Northeast Greensboro council incumbent challenges the challengers

C. Bradley Hunt IIYvonne JohnsonJim KeeMarikay AbuzuaiterCyndy HayworthJean Austin Brown
Nancy VaughanMarlando Demonte PridgenDan Fischer

City Councilman Jim Kee took the fight to his two challengers last night at Presbyterian Church of the Cross in northeast Greensboro during an intimate and candid series of exchanges in which candidates nearly outnumbered citizens.

Kee posed a question to C. Bradley Hunt II, the youngest of three candidates seeking the District 2 seat on council, and his toughest critic.

“What are you currently doing to bring economic development to District 2?” asked Kee, who is a real estate developer by profession.

“Let’s be honest here,” Hunt responded. “I know that you are in business and that you are a business person. That is what you were supposed to bring to council. However, that is not my thing. Once I get on council it will be quite easy for me with my leadership skills, with my zeal, with my enthusiasm, with my fresh approach and fresh perspective to do anything that needs to be done.”

Kee then made a preemptive strike, drawing out the policy issue in which he differs most dramatically with Hunt.

“I happen to think we have an excellent police department,” he said. “Crime has steadily gone down…. What is your position on the Greensboro Police Department?”

Hunt responded, “I believe that the Greensboro Police Department cannot continue to investigate itself. We need a citizens review board with subpoena power. We have to get citizens involved in the Greensboro Police Department or we will still see corruption; we will still see mistreatment, harassment and discrimination.”

Next, Hunt received a set-up question from his mother, Yvonne Hunt Perry: “Why should I vote for you as a student? Some people may say you’re inexperienced. Persuade me that you are the candidate for District 2.”

“Let’s bring it right here to Greensboro, North Carolina,” her son replied. “Feb. 1, 1960. You had four freshman at NC A&T. The Greensboro sit-in movement changed the nation. As a 24-year-old within the same city, I know that together with the university and the community we can change the city.”

Kee took advantage of the opening, referencing Hunt’s role in a civil disobedience action with the Spirit of the Sit-In Movement in which Hunt and others took seats on city council during a break in a May 2010 meeting. Hunt had taken the mayor’s seat and banged the gavel, signaling for the student activists to begin a discussion of issues such as alleged police corruption and the landfill, which they believed were being neglected at the time. Later, Hunt and others were voluntarily arrested.

“What was your purpose and accomplishment?” Kee asked.

“On that day, I took a stand – something that is needed at times,” Hunt said. “Maybe you can understand that, councilman. Sometimes you just have to take a stand.”

In his introductory remarks, Hunt suggested that Kee has not taken a strong enough stance against reopening the White Street Landfill.

“That conversation is a nonstarter, as far as I’m concerned,” Hunt said. “I don’t believe that should have ever come up, and I believe we need the right leadership, someone that’s willing to stand and say, ‘No, this is wrong.’”

Mayor Pro Tem Nancy Vaughan, who is seeking reelection as an at-large candidate, took umbrage at Hunt’s remarks and came to her fellow council member’s defense.

“When you were 10 years old, Mr. Kee was coming before the city council relentlessly to close that landfill,” said Vaughan, who was serving on council at the time. “I don’t think there was a greater advocate for closing the landfill and organizing the concerned citizens of the northeast. I think that when it comes the landfill the community really owes him a large debt for the work that he did 10 years ago and the work that he continues to do.”

Hunt responded, “As a councilman, I did not see that. I appreciate the work that was done 10 years ago, but right now in 2011 and 2010, I believe that the councilman was the last person to sign on against the landfill, and followed public opinion.”

Kee also challenged his other challenger, Dan Fischer, who sought to exploit the same perceived weakness. Kee asked Fischer what he would have done differently had he been the one in the District 2 seat over the past two years.

“Even though I want a win-win situation, if I have to I will get down and dirty,” said Fischer, who served as a Navy corpsman for 20 years. "I will put my foot down. I will work with anybody to get the answers I want. Working with the Marines, I found ways to go through them, over, under, around, and to blast a hole in it. I am willing to do most anything to see what is right for a community, happen.”

In addition to the three District 2 candidates, a parade of at-large contenders stood before the audience. Melvin DuBose, a facilitator, said at the end of the program that any candidate who was in favor of reopening the landfill or who wasn’t talking about economic development should forget about receiving residents’ votes.

Marikay Abuzuaiter, who has made two previous attempts to win election at large and who has previously enjoyed strong support from east Greensboro, gave a passionate testimony to her stance on the landfill.

“Opening the landfill is the worst thing this city could have ever considered doing,” she said. “I took a stand very, very early on this because I had been on a landfill research committee about two years ago. And what I found out what a landfill can do to the environment, to the people – if anyone ever tells you a landfill does not leak, that is untrue.

