Secrets of the Trade: The Business of Elections in Greensboro

by Jordan Green

Municipal elections are a nearly half-million-dollar industry every odd year in Greensboro.

In 2007, more than $450,000 washed through the election system, raised from homebuilders, lawyers and other citizens with a stake in city politics, funneled into the coffers of candidates’ campaign and then drained back out in expenditures for yard signs, newspaper ads, billboard displays, payments to poll workers and rental fees for banquet halls.

On a recent Thursday, Mayor Yvonne Johnson sits in the center of the FantaCity Community Center in west Greensboro, a baby granddaughter cradled in her lap. She rises with the baby to greet Carolyn Allen, a former mayor, and makes the rounds greeting supporters by first name. Mostly she sits at that center table watching a multicultural pageant consisting of Korean drummers, Vietnamese dancers and an African- American boy playing violin, among others.

Johnson’s is perhaps the first Greensboro election campaign to translate its message in Spanish — a mainstay of municipal politics in northeastern cities with a sizeable and established Latino population. Color fliers posted on the columns read, Yvonne Johnson, su alcalde de Greensboro. Juntos, podemos. Yvonne Johnson, your mayor of Greensboro. Together, we can.

The fundraiser is billed as a “Celebration of Our Diversity.” An hour and a half into the event, Jason Coley, a field coordinator, estimates that as many as 250 people have cycled through the hall. They’re all supporters, and none needs to be sold on Johnson’s candidacy as she seeks a second term as mayor.

After about two hours, Johnson comes to the stage. Befitting the needs of her audience, her short speech focuses on theme and tone instead of specific policies.

“Tonight, I want to celebrate diversity,” Johnson says. “This is a wonderful city with over 105 different ethnic groups. And together we can do anything. And so I will always work towards unity in this city with all of our various groups of people.”

The mayor doesn’t have to tout her accomplishments because a train of old friends are here to testify to her character and her posture of service. A teacher who says she has known Johnson for more than half a century says, “I think the citizens of Greensboro are very savvy. We only pick the best.” Then she urges the guests to pull out their checkbooks, explaining, “This doesn’t just happen with best wishes; it takes a little oil.”

Irish Spencer, the emcee for the evening, picks up the theme. “We know where the oil goes,” she says. “We need oil to run a great machine.”

A DJ who spins classic R&B on NC A&T University’s campus radio station on Saturday afternoons under the moniker “Wild Irish Rose,”

Spencer’s entertainment company pocketed $600 from the Johnson campaign during the candidate’s inaugural run for mayor in 2007.

By the end of the evening, campaign treasurer Patsye Drew will be tallying checks at the front table. The mayor’s sister and one of her campaign managers, Jacqueline Kpeglo, maintains a station outside the hall next to a stack of yard signs.

“Won’t you take a sign for my sister?” she asks. Fundraisers such as this, with a large hall and an entertainment program, are costly, but they multiply the funds and provide a forum for face-to-face interactions between candidates and voters.

Johnson set a new record for campaign finance in Greensboro in 2007: $106,053, much of it raised from donations of $100 or less.

“There’s not many people who grew up here, went to school here and have such a tight network of friends as Yvonne has,” Coley says. “It’s friendship and networking. They trust her; she’s a trustworthy person. Yvonne has donors and volunteers from all over Greensboro. She has access to some Obama volunteers, and has a strong base of volunteers from local colleges and past campaigns.”

A 31-year-old unemployed data analyst, Coley regularly performs data mapping for the Democratic Party in Guilford County, and he’s doing the same for Johnson this year, even though municipal elections are nonpartisan.

Jason Coley’s father, Tom, was recently elected chairman of the county Democratic Party. Tom Coley got involved in politics through his union activism as a member of the Communications Workers of America.

Politics is in the family’s blood. Jason Coley has been introducing Democratic candidates for next year’s state General Assembly and county sheriff elections, and talking up Democrats who will challenge US Sen. Richard Burr.

Johnson’s investment in venues is significant. During the 2007 contest, her campaign paid $450 to Alexander Devereaux’s restaurant for an organizing meeting in May, $3,968 to the Sheraton Hotel Greensboro for a campaign kickoff in August, $300 to the Painted Plate catering hall for a meet-and-greet after the primary in October, $1,075 to the Emerald Events Center for poll workers’ meetings, and $441 to the Carolina Theatre for an election-night victory party.

