Candidate profile: Mary Rakestraw

Mary Rakestraw said she considers herself a problem solver. One example she gave during an interview today at the offices of YES! Weekly involved a constituent who was upset about AT&T placing a five-foot transmission box near her house.

Rakestraw, a two-term Greensboro City councilwoman who currently represents District 4, asked City Manager Rashad Young to get involved.

“I told Rashad: ‘I need you to go out and see this. This is about the ugliest thing.’”

It’s a difficult issue for a city council member to grapple with because, as Rakestraw acknowledged, AT&T has the legal right to place the transmission box.

“Nothing has happened yet,” Rakestraw said.

But she hasn’t given up.

She called NC Sen. Phil Berger, a fellow Republican who represents the northern portion of Guilford County and who happens to be the most powerful member of the Senate. Rakestraw’s constituents were dubious, noting that AT&T has been a significant contributor to Berger’s campaigns.

“He did call her,” Rakestraw said. “And now he’s talking to AT&T.

“We’ve worked very hard because we know this is only the beginning of what’s going to explode in Greensboro,” Rakestraw said, adding that she expects to see the boxes proliferate.

Rakestraw is part of a conservative faction, including Mayor Bill Knight, at-large Councilman Danny Thompson and District 5 Councilwoman Trudy Wade, that has often been able to enact its agenda by bringing in District 3 Councilman Zack Matheny. On the matter of reopening the White Street Landfill, the conservative faction has prevailed until now through by the narrowest of majorities, with Vaughan and Matheny recused, although that is currently subject to change.

Rakestraw acknowledged that she has a tough race. In 2009, she won her contest against opponent Joel Landau by only 277 votes. This year, with widespread discontent over plans to reopen the White Street Landfill and a bumpy redistricting process, Rakestraw faces two challengers. One, Tony Collins, is a former chairman of the zoning commission with significant ties to the building and real estate industries. Another, Nancy Hoffmann, chairs the human relations commission and emphasizes a business background and responsiveness to the community.

The current council has been criticized as dysfunctional, divisive and a laughingstock, sometimes by its own members. On the dais at city council meetings, Rakestraw is one of the more restrained members of the conservative quartet, with Wade and Thompson waging most of the rhetorical battles and Knight often preoccupied with running the meeting.

“There are people who want to fuss and fight,” Rakestraw said. “That’s fine, but that’s not my style.”

Some have complained that the leadership of the current council has mistreated citizens who come to meetings pleading to keep the landfill closed.

“Every citizen deserves to be treated with respect by their elected officials,” Rebecca Klase, a Greensboro College professor active with the League of Women Voters of the Piedmont Triad, said in an Aug. 16 Twitter message. “We have not seen this at this evening’s meeting.”

Rakestraw would agree in principle, but perhaps differ on who is the prime offender.

“Sometimes we have people who want to be laughing, talking and texting while some colleagues are speaking,” the incumbent councilwoman said. “You won’t ever see me making faces. I respect everybody that comes up to speak to us.”

In 2007, Rakestraw and others ran on a platform of transparency. She and Wade, in particular, objected to a practice under former Mayor Keith Holliday of having the city manager meet with small groups of council members to brief them on issues. The two have argued that other council members used the small-group meetings to decide a position on a given issue and then ram it through. Rakestraw argued that in the past four years the council has become more open.

“Asking questions is not a bad thing,” she said.

Rakestraw said she is open to working with anyone and will be fair to all, regardless of any political differences they may have. But she said she was not received in the same spirit when she was elected to the council in 2007.

“I was told by one of the incumbents that they were not interested in any of my ideas, or interested in anything from a former county commissioner,” said Rakestraw, who served on the Guilford County Commission from 1996 to 2004.

Notwithstanding assertions by Rakestraw and her conservative colleagues that they have brought transparency to council since 2007, the same group has been rapped by some for deciding which way to vote in private and then providing little or no public explanation for their decisions.

