Grassroots challengers take on popular mayor in Greensboro primary

by Jeff Sykes | @jeffreysykes

Sal Leone pictured above.

When the candidate-filing period for Greensboro City Council ended on Aug. 7, there was no significant challenger to Mayor Nancy Vaughan on the ballot. No political heavyweight with a ready-made support base saddled up to take on the popular incumbent, who is finishing her first term as mayor after serving four terms on city council since 1997.

But there are two grassroots challengers who want to take Vaughan’s seat in the middle of the city council dias. Sal Leone and Devin King may lack for name recognition, funding, and manpower, but both candidates highlight traditional outsider positions that very well could resonate with many Greensboro voters.

The mayoral primary is Oct. 6. Three candidates in District 3 will also face voters in a primary that day. Early voting for the primary begins Sept. 24, with a shortened early voting period taking place for Greensboro voters at the Board of Elections Office on the First Floor of the Old Courthouse, located at 301 W. Market St. in downtown.

During interviews this past week, both Leone and King said that they stepped forward to challenge Vaughan because they are frustrated with a lack of progress on a list of challenges facing the city, including poverty, job recruitment, and public safety.

Leone, 44, moved to Greensboro in 2000 and is employed as a police officer for the City of Thomasville in Davidson County, where he currently works as a School Resource Officer. It’s his third run for city council, and fourth for elective office, having challenged state Rep. John Blust in 2014. Leone described himself as a fighter for the common man and he bristles at the dismissive posture many in the media take toward him.

The editor of a small weekly startup used an ethnic slur to describe Leone recently. A reporter for the city’s daily newspaper wrote an article about the mayoral race without even picking up the phone to call. Leone said the media bashing makes it hard for him to expand his support base in the community.

“When you have all that, nobody is going to support you,” Leone said. “The election is already won. If you ask people, they are laughing almost. (The media) made me a third wheel in this race. It get’s me upset sometimes that people aren’t telling the whole truth.”

Leone takes exception to the media portrayal of his past campaigns.

“I keep doing better, even though the media, and that’s what bothers me a lot about the media, when they just put down that I ran and lost. They don’t actually tell the figures,” Leone said.

He “got crushed” in his first campaign in 2011, Leone said, when he ran for an at-large seat on the city council. In 2013, he ran against District 5’s Tony Wilkins, making it out of the primary before taking about 30 percent in the general election. In 2014, Leone said he took about 35 percent of the vote against Blust.

The run for mayor is a natural progression for him, Leone said.

“When I ran for city council in all the prior races, nobody cared, there was no media coverage behind it,” Leone said. “Nobody really wanted to listen to you because you are in last place. I decided I wanted to do something on a higher platform, so people can listen more.”

Leone’s message is one of simplifying bureaucracy, standing up for the common man, and ending what many Greensboro residents consider too cozy of a relationship between the city’s biggest developers, realtors and elected officials.

“I don’t think the current council is honest,” Leone said. “I think they have a lot of developers and rich people that are in their pockets. I’m not just making it up; I’ve researched it all. I have numbers, facts, and incidences, money trails. Who’s looking out for the person that don’t have money? Who?” Leone said that money in politics is a corrupting influence, and makes council members susceptible to influence.

He claimed to have a file of council members past failures, including police calls and tax problems.

“We need somebody who is going to be approachable by the people, non-corruptible and with a little bit of honor,” Leone said. “Just a little bit. You don’t have to have a ton of honor to be in politics anymore, but just some basic honor principles.”

Leone said his platform involved refocusing economic development to benefit small businesses, tackling poverty and crime, and creating a citizen’s police review board that has subpoena power.

He held up the Tanger Performing Arts Center as an example of the city’s misplaced priorities.

“Money needs to be rediverted from projects that benefit the few, to projects that benefit the many,” Leone said. “The Tanger Center is not going to benefit everybody. It’s going to cost a lot of money to get in and the average citizen in Greensboro can’t go see a play and spend $200 on one night.”

When asked if the TPAC is still a legitimate issue, given that the city and private sector have sealed a deal to finance the $60 million project costs, Leone said it was.

“It is because it is going overboard now,” he said. “There are overcosts and they will have to scale it back. Shouldn’t this have been looked at before they started?” He also criticized the TPAC location, calling it a symptom of the city council’s misplaced focus on downtown.

“The eastside needs something. We’re not far from the east in downtown anyway. How much land is out there in the east that we could have had?” Leone said. “A lot of it.”

More focus on economic development in East Greensboro would begin to help tackle part of his campaign’s second focus, addressing the city’s alarming poverty rate. Poverty stems partly from a lack of jobs in the city, Leone said.

“If you have no job creation, and no jobs, then poverty and crime will go up,” Leone said. “It’s just a fact of life. We are not bringing jobs here. Why?” Leone said it was partly due to the city’s “pay to play” reputation. Companies looking to relocate have teams of researchers, many that come away with a negative view of Greensboro.

