Incumbent Vaughan cruises toward easy city council reelection

by Jordan Green

The question posed by the moderator at the at-large candidates forum at UNCG’s Weatherspoon Art Museum back in September was pretty straightforward. It came in the lightning round and the moderator insisted on one- or two-word answers.

‘“Do you think you’d run for mayor?’”

Challenger Diane Davis, a downtown business owner, looked quizzical and replied, ‘“I don’t think so.’”

Florence Gatten, a District 4 representative running for an at-large seat, didn’t hesitate, exclaiming, ‘“Yes, of course.’”

Yvonne Johnson, the mayor pro tem, answered with a plain ‘“yes.’”

When it was the turn of Don Vaughan, the 14-year city council incumbent who held Johnson’s positions for two terms, responded emphatically: ‘“Hell no.’”

Later, in an interview, the 53-year-old city councilman explained his reasons.

‘“To do mayor properly, it needs to be a full-time job,’” he said. ‘“I’m very happy serving on city council. I’ve got a law practice, a five year old and a family. Family is very important to me. My daughter will be starting school soon.’”

Vaughan, like Mayor Keith Holliday, came to city council with experience in both business and government. After studying government and public administration at American University and law at Wake Forest University, he went to work for Gov. Jim Hunt in Raleigh in 1980 and 1981. He served as vice president of the Steadman Corp. in Asheboro, an underwear manufacturer later sold to Sara Lee, which subsequently closed the line and consolidated its operations in Winston-Salem. Vaughan also served on the board of directors of NC Citizens for Business and Industry, the state’s Chamber of Commerce, for eight years.

In addition to the business and government background he shares with the mayor, Vaughan also has the additional advantage of running a high-profile law practice, an arena that has given him access to everyone from prisoners falsely convicted of sex abuse to corporate clients such as Sun Chemical. The latter client, based in Istanbul, Turkey, sued a Greensboro company for selling a tainted product, he said.

During a recent interview on a radiant October day, he fielded questions under a gazebo not far from a covered pool behind his family’s tony home on West Market Street, acting like a man who enjoys life. He reminisced about meeting his future wife Nancy Mincello, a Republican who represented District 4 from 1999 to 2001, on city council (‘“We’re the James Carville and Mary Matalin of Greensboro’”) and suing members of the rock group Motley Crüe for assaulting a black security guard and using a racial slur against him.

‘“I deposed Nikki Sixx underneath Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino in Las Vegas and that was a ball,’” Vaughan said. ‘“The band went upstairs and assaulted the security guard there. I couldn’t believe it.’”

Vaughan represents the political middle in Greensboro in many ways. He appears to be neither a rising star nor a faltering veteran. In the Oct. 11 primary election, with voter turnout at its lowest in decades, he landed in a comfortable second place among eight contenders for the three at-large city council seats, a mere 240 votes behind Johnson. (Counting the other way, it’s also true that Vaughan reaped only 289 votes more than first-time candidate Sandra Anderson.)

‘“I’ve always run well across Greensboro, thank God,’” he said. ‘“I’ve been fortunate to win [the primary]. I’m happy to be in the top three.’”

Outgoing phone messages indicate that Vaughan spends a lot of time in the Guilford County court system. On a recent Wednesday an elderly man who said he served time after being falsely accused of setting another man’s car on fire puffed on a cigarette in the parking lot of Vaughan’s law firm and waited for a meeting with the lawyer to see if he could get some help clearing his name and erase a bad mark that has undermined his chances at employment.

Among Vaughan’s proudest moments was when he represented Joe Kennedy, a Guilford County man condemned to two consecutive sentences for molesting his daughter. He walked out of prison in 2001, after his daughter recanted and worked to free him. His sentence was commuted as the final act of Gov. Hunt, Vaughan’s old boss.

As a policymaker, Vaughan can be hard to pin down.

During the candidates’ forum, Davis asked him how much money the city has spent on Center City Park, a public-private initiative of the non-profit Action Greensboro.

‘“The dollars were spent wisely,’” Vaughan replied. ‘“I don’t know exactly how the dollars are used.’”

Davis said she didn’t feel like she got an answer to her question.

‘“I don’t know the exact amount,’” Vaughan finally answered.

A jovial personality, Vaughan ran down his résumé like he was born to sit on the city council.

‘“I’m active in the Greensboro Rotary Club,’” he said. ‘“I was the liaison from the city council to the chamber of commerce for ten years. I’m on the board of visitors at UNCG. I’m an Eagle Scout.’”

Then he added: ‘“I was drafted [to run for city council] because I was active in all aspects of civic life. I received a call from former mayor Vic Nussbaum a week before filing deadline. Little did I know I’d marry my wife on city council and have a daughter that’s a product of city council.’”

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