Insurgents muster for at-large race

by Jordan Green

As Yvonne Johnson pursues the top job of mayor and Florence Gatten heads for political retirement, Sandra Anderson Groat is left as the sole incumbent at-large city council member. A conciliator, Anderson Groat cleaves the political divide in Greensboro. As a homebuilder, her voting record represents the interests of the real estate bloc, but as a homebuilder who employs people of color and sells them houses, her constituency tends to moderate what might otherwise be a pure pro-business platform. Anderson Groat included, there are 13 candidates vying for three at-large seats. They come with a kaleidoscope of political connections, ideas and motivations. While a handful will be able to parlay their professional connections and name recognition into solid funding from the real estate lobby, there are also several others who hold sharply articulated ideas with the potential to gain traction with a restless electorate. The field includes a former councilman from a powerhouse commercial real estate firm who promises continuity. Another contender is a former Guilford County commissioner motivated by indignation at the city manager’s handling of the exit of embattled former police chief David Wray. Among the council hopefuls are a grocery co-op manager and a pastor pledging support for a citywide minimum-wage raise. Some candidates have declared support for the creation of a police anti-gang unit; still others take a wait-and-see position on police staffing. The field includes the president of the Greensboro Regional Realtors Association, but it also includes candidates exploring ideas about reining in fringe development, curbing the destruction of Greensboro’s tree canopy and scrutinizing corporate incentives more closely. It includes a retired firefighter calling for fiscal conservatism, a Veterans of Foreign Wars commander and a retired accountant. The youngest and possibly the only post-boomer member of the pack is a 38-year-old paralegal who graduated from NC A&T University two years ago with a degree in political science. The most recognizable name after Anderson Groat is probably Robbie Perkins, who served on city council from 1993 to 2005. Perkins is the president of NAI Piedmont Triad, one of the world’s largest commercial real estate companies. He co-chairs the Heart of the Triad Steering Committee, and would be a strong voice for aggressive economic development planning around Piedmont Triad International Airport and beyond. “It’s a good group of folks,” Perkins said of the sitting council. “I think they work hard and they’re truly representative of the people of the city of Greensboro. It would be my intent to be respectful of the office and conduct it in a positive manner, and do my best to make Greensboro a better place.” Perkins’ focus on business-friendly policies and positive image cultivation puts him in the mold of Keith Holliday, who ends an eight-year run as the city’s mayor in December. “I don’t think there will be a dramatic change in direction because the alternatives are limited,” Perkins said. “There’s not a lot of revenue, so that limits your choices. I want to be positive in reflecting about talking about Greensboro, as opposed to trying to fragment the community and being divisive. I’m talking about looking at the glass as half full.” The other candidate with experience as an elected official takes a far more oppositional tack. Mary Rakestraw, a retired county Department of Social Services supervisor who was elected to the Guilford County Commission for two consecutive terms from 1996 to 2004 as a Republican, indicated that the council needs a course correction. “I feel as though we need to take back city council,” Rakestraw said. “I was really concerned when Chief Wray was locked out of his office. That was, to me, appalling. That bothered me so much. I know I was not the only one that was taken by surprise that a city manager would behave like that.” She added that she doesn’t believe citizens have full confidence in the police department because of allegations of corruption on the part of a circle of officers under investigation by Wray before his administration ran aground with the city’s executive department. “Another issue that really disturbed me is that this even went to a vote when they were going to put a tax on the small businesses,” Rakestraw said. “The small businesses are the backbone of the economy. That was an ill-conceived idea, I guess, to raise more money. That certainly was not business friendly for Greensboro. We do want to be business friendly.” Lesser known than Perkins and Rakestraw but almost equal in likely fundraising ability and political leverage is Kevin Green, a realtor employed with Yost & Little who chairs the War Memorial Coliseum Commission. Green faced early criticism when a News & Record story revealed that Coliseum Director Matt Brown had campaigned for the candidate. Green is also the president of the Greensboro Regional Realtors Association. Like Perkins and Rakestraw, Green would fit comfortably in the pro-business and pro-development governing consensus that has traditionally steered the city. “In the next two years I think that probably there’s not much difference from the previous two years or the two years before that,” Green said. “Jobs are certainly a priority. Unfortunately, we hear about it every day. Crime is another issue that needs to be looked at. “I think we can look and say the American economy is shrinking, and the competitiveness is increasing,” Green continued, expounding on his view of local job creation. “I truly believe we have a tremendous advantage with the FedEx hub coming online in 2009, and we want to make sure we’re ready for that opportunity and say that Greensboro is a business-friendly city.” Joel Landau has positioned himself in almost diametric opposition to Perkins, Rakestraw and Green. He has outlined a clearly articulated progressive platform. His fundraising total during his previous bid for council in 2005 – $2,013 – suggests that he will have difficulty attracting support from Greensboro’s moneyed interests. But since his first attempt he has served on the city’s Planning Board. A proponent of a proposed ordinance for a citywide minimum wage of $9.36, Landau has made it a point to let voters know that he has managerial experience as the top executive at Deep Roots Market. Landau has also staked out an anti-sprawl position, suggesting that the city consider an urban growth boundary. He advocates that the city adopt the US Mayors Climate Agreement, favors requiring road construction to include bicycle lanes and new shopping centers to be built with bicycle racks. He supports the truth and reconciliation process, a citizens’ examination of the residual impact of the 1979 Klan-Nazi shootings, and he takes credit for prompting the city council to make full meeting agendas available to the public. Joining Landau in his stance against rampant real estate domination of city politics is the Rev. Joe Venable and retired US Navy officer Greg Woodard. “I know the real estate industry is not going to like this, but I think development needs to be checked,” said