Greensboro council candidates represent array of interests

by Jordan Green

Election filing closed on July 17 with 33 candidates filing for the nine seats on the Greensboro City Council — an outpouring of interest signaling dissatisfaction with municipal government and a vast array of civic interests. Yvonne Johnson seeks a second term as mayor as a popular incumbent with strength derived from her reputation as an ambassador of diversity, an accommodating partnership with the city’s business interests and capable political organization. Her sole opponent is Bill Knight, a retired accountant who parts ways with her in his support of the firing of former City Manager Mitchell Johnson. Knight, who serves US Rep. Howard Coble’s campaign treasurer, has run a traditional campaign so far with tight message control. While the mayoral race has been drawn along conventional lines, the at-large contest is shaping up as a free-for-all, with incumbents Mayor Pro Tem Sandra Anderson and Robbie Perkins contending among nine challengers for six slots in the Oct. 6 primary. Among the six primary winners, voters will choose the top three to serve on council on Election Day on Nov. 3. The at-large race includes a political veteran, Nancy Vaughan, who served on council from 1997 to 2001. Also contending is Marikay Abuzuaiter, a seasoned campaigner who narrowly missed winning a seat in 2007 when she placed fourth in the at-large race, and Julie Lapham, who managed Yvonne Johnson’s first mayoral campaign. The newcomers make up for what they lack in name recognition with thoughtfulness, engagement in the issues and distinguished civic and business leadership. In background and temperament, they range from Danny Thompson, a homecare business owner with a focus on job creation, to North Carolina Latin King leader Jorge Cornell, who has waged a campaign to unite blacks and Latinos and fought a rear-guard battle against what he considers harassment by the Greensboro. Police Department’s gang unit. Other at-large candidates include Max Benbassat, DJ Hardy, Gary Nixon and Ryan Shell. Shell virtually inaugurated the campaign season by declaring online his intention to run for the District 2 seat in April. He has run an energetic campaign based on new media and community outreach, documenting forays across the district to solicit input from residents about the White Street Landfill and to pick up trash using social networking tools such as Facebook and Twitter. The announced retirement of Councilwoman Goldie Wells has prompted widespread interest in the seat, but Shell lost his position as presumptive frontrunner soon after filing began. The 50-year-old Jim Kee is a former co-chair of the Concerned Citizens of Northeast Greensboro, a political powerhouse in the east-central heart of the district. He surfaced as a candidate at Mayor Johnson’s May 31 campaign kickoff, undertaking his candidacy at Wells’ request. The 29-year-old Shell, who is a white Southside resident, struggled against questions about whether he could authentically represent the majority-black District 2, and switched his filing status to at-large hours before the deadline passed on the final day of filing. As prohibitive favorite, Kee faces three opponents in the primary race: Nettie Coad, Gordon M. Hester and Dan Fischer. Filing on the last day, Coad enters the race as a community leader in Ole Asheboro, which is part of the southern toe of the district dipping below East Market Street, whose constituents have sometimes complained of being treated as a stepchild in the district. Coad chairs the city’s Redevelopment Commission and has pressured the city to extend public investment down from the prosperous Southside. The other majority-black district, District 1 in the city’s southeast quadrant, might have once appeared to be a lock for incumbent Dianne Bellamy-Small, who survived a recall election and then vanquished her opponents in the general election in 2007. Bellamy-Small has credibly portrayed herself as a fighter for equity for the district. She took the lead on council in opening a homeless day center, and has sparred with conservative members of council in her unwavering support of former City Manager Mitchell Johnson and his handling of allegations of racial discrimination within the police department. Bellamy-Small has found her match in an opponent no less pugnacious, outspoken and polarizing. (Another similarity between challenger Ben Holder and the incumbent is that both have embraced multiracial family values: As a young black woman, Bellamy-Small adopted white surrogate parents; a white man, Holder is the widowed father of two children whose mother was black.) Among her accomplishments, Bellamy- Small cites “advocating for fairness in treatment of black police officers involved in [the] police scandal.”

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Danny Thompson (top) and Max Benbassat (bottom) are among a handful of political newcomers in the at-large race. Luther T. Falls Jr. (middle left), who is challenging Dianne Bellamy-Small in District 1, is looking for some magic to rub off Jim Kee, the presumptive frontrunner in District 2. (photos by Jordan Green)