Some old hands and previous aspirants reappear in upcoming Greensboro city council race

by Jordan Green

Future vacancies in two at-large seats on Greensboro City Council caused by the announced retirement of Mayor Pro Tem Nancy Vaughan and by Councilman Robbie Perkins’ decision to run for mayor have occasioned intense jockeying among would-be contenders six months before filing begins.


Among the most prominent of those who have publicly stated their interest in one of the two seats is Yvonne Johnson, the former mayor who lost her reelection bid in 2009 due to an upset by Bill Knight. Another is Tony Wilkins, a furniture storeowner who serves as executive director of the Guilford County Republican Party and was appointed to the War Memorial Commission by District 5 Councilwoman Trudy Wade. DJ Hardy and Cyndy Hayworth, who have made unsuccessful bids for city council in previous years, said they plan to run next year, but have not decided whether to run at large or in their respective districts.

Knight, at-large Councilman Danny Thompson, District 3 Councilman Zack Matheny and District 4 Councilwoman Mary Rakestraw said they plan to seek reelection. District 1 Councilwoman Dianne Bellamy- Small and District 5 Councilwoman Trudy Wade could not be reached for comment, while District 2 Councilman Jim Kee was unavailable because of a death in the family.

The prospect of new city council elections, which are scheduled every odd year in Greensboro, has thrown another political veteran’s name back in the mix. Tom Phillips retired from the city council in 2005, after establishing himself as a consistently conservative voice on council. Phillips has been cited by District 1 Councilwoman Dianne Bellamy- Small, a one-time ideological counterweight, as someone that can work through political differences to achieve shared goals.

“I haven’t made a decision about it,” Phillips said when reached for comment.

Johnson framed her interest in at at-large seat as being consistent with her previous service on council from 1993 to 2009, including a single term as mayor.

“I certainly have a vision for Greensboro and I’m not afraid to be a visionary and work on or activate a vision,” she said. “And the vision includes recruiting business and industry, and the promotion of jobs, for me to continue the building of Greensboro as a tournament city. I’m very open to anything that will boost the tax base.”

Johnson took a critical stance against one of her successor’s initiatives.

“It’s very disturbing to me to have changed, and put speakers-from-the floor last [in the meeting agenda],” she said. “These are the people we serve. Thirty minutes, to me, is a very short time to listen. It’s disrespectful to put them at the end. That’s annoyed me, and I didn’t like that. If I’m elected, I certainly would work to change that.”

Johnson is a longtime political ally of Perkins, and would be considered a reliable member of his voting bloc should he succeed in his quest for the mayor’s seat. And as the city’s first and only African-American mayor, Johnson’s inclusion on the ballot would likely boost turnout in east Greensboro, where Perkins has traditionally performed well with voters. The pair’s opposition to the reopening of the White Street Landfill — an issue identified by two sitting members as a top priority this year (see Pop Quiz on page 11) — is likely to heighten interest in the election.

“People think we’ll save much more money than we will,” Johnson said. “There’s partial information because opening new cells is extremely expensive. I think we ought to be developing a regional solution. I am for waste to-energy; that hasn’t changed.”

Wilkins’ entry into the at-large race comes as little surprise to many Gate City political observers. He was widely considered to be on a short list of contenders for appointment to replace Wade if she had won her bid as the Republican candidate for NC Senate representing District 28 in November. As it turned out, Democrat Gladys Shipman won the race.

Shortly after she announced her plans to retire, Vaughan posted on Wilkins’ Facebook page: “Tony, I hope you will give strong consideration to running for the city council at large. I think you would do a great job. You can count on my vote!” Vaughan’s endorsement of Wilkins, a self-described conservative Republican, has rankled some local activists in the party who are aligned with the tea party movement.

Vaughan is registered as an unaffiliated voter, but her husband is a Democratic state senator who fended off a challenge from Jeff Hyde, a co-founder of Conservatives for Guilford County who spoke at last year’s Tax Day Tea Party rally in Greensboro.

A pledge of support to Wilkins from Marcus Brandon, a Democrat who was elected to the NC House last year, caused additional angst.

In an extensive thread under Nancy Vaughan’s Facebook posting, Conservatives for Guilford County activist Isabella Adkins taunted Wilkins that he should consider switching parties and upbraided him for not supporting Hyde in the NC Senate race. Wilkins acknowledged his lack of enthusiasm for Hyde, faulting the candidate for failing to provide an “acceptable explanation” for attributing a quote to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi during a speech that, in fact, she never uttered, and for his handling of a raffle to raise money for his campaign.

Notwithstanding Adkins’ reproach of Wilkins for disloyalty to his fellow Republicans, Greensboro City Council is a nonpartisan board, and party registration has played little role in shaping members’ voting patterns. For example, in a city with a Democratic-leaning electorate, two Republicans have announced plans to run for mayor. And Matheny, who is registered Republican, is treated with suspicion by some conservative activists. So while Wilkins’ conservative credentials may have been called into question, the controversy might help him build support among political moderates.

“My campaign for city council will be as a fiscal conservative with a strong commitment to public safety, among other issues,” Wilkins said in the Facebook exchange, adding that police Chief Ken Miller and fire Chief Greg Grayson “should have the funds to staff and maintain their departments in order to keep us as safe as possible in our homes.”

DJ Hardy, a corporate accountant who launched an unsuccessful bid for council in 2009, said he will definitely run in 2011, but hasn’t decided whether to seek an at-large seat or the District 1 seat currently held by Bellamy-Small.

“I have been working steadily over the past couple years to better inform myself about the issues and have been working on a comprehensive agenda that I am confident serves the common interest of Greensboro residents as a whole,” Hardy said in a written message. “I’ve continued working in several community capacities and have grown as a leader and servant of people. I am confident enough to say that I am qualified and ready to serve Greensboro in any position in which the voters decide I am best able to serve.”

The 35-year-old political hopeful placed a disappointing 8 th out of 11 candidates in the first round of balloting in the at-large race in 2009.

Cyndy Hayworth, president of Junior Achievement of Central North Carolina, currently serves as vice chair of the city’s zoning commission. She said she is weighing whether to run at large or in District 3. A run in District 3 would amount to a rematch with Matheny, the seat’s current occupant. Both candidates ran as first-time candidates in 2007 while serving on the zoning commission, but Hayworth was eliminated in the primary.

“My visibility in the community over the past two years has really grown,” Hayworth said. “People are looking for professionalism and common sense on city council, and everybody knows that I’m a straight shooter. The decisions I’ve made on the zoning commission speak for themselves. It’s not about me; it’s what the citizens want. I’m not going to make decisions based on who my friends are; it’s going to be based solely on what’s best for all the citizens.”