Former mayor, newcomer to butt heads with incumbent in District 4

by Eric Ginsburg

When Greensboro Councilwoman Nancy Hoffmann said recently that her campaign was already in full swing, she wasn’t kidding. By the time she turned in her mid-year report on Aug. 2, the District 4 incumbent already raked in almost $35,000 to ward off former Mayor Bill Knight and newcomer John Alexander Underwood.

As with her first campaign in 2011, several of her large donations came from out of state, though the lion’s share of funds were local and a respectable amount came from the real estate and building industries. Developer and Downtown Greensboro Inc.

Board Chair Dawn Chaney gave $500 to Hoffmann’s cause, as did William Kotis III. Norman Samet, Katherine Weaver and a different William Kotis contributed $250 each — and so did Bryan Foundation President and former Mayor Jim Melvin, M’Coul’s owner Simmone McClinton and Lorillard executive Ronald Milstein. Developer John Lomax kicked in $1,000, but most of Hoffmann’s donations are from less public names giving smaller figures.

Knight and Underwood didn’t file mid-year reports, but the lack of financial documentation of a fundraising war doesn’t indicate a quiet race. The three candidates who will compete to clear the Oct. 8 primary offer distinct options for District 4 residents, and while money coming in certainly helps, it won’t ultimately decide this contest.

Underwood is the obvious standout in this election — he’s turning 31 soon, works at Bed, Bath & Beyond and is running for the first time — but off the bat he offered insight into something that will give him a boost: He has the blood of Howard Hughes and Daniel Boone coursing through his veins, and said he resembles their ambition, drive and willingness to work outside of the box.

Born in Greensboro, Underwood returned to the Gate City after a back injury and an honorable discharge from the Navy. His parents — a police officer and a teacher — taught him the value of service, and that spirit pushed him to enlist and is also responsible for his council bid.

Noting that he drives a ’91 Chevy Lumina and buys his groceries at the Dollar Store, Underwood said Greensboro has a forgotten “undercity” that he could represent.

“There should be a voice for the people that have to live out the everyday things the council enacts,” Underwood said, adding that people like him who live on the bottom are often more cautious about decisions because they know the consequences.

Using a building as an analogy for class divides in the city, Underwood said it is easy for people at the top of a building to view people below as ants and not consider the full weight of their decisions.

The newcomer also defined himself as falling between his two opponents on the spectrum, billing himself as a moderate voice between progressive Hoffmann and conservative Knight.

After serving one term as mayor and losing a re-election bid to Robbie Perkins, Knight took some time to involve himself more deeply in civic life, throwing himself into establishing the Carolina Field of Honor and other service projects. He also spent time working on Gov. Pat McCrory’s transition team and serves as US Rep. Howard Coble’s treasurer, and said he is eager to serve on council again without the time commitment of being mayor.

“I’ve never been accused of being a couch potato,” he said, adding that his primary concerns are jobs and the economy but that he would also like to focus on transportation.

Talking about his ideas for council and the approach he’d bring back to the body, Knight’s eager eyes dance. He’s not the only one bringing up economic development for low-income residents: Knight said he would like to continue working on a plan he initiated as mayor to stimulate entrepreneurship through a skills-training boot camp that could deal with boarded up and condemned properties while helping unemployed or low-income residents. He’s still working on the idea with staff, and would like to engage private businesses to bring it to fruition if he’s elected.

Stressing that it wouldn’t be a free ticket and that participants would be held accountable to the program’s standards, Knight said if it started small the program could be tweaked and expanded to eventually make a grassroots dent in unemployment.

Some of his ideas would change how council itself functions, shifting to a committee structure similar to Winston-Salem’s to avoid extended council meetings, and addressing speakers from the floor in a way that is fair to speakers but shows respect for council’s process. Instead of meetings being weighed down by repeat speakers who “put a wet blanket” on the meeting at the start, he has several ideas to modify the process: having a separate meeting where speakers can talk for as long as they want, following Raleigh’s model where speakers sign up a week in advance so staff can sometimes solve the concern first, or by limiting individuals to addressing the council once a month.

Knight moved the speakers from the  but for the most part he said he is trying to look ahead and won’t secondguess council’s decisions over the last two years. There will be a new set of issues for the next council, he said, and he doesn’t plan to bring up past controversies like the White Street landfill.

