Mayor Keith Holliday’s Power of Positive Thinking
The Rotarians, the NC A&T University brass, school principals and employees of Time-Warner Cable and other corporations fill the tables of the Koury Center ballroom at an Aug. 31 function hosted by the Greensboro Chamber of Commerce, waiting to be addressed by the masters of the three realms: city, county and schools.
The wait staff ‘— African Americans, South Asians and Latinos ‘— glide through the room refilling iced tea glasses as the function’s more esteemed guests circulate between the tables and a buzzing noise envelops the room, something akin to surf gently crashing against the shore.
Congressman Brad Miller, whose presence is noted by the chamber of commerce president, is one of the VIPs. And Guilford County Schools Superintendent Terry Grier works the room, first stopping at Mayor Keith Holliday’s table, who shakes his hand while remaining seated, and then bee-lining to the table of A&T Chancellor James Renick, who rises to shake his hand and bends his head towards his fellow educator with a warm smile as they exchange kind words.
Guilford County Commission Chairman Bruce Davis gives the ‘state of the county’ speech while the ‘state of public education’ speech is delivered by Guilford County School Board Chairman Alan Duncan.
Davis talks about economic development, clothing a cold Darwinian message in the homespun garments of a fable about the lion and the gazelle in Africa that leads to this moral: ‘“Whether you’re a gazelle or a lion, when the sun comes up you best be running.’”
Duncan takes another approach, wearing his heart on his sleeve for a sermon about the cruel effects of under-funded public schools tied to the dashed dreams of children whose lives have been marred by poverty, abuse and death.
‘“Please rededicate your lives to being Santa for these children and really live it, not play at it,’” he says. ‘“Will you be Santa? Will you?’”
Sandwiched in between, Keith Holliday, who is running unopposed for his fourth term as mayor, gives a brisk address that moves breezily from wonkish policy items to sunny generalizations about Greensboro’s future.
The search for a new city manager, water use, sewer upgrades, trash disposal, mass transit, housing, policing and even the need for ‘wet bed’ facilities (shelters that can accommodate besotted homeless people when the Celsius drops below freezing) each get one or two paragraphs. But the point he warms to is the importance of image. He sums up the new optimism as the PGA ‘— ‘“No, I’m not talking about the Professional Golf Association; what I’m referring to is the ‘Positive Greensboro Attitude.””
He makes no apology for emphasizing image over reality.
‘“Our opportunity to accentuate the positives and downplay the negatives is, in my opinion, just plain common sense,’” he says. ‘“I have been accused of media bashing in the past because of the effect the state of media relations has on our city’s PGA and image.’”
In a later interview, Holliday will voluntarily broach the topic of the truth and reconciliation process (which he’s on record as opposing) when the issue of image is raised, but for the chamber of commerce audience he zooms in on one factor critical for cultivating the positive image of Greensboro: saving the Chrysler Classic of Greensboro.
‘“It is no secret that this other PGA has us under a microscope starting in three weeks on September 26,’” he says. ‘“It is imperative that we have fifty thousand people on that golf course on Sunday afternoon.
‘“The decision about this golf tournament’s future dates will be decided soon and yes, that national exposure means so much to Greensboro’s image,’” he adds. ‘“The one thing we can control about the outcome is crowds. If you were not planning on being on that golf course between four and six Sunday, October second, I urge you to change your plans today and commit to showing the world through national TV exposure how special this professional golf tournament is to our community.’”
He ends his pitch by giving out the phone number of tournament director Mark Brazil, and urging corporate executives to purchase tickets for their employees.
The golf tournament is more than just a linchpin of Greensboro’s national visibility; it also catapulted a banker named Keith Holliday to prominence 15 years ago in the business circles that so often set the agenda inGreensboro.
The future mayor had been working as a loan officer for about two years at the Greensboro branch of Raleigh-based First Citizens Bank in 1989, after starting his second marriage and burning out from his first job as a probation/parole officer for the NC Department of Corrections in Greensboro.
