Incumbents hold in Greensboro primary

by Eric Ginsburg @Eric_Ginsburg

Greensboro Mayor Robbie Perkins held a pre-election campaign party on Monday night before the city council election, but it may have been too early to celebrate — challenger and at-large Councilwoman Nancy Vaughan took the lead in the primary election the next day.

Perkins said the event wasn’t designed to celebrate before it was time.

“It’s a function of heightening awareness,” he said at the event. “We’re

doing this to make sure we remind people to vote. Tomorrow night they will have already voted.”

Turnout in the primary dropped to 8.1 percent this year, down from an already low 10.8 percent in the 2011 primary.

Wise observers of Greensboro’s city council politics knew George Hartzman would be on the losing end of Tuesday’s mayoral primary, but the margin between Mayor Perkins and at-large Vaughan remained too thin to call until all the votes were in. Vaughan walked away on top with 7,600 votes, leaving a gap of 1,600 between her and Perkins.

A shakeup in the atlarge race was inevitable, with the popular Vaughan leaving her seat to run for mayor, but the primary was anything but a mandate for change. Former Councilman Mike Barber stepped into the top three, alongside incumbents Yvonne Johnson and Marikay Abuzuaiter, while conservative challenger Chris Lawyer placed fourth again without improving the gap between him and Abuzuaiter to land on council.

As anticipated, incumbent district candidates Dianne Bellamy-Small, Zack Matheny and Tony Wilkins enjoyed wide margins of victory, while the nailbiter between Councilwoman Nancy Hoffmann and former mayor Bill Knight raged in District 4 but ultimately leaned in Hoffmann’s favor, 2,664 to 2,177.

Bluford Elementary School, precinct G74, long considered a bellwether of turnout in east Greensboro, gave Perkins a whopping 695 to 24 victory last time around against Knight. Vaughan received 235 votes in her at-large race that year. Lower turnout at Bluford this year, down from 409 to 265 in the mayoral race, may have contributed to Perkins’ slip in the polls.

The mayor still dominated Vaughan there, 230 to 25, which may be due in part to supporters such as former Guilford County Commissioner Skip Alston, who campaigned outside the elementary school.

Alston, who came before council recently about the Bessemer Shopping Center and the International Civil Rights Center & Museum, attended Perkins’ pre-election party and watched the results come in with Perkins at his State Street office. Several other high-profile local figures, such as developer Dawn Chaney and former NC House candidate Theresa Yon, attended the pre-election party at Tavo as well.

“If east Greensboro has 9,000 votes it’s a tough day,” Perkins said at his office, referring to low turnout. “If east Greensboro has 12,000, it’s a whole different story.”

It’s not exactly Alston’s first time at the dance either, though.

“Yeah, I know that,” he said. After the results were in, Vaughan said she was aware that she needs to improve outreach and messaging to east Greensboro, where Perkins enjoys wide support, but pointed out that Perkins has already spent a significant amount of money and that she is just getting geared up. Vaughan doesn’t even have palm cards or poll workers yet, she noted.

“The campaign really starts tomorrow,” she said.

Bill Burckley, a political consultant for Vaughan, said he expects she’ll pick up most of the nearly 2,000 votes that went to Hartzman, arguing that 61 percent of people voted against the incumbent.

“I wouldn’t want to be in that hole that he’s in,” Burckley said of Perkins. “I’ve had candidates in that hole before, and believe me it is hard to dig out. We’re not gonna let the east go uncontested. Once we get the message out, we’ll be okay in east Greensboro.”

As expected, Mayor Pro Tem Yvonne Johnson glided to victory, leading the pack with 8,300 votes. Former councilman Mike Barber came in second, within shouting distance of Johnson, but the big news is in the third slot, where Councilwoman Marikay Abuzuaiter fended off a challenge from conservative Chris Lawyer with more than 1,000 votes between them, a marginal improvement over last election.

Barber, who grossed 8,800 votes, said he is happy with the results.

“Gold, silver or bronze, I’m glad to be in the top six,” he said, referring to the cutoff to proceed from the primary.

