Johnson sharpens focus in reelection bid

by Jordan Green

Mayor Yvonne Johnson has been known to show up for a neighborhood celebration, plop down in a chair with a child on her lap and observe the proceedings. Her Greensboro constituents are typically grateful to her for lending her presence. She’ll return a reporter’s phone call after 9 p.m. on a Sunday evening, mindful of the deadline.

On Oct. 20, Johnson joined opponent Bill Knight, six at-large candidates and the two candidates for District 5 at the Friends Home West retirement community on West Friendly Avenue.

“You’re facing an experienced group of voters,” said David O. Stanfield, a retired Guilford College administrator and resident of the neighboring Friends Home Guilford who moderated the forum. “The people you’re facing were voting before some of you discovered America. This precinct has the reputation of having the highest turnout across the city.”

Indeed, Precinct G42B, a precinct drawn specifically for the two retirement communities, reported 30.4 percent voter turnout during the primary, compared to an average 6.0 percent turnout across the city.

Johnson had the weary look of someone who’s been balancing the responsibilities of waging an active election campaign, running a nonprofit full time and governing the city over the past few weeks. In less than four hours she would be presiding over a city council meeting — the first since Rashad Young started his new job as city manager.

One retiree bluntly asked whether the candidates would consider reopening the White Street Landfill to household waste.

Johnson described her interest in using “technology to transform waste to energy.”

At-large candidate Danny Thompson raised his hand and chimed in:

“I second that.”

Johnson swayed her hips and mouthed the words to the 1967 Motown hit by Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, “I Second That Emotion.”

Johnsonmade history two years ago as the first African-American mayor ofGreensboro. Since her first campaign for city council in 1993, Johnsonhas run citywide, comfortably crossing the city’s electoral color lineand building relationships with constituencies in every corner of thecity.

“It’s hardnot to like Yvonne,” said Gabrielle Beard, who is co-managing thecampaign with Johnson’s sister. “She’s very likeable and she meetspeople where they are. She’s very genuine.”

Johnson’sfirst term as mayor has been marked by an unraveling of the famouscivility that has traditionally characterized city council. Growingconcern among the electorate about former City Manager MitchellJohnson’s handling of a chorus of allegations about racialdiscrimination within the police department led to the election of twocouncil members intent on firing the manager. Fractiousness, irritationand anger has roiled council even after a majority of its membersaccomplished the goal of removing the manager. The mayor found herselfon the losing end of that vote.

Johnson,a mediator by profession, has handled the division by maintaining aneven and respectful tone in her dealings with other council members andby trying to get everyone a chance to say their piece. During herreelection campaign, she has taken a more stern line.

During an Oct. 8 candidate forum, Johnson said she might propose new rules for the conduct of council meetings.

“Butif someone wants to be contentious and nasty, that doesn’t wipe thatout,” she said. “So my suggestion to the people of Greensboro is toselect the people that you want to represent you based on knowledge andcharacter and civility.”

Withunemployment in Guilford County in the double digits, job creation hasbeen a priority for the mayor, with the challenges in the policedepartment vying for the top spot to the degree that they distract fromeconomic development.

“Greensboro,even in these challenging times, has done a fairly good job, when youthink of Precor and Mack Truck and O’Reilly Auto Parts and othercompanies that have located here,” Johnson, who celebrated her 67thbirthday on Monday, said in a recent interview. “We need to beaggressive about recruiting and incentives. We need to be visionaryabout small businesses and what we can do to help them.”

Johnson has differentiated herself from her opponent in her interest in infill development.

“Oneof the things that the land use plan does that I really like is itgives incentives for infill,” Johnson said. “We have a lot of shoppingcenters that are just dead. Some of them have a number of emptystorefronts. What that would do is have incentives where a developercan come in and say, ‘I’m going to take this shopping center that onlyhas twenty percent occupancy and do A, B and C to it,’ and we give themincentives in return.”

Johnsonclarified that incentives could come in the form of tax breaks orflexibility on regulations such as minimum setbacks and parking spaces.

Johnsonhas maintained a stance against reopening the White Street Landfill,but has taken the initiative to promote the idea of harnessing newtechnology.

“Theanswer has to be in converting waste to energy,” she said. “We have agroup that is interested in doing a pilot project that will not cost usanything. That’s a win-win, especially if there are opportunities forjobs and training. If we produce, for example, jet fuel, and get apercentage back of the profit plus some jobs and some training, that isan absolute win.”

Resolvinga knot of related controversies in the police department having to dowith alleged misconduct and alleged discrimination will be a majorchallenge for the next council. For now, the mayor and council have wonsome breathing room by asking City Manager Rashad Young to study thesituation.

“Ithink all the council members, or the great majority at least,” Johnsonsaid, “want some resolution and want some concrete action steps toimprove public relations and trust.”