No candidate has as sophisticated a ground game in Greensboro municipal politics as Yvonne Johnson. Her campaign spent a total of $10,075 to compensate 71 election workers in late October and early November of 2007. The candidate’s year-end campaign finance report shows that the Johnson campaign paid one volunteer $900 for coordinating get-out-the-vote drivers. Poll workers typically received $110 for a day’s labor. Under a field for “required remarks,” volunteers are listed a receiving anywhere from $30 to $500 for the service of “GOTV drivers and riders.”

“That was for drivers and people going out in the community, especially in public housing,” Johnson said. “I paid some people in public housing.”

“Riders,” the mayor explained, are people who jump out of the vans and “put out literature in public housing, sometimes at churches on the car windows.”

The cost of Greensboro municipal elections has more than tripled since 2001, with the total spent by victorious candidates rising from $73,901 in 2001 to $282,623 in 2007.

No surprise that the mayor’s race averages as the most expensive over those years.

The three at-large seats range from $19,547 to $27,889 each. Some district seats go for more than others. The District 4 seat in the city’s affluent northwest quadrant averages $15,119, while District 3 runs $13,303. District 5, with its lower income level and greater ethnic diversity, averages $11,056. The two predominantly African-American districts rank the lowest for campaign spending: District 2 at $8,101 and District 1 at $3,288.

“For the vast majority, this is not an affordable endeavor out of our own pockets,” Josh Glasser of Common Cause of North Carolina told delegates at a Greensboro Neighborhood Congress meeting on Sept. 12. “That leaves us with two real options. One is to raise it from private donors, and that sounds like a good-old American pie idea. Unfortunately, the fact is that the money is not rolling in from small neighborhood donors that you might expect to see in a community election.

Our campaign finance shows that the average candidate usually gets about 10 percent of their funds from small donors — meaning people who gave less than $50.

“It’s much more efficient to raise your cash from the big donors,” Glasser continued. “That means courting inter ests that often come before the city council and ask for favorable regula tions and favorable rules. If you survey the sitting Greensboro City Council, ever single member would have to admit that their largest or second largest donation came from someone connected to the real-estate industry or the developers industry.”

After hearing a representative from the conservative John Locke Foundation argue the other side, the congress passed a resolution in favor of state legislation enabling local governments to develop public financing of local elections.

District 3 candidate George Hartzman, who attended the meeting, argued that reform needs to be taken a step further.

“You have these people who are wanting to do business with the government, and they’re paying for their election. And then they get elected and they put a proposal in front of the people that they paid to get elected. And then the people who got elected vote for the thing that the person wants to have passed. It’s a conflict of interest…. Why aren’t we looking at not letting the people who are contributing to elections not being able to do business with the city for X amount of time before and after they give the money? Doesn’t that seem simple? It’s basic ethics.”

Zack Matheny, the incumbent in the District 3 race, was first elected in 2007 in a contest with four other opponents in which Matheny quickly emerged as the leading fundraiser. Matheny raised a total of $46,358 and secured 58.9 percent of the vote in the general election. His opponent, Joe Wilson, raised only $13,795.

Some of the candidates in the room chafed at the notion that money buys elections.

Nancy Vaughan, an at-large candidate who previously served two terms before retiring to be a stay-at-home mother, recalled that she won her first race, and was outspent by her opponent, $34,000 to $7,000.

Mary Rakestraw also beat the odds by winning her at-large seat in 2007 with a fundraising total of $17,419, fending off better-funded candidates Kevin Green and Bill Knight, who respectively raised $29,483 and $18,118.

A prime example of a candidate with a record of winning elections without spending exorbitant amounts of money is District 1 Councilwoman Dianne Bellamy-Small. She unseated incumbent Belvin Jessup in 2003, spending only half as much as her rival.

“I think what happened then was people didn’t feel he was suited for doing the job he was elected to do,” Bellamy-Small said.

Jessup himself had knocked out longtime incumbent Earl Jones. Two years later, Bellamy-Small would capitalize on the same clamor for more responsive representation that dislodged Earl to supplant Jessup. Earl and Bellamy-Small have maintained a feud ever since the current District 1 representative’s first win. (Jones’ newspaper, The Greensboro Times, recently published a photograph of District 1 challenger Daron Sellars alongside one of Mayor Johnson on its front page, noting that “newcomers such as local businessman and Wing Stop franchise owner Daron Sellars, 34, are vying for a city council seat to represent District 1,” while waiting until after the jump to publish Bellamy-Small’s name, and then portraying her as out of touch with constituents’ priorities.)

Bellamy-Small said that even before she won her first city council election she enjoyed sufficient name recognition to not have to worry much about raising money.

