Greensboro election 2007: Our picks

by the YES! staff

It’s election time again, Greensboro. Eighteen candidates are vying for nine seats on the city council, the body that controls property taxes, police, transportation, trash collection and dozens of other matters of everyday importance.

Here’s the skinny: Mayor Keith Holliday is retiring, as are longtime council members Tom Phillips and Florence Gatten. That means a lot of new faces, right? Not necessarily. Former Councilman Robbie Perkins and ex-Guilford County Commissioners Mary Rakestraw and Trudy Wade reentered the political arena this year.

And what a year it’s been. The 13 original candidates for three at-large seats have been whittled down to six; the five candidates in District 3 are now two; and District 1 representative Dianne Bellamy-Small not only survived a late summer recall, she also finished on top of a five-person pile in the primary.

In this issue, we get down to the business of endorsing. We spent months researching the issues, grilling the candidates and filing campaign trail dispatches, only to be rudely awakened in the primary by the pesky, cantankerous electorate.

On Oct. 9, the voters – the 7 percent of them who showed up – registered their disapproval with city management by voting overwhelmingly for candidates belonging to the colloquially named “Ditch Mitch” crowd. These candidates, taking their cue from Jerry Bledsoe’s hefty “Cops in Black and White” series in The Rhinoceros Times, have called for the resignation of City Manager Mitch Johnson and the reinstatement of former police Chief David Wray.

And we can’t support that. Two officers in Wray’s special intelligence squad have been indicted for obstruction of justice – which is not the kind of citation we want to see hanging around the necks of our men and women in blue.

The candidates calling for Johnson’s head have resorted to good old-fashioned demagoguery, a development that sends a chill down the collective YES! Weekly spine. We’re not endorsing any of the Ditch Mitch candidates. And that means that, yes, we are endorsing a lot of incumbents.

We fancy ourselves pretty comfortable with change over here. But the change that’s in the air this November has us thinking it just might be better to sit tight.


Yvonne Johnson

For the most part we’ve seen Yvonne Johnson, a 14-year veteran of city council, as a quiet consensus politician in the classic Greensboro mold – someone who remains above the fray and takes positions that avoid either extreme. It’s probably no accident that she’s the first African-American elected official since Greensboro introduced district voting to hold an at-large seat.

On occasion we’ve complained about her lack of fire and charisma, but perhaps she has been biding her time all these years. Now we hope to see her take on the characteristics of a true leader. We’ve seen flashes. Johnson has demonstrated unapologetic support for the truth and reconciliation process to acknowledge and address the residue of our darkest day in 1979, running counter to the majority-white sentiment in this city that willfully avoids self-examination. And she doesn’t mince words when she argues that for the city to prosper, all of its people must prosper. In other words, setting a citywide minimum wage of $9.36 is a prerequisite for putting money in working people’s pockets that can reinvigorate the local economy.

Our greatest reservation about Johnson, who is running against downtown commercial developer Milton Kern, is that in her gradual rise to power she has become a comfortable partner with the real estate interests – the unelected arbiters of power in Greensboro. Her voting record on land-use issues has shown a 95 percent accord with the desires of her real estate benefactors and their attorney-pleaders. So no surprise that Johnson is master of the political coalition, someone who is able with minimal cognitive dissonance to bridge the contrasting worlds of old Greensboro real-estate money with the overlapping progressive constellations of faith communities, nonprofits and activism.

The mayor has but one vote out of nine, true. She’s the public face of our city. And that’s not an inconsequential role. So we ask her to take bold leadership, to risk her popularity to leave our city a true legacy. It’s worth noting that should she win, Yvonne Johnson will be Greensboro’s first black mayor. In one sense, it’s a superficial matter. It is only skin color, after all. We concur with the candidate that it’s her time. And it’s time for the white majority to put aside its fear of black political power. It would say a lot to the rest of the country if a majority-white city had the political maturity to elect a black mayor.

We need Yvonne Johnson because we need someone with the sensitivity to engage all parts of the human mosaic in Greensboro – black, white, immigrant and native. We need someone who builds on our civil rights legacy. But we also need somebody with the courage to put her foot down to developers intent on pursuing quick profits through fringe development that stretches city resources and leaves wide swaths of the urban landscape vulnerable to blight. We need someone with the charisma to persuade NIMBY neighbors of the wisdom of infill development that injects vitality, encourages cycling and enhances quality of life. We hope that Yvonne Johnson will become that kind of leader.

At-large (three seats)

Marikay Abuzuaiter

Marikay Abuzuaiter, a political newcomer, entered the race after the sitting council proposed a business fee increase that rankled her entrepreneurial hide. Since then she’s become conversant, measured and articulate on a variety of issues.

One of Abuzuaiter’s most impressive qualities is her propensity to listen and that she doesn’t use that quality, as so many other candidates do, as a fig leaf for political laziness.

Abuzuaiter displayed her critical thinking chops during the One Guilford symposium, when she raised some hard questions about water supply and economic development. We trust Abuzuaiter to process all sides of an argument and come up with a cohesive position. And we like that she doesn’t confuse having an open mind with ideological weakness.

