Voters signal desire for change with election returns

by Keith Barber

Change in voter turnout from 2009 to 2011: Dark green = increase of more than 5 percentage points points; light green = increase of 1-5 percentage points; yellow = no change; light red = decrease from 1-5 percent; dark red = decrease of more than 5 percentage points (YES! Weekly)

The rout of the conservative majority faction on Greensboro City Council in last week’s municipal election marked the culmination of a series of reversals for the so-called “gang of four,” who took control of council two years ago on the basis of a backlash against President Obama, anxiety about turmoil in the police department and resentment over annexation.

The faction’s overreach first became clear in April when the council reconsidered a controversial redistricting plan following a swift public outcry. The setbacks continued when a group of northeast Greensboro citizens led by former Councilwoman Goldie Wells successfully sued the city to block plans to expand the White Street Landfill. Next, Mayor Pro Tem Nancy Vaughan was relieved of a con flict

of interest and signaled her intention to block plans to reopen the landfill entirely, leading a local company to withdraw its proposal to operate the landfill. The popularity of the anti-landfill cause became clear as candidates scrambled to stake positions against it or moderated stances in favor of it to try to win votes.

Voters ousted Mayor Bill Knight, at-large Councilman Danny Thompson and District 4 Councilwoman Mary Rakestraw. A fourth member of the conservative faction, District 5 Councilwoman Trudy Wade, had the luck to be running against a reputed gang leader, Jorge Cornell, who managed to win upwards of 1,000 votes despite whatever image problems he had been saddled with.

In an election that saw a modest uptick in turnout from the previous two cycles, voters mobilized in precincts near the White Street Landfill and other predominantly black areas of east Greensboro while participation dropped off in conservative-leaning areas near the Piedmont Triad International Airport and the Cardinal that favor Knight and Thompson. Voters in upwards of a dozen precincts carried by Knight two years ago signaled their disaffection by supporting mayoral challenger Robbie Perkins this time around. And damage to Thompson’s credibility as a result of campaign finance reporting problems and dubious explanations for his vote to reopen the landfill became apparent, with the candidate losing to Chris Lawyer, a lesser-known, first-time candidate.

“What happened, to a certain degree, is people were pretty disgusted with the last two years of infighting,” said former Mayor Keith Holliday, who retired after leading the council for eight terms in 2007. “You had a lot of groups, the chamber of commerce, the business crowd, the African-American bloc, the real estate crowd — they saw a lot of stagnation because of the fighting going on. They could look back two years, if not four to six, and say maybe we don’t have to load the council up with people who say, ‘No.’ It’s much harder to say, ‘Yes,’ because then you’ve got to back it up with the money or the budget or the wherewithal to make it happen.”

The election drew 37,781 voters, or 20.7 percent of registered voters to the polls, an increase from 18.1 percent of registered voters in 2009. In raw numbers, the voter count increased by more than 2,500 people. In a city of more than a quarter million people, it would be difficult to consider that a mandate although it could certainly be seen as a referendum on the landfill and evidence of an enthusiasm gap. Progressives and moderates angry about the landfill went to the polls with a mixture of relish and vengeance, while conservatives appeared to be less motivated by a desire to keep taxes low through cost-cutting measures such as redirecting the city’s trash to White Street.

An effort to manipulate black voters into withholding their vote from Perkins through a robo-call that suggested they write in a candidate of choice and through a campaign sign that copied Johnson’s signature color and font appeared to backfire, as Perkins won the race with a convincing 14-percent margin.

Perkins assumes leadership of the council next month benefiting from a council whose members that share many of the same priorities and a history of collaboration. Perkins and Johnson, who swept precincts across the city as the top vote-getter in the at-large race, have long supported each other. This past summer, Perkins persuaded Vaughan to reverse her plans to retire from council so that she could serve with him. Dianne Bellamy-Small and Jim Kee, political allies who respectively represent districts 1 and 2 will be returning to council. And longtime adversary Rakestraw has been replaced in District 4 by Nancy Hoffmann, who shares Perkins’ business savvy and inclusive vision.