In the 2007 election, Bellamy-Small was the only victorious candidate who spent less than $3,000. Going into the primary, she had already survived a recall election prompted by a call for her resignation by a white at-large council member.

“I would go to churches that have early services,” she recalled. “Every church I went to, it was the pastors who made comment about what happened to me. The pastors asked me to come down to the front and have prayer. There’s 3,000 people in the room. He didn’t tell them to vote for me. But it was more than, ‘Here’s Dianne Bellamy-Small. Now sit down.’ I will not visit a church from mid-August to November. I find it to be disruptive during the election.”

Bellamy-Small’s campaign strategy combines maintaining active communication with her constituents throughout her term with keeping costs to a minimum.

“I have always tried to run a really low-budget campaign,” she said. “I really believe it’s a grassroots effort. I don’t feel like you have to spend a whole bunch of money four months before the election to convince people that they should elect you. I’ve been out to Festival Park talking to people today. I do that throughout the year. I saw a lot of expensive campaign literature go straight in the trash. I’d rather do my literature on my own printer and hand it out.

“I found that it’s very effective to encourage people to do early voting, particularly with older voters,” she continued. “Going into the recall, I had 116 votes in the pot before the election was held. I call that ‘gravy on my rice.’ I will send out a mailing to my most senior voters to encourage them because they’re your most reliable voters. One of the best-kept bargains in town is the US Postal Service. You can do your mailings and printing online. I got the postcard printed and mailed for cheaper than what postage would cost. It will kick out any bad addresses before I even mail them.”

There are shortcuts in campaigning that incumbents already know.

Challengers often learn them by trial and error.

“I went to the Board of Elections and got a list of all registered voters,” says Art Boyett, who is running an outsider’s campaign against District 5 incumbent Trudy Wade. “What I didn’t realize at first is that I should be concentrating on people who voted in the last municipal election because those are the people who are most likely to vote in this one.”

Candidates without prodigious fundraising operations can take advantage of more high-profile candidates’ events to get face time with voters. And that’s what Boyett is doing at Mayor Johnson’s diversity-themed fundraiser. Others working the room include Bellamy-Small, at-large challengers Marikay Abuzuaiter and Julie Lapham, District 3 candidate Jim Kee and District 3 challenger Jay Ovittore.

Like politics, business is also a game of networking and personal interaction. At the first city council meeting after filing for the election closed, Allan Van Handel of Burlington was waiting outside council chambers and trying to spot challengers as they streamed out the door during break. Tonight, he’s at the mayor’s fundraiser.

He typically advances credit to candidates that want to place orders for yard signs with the understanding that they’ll raise money later to pay the bill. This year, with the recession, Van Handel has noticed that they’re less confident about their ability to repay. Even so, he says he has already taken orders from Bill Knight, who is running against Johnson for mayor; from at-large candidates Max Benbassat and DJ Hardy; from District 1 candidates Ben Holder, Jeramy Reid and Daron WeSellars; from Kee in District 2; and Hartzman in District 3.

Van Handel says he’s been in the business for half a century and filled orders for the Nixon campaign in 1972. He finds first-time candidates to be a little lost when it comes to deciding how to spend their money.

“Yvonne has a lot of buttons,” he says. “That’s okay for her, but for anyone else it’s a bad idea. You wear it for the campaign event, and then it goes in the drawer. That costs 28 cents. You can get a badge for 7 or 8 cents. I’ve had people call me up and say they wanted a thousand signs for a district race. That’s a little bit too much. The mayor doesn’t have a thousand signs.

“I tell them, ‘If you want to have a meeting — it doesn’t have to be election time — I’ll sit down with you and some other people are thinking about running for office, and give you some pointers. I say, ‘If you’ve got two candidates with the same ideas who are in the same party, why don’t you put both your names on a sign?’” The expenditure end of the campaign finance system represents an allocation of resources among the various spheres of influence in Greensboro politics.

Among Trudy Wade’s major expenditures was $13,784 paid to Compulis, a company owned by Greensboro Republican political consultant Bill Burckley, for mailings that savaged incumbent Sandy Carmany in a series of cartoon advertisements. Wade made the payments in January 2008. To cover the bill, she raised $11,575 after the election, mainly from individuals connected to the real-estate, development and building industries, and loaned her campaign $2,500. Other victorious candidates who used Burckley’s services include Yvonne Johnson, Sandra Anderson Groat, Robbie Perkins and Mary Rakestraw. Overall, Compulis raked in $31,994 over the course of the 2007 campaign.

