Exquisite coalition elects Greensboro’s first black mayor

by Jordan Green

Standing at the back of the room when the mayor-elect walked into the upstairs reception hall at the Carolina Theatre on election night were three burly firefighters, one of them holding a picket sign declaring, “IAFF firefighters for Yvonne Johnson.”

“Any time we’ve had an issue that we had to go to council on, Yvonne has always had an open ear,” said Richard O’Brien, president of Local 947 of the International Association of Fire Fighters, which represents Greensboro’s bravest. “Not that she could always make miracles happen.”

Just then, the victorious candidate greeted them.

“You all are my family,” she said before posing for a photograph.

The mayor-elect’s husband, Walter Johnson, expressed his gratitude.

O’Brien was among the first people asked to join Yvonne Johnson’s campaign committee, and the union firefighters took responsibility for setting out the candidate’s signs on election eve.

The Johnson campaign also received significant financial support from labor, pocketing a $2,500 check from the Teamsters union’s national political action committee in Washington.

Johnson sailed into an electoral victory as the city’s first African-American mayor by assembling an exquisite coalition over several terms as an at-large councilwoman, building relationships not only with unions but also with real estate and development interests, the civil rights establishment, churches and the nonprofit sector. Her well-wishers at the Carolina Theatre on election night included everyone from real estate lawyer Marc Isaacson to the Rev. Cardes Brown, president of the Greensboro branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

The 65-year-old Johnson, who won 57.1 percent of the vote in unofficial results, benefited from a significant rally of campaign spending by real estate and development interests in October, including a $2,000 check from the NC Realtors PAC, and a donation from the newly formed North Carolinians for Leadership in Government PAC. The latter organization was formed on Oct. 17 by Roy Carroll II, owner of the downtown Center Pointe development, and his wife. Each of them contributed $4,000, with the sum distributed in $1,000 increments to Johnson, along with candidates Robbie Perkins, Dianne Bellamy-Small, Zack Matheny and Trudy Wade Sandra Anderson Groat – victors all.

The Groat campaign did not report the North Carolinians for Leadership in Government PAC. Campaign treasurer Arthur Winstead Jr. said the check had been misplaced. “Absolutely, it’s not on Mr. Carroll’s end,” he said Monday. “It could be in somebody’s briefcase; we’ve never deposited it.”

Before leaving the Old County Courthouse, where Greensboro’s political class traditionally gathers to receive election results, developer Milton Kern, who ran against Johnson, conceded.

“I think I’ll go make money,” he said, expressing ambivalence about whether he might pursue politics in the future.

Despite raising more than $30,000 in the latest reporting period – including a $4,000 contribution from demolition honcho DH Griffin, $1,000 contributions from Ham’s Restaurants owner Charles Erwin Sr. and retired News & Record Editor Ben Bowers, and a $750 contributions from Natty Greene’s owner Christopher Lester – Kern’s campaign failed to gain traction. He acknowledged that he joined the race too late to make an adequate impression on voters.

“I only had three and a half months to campaign,” he said. “I didn’t make up my mind to do it.”

Johnson set herself apart by combining her formidable fundraising ability with a spirited grassroots volunteer campaign.

“I’ve learned that she wants to give back to Greensboro and rebuild it, just to make a difference in people’s lives,” said Preston Mangum, an employee of Polo Ralph Lauren in High Point and a volunteer at Greensboro Urban Ministry, as he greeted voters in a purple Yvonne Johnson shirt at the St. Piux X Catholic Church polling site in an affluent area of District 3.

Enthusiasm for Johnson’s candidacy also appears to have driven increased voter turnout in predominantly African-American southeast Greensboro. Johnson’s draw played a mutually reinforcing role with an outpouring of support for Bellamy-Small, who represents the area as councilwoman for District 1. Bellamy-Small had earlier prevailed in a recall election and a primary election after white colleague Florence Gatten called for her resignation.

“I’ve been out here since 6:30 and it’s been a steady flow,” said Wanda Autrey, a volunteer wearing a Johnson T-shirt and a Bellamy-Small sticker who huddled with a group of women in lawn chairs in the parking lot of Trinity AME Zion Church in the late afternoon. “They always talk about the low turnout and the long breaks. There hasn’t been a break all day.”

Her friend Phyllis Jeffers enthusiastically endorsed Johnson.