Those complaints were leveled in April when a four-member majority approve a redistricting plan submitted by Rakestraw (it was later withdrawn) and again, in August when the council voted to select Gate City Waste Services to operate a limited portion of the White Street Landfill.

Rakestraw discussed the decisions somewhat more forthrightly than before in her recent interview.

Among the more controversial aspects of the Rakestraw plan was its ejection of Precinct G48, which was carried by her opponent in the 2009 election, creating highly irregular district boundaries. The plan also swapped a significant number of precincts between districts 1 and 2, disrupting constituent relationships for council members Dianne Bellamy-Small and Jim Kee.

“Clearly the Rakestraw plan has the advantage of creating districts with better population balance,” Greensboro Geographic Information Services Manager Stephen Sherman wrote in an analysis. “To achieve this end, the author moves 10 full precincts and one partial precinct. It should be noted that, if a more equal population balance is desired, variances in the range of the proposed plan can be achieved by moving a single precinct.”

Looking back at the saga, Rakestraw said, “There was never a plan drawn up for me. [Political consultant Bill] Burckley drew it. I said, ‘Rashad, I have this plan. Can I submit it?’ I actually had my husband drop it off. Rashad said it passed muster. He said, ‘Somebody has to take ownership of it. The press will be calling to see whose plan it is.’”

Rakestraw said Burckley “said, ‘You may have to give up something.’ I said, ‘Well, look at Lindley Park.’ I was amazed to see that I didn’t carry that precinct.”

“I’m not clever enough to do it,” she added, in response to a question about whether she submitted the plan so that she could shed a precinct that did not demonstrate a record of political support.

As to whether the plan would have played havoc against Bellamy-Small, a member who frequently winds up on the opposite side of votes, Rakestraw said, “That, I don’t know. I don’t know. I can’t speak to that.”

Rakestraw said one of the Lindley Park residents who complained about the redistricting plan hugged her later, and she doesn’t believe there are any lingering hard feelings between herself and constituents in the neighborhood.

As to the decision to pre-select Gate City Waste Services, a start-up company partially owned by a local businessman that offered the second lowest responsive bid, Rakestraw said, “I looked at what it cost across the board compared to the one we chose. The manpower. Aren’t we always saying we should support our local businesses?”

Rakestraw somewhat gingerly explained the basis for her belief that reopening the landfill is the right course for the city.

“I think it’s 980 acres that we have to use,” she said. “Have you ever taken a tour of the landfill? Before I took the tour — did the coup d’etat — I’d been going out there and sitting out there on hot days on rainy days to see what it was like when they dumped [construction and demolition debris]. We can make money through technology that should make a sustainable facility.”

Rakestraw takes pride in her committee assignments for the council. She replaced Matheny on the Piedmont Triad Council of Governments after he determined that the meetings conflicted with his schedule. She also serves on the Friends of the Library Advocacy Committee and the Guilford County Agricultural Advisory Board.

Going back to her years on the county commission, Rakestraw said it’s often said of her: “If you want somebody to go to the meetings, you ask Mary Rakestraw.”

Rakestraw sided with a group of traditional farmers in a long-running feud among vendors and customers at the city-owned Greensboro Farmers Curb Market. Asked about her affinity with farmers, she spoke of a childhood growing up in Rockingham County that included trips to join extended family to bring in tobacco harvests, her mother’s ability to “stretch a dollar,” a battle with polio and her eldest brother’s participation in Future Farmers of America.

Ultimately, Rakestraw found herself on the losing end of a vote this summer to begin contract negotiations with a nonprofit, instead of with the farmers group that she favored. The incumbent councilwoman indicated she considers the matter resolved.

“Once a decision is made,” she said, “we move on.”

Rakestraw presents herself as a unifier and a strong representative for her district.

“I have the experience,” she said. “I have had the ability to deal with our staff. I’ve worked with them. I do not make a lot of demands on them. I’ve kept taxes low for four years, and kept water rates low for four years. I have good relationships with everyone. My constituent services have been extraordinary.”

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