District 4 race: An erratic challenger and a skillful incumbent

by Jordan Green

The contest for city council in Greensboro’s District 4, covering the prosperous and growing northwest corner of the city where constituents like to keep property taxes down and residential neighborhoods intact, stacks an experienced incumbent with formidable political skills against an energetic, if sometimes erratic, challenger.

The campaign has unfolded quietly. Councilman Mike Barber was juggling responsibilities at his West Market Street law practice with a skeletal staff in the first week of September, trying to clear work out of the way for a late summer vacation. And David Crawford, a recent transplant from Winston-Salem, fielded questions from a reporter while offloading a used computer from a tiny storefront in a strip mall near the intersection of Guilford College Road and Interstate 40.

Barber is known for bucking council consensus by maintaining a vigilant watch on rising property taxes, showing little patience with the careful etiquette of race relations in Greensboro and speaking up for the principle of government transparency. Crawford, who has never held elected office, has floated some novel ideas for trimming the tax burden.

“Focus on essential services, get police issues sorted out and manage the taxpayer’s money efficiently,” Barber said, when asked what his constituents tell him are their top priorities. Those items roughly correlate with his own agenda.

“Our city government is too large,” Barber said. “The largest portion of the budget is personnel, and there are some ways we can be more efficient. I think most of the other council members want to be more efficient but they’ve become too comfortable with the status quo.”

Barber cast one of two votes against the 2007-2008 city budget in June. The other dissenter was his colleague Tom Phillips in District 3.

“There were millions of dollars that could have been cut out of that budget,” Barber said. “There was another million that could have been directed at fire, police and infrastructure. Instead, those funds were directed to areas that were not at the top of my priority list.”

The 42-year-old challenger, David Crawford, said he would like to implement a pay raise for police officers and firefighters and purchase new equipment for them. His plan to pay for them might seem counterintuitive.

“Some of these ideas might sound nuts,” he said. “With small businesses, for the first year you give them a reduction in taxes. [And] when I lived in Atlantic City, [NJ], we would have fundraisers. Bands would come in. We’d sell raffle tickets. We took that money and repaved the streets.”

He added that tax abatements for new small businesses would spur employment, and new workers’ personal incomes would go to purchases of new homes and cars, which in turn would theoretically make up for the lost tax revenue and then some.

Crawford’s campaign includes a laundry list of positions.

He’s opposed to the city’s annexation plan (Barber’s for it); he’s in favor of extending domestic partnership benefits to city employees (the city manager has already done it); he’s in favor of creating an anti-gang task force (the city council has already approved one); he’s in favor of an anti-dogfighting task force (that’s a new idea); he’d like to see a crackdown on drunk driving (his concept of the city’s jurisdiction isn’t clearly articulated); and he thinks too many bars have proliferated downtown (“When other cities are calling you “clubville,’ it’s time to change.”)

When pressed, Crawford admits that he views his opponent favorably.

“I thought Mike was going to run for mayor,” he said. “He would have been a good one. To tell you the truth, the only reason I’m running for city council is to get name recognition so I can run against Howard Coble for Congress in 2008.” (Crawford also vowed to run against Coble in 2006, but did not follow through.)

The walls of Crawford’s cluttered store are lined with certificates for computer training programs, as well as photos and thank-you notes from elected officials. The computer retailer said he has been involved in politics since he volunteered to work on the Reagan campaign. Since then, he’s supported Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and John Kerry. In conversation, Crawford sometimes draws blanks on significant facts such as his date of birth and jumps around from topic to topic.

“The one thing I don’t want to talk about is my military experience, because that’s where I got this,” he said, pointing to a scar across his head. “That’s why I’m so against us being in Iraq.”

Barber may be no less outspoken than his opponent, but his ideas show a cleaner through-line with the current momentum of municipal governance.

On the much-publicized issue of combating gangs, he favors an aggressive approach. And although he sees after-school programs as valuable on their own merits, he doesn’t view them as being part of an anti-gang strategy.

“I believe you go arrest people and you consistently arrest them for felonies and misdemeanors,” Barber said. “There are still some elected officials on the board of education and other bodies who think that breaking the law has something to do with race, ethnicity or creed. It doesn’t. There’s a law and if you break it, you get arrested.”

On the issue of business regulation, he would like to streamline the city bureaucracy to expedite permitting.

“We are failing miserably at creating a business-friendly environment,” Barber said. “Our customer service at city hall is poor at best. Our turnaround time for business permits is poor at best. We have city employees insisting on checking everything with legal. We are operating in an environment of legal paranoia, and I say that as a lawyer.”

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