Tony Wilkins appointed to Greensboro council amid controversy
Maybe Tony Wilkins saw this coming. Four years ago, Wilkins asked on his blog if there was a correlation between blogging and not being elected to Greensboro City Council, but last week there was no question that it was all that stood between him and the open District 5 seat.
During discussions at last week’s council meeting about who should replace outgoing Councilwoman Trudy Wade for the remainder of her term, several council members said they could not vote for Wilkins because of content on his website that they said attacked current and former council members.
While written criticism of several council members was discussed, the primary focus of the opposition was a blog post with an image of former Councilwoman Goldie Wells, who is black, with exaggerated facial features that many considered racially insensitive.
Wells appeared in the 2011 cartoon with her mouth stretched, which could be perceived as a racial caricature. Wilkins said he was trying to illustrate that Wells was speaking out of both sides of her mouth by taking hypocritical stances on an issue. Three years earlier, Wilkins stretched the mouths of two white politicians in the exact same manner to portray similar allegations of hypocrisy.
“I was a little disappointed in some of the implications that were made [at the meeting],” he said. “As soon as I found out Dr. Wells was offended I immediately called her and apologized. I don’t apologize for my opinion but I do apologize if the way I conveyed it offended anyone.”
Wilkins, who was the executive director of the Guilford County GOP and worked on Wade’s successful campaign for State Senate District 27, was nominated by Councilman Zack Matheny and defended by several other council members. He narrowly won the seat 5-4 with support from Wade, Matheny, Jim Kee, Nancy Vaughan and Marikay Abuzuaiter.
“People do things sometimes and they mean them as cartoons and funny things and they don’t mean to hurt people,” Wade said after the vote.
Wilkins was one of four applicants for the seat who spoke at the meeting. Sal Leone, who has run twice for other elected offices before applying for Wade’s seat, was at the meeting but left before a replacement was appointed. After Wilkins’ blog was brought up, Wilkins said he had apologized to Wells for the cartoon.
Kee, who is black, accepted Wilkins’ explanation to council despite strong opposition from Dianne Bellamy-Small, who said she couldn’t serve with someone who posted cartoons like the ones of her and Wells and asked council not to explain it away.
“There are council members that have blatantly misled me, and I still work with you,” said Kee, suggesting that people needed to work together despite their mistakes.
Wells, who was in attendance, told another audience member after the vote that she was mad at Kee in particular.
After the meeting, Vaughan and Matheny criticized Mayor Robbie Perkins for the way he handled the discussion about Wilkins. Both said Perkins called them beforehand to express his opposition to Wilkins.
Matheny said Wilkins had questioned Perkins’ leadership on his blog and said the mayor changed who he supported for the seat every week to avoid Wilkins being chosen “either because he was trying to get his GPAC passed or because his feelings were hurt.”
Vaughan also said the proposed Greensboro Performing Arts Center, which some see as Perkins’ pet project, was behind the mayor’s opposition to Wilkins.
“I believe, and I’ve said this to the mayor, that he manipulated that discussion and harmed a man’s reputation for his own ends,” Vaughan said in an interview. “He called me that morning to inform me that Tony would not be the next council member and that he had cartoons in his possession that Marikay and Jim would not be able to vote for him and withstand reelection. What I had said to the mayor was that he cherry-picked those. This community has trouble with racial politics and he used it for his own good.”
Vaughan said she told Perkins after the meeting that she thought he had used other council members to try and appoint a replacement that would be favorable to the performing arts center. Vaughan said that Perkins had tried to garner votes for Macarthur Davis.
Perkins disputed Vaughan’s allegations and said he supported longtime Republican activist Dottie Salerno for the seat.
Salerno confirmed that the mayor had expressed his support for her a few weeks prior and has repeatedly stated that she has not made up her mind on the center.
“Nancy’s whole thesis is based on misinformation and I am sure she probably got it off of some blog, but it’s not factual and she didn’t get it from me,” Perkins said. “There was never any inclination to support Mr. Davis at any time. I like Macarthur Davis but I was determined not to put an interim placeholder [in].”
Perkins said his support of Salerno had nothing to do with the center, and she said he didn’t ask her to support the project.
“I made it clear that I had not made a decision about that because I didn’t have all the facts,” Salerno said. “I don’t belong to anybody. I am not in anybody’s pocket. If anything was lined up beforehand and commitments were made, they were not made in favor of the performing arts center.”
Regardless of why Perkins didn’t favor Wilkins, Matheny decried the mayor’s actions as self-serving and deceptive.
“To me it was politics at its worst,” Matheny said. “It was manipulation. He really brought race into a conversation that is false.
He misled council members and the city of Greensboro.”
Vaughan also said race was inappropriately brought into the conversation, a move which she said is particularly troubling when the city has actual racial tension around other issues like the disparity study and lingering feelings about the White Street landfill.
Vaughan said she didn’t realize there was something racist about the cartoon of Wells, adding that Wilkins had done the same thing to former Councilwoman Sandy Carmany, who is white, and had turned Vaughan into a mermaid in one cartoon. Wilkins also stretched white former candidate Rick Wallace’s face in the same manner.
Adding that she hoped people would give Wilkins a chance, Vaughan pointed out that though he lost his bid for Guilford County Commission earlier this fall, Wilkins won in the Greensboro precincts that overlap with Wade’s district, illustrating his community backing.
Wilkins said in an interview that he was in “listen and learn mode” and when asked if he thought he and Bellamy-Small could work through their differences he said, “I will be very cordial and respectful to Ms. Bellamy-Small.”