Turning the dirt: A low ebb in black

by Jordan Green

Rev. Cardes Brown, Yvonne Johnson, the Rev. Clarence Shuford. (photo by Jordan Green)

The Yvonne Johnson campaign and Greensboro’s black political establishment perceived the threat posed by conservative mayoral candidate Bill Knight too little and too late.

The day after her electoral defeat, Johnson appeared at a ceremony to commemorate the 1979 Klan-Nazi killings in a stoic but sad state. Leaving New Light Missionary Baptist Church, she said, “A lot of people have come to me and said, ‘We failed you and we didn’t do what we could have done. We thought you were a shoo-in.’” Political consultant Bill Burckley saw the tide rising to lift Knight to victory less than an hour before the polls closed as he observed the low turnout at Bluford Elementary, which typically leads predominantly African-American precincts in votes. He told YES! Weekly the formula for his candidate’s success was a big turnout in white and newly annexed precincts, along with interest in the Natural Science Center bond, which was more likely to appeal to white voters.

Steve Bowden, co-chair of the Simkins PAC, which sends out its endorsements to black voters across the city, concurred, saying that the increased tax bill of newly annexed voters in the Cardinal area near the airport likely created a backlash against Johnson that played in Knight’s favor. Neither the Johnson campaign nor the Simkins PAC fully appreciated the implications, and made an effort to boost turnout among black voters in east Greensboro to insulate the incumbent from the threat.

“The main issue for our community is there’s going to be an effort to open a dump back up in our section of town,” Bowden said. “These new people, I’m sure they wouldn’t want to have a dump where the Cardinal golf course is. That’s what the people of east Greensboro are facing. There’s going to be a big push to cut taxes. And [reopening] the landfill is an easy way to make up the revenue if you want to cut taxes.”

All candidates who went before the Simkins PAC were asked whether they thought the landfill should be reopened, but the PAC did not highlight the issue to black voters in its slate of endorsements.

“The most pressing issue that I see in our community was not put on the forefront,” Bowden said. “I regret that. I was in a meeting of the Greensboro Men’s Club last night. I made the point to them that I regret that we did not make a concerted effort to let the community know what was at stake.”

This year’s election saw a splinter group emerge from the Simkins PAC, with NAACP leader the Rev. Cardes Brown defecting and establishing a new committee that issued its own endorsements. And the Simkins PAC expended some of its political capital endorsing against incumbent Dianne Bellamy- Small in District 1, swinging enough votes behind challenger Luther T. Falls to allow him to improve his percentage from 38.9 percent to 47.9 percent between the primary and the general election.

Bellamy-Small pointed to division within the black political establishment as the reason for Johnson’s defeat.

“The black leadership that is supposed to inform the voters didn’t do their job because they were focused on the side issues,” she said.

Bellamy-Small has been able to buck the influence of the Simkins PAC in two elections, but she doesn’t take the group’s influence over the black voters for granted.

“They don’t know that half of the George Simkins PAC is made up of elected officials,” she said. “I will continue to say it’s a conflict of interest.”

Johnson holds the distinction of being the only African-American politicianwho has managed to win citywide officein a city in which whites still hold aslim demographic majority. She waselected the city’s first black mayor in2007. Under her leadership, the citycouncil was battered by a police controversyand a major economic downturn.The departure of former City ManagerMitchell Johnson consumed much of thecouncil’s attention, and Yvonne Johnsonwas unable to maintain a majority tofend off efforts to remove him. Johnsonannounced early in 2009 that she wantedto pass a budget with no tax increase,but staking that position co-opted thecouncil’s conservative faction more thanit demonstrated leadership.Throughout the campaign, Johnsonrepeated a mantra of “unity, not fractureand division,” but she did not galvanizeher base with any critical issues.And many black voters did not supportJohnson with great enthusiasm.Leaving his polling place at Smith HighSchool in southwest Greensboro onElection Day, a black voter named KenAble, said he cast his ballot in favor ofJohnson because he didn’t think she hadhad a chance to prove herself in just oneterm in office. And he thought Johnsonshouldn’t be blamed for the policedepartment mess, which she inheritedfrom Mayor Keith Holliday.“I’m going to see what happens,” Ablesaid. “If she straightens this out, I canvote for her next time. If she doesn’t, Ihave to think about someone else.”Unlike Able, most voters were not willingto give Yvonne Johnson a secondchance. !