On the issues, Abuzuaiter appeals to our progressive editorial tendencies. She said she advocates preemptive action on air quality and water supply issues, is skeptical of fringe development and economic incentives, and supports living wages for local workers.

All this from a successful business owner with ties to Greensboro’s small Muslim community. Abuzuaiter, who owns Mahi’s Seafood Restaurant, voiced frustration with city services, particularly police, who are spread too thin. But she’s also running on a low-tax platform. We hope she brings to the council an eye for waste and an open ear for citizens dependent on specialized programs.

A word about Sandra Anderson Groat: We are not endorsing the incumbent mayor pro tem for a couple of reasons. She promised to be a uniter in 2005, but turned out to be a weak advocate for her African-American constituents. Her support for developers, on the other hand, surpassed all other council members. In the past two years, Anderson Groat has shown herself to be neither principled nor particularly knowledgeable, and we think other candidates will be better for Greensboro.

Joel Landau

Landau finished seventh out of 13 candidates for an at-large seat, but only the top six qualified for the runoff. That puts Landau – a popular candidate victimized by low voter turnout – out of the official running.

Landau, undaunted, is campaigning as a write-in candidate, a particularly risky maneuver given the county’s electronic voting system, which makes writing a candidate in a bit of a hassle (see sidebar). But we’re backing our guy, just like we did in 2005.

Here’s why: Landau organized the effort to add Greensboro to a list of cities fighting global warming. He successfully lobbied city management to add consent agenda items to the materials available online. He convinced the housing department to close a loophole that allowed landlords to delay making repairs.

Landau is, in short, the most accomplished and effective candidate never to have held elective office. If we give this guy a seat on our city council – even if it is only one of nine – he’ll bring fresh ideas to a body reluctant to abandon yesterday’s conventional wisdom.

And we like what he’s putting out there. In an election season consumed with talk of government transparency, he’s the only candidate who has successfully shed a little light on the council’s inner workings. From his post on the planning board, he’s articulated a skeptical position on annexation, an issue critical to the provision of basic city services in our already sprawling burg.

Landau would be the strongest advocate for sustainability on a council caught up in legitimate concerns about economic development and crime. That means he’s taking the long view, which is going to pay dividends – even economic ones – down the line.

So take a little time when you vote and write in Joel Landau.

Robbie Perkins

It would be very easy to condemn Robbie Perkins as a self-interested land-grabber who prefers to run local government as a stage production with true power being mediated behind the scenes and a decorous show of feel-good unity being performed for the benefit of a manipulated electorate. The truth is we didn’t see many attractive candidates in the at-large race, so we put aside our objections and started tallying up positive attributes. Perkins collected the most points in this losing hand.

Robbie Perkins – a councilman from 1993 year to 2005 year who is seeking a political resurrection – cannot be considered separate from the Heart of the Triad concept he so passionately champions. And that is where we see his promise. Planning is a must for the rural swath south of Kernersville surrounded by the suburbs of Winston-Salem, High Point and Greensboro. It was arrogant and clumsy of Perkins and fellow realtor Arnold King to fail to draw in local landowners as stakeholders at the beginning of the process. But it’s not too late to make the Heart of the Triad truly represent the democratic will of this urban and rural region. Without planning we can expect the area to evolve into a low-density sea of McMansions and truck terminals.

For better or worse, Perkins is dynamic. We expect him to toss out ideas and fight for them, even at risk of mobilizing passionate adversaries like us. And once in a while, we hope, he’ll reach out in compromise to opponents and admit he’s been wrong.

District 1

Dianne Bellamy-Small

Here’s a woman who researches her positions, articulates them clearly and then lets the chips fall where they may. You may not like all of her decisions; the Simkins PAC – otherwise known as the black political machine – certainly doesn’t. She tells you where she stands. That’s what we look for in political representation. She doesn’t excel at small talk with her fellow council members, or anyone else for that matter. She doesn’t have to. She represents District 1, not the other eight members of council.

And District 1 faces several disadvantages. It needs a feisty representative who loudly demands that its problems be addressed, not a clubby team player. Having survived a recall election, Bellamy-Small has forged a connection with her constituents in a crucible of fire. And having completed two terms, she qualifies as a knowledgeable veteran.

That said, voters in District 1 are blessed to have two good candidates to from which to choose. Tonya Clinkscale, a construction project manager, appears to be a capable and personable leader who builds genuine relationships and puts her community’s needs before her own. She represents a wholly different style of leadership than Bellamy-Small. More polished than her opponent, Clinkscale would be less of a maverick and more of collaborator with her fellow council members. We leave it to readers to decide which would be the most effective.

District 2

Goldie Wells

Goldie Wells was pretty quiet in her first term on city council. She sailed into office in 2005 with a resume heavy on community engagement in northeast Greensboro, but her advocacy sputtered a bit when she took her council seat.

We’re going to chalk up the ineffectual term to inexperience and give Wells the nod this time around. District 2 needs an experienced representative to lift it out of the mire of poverty and crime. Challenger Lance Jones proposed some intriguing initiatives for gang prevention, but he is a newcomer to the political arena and would likely spend his first term learning the political ropes.

