Reelection campaign finds councilman defending leadership on landfill

by Jordan Green

District 2 Greensboro City Councilman Jim Kee has had to defend his handling of the White Street Landfill controversy, but goes into his reelection campaign better funded and organized than two challengers. (photo by Jordan Green)

Goldie Wells, the former Greensboro City Council representative for District 2, rose to speak in support of Jim Kee, her successor, at a campaign kickoff over the weekend at the Nussbaum Center for Entrepreneurship.

“Early on in Jim’s beginning on the council we had quite a few head-knockings because our style is so different,” Wells said. “You know, I’m a fighter. He’s the negotiator. So I said, ‘Jim, you’ve got to get the fight in you.’ So I think he has learned a lot on council. He’s realized you negotiate some things, and some things you can’t negotiate. So I think he’s ready to go back and fight.”

Kee, who is seeking a second term, concurred with his longtime political mentor, and acknowledged that at one time he had been prepared to cut a deal instead of stand and fight in a battle that has embroiled the city whose epicenter is right in District 2 — whether to reopen the White Street Landfill.

“When we started this battle our internal council told us that there was no way that we were going to be able to stop this landfill,” Kee recalled. “So I was kind of dismayed. I was looking to get back in my negotiating mode, because I didn’t feel like we could stop it. Fortunately, I was proven wrong; they were proven wrong. And I’ll tell you: We are going to win. We are going to keep this landfill closed. I promise you that.”

Yvonne Johnson, a former mayor who happens to live near the landfill, attended the campaign kickoff. Johnson and Wells persuaded Kee, a businessman active in efforts to bring economic development to northeast Greensboro and close the landfill, to run for the District 2 seat in 2009. Johnson is running at large this year. She alluded to prodding by Citizens for Economic and Environmental Justice, a group led by Wells, to push Kee to take a stronger stance against the landfill reopening.

“Jim has a whole extended family of folk who have tried to support and guide him over these last two years as he is feeling his way with a very difficult group of people,” Johnson said. “Jim — I think this is an honorable trait — believes in people and tries to negotiate with people. But I think Jim has found out in the past two years that there may be a few people that you just can’t negotiate with.”

Two challengers have sought to exploit perception among some northeast Greensboro residents and community leaders that Kee’s leadership on the landfill has been wanting. For his part, while pledging to fight instead of negotiate in his next term, should voters send him back to council, Kee has aggressively defended his flank against his challengers.

The night before his kickoff, Kee posed questions to both of his challengers during a candidate forum at Presbyterian Church of the Cross in which candidates and their entourages seemed to outnumber citizens.

Kee asked challenger Dan Fischer, a former Navy corpsman who also ran for the District 2 seat in 2009, what he would have done differently had been the one serving on council over the past two years.

“Even though I want a win-win situation, if I have to, I will get down and dirty,” Fischer said in response. “I will put my foot down. I will work with anybody to get the answers I want. Working with the Marines, I found ways to go through them, over, under, around, and to blast a hole in it. I am willing to do most anything to see what is right for a community, happen.”

C. Bradley Hunt II, a 24-year-old NC A&T University student who is active with the NAACP, has made Kee’s handling of the landfill a part of his campaign since announcing plans to run this summer.

“The White Street Landfill — that conversation is a nonstarter, in my opinion,” Hunt said at Presbyterian Church of the Cross. “I don’t believe it ever should have come up. And I believe that we need the right leader- ship — someone that’s willing to stand and say, ‘No, this is wrong. This is wrong.’ And I believe that is the end of that. That is the end of that conversation. The White Street Landfill is no good for the city. The city made the citizens a promise, and we need to make sure that they come through.”

Kee, who is a real estate developer by profession, also subjected Hunt to his interrogatory. The incumbent suggested that before making promises, candidates should build a foundation of deeds in the community they hope to represent.

“What are you currently doing to bring economic development to District 2?” Kee asked Hunt.

“Let’s be honest here,” Hunt responded. “I know that you are in business and that you are a business person. That is what you were supposed to bring to council. However, that is not my thing. Once I get on council it will be quite easy for me with my leadership skills, with my zeal, with my enthusiasm, with my fresh approach and fresh perspec- tive to do anything that needs to be done.”

Kee then preemptively moved to the issue that most starkly divides the two candidates, and the exchange began to take on the feel of a classic political debate.

“I happen to think we have an excellent police department,” Kee said. “Crime has steadily gone down…. What is your position on the Greensboro Police Department?”

Hunt responded, “I believe that the Greensboro Police Department cannot continue to investigate itself. We need a citizens review board with subpoena power. We have to get citizens involved in the Greensboro Police Department or we will still see corruption; we will still see mistreatment, harassment and discrimination.”

Hunt’s political biography includes his participation in a group called Spirit of the Sit-In Movement that came before city council in early 2010 highlighting a number of issues that they felt the council was not addressing properly: ongoing allegations of discrimination against black officers in the Greensboro Police Department and alleged harassment of the Latin Kings street organization, along with the landfill. The campaign hit a dramatic crest when Hunt and a handful of others took over the dais during a break in a city council meeting in May 2010. Hunt took the mayor’s seat and banged the gavel. The protesters were later arrested.

The protest angered members across the political spectrum on the nine-member board, and was seen by some as an act of disrespect towards the institution.

“What was your purpose and accomplish- ment?” Kee asked Hunt.

“On that day, I took a stand — something that is needed at times,” Hunt replied. “Maybe you can understand that, Councilman. Sometimes you just have to take a stand.

During his campaign kickoff at the Nussbaum Center, Kee underscored his moderate political orientation, even as he sought to reassure supporters that he is a fighter when it comes to the landfill.

“There are those — candidates that are running against me — that do not support the police department,” he said. “I fully support the police department. They’ve asked me to dismantle the gang unit. Now, I personally think that we should have a gang unit. You know, they’re saying the gang unit is harassing the gangs.”

Howls of laughter indicated the audience was with him.

“I call it ‘monitoring,’” Kee added.

Also highlighting a tendency towards political moderation, Kee reminded supporters that he voted with the majority of council to lower taxes in 2010.

Kee’s kickoff was a rather subdued affair compared to two years ago. Supporters gathered in a conference room to hear remarks. Previously, the candidate had launched his campaign in a larger and more elegant event space that was, like the Nussbaum Center, part of the Revolution Mills complex. Though the setting was more modest, the candidate drew some high-profile supporters, who made remarks at the event: Sandra Hughes, retired WFMY TV News anchor, and Sam Funchess, who is president of the Nussbaum Center. Kee has out-raised his challengers in a low-key money race, land- ing contributions from former Mayor Jim Melvin, developer Don Linder and dentist Dr.Thomas Brewington.

Kee said he was proud of his first vote on council — to approve bridge financing for the Greensboro Aquatic Center. He went on to say that he was disappointed about several other hallmarks of the council over the past two years: moving speakers from the floor from the beginning to the end of the meeting, a lengthy debate over filtering pornography at public libraries, statements by Mayor Bill Knight disparaging former police Chief Tim Bellamy and an unpopular redistricting plan that was ultimately rescinded.

The councilman said he regretted one vote taken in the past two years: to ask the NC General Assembly to revise the city’s charter so that the city attorney would report to the city council instead of to the city manager. Kee said he thought the structure adopted by the council made sense, but was unhappy with the circumstances leading to City Attorney J. Rita Danish’s resignation this summer.

“It is a good process,” Kee said, “but a good process in the hands of the wrong people is a bad process.”