As mayor, Knight said he convinced council to approve an audit committee, and if elected he would like to serve on it and be involved in transportation to help see the urban loop finished, among other things.

From an economic standpoint, Knight said the city needs to be careful about the public image it puts forward, especially around racial tensions and the 1979 Greensboro Massacre. While it is an important part of the city’s history and should be acknowledged, he said, it is better suited for the Greensboro Historical Museum rather than being featured on the city’s website.

“Let’s put history in its proper place and move on,” he said.

The proposed downtown performing arts center wasn’t being discussed when he left office in 2011, Knight said, unless it was being discussed behind the scenes without his knowledge. Commending the work of the center’s task force, Knight said if it’s really a great idea it would be profitable and would garner enough interest to be completed privately. While he would support public funding if voters approved it in a referendum, Knight said he has concerns about a downtown center’s accessibility, projected numbers and the likelihood that it would operate at a loss.

Without naming any names, Hoffmann said she was initially inspired to run for council two years ago by a “dysfunctional council” and that now she would like to build on the “thoughtful leadership and reasoned discussion” she fostered in her first term. Before six months was up, Hoffmann said the current council solved the municipal solid waste controversy while saving the city money and quickly reacted to the unexpected tree-trimming issue.

Highlighting her work on the trees and post-RUCO subcommittees, as well as her leadership on revising the noise ordinance, Hoffmann said if the city stands still it’s actually moving backwards. That’s part of the reason she bought an empty building on South Elm Street downtown, across from Cheesecakes by Alex, one that’s been vacant for 15 years, and is turning it into three spacious apartments and leasing the first floor to an independent bookstore and wine bar.

“It’s crushing to see a property not taken care of,” she said, “and not handsome the way it should be.”

There are several other downtown properties she’s looking to invest in, but Hoffmann said she isn’t sure if the city should try to condemn and turn around vacant Elm Street storefronts, though council could look into doing more on the issue.

Hoffmann’s approach to the city is certainly not pigeonholed in District 4 — She’s already rolled out a billboard on Smith Street near downtown in District 3. Hoffmann focuses a significant amount of her professional and council time on downtown issues and attends community meetings across town on the Renaissance Co-op grocery store.

She really tries to “be out and about with people and engaging with them” during this term, and now that it’s election season, she even has two body doubles. Hoffmann’s campaign created two life-size cardboard cutouts of her and put them in two coffee shops — she even wore the same outfit to the interview for this article — and Hoffmann said she planned to use one as a stand in for National Night Outevents she couldn’t make in person.

There should be a voice for the people that have to live out the everyday things the council enacts.”

John Alexander Underwood

District 4 residents like her engagement, accessibility and “quiet leadership,” she said, adding that she is a dependable and common-sense candidate. Hoffmann’s frequent participation in neighborhood issues and willingness to help sort out tensions between communities and planned development also contribute to her leadership style and appeal to district residents, she said.

Underwood distinguished himself from Hoffmann’s record on the noise ordinance. The city was hypocritical for wanting downtown development but then making entertainment venues stay as “quiet as a field mouse,” he said, adding that it was a “vilification of private enterprise.”

“We might as well tell people to leave,” Underwood said, adding that he doesn’t understand how Center Pointe and the city didn’t anticipate an issue with noise when the complex was built.

Billing himself as a visionary leader, Underwood offered a milieu of ideas for improving the city — more city involvement in supporting youth and education to help reduce crime rates, putting solar panels on the Greensboro Coliseum, potentially letting the Civil Rights Museum go bankrupt so it can retool and blossom anew, lowering property taxes — especially for senior citizens, buying Shot Spotter police equipment like Charlotte and employing more officers and attracting a major league baseball team or military defense contracts here.

A few of his ideas are specific to District 4, easily naming off areas that need new telephone poles, a corner that needs a stop sign near his house, neighborhoods “that time forgot” near the Norfolk-Southern railyard and more regular police of construction sites to prevent thefts.

Underwood said he would be an advocate for people who are normally disconnected from local government, or people like him who have struggled to get small things done. He’s called the city multiple times about a manhole behind his house that needs a cover but nobody ever came, and Underwood thinks the issue may be emblematic of the shortcomings of local government.

His opponents may have both served a term on council already, but Underwood said having credentials is not always a signifier of who has the best perspective and ideas.

“It helps to have a different set of eyes,” he said.