“Most of the people I talked to said they think she would be good for Greensboro,” she said. “Her experience and her honesty, how she would be good for all people.”

It was likewise clear early on that Bellamy-Small was favored in the district race.

“She had the edge of people coming out to volunteer,” Autrey said. “Again, you’ve got experience. Bellamy-Small represents experience and maturity.”

Another woman, Ellease Colston, added, “She represents the underdog – poor people.”

The number of ballots cast in District 1 nearly doubled in this election compared to the last contest in 2005, when Bellamy-Small eked out a narrow victory over challenger Luther Falls Jr. by only 49 votes. This time, the incumbent distanced herself from challenger Tonya Clinkscale by 5.8 percentage points, winning 3,036 votes.

The outcome of this year’s municipal election reflects the expressed will of three forces that reached a temporary truce: a coalition of African Americans and white progressives intent on installing the city’s first black mayor; the formidable clout of the real estate interests that helped reelect homebuilder Sandra Anderson Groat to an at-large position, aided real estate developer Robbie Perkins’ quest to reclaim a council seat and vaulted Zack Matheny from the zoning commission to the District 3 seat on council; and a wave of conservative discontent over City Manager Mitchell Johnson’s handling of the police controversy as stoked by The Rhinoceros Times, resulting in victories for former Guilford County commissioners Mary Rakestraw and Trudy Wade.

Voter participation increased across the city compared to the last election in 2005, with the number of ballots cast rising from 19,924 to 34,210. Campaign fundraising jolted up even more dramatically, more than doubling from $154,598 to well over $300,000. Total campaign contributions equaled almost $10 per vote this year.

The top finishers in the at-large race – Groat and Perkins – received endorsements from the George C. Simkins Memorial PAC, a consortium of black leaders; the Replacements Limited PAC, which distributes a lesbian-gay-bi-transgender voting guide, and the daily newspaper.

Groat collected more than $10,000 in campaign contributions in the most recent reporting period, bringing her total above $40,000, including $1,000 from the NC Realtors PAC and $500 checks from each of the two partners behind Mega Builders. Perkins received $2,000 from the NC Realtors PAC.

First-time candidate Marikay Abuzuaiter, a restaurateur and landlord, fell only 612 votes short of the No. 3 spot. She ran fairly strong in east Greensboro, where her husband operates a gas station, but failed to make the cut despite endorsements from the Simkins PAC, the Replacements Limited PAC and the News & Record, not to mention the Carolina Peacemaker and YES! Weekly.

District 2 Councilwoman Goldie Wells routed challenger Lance Jones, a state correctional officer, without prodigious fundraising. Endorsements by the Simkins PAC and three of the city’s newspapers underscored her widespread appeal.

Zack Matheny, a 34-year-old financial consultant who enjoyed strong support from the real estate and development community, soared past Joe Wilson, a developer with a combative personality, to victory by a 17.6 percent margin in District 3. Matheny, who collected virtually every endorsement available except The Rhinoceros Times’, also enjoyed late-game financial support from major donors, including a $4,000 check from Granville Capital principal Robert Long and $500 checks from Replacements Limited President Robert Page and the NC Realtors PAC.

Councilman Mike Barber easily won reelection in District 4, collecting 82.6 percent of the vote. His opponent, David Crawford, won a respectable 1,525 votes without any notable fundraising and despite temporarily dropping out of the race.

In District 5, incumbent Sandy Carmany earned only 1,615 votes, losing to former Guilford County Commissioner Trudy Wade, who took harsh aim at her opponent in campaign ads portraying her as lacking vigilance on gang prevention and water procurement and as profligate on public transportation spending. Wade prevailed by an 8.2 percent margin.

In the latest reporting period, Wade’s fundraising outpaced her opponents’ by about eight to one, with nearly half of the funds coming from real estate interests. Employees of the Koury Corp., whose headquarters is located in District 5, bundled a total of $800 in $100 denominations for Wade over two days in October. Earlier in the campaign season, employees of the company had given a total of $700 to Carmany.

The Simkins PAC joined forces with The Rhinoceros Times in endorsing Wade, while nods from the News & Record, the Replacements Limited PAC, YES! Weekly and the Carolina Peacemaker failed to carry Carmany over the threshold in a district with chronic low voter turnout. The number of ballots cast in District 5 doubled from the last municipal election in 2005, but still ranked last in the city.

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