Election night action in downtown Greensboro

by Brian Clarey

The TV news vans sit, rumbling, like hungry dinosaurs waiting for their next meal and the evening air grows cold, enticing a small number of citizens into the relatively warm environs of the old Guilford County Courthouse.

Elsewhere in downtown Greensboro the streets are barren, the sidewalks wide and open. But there’s an election going on in the city, a civics lesson in real time, and here is ground zero, the eye of the storm.

The second floor, where the Guilford County Commission meets, is a true corridor of power, and tonight it is filled with its devotees – those who have it, those who want it, those who are attracted to it.

All the heavyweights are here: a pinstriped Zack Matheny seeking his first elected office; at-large upstart Marikay Abuzaiter; the embattled Dianne Bellamy-Small, who hopes to turn an unsuccessful bid for her recall into a November victory; veteran incumbents Sandy Carmany, Mike Barber and Goldie Wells; and, looking to get back in the game, municipal veteran Robbie Perkins, who tonight is with his teenage daughter and a phalanx of her friends.

One quarter of the room is occupied by supporters of Yvonne Johnson, who hopes to become Greensboro’s first black mayor – men and women, old and young, every stripe and shade of the human color spectrum. Her opponent, businessman Milton Kern, is just finishing off a plate of wings at a downtown grill. He’ll be here shortly.

Among the shoe-ins and hopefuls, members of the media weave an invisible web in the throng, noting facts, gathering quotes and feeding the rumor mill as they wait for the thing to play out.

There’s word of a confrontation between candidates at one polling place, the physical removal of a frequent blog commenter at another, and a hundred theories on how it all will come down.

And then, just as the room is starting to stink with the funk of expelled breath and anxious sweat, it does.

The numbers come staggering in with little rhyme or reason, like a bunch of drunks trying to meet at a bar, and it is over the course of hours that the tale is told.

Initial returns put Goldie Wells, Mike Barber and Yvonne Johnson beyond reach, but races are heating up in District 3 and District 5. And the at-large contest has not yet settled.

Marikay Abuzuaiter watches the numbers pile on with her fingers near her lips. Early returns put her in second place, but as the contest wears on she is overtaken by Mary Rakestraw and Robbie Perkins, who has worn the same smile all night.

When it is all over, standing out in the cold with her family, she will vow to redouble her efforts in the next election.

District 5 incumbent Sandy Carmany endures an excruciating loss to former County Commissioner Trudy Wade which leaves her pale, withdrawn, devoid of raw emotion save for the hint of pain in her eyes. She pushes against the tide of bodies, accepts her well wishes and moves on.

And Zack Matheny, aglow with victory, heads off with his contingent to Betty’s house for a private celebration.

Yvonne Johnson’s people gather in the catering hall above the Carolina Theatre, where spoils of purple-frosted cupcakes, vegetable dip, ham biscuits and six kinds of cheese await the victory party.

Perkins is there, his phalanx intact, and Bellamy-Small with a tiny digital camera, and power attorney Marc Isaacson, and a dozen or so people who look like vague reflections of the new mayor-elect – three generations of family who’ve been there from the first. There are words of thankfulness and congratulations, demonstrative back-pats and hugs, hurried photo opportunities and yawning children. The cheesecake is gone, but there are still a few purple-iced cupcakes left.

A few cold and lonely blocks away, in a warm and smoky barroom known as the Flatiron, Li’l Mikey Roohan and his mustachioed partner Matty Sheets hold down open-mic night like they’ve been doing for more than five years. Onstage a shaggy blond hipster dude whips out a Tom Waits number, accompanied by a tragically beautiful boheme on a small djembe. The place smells like whiskey… whiskey and smoke, the lingering essence of spilled beer on hard wood and an honest-to-goodness whiff of patchouli. They come in out of the cold and gather at the bar, by the pool table, in the little area off the stage. Sometimes, like the shaggy blond hipster and his exotic ingenue, they’ll get on stage with a guitar or a lyric, but mostly they’ll sit here filling ashtrays and making a run on the beer supply, talking about the price of gas or the fight on the television, intermittently enjoying the music as its offered from the stage.

The results, and implications, of tonight’s election are not on the table.

For questions or comments, email Brian Clarey at