Mayoral frontrunners: Yvonne Johnson

by Jordan Green

Yvonne Johnson, the veteran city council member and presumed frontrunner in the contest for mayor of Greensboro, greeted her hosts Ralph and Jane Cauthen at their home in the Hamilton Lakes neighborhood, and found a seat on their back patio as she prepared to receive a stream of visitors, some of them supporters and some undecided voters.

A heretofore cordial contest between Johnson and opponent Milton Kern had taken a nasty turn the night before at a forum held at Temple Emanuel, and later that evening she would face him again at a debate across town at Hayes-Taylor Memorial YMCA. With a demanding schedule of campaign engagements underway and two weeks left before Election Day, she was rationing her energy and shrewdly making her points.

“It was interesting; they had us asking each other questions,” Johnson reported of her previous encounter with Kern. “The question he asked me is if we okayed the dismissal of Chief Wray as a council. We didn’t okay nothing. I asked him how he would reorganize the police department. And he couldn’t answer. And he got angry.”

Johnson’s campaign signs have proliferated like shrubbery all over town, and not just on the predominantly black east side but also along affluent corridors like West Market Street and Battleground Avenue. The African-American candidate has deep and loyal support in the white community, but there are some freighted issues looming in this election season that have required her to step nimbly.

One of those supporters is campaign manager Julie Lapham, who met Johnson when Lapham recruited her to lead a diversity training to help Episcopal clergy identify systematic racism. Another is Jane Cauthen, who granted approval to Johnson to launch her first run for city council in 1992, when Cauthen chaired the board of directors for the non-profit agency One Step Further that Johnson headed.

“I think she has a feel for the entire community,” Cauthen said. “She’s the first black member of the Junior League, so she’s in touch with that segment of the community. She has been an excellent program manager. I can see that her staff feels good about their work, and they feel valued.”

Johnson has made a point to broach the controversy surrounding the Greensboro Police Department at nearly every campaign stop. Following the indictments of two police officers on the special intelligence squad, the Oct. 9 primary election saw candidates that criticized City Manager Mitchell Johnson’s discipline of former Chief David Wray surge ahead. Yvonne Johnson, the would-be mayor, has said she would like to hold a series of town-hall meetings to bring the polarized sections of the community together.

“One of the things I said early on is that I’d like to bring some closure,” she said. “And maybe agree to disagree.”

With a brutal drought pressing into the fall across the region, the issue of Greensboro’s water supply has also ambushed seasoned incumbents like Johnson, and the once arcane history of the Randleman Reservoir – a water source slated to come online in 2011 – has become an item of currency.

“Water has come up,” she said. “I talk about Randleman Dam. There have been some glitches, including the crack.”

Later, she added: “I think if this water thing continues, I think we will probably put a moratorium on development. We don’t need to have a drain on our existing resources.” Should anyone question her vote in favor of annexing 4,490 acres to the city in September, Johnson pointed out that the areas in question already received city water.

Johnson has made her support for a citywide minimum wage of $9.36 per hour a matter of distinction.

“They always clap when I talk about how we need to bring in jobs that pay a livable wage,” she said of audiences at campaign stops. Then she rejoined with a dry quip about her opponent: “He talks about jobs, but not the other.”

Johnson’s commitment to repairing the city’s notorious distrust and bringing divergent parties together in common purpose can be tested, such as when a man who declined to identify himself at the Cauthens’ house reception hammered at her about the seemingly endless expenses and delays faced by the International Civil Rights Center & Museum.

Johnson turned to face her interlocutor directly.

“I have read every audit,” she said. “I am paranoid when it comes to your money. I can’t find anything.”

Where has the money gone, he asked.

“It was construction,” Johnson said. “It was a number of artifacts. It was cleaning up the water.”

A second critic chimed in that such information should be presented to the public.

“I’m going to get that,” Johnson replied. “Thank you.”

Then she added, without mentioning NC Rep. Earl Jones and Guilford County Commissioner Skip Alston by name: “A lot of people don’t like the two people who run it. Let’s be honest.”

Later that evening, when Johnson took her seat beside Kern she looked relaxed and unflappable. Her opponent struggled at the outset with a shorting microphone. Deciding to make his opening statement without electronic amplification, he rose from his seat and stumbled on a corner table leg.

Johnson pursed her lips several times as she listened to Kern – both when he proposed new initiatives like a city-sponsored small business loan program and when he drew a blank on a question about programs to prevent violence – her professional wheelhouse.

After Kern acknowledged that he was still reading the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Report, Johnson waxed rhetorical.

“Yes, I think we should deal with it,” she said. “Some people say, ‘Let the past be the past.’ My philosophy is you cannot put a Band-Aid on cancer and expect it to heal.”

When a woman in the audience asked why her street wasn’t equipped with a sidewalk, Johnson transitioned easily from candidate to responsive elected official.

“We passed a sidewalk ordinance four or five years ago,” she said. “You may or may not be in the plan. We can find out if you’re scheduled to have a sidewalk. If you’re not on it, and if you really need one and if you can show cause, you can get on the petition, and we’ll vote on it.”

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