Back in the summer it looked like this City Council election was going to be boring. A couple of names were popping up on the radar screen but nobody that sounded like they were going to mount much of a campaign.
But that assessment turned out to be completely wrong.
First of all, by the time filing was over, it seemed everybody in the city with a couple of extra dollars in their pocket had filed to run. The total was 38 candidates – the most ever. And then five dropped out before the primary. Why drop out? Your name is going to be on the ballot anyway. You might as well stay in there and see what happens. In the past, some candidates who refused to campaign have won because the voters didn’t know who they were but they knew they didn’t like that other guy.
In the summer it looked like District 2 Councilmember Jamal Fox wouldn’t have any trouble getting reelected, but then love won out over political ambition and Fox decided to move to Portland, Oregon, and get married rather than stay in Greensboro and run for reelection.
The City Council got to pick a replacement for Fox and chose former City Councilmember Goldie Wells, who had indicated she would finish out the term but not run for election. “Indicated” is the key word. Wells hadn’t made any promises, and once she received the appointment she filed as the incumbent to try and win back the seat she left in 2009, and it looks like she will.
Up until Wells filed, it appeared former District 2 Councilmember Jim Kee would not have a hard time winning his old seat back, but Wells soundly defeated Kee in the primary and then Kee made a move that is hard to understand if he is trying to win the election – he switched parties. Kee became a Republican in a district that is only 8 percent Republican and 68 percent Democrat. No campaign advisor in his right mind would recommend a move like that, even though the race is nonpartisan.
I believe the mayor’s race is also a first. At least as far I know this is the first time someone who doesn’t live in Greensboro is running for mayor of Greensboro. Diane Moffett is running against Mayor Nancy Vaughan and Moffett lives in Jamestown. She has a legal voting address in Greensboro, so it is perfectly legal for her to run, but she didn’t change her voting address until she filed to run for mayor. Even if she had moved to Greensboro six months earlier it would have been a stretch to run for mayor after six months in the city, but she didn’t. She changed her address at the last moment possible and people voted for her in the primary anyway.
There are really only two competitive races on the ballot and next week we’ll find out how that affects voter turnout, because the only citywide competitive race is for the third seat in the at-large race between City Councilmember Mike Barber and Michelle Kennedy.
And the only competitive district race is in District 5 where City Councilmember Tony Wilkins is being challenged by Tammi Thurm.
Both are somewhat of a surprise. Barber is running for his fifth term on the City Council, and usually when someone has served that long they win reelection pretty easily. Open seats are where the close races usually emerge. But Barber only defeated Kennedy by six votes in the primary, so that race is up in the air. No doubt Barber will be a happy man if can hold on to that six vote lead in the general election.
Then there is Wilkins, who didn’t have an opponent two years ago and is the last Republican standing on a City Council that after the 2009 election had six Republicans. District 5 has been known as the most conservative district in the city for years and appeared to be the one safe Republican seat left, but Thurm, who is not only a Democrat but a liberal Democrat, defeated Wilkins in the primary by 80 votes.
This might be a test of campaign strategy. Wilkins has spent more than he ever thought he would on mailers and advertising but hasn’t been to many forums and can’t compete with Thurm in the door-to-door category. The council districts, with about 60,000 people, are small enough that door-to-door campaigning can make a big impact. What this election may show is whether a liberal Democrat can convince enough people to vote for her in a conservative district by talking to them one on one.
The past voting history of the district says that Wilkins should win, but going door to door has proven to be extremely effective in the past.
Also in this election, Nelson Johnson of the Beloved Community Center tried to flex his political muscle. Johnson started yet another organization, Democracy Greensboro, and fielded a slate of candidates. Two candidates who ran in the primary work for Johnson, but the only Democracy Greensboro candidate who made it through the primary was Gary Kenton in District 4, and he didn’t come close to District 4 Councilmember Nancy Hoffmann in the primary. It doesn’t look like he’ll do much better in the general election.
And here is an interesting possibility. Both Barber and Wilkins are in close races; if they both lose then the Greensboro City Council will have only one male and won’t have a single white male city councilmember. The only male on the City Council will be Councilmember Justin Outling, who is a black male Democrat elected from a district that had previously only elected white male Republicans.
At several of the candidates’ forums, I had the opportunity to sit near councilmembers who had already had their turn answering questions. What I heard from several councilmembers who nobody would call conservative was a lot of. “That would be nice, but how are we going to pay for that.” “No way in the world we could afford that,” and “We’re already doing that.”
When you’re not an incumbent it’s easy to promise a chicken in every pot, but once you’ve been in office and know how much chickens cost and how many pots there are, you can’t be honest and make those promises.
Most of the sitting councilmembers in this race are facing challenges from the left, which means challenges from candidates who want the city to give away a lot more free stuff. But it’s interesting to see councilmembers who have had to deal with city budgets talk about those same issues. Some of those good Democrats on the City Council almost sounded like conservatives compared to their opponents.