Greensboro mayoral race could get interesting

by Jordan Green

Early in the campaign season one district candidate private expressed concern to me that without an exciting mayoral race on the marquee, the voters were likely to treat municipal elections in Greensboro as a snooze, continuing a dismal trend of low voter turnout in the general and especially in the primary contests.

It would be easy to discount mayoral challenger Bill Knight, considering that he failed to win an at-large seat in his last go-round as a candidate two years ago, and considering that Mayor Yvonne Johnson has demonstrated a consistent ability to run strong races across the city, maintaining equal appeal among black voters, the business community and white progressives.

That would be a mistake, in my opinion. During their second appearance together at a lunchhour forum hosted by the League of Women Voters of the Piedmont Triad at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church on Sept. 15, Knight threw some sharp jabs at his opponent.

“We need a mayor who runs the meeting according to Robert’s Rules of Order,” Knight said. “That means everybody’s heard, you make a decision and move on.”

That message correlated neatly with the lead paragraph in John Hammer’s recap of the city council meeting held later that evening in The Rhinoceros Times: “Greensboro Mayor Yvonne Johnson appears incapable of effectively running a city council meeting.”

The Rhinoceros Times is the newspaper medium of choice for Guilford County candidates across the political spectrum, and the journalist’s and the candidate’s messages likely resonated with readers who saw Knight’s ad calling for a restoration of “trust and accountability in city government” and a separate ad for Mary Rakestraw that noted that the District 4 candidate “pushed and voted for… integrity in government.”

Along with retiring Councilman Mike Barber and District 5 incumbent Trudy Wade, Rakestraw led the effort to remove former City Manager Mitchell Johnson. Among the complaints against Johnson was that he pushed out former police Chief David Wray, whose administration generated discontent with dozens of black police officers who are currently suing the city for racial discrimination.

Knight’s position has been no secret: Over the past two years, he has called on the city council to remove Johnson and issue an apology to Wray.

The mayoral forum on Sept. 15 was significant, however, in that it placed the intertwined issues of race and police administration squarely in the campaign.

“I would like to be sure going forward that we select new administration into the police department command group that we’re doing it based on ability and qualifications,” Knight said. “We have had one chief selected becauseof race. We’ve had another interim chief — don’t know what his situa —We had another chief who was basically forced out on racial issues. Andwe have a chief today who, in my opinion, is there primarily because ofrace.”

For thosewho do not closely follow the racial politics of the Greensboro PoliceDepartment, the sequence of top leadership is as follows: Robert White(black), Anthony Scales (black), David Wray (white) and Tim Bellamy(black).

Knight’sstatement created enough of a stir to be e-mailed around after itsutterance, and for a couple of the mayor’s supporters to privatelyexpress dismay to me.

Iasked Knight on Sunday if he thought his statement might appeal to acertain kind of white voter, and turn off another segment of theelectorate. He told me he apologized if he offended anyone, but his aimwas only to emphasize the importance of qualifications in decisionsabout selecting department heads.

“Ican only say that there is a perception among a lot of people that Italk to that something is not as good as it should be, based on priorhistory in the department.” Knight also said, “It does not appear to methat he might have been the most qualified person for the job.”

Knightwanted to emphasize the point that basing hiring decisions onqualifications instead of race also sometimes works in the favor of theAfrican-American candidate.

“Wehave a new city manager that I haven’t met, Mr. Young, who is African-American,” he said. “From all I have read, he is eminently qualified.It looks like the city council did a good job of investigating andbringing in someone who is very highly qualified. That’s the way itshould be. What I said shouldn’t be an issue.”

Greensboro elections are nonpartisan, but this one is taking on partisan dimensions.

Knight,like Wade and Rakestraw is a registered Republican. The three are inalignment in their view of the desirability of removing MitchellJohnson as city manager and their questions about the currentperformance of the police department.

On the other side of the contest, Democratic candidates are lining up behind their standard-bearer, Yvonne Johnson.

At-largecandidate Julie Lapham sent out an e-mail to members of the UndoingRacism Group White Caucus on Sept. 18 in response to an articlecirculated about racially-tinged attacks on President Obama.

Laphamwrote, “I’m witnessing similar attacks on Mayor Johnson, which is why Idecided to step up and become a candidate for city council.”