“It was quite a change to the degree that the tenor, almost the character of the council is taking a fairly dramatic shift,” Holliday said. “I’m not going to say to the left or the right; I would say very positive for Greensboro. We are going to have policymakers and leaders that see the bigger picture, that know you have to invest in the future. These are leaders that know that in slow economic times, you don’t sit on your hands, but continued to plan.

“I think Robbie’s got a lot of skills after 18 years of experience that understands the need to bring people together to forge some consensus building. Consensus building is something that has been lacking. Robbie also understands, as well as Yvonne, representative government, that you don’t get stuck on ideology and stake yourself out too early when you’re trying to solve problems. Flexibility is going to have to the order of the day when you are going to try to put square pegs in round holes.”

Whether last week’s election marks a shift to the left or a return to a moderate course, precincts that saw the largest boosts in turnout shared one thing in common: They lean Democratic. A handful of predominantly black precincts that saw significant mobilization are clustered around the landfill, such as the precinct at Bessemer Elementary, where turnout leaped from 24.0 percent to 31.2 percent.

Those precincts were all carried by Johnson, but consistently gave the second largest batch of votes to Marikay Abuzuaiter. Vaughan garnered the third largest batch of votes in many of those precincts, and generally polled well across the city.

Increases in turnout in east Greensboro — dramatic in a handful of precincts and consistently higher in all precincts with a sizeable African-American electorate — likely gave Abuzuaiter the edge to fend off nearest contender Lawyer, who trailed her by 941 votes.

The increase in turnout in east Greensboro likely gave Abuzuaiter about a thousand votes, while turnout in precincts where Lawyer polled well remained steady or saw only modest increases.

Turnout in the precinct at St. Andrews Episcopal Church on West Market Street soared from 31.5 percent to 39.0 percent. Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans two to one in the District 4 precinct, and challenger Hoffman commanded two-thirds of the votes. City council elections are nominally nonpartisan, but the performances of Hoffman and Rakestraw, who are respectively registered as Democrat and Republican, tracked closed with registered voters in each party. Hoffmann and her campaign staff knocked on doors in every single precinct, and the candidate made significant expenditures on billboards and newspaper advertising to build awareness among voters.

In contrast, precincts in the Cardinal, the Lake Jeanette area and parts of Irving Park that were carried by Knight and other conservative candidates saw voter turnout fall off by more than 5 percent.

The top two at-large seats traditionally go to the most experienced members, and this year was no exception. The third seat had been considered up for grabs, with Abuzuaiter scrapping it out with Thompson, Lawyer and a progressive first-time candidate, Wayne Abraham.

“I do know I had a very low-budget campaign,” Abuzuaiter said. “That basically was a slight concern. I know a lot of people were putting out mailers; I didn’t have the funds. I felt good that we had done all that we could.”

Abuzuaiter said she had four to five volunteers working the polls on Election Day.

Abuzuaiter was among the candidates who received endorsements from the Simkins PAC and the Guilford County Community PAC, which both target black voters. Poll workers with both committees handed out their endorsements to voters at the polls. Abuzuaiter also received an assist in District 2 from Kee’s campaign. And based on the endorsement of the Professional Fire Fighters of Greensboro, two firefighters took turns working a precinct in west Greensboro for Abuzuaiter.

Holliday said he wasn’t surprised that Abuzuaiter was able to prevail on her third try for council. He noted that, if nothing else, many voters know her as the owner of Mahi’s Seafood Restaurant.

The former mayor said he disagrees with characterizations of the new council as prone to spend city funds frivolously and raise taxes to finance big-ticket spending items.

“Several of them understand the budget process very well,” he said. “Then you add Nancy Hoffmann, who has a strong business background, and Marikay, who has been making a payroll for years. They know about belt tightening and stretching a dollar…. I think we’ve got a very strong business-minded council instead of a liberal spending council. That’s been a paintbrush put on this group that’s very inaccurate.”