s most recent campaign financereport, filed in January, reports a debt load of $5,000, all of whichis money the candidate has loaned herself. Wade spent $38,379 to unseatCarmany, including a $13,789 bill for mailings that came due after theelection. The candidate collected $11,575 in contributions, mostly frompeople in the building and real estate industries, in the monthsfollowing her election to pay for the campaign. Wade’sintimidation factor is such that a gadfly candidate named DavidCrawford has begged off a match. Crawford had planned to run inDistrict 4 against Rakestraw, Landau and Jobe, but recently learnedthat he had been redistricted into District 5. “I am not going to runagainst Trudy Wade,” Crawford said in a telephone message. “Are you outof your mind? I might run at large.”