“I had somebody tell me in a private meeting: ‘Well, you’re getting tagged on the [human relations] commission as ‘the landfill lady,’” Abuzuaiter recounted. “And I said, ‘Okay.’ ‘And you’re also being toxic.’ I said, ‘Okay.’ And this person said, ‘What do you want your legacy to be: The landfill lady or toxic? What’s it going to be?' I said, ‘No, I want my legacy to be I do what is right.”

Cyndy Hayworth, a well-funded at-large candidate who was recently elected chair of the zoning commission, also told voters she is opposed to reopening the landfill.

“This community trusted the decision that the council made several years ago,” Hayworth said. “And through that trust they built a community around the decision not to accept household waste. They built a new library. They built new things. They built up a community. And it’s just not right to come back and say, ‘Now, we’re going to reopen it.’ So my decision – and it might be a moot point at this point – would be to not reopen the landfill and to look at the alternatives that we have. One would be to renegotiate a contract. They’ve already said that they could do what they’re doing for less money and save the taxpayers money. We need to get to the table with Rockingham and Randolph and Caswell counties and start looking at a regional solution to this problem.”

Jo Isler, who serves as Abuzuaiter’s campaign manager and who lives in District 2, challenged Hayworth on her association with Danny Thompson, an at-large Councilman who was elected two years ago after telling voters he was opposed to reopening the landfill. Thompson is seeking reelection, but did not attend the candidate forum.

“Two years ago you endorsed Danny Thompson in the newspaper,” Isler said. “Do you regret that, because he seems to be the force behind reopening the landfill?”

“I did write a letter of support to Danny – a letter to the editor,” Hayworth said. “I think that you could agree with me that when you have a candidate that has no voting record, who has nothing to look at except what their platform is, and when you hear a good platform, and you think, ‘Well, that’s a great candidate,’ and you vote for them and they get in office and then you’re very disappointed. I think every person here could agree that we’ve seen candidates that we voted for and we did not agree with them once they got in office. I would not have voted on issues the same as Danny would.”

Isler also challenged at-large candidate Jean Austin Brown on her stance on the landfill.

“I’ve not been privy to some of these conversations about opening the landfill,” Brown said. “So I’ll need to know more information. I think I won’t be voting on that because it’s already a done deal, from what I understand. At this point I honestly can’t say what I would do. I’ve talked to people on both sides. It’s not that I’m wishy-washy, but I’m listening to both sides of it.”

Yvonne Johnson, who served one term as mayor before being defeated by Bill Knight in her 2009 reelection bid, is running at large this year. She lives in northeast Greensboro and holds a longstanding record in support of keeping the landfill closed.

“I also feel very strongly that we do not need to reopen the White Street Landfill to municipal solid waste,” she said. “I think it will hurt us economically. Northeast Greensboro is one of the areas of Greensboro that has the greatest potential for growth in this city. We’ve built up the rest. We have our water system in the north. And years ago we put in the infrastructure because we knew it was northeast Greensboro that had the potential.”

Marlando Demonte Pridgen, a political newcomer who is also seeking an at-large seat, told the gathering that he will take a fresh and innovative approach to economic development.

Kee, the incumbent in District 2, told Pridgen: “A lot of your ideas are already being implemented."

Vaughan came to the event with momentum from a court decision earlier in the day to uphold her right to vote on a proposed contract to reopen the landfill. She has said she will vote the contract down, and her participation effectively blocks a slim majority from reopening the landfill.

Vaughan, who has not traditionally enjoyed deep support in east Greensboro, received a round of applause when she announced the decision. She cited her participation in a 2001 vote to close the landfill, and appealed for unity.

“When the landfill came before us it was really seen as a people issue,” Vaughan said. “It wasn’t a dollars-and-cents issue. It was a people issue and what was going to be best for the community. And that was a unanimous vote to close the landfill. Do you know: We did not get one call from anybody saying, ‘How could you do that? You are not being good stewards of our tax dollars.' I think that was a different time then. I think people really valued neighborhoods and valued what was going on in other people’s lives.”

Vaughan also atoned for her role in approving a map considered by many to be a scheme to gerrymander the city to the conservative majority’s advantage.

“We had an issue with redistricting,” she said. “We passed a map. It was a bad map. I agree with that. There was a public outcry. And I was not ashamed to say, ‘We made a mistake.’ And within 36 hours I said, ‘We need to revisit this.’ And we came up with a much better plan. I listen to my constituents. When you say we’ve done something wrong, I don’t cover my ears, and say, ‘Well, that’s the way it is.’ If you think we’ve done something wrong, you’ve got an advocate in me. I listen to you, and I think I’ve proved that by my actions.

“You know, we are really at a crossroads right now as a city," Vaughan continued. "We can dig our heels in and we can keep our extreme left and our extreme right. You know, if we want to be successful we have to come together and we have to be willing to make broad steps. And sometimes broad steps cost money. But you know, we have to consider everything because if we keep just doing business as usual we’re going to stagnate.”

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