Wells has had time to forge political alliances, and if Yvonne Johnson ascends to mayor, she’ll have a friend in the hot seat. Wells wants to hire more police officers, supports the minimum wage initiative and advocates expanding public transportation.

On the downside, Wells supports the use of economic incentives and was one of the most vocal proponents for government intervention to bring Wal-Mart to her district. Then there’s her position on fringe development, which she supports because it’s a “sign of growth.”

Wells hasn’t lost her passion for District 2, but she hasn’t been the most effective representative on council, either. We’d like to give her another term all the same, so we can see what she does with a little experience under her belt.

District 3

Zack Matheny

Zack Matheny, a financial consultant who sits on the Greensboro Zoning Commission, and Joe Wilson, a realtor with Yost & Little, offer almost diametrically opposed styles. The 34-year-old Matheny is a prolific fundraiser and a consummate relationship-builder. The 45-year-old Wilson is pugnacious critic who stresses his independence. Our publication’s reporting has scrutinized the influence of real estate interests in local politics and we’ve consistently decried irresponsible development in our editorial slot. So the Matheny-Wilson match-up leaves us in a bit of a quandary.

Ultimately, we found that we lean toward Matheny. The gerontocracy that is Greensboro politics needs the energy and ideas of young people. Matheny is an accomplished civic leader who has lent his volunteer energy to the effort to bring a minor-league ballpark to town as a member of Action Greensboro and to the Chrysler Classic of Greensboro Executive Committee, along with a myriad of other organizations. Sure, there’s only 10 years in age difference between Matheny and his opponent, but factor in Matheny’s status as a single man without family obligations and it’s easy to see that he has boundless energy to give. The thirtysomething financial consultant has a promising political career ahead of him. We hope he makes wise and principled use of his gifts.

It is a cause of concern that Matheny has received $9,000 from developers and lawyers who have come before him in the past eight months with rezoning requests and that he has approved 95 percent of those requests. The flipside of that equation is that Matheny sometimes votes against selfish neighborhood interests. In our candidate’s survey, Matheny opined, “From a tax-base standpoint, our city needs to get comfortable with in-fill development projects. Extensive low-density growth at the fringe of our city is an expensive proposition.” Keep showing that kind of courage, and learn to say no to your political patrons once in awhile, Zack.

District 4

Mike Barber

The voters of District 4 ushered Mike Barber into office by a wide margin in 2005, when he beat out first-time challenger Janet Wallace. Since then, he’s played the role of obstreperous councilman to the hilt, drawing praise from The Rhinoceros Times and his fiscally conservative constituents.

We hoped when he came into office that Barber would inject some much-needed contrariness into the city council, which can be mild-mannered to a fault. But Barber often comes across more as a scold than a leader, particularly when he’s addressing department heads. He leads with his criticism, often before all the facts are in.

We wouldn’t be inclined to support Barber if he faced a viable candidate in this election. However, we can’t plausibly – not even as a joke – support his opponent, David Crawford.

The litany of Crawford campaign mistakes would exhaust this section’s word count, so we’re not going to recount them all for you. But we will hit the highlights: He admitted that the city council campaign was just a warm-up for his Congressional run. He copied YES! Weekly staffers on several e-mails detailing his carousing ways. He hit on newlywed office manager Rachel Garavito via MySpace.

Anyway, the list goes on and on. And that means we must endorse Barber. We hope that in his second term he mellows out a little, lets people have their say, and comes to the table with a few more constructive suggestions.

We respect Barber’s stand in support of City Manager Mitchell Johnson. He could have collected some easy political points by calling for his resignation. We look forward to seeing which sacred cows he takes out for slaughter this year, and whether he’ll gain any allies on council.

District 5

Sandy Carmany

Finishing out our 100 percent endorsement of the status quo, we offer our support to Sandy Carmany. We haven’t always found her to be an imaginative policymaker on either land-use or human relations issues in Greensboro, but Carmany is indisputably a principled councilwoman who does her homework, serves for the community’s rather than her own gain, and masters the nuances of her chosen bailiwick – transportation.

On occasion, Carmany has cast some courageous votes. One that comes to mind is her rejection of a special use permit for Salvage America to continue operation of a construction waste lot on Holts Chapel Road, in an area that straddles the districts represented by colleagues Goldie Wells and Dianne Bellamy-Small. Perhaps because of her independence and perhaps because she hasn’t had a real competitor until now, Carmany is the rare local elected official who hasn’t attracted the big campaign finance bucks.

Speaking of competition, Carmany has been outspent this go-round by challenger Trudy Wade, who bested her in the primary election. Wade, a former Guilford County commissioner, has slung every kind of criticism imaginable through a string of attack ads at Carmany. Wade has skillfully exploited the subtle racism of constituents who want to see City Manager Mitchell Johnson punished for holding former police Chief David Wray accountable for the treatment of black officers and others outside the dominant clique in the Greensboro Police Department. Wade’s campaigning on this issue smacks of pandering and political opportunism. We’ll stick with Sandy.