“We’ve got high property taxes,” he said. “Everywhere you go things are skyrocketing in this town””property taxes, food, services””while taxes in other cities are going down to increase job creation. Companies will come here if they can make a buck.”

Leone said he wants to create a loan fund to support start up companies and other small businesses. He criticized the city’s focus on reimbursing developers for infrastructure costs, while not doing enough to generate job growth through small business development.

He described the less than $200,000 the Greensboro Community Development Fund has invested in small businesses recently as “a band-aid on a big wound.” Though GCDF is a private fund the city contributes toward, Leone said more could be done.

“I want to give out real money for real jobs,” he said. “We’ve got the money. The city has to have the money. They can’t tell me they spent $11 million on (TPAC) property, they found it real quick, and now they are going to site there and tell me they don’t have the money? Every time they have to give out a grant, they find the money. It’s there.”

As for crime, Leone said he wanted to create tactical patrol squads to work swing shifts from 8pm to 4am to target high crime areas. Leone said he would look to move officers out of specialized units and back into patrol.

The city’s misguided focus on downtown was having a negative effect on crime in other parts of the city, Leone said, especially the east side.

“Unfortunately, Greensboro is focusing on downtown crime with all the nightclubs, and we are pulling resources,” Leone said. “Crime is starting to go up in District 1 and District 2. We’re not focusing. We’ve got all these new downtown initiatives. We’re not focusing on where crime is.”

Devin King

Devin King says the city needs to focus as well, but in his run for mayor he says the focus should be on solving problems and not just continuing to talk about them.

The 27-year-old native of Cleveland, Ohio moved to Greensboro in 2010. He said Greensboro is a wonderful city poised for growth and development. But lingering frustrations with joblessness and poverty among the city’s working class cry out for more attention, he said.

“I just see that there are issues facing the city that the leaders during the past couple of years haven’t done what they need to do to strengthen the city,” King said. “We need to change that so people understand that they have a leader who is going to put his foot down and say ‘enough is enough’ and get this city moving forward.”

King cited the issues of food deserts, unemployment and poverty as examples where more could be done to solve problems. He said Mayor Vaughan has talked about these problems but doesn’t seem “urgently concerned” about solving them.

His core campaign platform includes solving the SB 36 stalemate, expanding the city’s tax base, and eradicating food deserts.

King said he could see the benefit of a city council made up of eight districts and a mayor, but not with the mayor’s powers limited as they are in SB36. King said if elected he would sit down with the state legislature and Greensboro residents and try to strike a compromise that settles the issue.

In terms of job creation and an expanded tax base, King said there are more than 15,000 jobs available in Guilford County but that many residents have become discouraged because of the complicated web of training and technical skill needed to qualify for employment.

“Somebody coming off joblessness after a few years just wants to learn a skill,” King said. “If we can simplify that somehow and let people know you don’t have to be discouraged by the training … then people will work. I talk to people everyday who are discouraged about not being able to find a job.”

King knows what it’s like to struggle to gain momentum in the economy. He said he had to pay more than $800 to get his license as a certified nursing assistant. His wife works in childcare and is pursuing a degree in early childhood education. The couple has one son, age five.

He said the local media has misportrayed his background and commitment, often showing him in a negative light in comparison to the status quo.

“If this is going to be a resume battle, then I am going to lose,” King said. “If this is going to be a battle about leadership and passion and what can be done in the city to move it forward, then I am going to win.”

He said one early report in a small weekly newspaper labeled him a Fisher Park resident, a reporting error he said that has cost him on the campaign trail. King lives on South Elm Street next to Eric Robert’s Old North State Flour Mill development.

“That was a big misunderstanding to say Fisher Park because a lot of people that I introduced myself to said ‘oh well you’re not even from this area,’ even in the east side of Greensboro,” King said. “My family lives in this area. I live in this area. I don’t know why they said that. Things like that are big issues that need to be professionally corrected.”

King said he likes living near downtown and that more should be done to spur redevelopment in South End. Improving walkability around the city would benefit average citizens, many of which can’t afford a car or a driver’s license. Increased development in East Greensboro, including small things like improved appearances, could bring more jobs, alleviate poverty, and increase the likelihood of grocery stores locating in some of the city’s food desert areas.

“The money and the business is there,” King said. “When are we going to start taking advantage of that and start making sure the landscape is competitive? We need to make sure the businesses and the shopping centers are looking up to par so that when we bring companies in they are not just (turned off) by the landscaping and the failure of our infrastructure over there. We could do more to improve it and we need to.”

Though he is a political unknown, King said he is building bridges of support and gaining momentum in the community. He entered the race to solve the problems he felt others were not addressing.

“Nobody did it, so you know what, this inner city black kid, who’s 27 years old, I had to do it,” King said of challenging Mayor Vaughan. “That’s why I put my name in there and I do see a lot of people in the city getting behind my message and supporting it.”

King said that it’s time for people to step up and stop complaining about the challenges in the community.

“I want to be the problem solver,” he said. “The way to do that is to get out there in front of the people and have them vote for you so you can get into elected office and change.” !