Greensboro political consultant turned councilwoman is reconciled with controversy

by Jordan Green

The day of Greensboro’s primary municipal election was a tough day of campaigning for Florence Gatten.

In the early afternoon of a day when a dreary sky loosed an intermittent drizzle, the at-large city council candidate stood at the entrance of Mendenhall Middle School with her election chairman, Reed Phillips, introducing herself to voters in one of the city’s wealthy northern precincts. Many of them hurried past as if trying to ignore a persistent panhandler on Elm Street.

‘“Most of the people in this precinct don’t want to talk. They wish you would go away, but they’ll go home and call their friend and say, ‘Guess who I saw at the polls?”” said Gatten, who has served on city council as a district representative since 2001. She has been running campaigns for other candidates for many more years.

‘“When I thought a candidate was getting too big a head, we’d take them out to the mill gate during the shift change and people would rush by,’” she added. ‘“You might talk to three or four of them.’”

By 8 p.m. the election returns will begin to trickle in to the Guilford County Board of Elections. Gatten will post solid returns from roughly half a dozen polling places where she campaigned that day, placing second or third out of eight candidates. But in most other precincts, first-time candidate Sandra Anderson will best her, knocking her into fourth place when the final results are tallied.

The 58-year-old councilwoman survived the primary, but to be elected on Nov. 8 she’ll have to place in the top three, along with incumbents Mayor Pro Tem Yvonne Johnson and Don Vaughan.

With clear frontrunners in most of the district races and little threat from two other challengers in the at-large contest, many local political observers have posited an Anderson-Gatten fight as the only unresolved question in an otherwise unremarkable election. It’s a notion Gatten rejects.

‘“I encouraged her to run,’” Gatten said. ‘“This opposition between us is invented. There is not a personal enmity between us because we’re friends. She’s a client. There are three votes and I want one of them.’”

She and Anderson share many similarities, but Anderson, a developer who specializes in building low-income housing, has presented a softer image than her fellow candidate. In response to candidates survey in YES! Weekly Anderson expressed mild support for the city’s truth and reconciliation process, in contrast to the barbed condemnation expressed by Gatten when the city council voted to reject it in April.

Gatten, who describes herself as ‘“a very controversial candidate,’” finds herself struggling to overcome perceptions of her as being politically conservative. In a county where registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans by about three to two, overzealous support from the wrong quarters can be a liability.

On primary election day at Mendenhall Middle School, a supporter named Ann Inman grasped Gatten’s hand and offered words of encouragement. Identifying herself as the vice president of the Greater Greensboro Republican Women’s Club, she headed into the polls, calling out: ‘“Florence Gatten is our girl!’”

The candidate appeared to wince.

‘“That causes a problem because people think I’m so conservative,’” she explained later. ‘“She invited me to speak to her group about women’s leadership. [Partisanship is] not a filter we need to have in local government. Local government is non partisan.’”

As a political consultant Gatten has worked exclusively for Democratic candidates in partisan races, including Walter Mondale, the 1984 Democratic nominee for president. As a woman, she said, she could only consider herself a Democrat.

She’s pro-choice on abortion and eagerly points out that she supports domestic partnership benefit for city employees, including gays and lesbians. But she makes no apologies for being a fiscal conservative.

‘“I’m a zero-based budgeting person,’” she said. ‘“I’m for smaller government, lower taxes and private property rights. But gender and equity issues are really important to me. I think you can be both.’”

Although she said she remains opposed to the truth and reconciliation process, she acknowledged that Greensboro suffers from a disconnect between white satisfaction and black grievance, and the city remains divided over issues of inequality.

‘“It’s hard to figure out how to obtain any equity,’” she said. ‘“Things like there’s not really a good grocery store in northeast Greensboro. That probably means offering not only an incentive but a subsidy.

‘“That was the big rub about the Carolina Circle Wal-Mart,’” she added. ‘“To me, giving an incentive to Wal-Mart, which pays around minimum wage and discriminates against women ‘— that’s just a non-starter.’”

The treatment of minorities in city agencies such as the police and fire departments is also a matter of concern, particularly regarding allegations that the Greensboro Police Department’s special intelligence section might be racially profiling black officers such as Lt. James Hinson.

‘“There is monitoring of police officers because that’s how you keep things from getting out of control,’” Gatten said. ‘“The issue is, was he targeted because he was black or was he targeted because he was doing something wrong?’”

She added that the city council is not happy with an investigative report by private consultant GH Kleinknecht that gave the police department a clean bill of health, and expects a report from a second consultant by the end of the month.

If voters decide other leadership is needed on the city council, Gatten suggested she’ll be ready to move on.

‘“I love what I do but it is also not my life,’” she said. ‘“My passion is making sure we have a chain of lots of good people to serve. I ran [Mayor] Keith Holliday’s campaign. I ran [Councilman] Tom Phillips’ campaign. I helped Yvonne Johnson get her materials together the first couple times she ran.’”

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