Since the age of 28, Holliday had been an active member of the Jaycees, then a more influential organization, which ran the golf tournament. The Jaycees, in addition to offering connections, imparted on its members a particular set of values. The first three tenets hint at the cooperative and somewhat paternalistic spirit of the organization: ‘“That the faith in God gives meaning and purpose to human life’”; ‘“that the brotherhood of man transcends the sovereignty of nations’”; and ‘“that economic justice can best be won by free men through free enterprise.’”
With First Citizens Bank’s blessing, Holliday was appointed chairman for what was then called the Greater Greensboro Open in 1989. There he got to know the president of his bank, Jim Hyler.
‘“I spent the next two years learning banking and running the golf tournament,’” Holliday says in a subsequent interview, seated at a picnic table in the backyard of the Green Bean coffeehouse on South Elm Street. ‘“The golf tournament put the icing on the cake. I had several Jaycees buddies on city council ‘— Bob Mays and Jim Kirkpatrick. I helped out on their elections. I caught the fever. ‘I could do that.’ City council didn’t have enough business people or financial people.’”
Holliday says he reckons his father and mother, who ran a shoe store and a hardware store, respectively, knew a third of the people in Greensboro. When he first ran for mayor in 1999, he says he’s sure a lot of people voted for him because of his parents.
Hanging around the Guilford County courthouse as a state probation officer, he got to know Greensboro’s judicial establishment. By the time he’d chaired the Greater Greensboro Open, he was so well connected he was ready to steamroll over political contenders with more one-dimensional rÃ©sumÃ©s.
When he first decided to run for city council in 1994 he told Hyler he would need eight to ten hours a week to devote to city business. In the decade-plus that Holliday has spent in elected office the city’s demands on his time have tripled.
‘“Keith, I have to say yes,’” Holliday remembers Hyler saying in response. ‘“If corporate America doesn’t allow its managers to get involved in politics we have no right to complain about the decisions government makes.’”
Every two years Holliday goes back to get Hyler’s blessing to run for reelection, and every year so far the bank president has given it. Hyler has cast his own influence over North Carolina policymaking; in 2002 and 2003 he chaired North Carolina Citizens for Business and Industry, the state’s largest business advocacy group.
Holliday’s mayoral duties require him to spend about 20 hours a week on city business, he says, a part-time job that currently pays $12,500. That leaves 20 to 25 hours for the banking. In reality the two jobs take up 40 to 45 and 25 to 30 hours, respectively, or a total of 60 to 75 hours per week.
‘“I’m right across from city hall,’” he says. ‘“I’m back and forth all day. In five minutes I can be at city hall and then back with a [banking] client.’”
The mayor meticulously records new outgoing phone messages for his office number at the bank that go something like this: ‘“Good morning. Today is Tuesday, September twentieth. I will be in meetings with clients in and out of the office all day. Please ask me about our special 3.75 CD rates. Thank you very much for calling.’”
‘“It’s easier for the mayor to sell banking services than someone who’s only been here for a year,’” Holliday says. ‘“My contacts allow me to do in twenty to twenty-five hours what it takes someone else to do in forty to forty-five hours.’”
Although banking clients often want to talk about city business, Holliday says the small to mid-sized loans he handles don’t create any conflicts of interest for him because zoning changes are usually already in place by the time he gets involved. He makes business loans to lawyers, doctors, accountants and dentists ‘— businesses that bring in $3 to $20 million a year ‘— he says. Bank of America, BB&T and Wachovia handle the $100 million plus loans.
Jim Melvin set the record for the longest mayoral tenure, leading Greensboro from 1971 through 1981, and since then mayors John W. Forbis, VM Nussbaum and Carolyn Allen have served six years apiece. Holliday’s uncontested bid for a fourth term will put him in shouting distance of Melvin’s towering legacy. Holliday says he never intended to serve more than four years, belying the teasing ‘mayor for life’ title given him by Rhinoceros Times editor and former mayoral candidate John Hammer. But at the end of his second term his 14-year-old daughter had just died of an aneurism and he felt he needed to stay busy to avoid falling apart. This time around he wants to keep his job so there’s a smooth transition when the new city manager is hired. But one senses his employers at First Citizens Bank will curb his political activities at some point.
Earlier this year he started talking to constituents to see if they would support him for another term.
