The Mayor Pro Tem Seeks a Humble Balance
A student had just asked a question about the propriety of politicians discussing their religious faith at a forum called ‘Republicans, Democrats and God,’ at St. Mary’s House, the Episcopal chaplaincy for UNCG.
‘“I can’t separate it,’” said Greensboro City Councilwoman Yvonne Johnson, the mayor pro tem, who spoke for the Democrats. ‘“I would be schizophrenic. I say I try to do the right thing. I pursue justice and fairness. I don’t go around quoting scripture.’”
Text from the Bible did come up, however ‘— Micah, chapter 6, verse 8, to be exact ‘— although Johnson said she only mentioned it because it was germane to the discussion at hand: religion and partisan politics. She cited it: ‘“And what doth the Lord require but to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God?’”
Her Republican counterpart, former Guilford County Commissioner Mary Rakestraw, nodded in agreement.
They agreed on a lot. They both talked about a ‘good old boy system’ and the inordinate influence of money over politics in Greensboro and Guilford County.
‘“A lot of times when you’re an elected official they want to buy your soul, and I will not sell my soul,’” said Johnson, who turns 63 on Wednesday, Oct. 26 and goes into a city council election on Nov. 8 as the at-large candidate with the most primary election votes. ‘“They’ll give five hundred dollars, and I’ll say, ‘Thank you very much.””
She added: ‘“They’ll come to you and tell you what they want, but I’m not going to do anything under the table.’”
Johnson, a facilitator of anti-racism workshops for the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina, might seem an unlikely politician. As director of One Step Further, a Greensboro alternative sentencing and mediation program, she hasn’t followed the typical career paths of law or real estate development that brought many of her colleagues on city council into politics. But in an interview she noted that she was the first African-American to join the Junior League of Greensboro.
‘“I knew they did projects that were good projects and allocated resources to address needs,’” she said. ‘“I wanted to have a voice in that.’”
As mayor pro tem and the only African American at-large councilmember, Johnson is considered a likely candidate for mayor when Keith Holliday decides to step aside. She has expressed an interest in the job; if elected, she would be Greensboro’s first black mayor. In the Oct. 11 primary, she placed first by a margin of 240 votes in an election with famously low turnout in which no candidate cleared more than 5,000 votes.
‘“I’ve always put together a very diverse campaign, including Euro-Americans and Native Americans,’” she said. ‘“Diversity is something I’m aware of, and it’s really a part of my cognitive map.’”
Johnson swept precincts in the districts 1 and 2, in majority black east Greensboro, with strong pluralities in the primary election. She placed in the top four in practically all precincts in the city’s three majority white districts, and in the top two in about a quarter of them.
Yet the primary election results indicate that with many white voters, fellow whites such as Councilman Don Vaughan, Councilwoman Florence Gatten and newcomer Sandra Anderson are more popular candidates. In the three voting districts that cover north-central, northwestern and southwestern Greensboro, Johnson placed first in about seven majority white precincts ‘— among them polling places in the Westerwood neighborhood, near Guilford College, in Adams Farm and near the Jamestown campus of GTCC.
Mary Rakestraw, a former Republican elected official who has been chastised by white constituents for being overly friendly with Guilford County Commissioner Skip Alston, is a Johnson supporter. At the St. Mary’s House forum, she urged audience members to vote for Johnson.
When a young man related an account of cronyism in his eastern North Carolina hometown, Rakestraw said she thought he was talking about Greensboro.
‘“The mayor we have is a nice guy, but’…’” she said, her voice trailing off. Then she pointed to Johnson and predicted: ‘“She is going to be the mayor at some point.’”
The moderator, UNCG religious studies professor John Sopper, appeared to be a little uncomfortable with the nonpartisan comity.
‘“I don’t hear you indicting the church as failed and irrelevant,’” he said. ‘“The powerful and rich who’ve been powerful and rich for a long time maintain their power. They take for themselves first and whatever’s left over they give to the poor. At a time when this country’s experiencing a religious revival, does this mean the religious system’s corrupt? Is the church part of the problem?’”
The two panelists decline to respond to address Sopper’s question. But earlier in the talk, Johnson had given an answer of sorts, saying the political system is ‘“always plotting the poor against the poor, and it’s frustrating. I don’t know what the answer to fixing that is.’”
She had told a story about a time when she was out-voted by the city council majority, which decided to take money out of the budget for human services.
‘“We give incentives to corporations,’” she said. ‘“It’s a nasty little game we play. I think if we can give money to them than surely we can give something ‘— and it wasn’t a lot of money ‘— to those who are the least of us. That’s the balance for me.’”
To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at firstname.lastname@example.org.