Venable, who is the pastor of Community Christian Fellowship on East Cone Boulevard. “We’re having bad air days. Those trees that filter the air are being bulldozed away. Developers seem to have been given the green light to build, build, build. I think controlled development is good, but uncontrolled growth can lead us to destruction. We also need to leave green space. I realize developers push trees over and then plant saplings, but we need to be careful.” Venable also supports a citywide minimum-wage increase. “I want to be a voice for the poor, the elderly and other disenfranchised people in Greensboro,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of people whose money runs out before the end of the month. We’ve got people who have to make a choice between buying their prescription medicine and food. As long as we’ve got hungry and homeless people on the streets of Greensboro I’ve got a fight to fight.” Woodard, who retired from the Navy in 2002, said he believes the presence of elected officials connected to the real estate and building industry on council poses a conflict of interest. “Each person seems to be voting in a way that makes them financially better,” he said. “The at-large people, they’re in the industry of housing and legal, which are connected. I feel they have a vested interest in rezoning cases…. It’s time we get people back in there who are community oriented.” The 46-year-old Woodard cited his involvement in several neighborhood revitalization committees and fruitful efforts to bring a Wal-Mart store to South Elm-Eugene Street near his home. With the recent interstate bridge collapse in Minneapolis and the Wendover Avenue sinkhole in Greensboro in mind, he said the city needs to give more attention to its aging infrastructure. “Here we are giving away lots of money for incentives,” he said. “Where’s the money to maintain what we have? It seems like the city is hemorrhaging money, and yet we’re giving out money to whoever has their hand out. We need to start budgeting better. Maybe more dollars should be aimed toward maintenance.” The positions articulated by five other candidates – Janet Wallace, Marikay Abuzuaiter, Bill Knight, Joseph Rahenkamp and Sidney Gray – tend more towards the middle ground. A sixth candidate, Donna Riechmann, could not be reached for comment. “Police, fire and water are our major priorities,” said Janet Wallace, a 38-year-old paralegal employed with the law office of John Kirkman Jr. “Our crime rates are increasing. Our infrastructure and water need attention. We’re building four or five fire stations. Let’s make sure they’re taken care of.” Wallace, who has been active in the Republican Party, said she would offer a unique perspective as a recent college graduate and a comparatively young council member. “I think most of the council grew up in a time when you had a two-parent family and only one person worked,” she said. “We’re looking at more of a single-parent household. That changes the priorities of the head of the household, what it takes to make ends meet and what they need in terms of community support. [Sitting council members are] not necessarily wrong; they just have a different perspective.” Marikay Abuzuaider said she was motivated to run because of council’s aborted move to increase business fees in June. Abuzuaider owns Mahi’s, a restaurant on Lawndale Drive, while her husband owns two gas stations on East Market Street. Together they own and manage apartments in south Greensboro under the auspices of IMAS LLC Properties. “It’s not as much the fact that perhaps it needed to be looked at as the fact that it was approved by staff and sent to council without any information on how it would affect businesses,” Abuzuaider said of the proposed business fees. “It was ‘Raleigh, Charlotte and Durham do it, so we should too.’ That’s wrong. Greensboro’s unique. Greensboro is nothing like Raleigh, Charlotte and Durham.” As the spouse of an Arab and Muslim businessman, Abuzuaider would be the rare elected official in Greensboro with a personal connection to one of the city’s many if small immigrant communities. That said, her political values are more small-business conservative than liberal. “I am not against economic development,” she said. “I think we need to have smart economic development. We already have quite a few unused shopping centers and warehouses in Greensboro proper. I would like to see some incentives for businesses and developers to go in and rescue those areas.” Abuzuaider also questioned City Manager Mitchell Johnson’s handling of the Wray affair. “We need closure on the SBI investigation,” she said. “If there are no charges brought [against Wray and other officers], I say it should be looked at again to see if proper procedure was followed.” Bill Knight, a 67-year-old retired accountant, also questioned Johnson’s decision, but said too much has transpired for the city to consider revisiting the matter. “I just think any long-term employee that has a good record, the circumstances of how this came up, I don’t think [Wray] was given his fair due,” Knight said. “I was just disappointed in the perceived conduct of the city council and the city manager. It really grieves me that when I went to two of the community meetings that were held for the selection of the new chief, those meetings were able to become a vindictum against David Wray.” Knight said he would bring his accounting acumen to bear on the city’s budget, suggesting that he would apply a steady hand to governance. “As one of nine members I’m a big believer in teamwork and a big believer in leadership, and I will certainly be supportive of a mayor who can demonstrate strong leadership,” he said. Joseph Rahenkamp, who retired from the Greensboro Fire Department in 1997, ran for city council as a District 4 candidate in 2005. He has also run for Guilford County Commission and NC House of Representatives – so far without success. “I think it’s time we stop raising property taxes and stop raising rates on water,” Rahenkamp said. “A lot of retired people are hurting. All these fuel prices are going up. A lot of people are losing their homes, their vehicles. They can’t make it. People on fixed income, they’re dragging the barrel to begin with.” Rahenkamp favors privatizing both the Greensboro Coliseum and the city’s public bus fleet. Sidney Gray, who describes himself as self employed in “small-time real estate development,” expressed reservations about the new FedEx hub, arguing that the added air traffic will increase air and noise pollution, and worsen global warming. Admittedly, that issue has already been decided. Gray’s main asset, then, would be his knack for quiet deliberation. “I am very camera shy and I want to analyze situations and come up with solutions,” Gray said. “I want at sixty-one years old to serve as an example for people who might be camera shy, who think outside of the box. I took it as a personal challenge to perhaps inspire someone else. I don’t want to just give a knee-jerk answer to anything. I will do my homework and do research on each issue so I can offer an intelligent solution.” To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at