Newspapers are not far behind printers in a ranking of sectors that financially profit from campaigns. Victorious Greensboro city council candidates spent a total of $68,615 on printing in 2007, and $61,351 on newspaper advertising. One newspaper, the conservative-leaning Rhinoceros Times, dominates the trade, pulling in $26,030 in 2007, followed by the News & Record, with $17,558; the Carolina Peacemaker, with $8,928; The Greensboro Times, with $3,690; and YES! Weekly, with $3,300.

A distant third place is billboards, totaling $24,719 for buys by Groat, Johnson and Matheny. Fairway Outdoor Advertising, a subsidiary of a Georgia-based multimedia conglomerate that maintains an office on Lee Street, holds a monopoly on political advertising among billboard companies.

Behind billboards rank payments to election workers. The vast majority of spending on election workers came from the Johnson campaign, but Goldie Wells paid $100 to Bennett College professor and state representative Alma Adams for “student assistants” lent to her campaign to defend the District 2 seat. At-large candidates Groat and Robbie Perkins also paid election workers, mainly for services on the predominantly African-American east side.

Adams received $1,262 from the Groat campaign for poll workers in 2007. The Groat campaign also made a $200 contribution to Adams’ campaign committee, even though the state lawmaker would not come up for reelection until the following year. And the Groat campaign spent $400 on advertising with The Greensboro Times, the newspaper owned by Rep. Earl Jones.

Adams, Jones, Johnson and Wells are among the six black elected officials who hold voting privileges on the George C. Simkins Jr. Memorial Political Action Committee, commonly known as the Simkins PAC, or simply the PAC. The PAC sends out a mailing during every election to households in predominantly African-American areas of the city that lists its favored candidates.

A white politician who runs citywide, Groat contributed $1,500 to the Simkins PAC in 2007, on top of her payments to Adams and The Greensboro Times. Her total payments to the three entities come to $3,362. The PAC reasoned that “Sandra has completed her first term and will continue to be responsive and open-minded.”

Robbie Perkins, another white politician running citywide, also received the PAC’s endorsement. He paid at total of $1,700 to the PAC and related entities.

Three other white candidates received the PAC’s endorsement. Zack Matheny spent $450 with The Greensboro Times on advertising and contributed $200 to the Simkins PAC.

Trudy Wade spent $900 on advertising with The Greensboro Times. Marikay Abuzuaiter spent $525 on advertising with The Greensboro Times, but lost her election.

Among the three victorious African-American candidates, Johnson, Wells and Bellamy-Small all received the PAC’s endorsement. Johnson spent $990 with The Greensboro Times and paid $250 to Adams for help with her campaign. Bellamy-Small, whose opponent had previously received the nod in 2005, reported no payments to the Simkins PAC in 2007.

“Our communities are already familiar with us,” said Bellamy-Small, referencing the low-cost campaigns run by herself and colleague Goldie Wells. “Even when I was a challenger in 2003, a lot of people already knew who I was from having been an election judge and being involved in Kwanzaa celebrations. I have been an Avon lady in District 1 since 1981.”

Candidate spending, 2007

1. Mayor Yvonne Johnson — $97,201 2. Mayor Pro Tem Sandra Anderson Groat — $46,414 3. District 3 Councilman Zack Matheny — $45,868 4. At-large Councilman Robbie Perkins — $38,968 5. District 5 Councilwoman Trudy Wade — $22,595 ($38,379) * 6. At-large Councilwoman Mary Rakestraw — $16,075 7. District 2 Councilwoman Goldie Wells — $7,520 8. District 4 Councilman Mike Barber — $4,982 9. District 1 Councilwoman Dianne Bellamy-Small — $1,300 (estimated)

* Wade paid Republican consultant Bill Burckley $13,784 in January 2008, two months after the election, for mailings. To cover the bill, she raised $11,575, mainly from individuals connected to the real estate, development and building industries, and loaned herself $2,500.

Most expensive races (avg. of victors’ expenditures, 2001-2007)

1. Mayor — $33,091 2. At-large — $19,547-$27,889 3. District 4 — $15,119 4. District 3 — $13,303 5. District 5 — $11,056 6. District 2 — $8,101 7. District 1 — $3,288

Fundraising, 2007 Greensboro municipal election

1. Amount raised Jan. 1-June 30: $10,845 2. Amount raised July 1-Aug. 28: $83,706 3. Amount raised Aug. 29-Sept. 30: $124,616 4. Amount raised Oct. 1-28: $160,194 5. Amount raised Oct. 29-Dec. 31: $84,710