Chris Lawyer was monitoring the returns on a laptop on the counter in the kitchen at the home of Carolyn and Wayne Hardister near the Starmount Forest Country Club with his cocampaign manager, Janet Mazzurco. NC Rep. Jon Hardister, Carolyn and Wayne’s son, periodically checked in on the returns.

Lawyer watched his percentage steadily increase as precincts on the west side of town came in. He noted that he needed to work in east Greensboro, but said his performance there has improved since his first run in 2011.

“We can easily make up a thousand [votes],” Mazzurco said.

Wayne Hardister noted that there was only a 2.6 percent gap between Lawyer and third-place finisher Marikay Abuzuaiter.

“That’s nothing,” he said. “Exactly what I anticipated happening,” Mazzurco said.

Lawyer took a philosophical tone about his showing.

“We’ve worked hard,” he said. “You work hard and put out a good effort. We’re going to keep working hard. I’m the kind of person who likes to be the underdog, and surprise everybody. We’re going to continue to work hard.”

Marlando Pridgen, Katei Cranford and Joseph Landis were eliminated, while the other six candidates will move forward and scrap for one of three at-large seats. Conservative Jean Brown finished at the bottom of the six proceeding candidates, just behind Ben Holder.

Tuesday was a long day for Anthony Dee Taylor, who stood outside Reid Memorial CME Church near Bennett College for the entire Election Day. Wearing a jacket and holding a cane, Taylor explained that he always campaigns for Abuzuaiter because she and her husband care about southeast Greensboro and the black community.

“She’s always had a big heart,” he said, adding that she sponsored the little league team his two stepsons played on. “I always vote for her because I like what she stands for.”

Most of the people coming out to vote told Taylor they were already planning to vote for Abuzuaiter, he said. Turnout dropped significantly at the church from the primary two years ago, but support for Abuzuaiter held.

Savvy political observers knew before the election that District 4 would be a tight race. For starters, Hoffmann only beat incumbent conservative Mary Rakestraw by 350 votes in the 2011 general election, hardly a comfortable margin. Even though Mayor Robbie Perkins defeated Knight’s reelection bid that year by 5,000 votes, his victory didn’t come from District 4. Residents here delivered the conservative mayor 1,000 more votes than Perkins.

Hoffmann finished with 2,664 votes while Knight had 2,177, but the gap between them may be bigger than it looks given Hoffmann’s ability to dig into some of Knight’s strongest precincts. Knight said the numbers didn’t concern him.

“Give the late start, I’m rather encouraged,” he said, referring to Hoffmann’s early campaigning. “I’m interested in seeing the precinct information.”

Knight also noted the poor overall turnout and said things could easily change in the general election, noting Hoffmann’s small lead as well.

Knight excused himself to go shake hands with Hoffmann, who had just walked into the room in the old Guilford County Courthouse where results were displayed. Knight said he actually hadn’t met her before, but Hoffmann said they met several times when he was mayor and she served on the human relations commission.

Hoffmann’s powerhouse precinct in 2011, at Lindley Recreation Center, showed up her again this year with 153 to 53, a drop in support from Knight’s showing there last time around. Knight’s inability to cut into Hoffmann’s base in the precinct may indicate future problems for his campaign.

Residents with polling places at First Lutheran Church and Westminster Presbyterian on West Friendly Avenue handed Knight strong victories over Perkins in 2011’s general election. Knight needed similarly robust turnout this year, but in Tuesday’s primary, Westminster went to Hoffmann, 235 to 183, showing just how thin this race will be in November. Knight held on to First Lutheran, but only squeaked out 205 over Hoffmann’s 186.

Most races remained significantly quieter. Challengers Sharon Hightower in District 1, Wendell Roth in District 3, Knight in District 4 and Sal Leone in District 5 passed the primary litmus test. Tigress McDaniel, Corey Pysher, John Alexander Underwood and Alex Seymour were eliminated, with only Seymour coming close to holding on, losing by less than 60 votes to Leone.

Still, none garnered enough support to look threatening in the general election besides Knight. Ben Holder and Jean Brown received passing grades in the at-large race — for now — but will face stiff competition for a seat on council as Abuzuaiter and Lawyer tussle to come out on top.

Brian Clarey and Jordan Green contributed reporting for this story.