Mayoral candidates draw distinctions in Greensboro election

by Eric Ginsburg @Eric_Ginsburg

With early voting now underway and Election Day looming on Nov. 5, the two candidates for mayor of Greensboro are doing all they can to pull in votes and differentiate themselves from each other.

At-large Councilwoman Nancy Vaughan, who is challenging incumbent Mayor Robbie Perkins and held a 10 percent lead in the primary race, is focused on delivering her message to east Greensboro. Both candidates dealt some verbal punches at a mayoral forum last week and in separate interviews, trying to create some space between their platforms.

Vaughan has criticized Perkins’ leadership during his term as mayor, arguing that he tried to ram several items through council without appropriate discussion beforehand. Citing noise-ordinance changes and War Memorial Stadium as examples, Vaughan said that there were several times that Perkins refused to heed council’s request to take items off the agenda to allow discussion.

“I think Robbie is a great idea man, but he has abysmal follow-through,” she said, adding that he moves issues too quickly as well. “You can’t jam leadership down people’s throats. Respect goes both ways.”

Vaughan often points to her work to sort out the financial details of a planned downtown performing arts center as an example of how she is better at following through than Perkins, but he challenged her account. Perkins said Vaughan and Councilman Zack Matheny, who worked with her, were talking out of both sides of their mouths and weren’t looking for solutions during the beginning phases of the arts center discussion.

“She and Zack [Matheny] were absolutely tanking this deal,” he said, adding that a mayor can’t lead by finding all the problems instead of focusing on solutions, which he said Vaughan does.

Perkins said he put the two council members in charge of sorting out the financial package for the center to bring them on board with the idea and move the concept along, but added that Vaughan doesn’t give enough credit to city staff for actually working out a solution.

The performing arts center will be a “transformational deal for downtown” and is key to turning the city around economically, Perkins said.

When Coliseum Director Matt Brown brought up the crumbling War Memorial Auditorium and his interest in building a new performing arts center at the beginning of Perkins’ term as mayor, Perkins said Community Foundation President Walker Sanders and developer Roy Carroll called him to say it needed to be built downtown. Perkins said he realized downtown would need a big project to spark more development and growth in the city’s core, and championed the project despite knowing it might be politically unpopular. He said he was the only one on council with guts to provide visionary leadership.

“This is how you get your downtown rolling,” he said. “You can’t build your downtown on 25-year olds. You can’t build it on small businesses.”

By Perkins’ account, the arts center is already a huge success, with substantial private money invested and the announcement of two planned hotels, including one Carroll said he would build. Vaughan agrees, but said that Perkins’ vision lacked crucial details about where money would come from and how to build it without taxpayer money or passing a bond. That’s where she and Matheny came in to make the plan viable, Vaughan says.

The map showing who won each precinct in the mayoral primary depicts a sharp split between east and west Greensboro with Vaughan holding the west, and her messaging since the primary and at the mayoral forum focused on east Greensboro.

“When I looked at that map I was a little heartbroken,” Vaughan said in an interview.

At the forum, she said the city needs to bridge a divide between east and west.

When asked about economic development at the forum, Vaughan stressed high unemployment in east Greensboro while Perkins said nanotechnology, the airport and downtown are key.

If elected, Vaughan said she would foster a discussion about racial and economic divides in the city, which would include addressing police issues head on.

Vaughan said at the forum that though Perkins served on council for 20 years, she doesn’t see him at community events she attends and claimed he didn’t spend time in east Greensboro until former councilwoman Goldie Wells pressured him. Perkins didn’t respond to her claim at the forum.

Perkins voted in favor of settling the police lawsuit, saying it would be preferable to avoid the pain and negativity of a trial by settling for a relatively minimal amount. Vaughan distanced herself from him at the forum and in a post-primary ad, emphasizing that she voted against the settlement because she said people deserved to know the truth about what transpired inside the department.

Perkins took a shot at Vaughan during the forum, saying he wasn’t the one to vote for a redistricting plan several years ago that then councilwoman Mary Rakestraw claimed she found on her doorstep. Perkins said that despite criticism that he “shoots from the hip,” he does his research. Vaughan was asked if she changes her mind too frequently and said she isn’t sure what that would refer to but added that she doesn’t stake out a position and just plow forward.

“I do think the performing arts center was a ‘shoot-from-the-hip [situation],” Vaughan said. “I don’t dig my heels into something.”

Smaller differences emerged between the candidates at the forum, too. Perkins said he would support council fully adopting and implementing a recommended sustainability action plan, while Vaughan said she is supportive and thinks it should be implemented in “baby steps” but isn’t sure the city needs to adopt it all because of the cost.

Vaughan also suggested the city explore zero-based budgeting, possibly beginning with the parks and recreation department. She also took on property taxes.

“We have to find a way to bring our tax rate down,” Vaughan said, adding that zero-based budgeting may be a way to do that.

Perkins said some of Vaughan’s ideas — including the tax rate or supporting a new east Greensboro development plan — aren’t well thought out and concern him.

Vaughan and Perkins see eye to eye on a number of issues, including supporting a downtown university campus and exploring the idea of a downtown entertainment district. Still, both emphasize different leadership styles and the gaps where their positions diverge. Despite Perkins’ strong showing in east Greensboro during the primary and the advantage Vaughan said he holds with name recognition, she’s hoping to cut into his base of support to hold and expand the lead she established in the primary election.