‘“I talked to a lot of business people,’” he says. ‘“Their response was, ‘Keith, do it again.’ This is not the time to change horses.
‘“I had to step it up for the bank to show them it’s worth their while,’” he adds. ‘“They want more out of me this next two years.’”
Holliday’s first three terms in office have encompassed the millennial crash of the textile industry, the revitalization of downtown with the corresponding emergence of Action Greensboro, a group primarily funded by the Joseph M. Bryan Foundation, of which Melvin is the president. The Holliday era has also included the Project Homestead scandal and the establishment of the independent Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission. And while business both downtown and in the area surrounding Piedmont Triad International airport has grown, the unemployment level has continued to stubbornly hover above 5 percent in Guilford County.
‘“I had a pretty large learning curve the first two years,’” Holliday says. ‘“All the textile firms were laying off and we ran out of water. Things were not good. No jobs, no water, and morale was down. Action Greensboro came into being at that time.’”
Roch Smith Jr., the founder of Greensboro101.com and Holliday’s opponent in the 2001 election, attributes the mayor’s staying power to his accommodating style and talent for avoiding embarrassment.
‘“He first and foremost has been good at avoiding any major mistakes,’” Smith says. ‘“Not much has happened in Greensboro that really warrants anyone being removed from office. People are pretty satisfied with the state of things. There have been a couple blunders but they certainly weren’t his alone.’”
Smith says the city council resolution, supported by Holliday, to oppose the work of the truth commission ‘“was an error in judgment and policy.’”
Holliday, who was raised a Quaker, holds a reputation for being more of a consensus builder than a maverick, which Smith believes reflects the preferences of the Greensboro electorate.
‘“Consensus building has its downside,’” Smith says. ‘“I think sometimes following the path of least resistance can be considered consensus building. [The electorate is] resistant to the idea of the mayor putting forth a lot of his own ideas. Neighborhood groups and economic development groups are where ideas ferment. Those groups appear to like the idea of the leadership coming from outside of elected officials.’”
Still, Smith acknowledges there’s a reason why Holliday is an elected official and he himself is a critic.
‘“I was beaten by Mayor Holliday by the largest margin in recent memory,’” he says, ‘“but that’s a record that was thankfully broken two years later when Mayor Holliday was reelected again.’”
Keith Holliday projects the kind of poise and confidence that can only be enjoyed by a politician running unopposed who has witnessed the point spreads between him and his opponents climb from 33 percent to 51 percent and 60 percent with each successive election. But the one time the smooth delivery falls away and he raises his voice is when he talks about the efforts of the truth commission to examine the killings of November 1979.
Holliday was a 26-year-old probation officer who had earlier harbored an ambition to join the FBI in 1979. When the state criminal trial began he would often slip into the courtroom to take in the proceedings. He expresses deep distrust for motives of the survivors of the killings.
‘“Drill down deep,’” he says. ‘“They would love for there to be indictments, a Senate investigation and put people in jail,’” he says.
He’s not swayed by the fact that the widowed spouses of the 1979 victims publicly called on prosecutors to offer amnesty to any officials who agreed to testify before the commission.
‘“I think there’s going to be a real dilemma for the commission,’” he says. ‘“There’s going to be an inconclusive evaluation. They’ll probably say the police, the Communist Workers Party and the Klan and Nazis all made mistakes of judgment. I’ll be shocked if they determine that there’s this conspiracy for the police to commit murder.’”
Earlier in the day a bee dive-bombs the mayor on the back patio of the Green Bean. Swatted from his jacket, it zooms off and alights on a wooden fence but soon returns to its quarry. So the interview simply moves inside to more pleasant environs, and the mayor gets right back on point after refilling his coffee cup.
The 1979 business may be an irritant and distraction, but other subjects lend themselves to sweeter rhapsodies. One is the forecasted economic growth near the airport with the impending arrival of Dell and Federal Express, leading to region-wide development of the Triad.
‘“We’ve got people living in Greensboro, working in High Point and being entertained in Winston-Salem,’” he says. ‘“We are one big city; the borders don’t matter so much. When I help support downtown it’s not just for the 235,000 people who live here but for people from all across the Triad who come here.’”
To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at firstname.lastname@example.org.