District 1 candidate Dianne Bellamy-Small greets mayoral candidate Tom Phillips at a candidate forum earlier this year. As a former member of council, the conservative-leaning Phillips often put the 1 in 8-1 votes. He was eliminated in the primary.
I, too, sing America.
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed —
I, too, am America
— “I, Too, Sing America” by Langston Hughes
Dianne Bellamy-Small, who has represented District 1 on Greensboro City Council for four terms, took a vernacular, just-folks approach when introducing herself to NC A&T University students during a candidate forum earlier this month. She cut a striking contrast to Donnell “DJ” Hardy, a challenger more than two decades her junior who comes across as studious and wonkish, by comparison.
“There’s an African proverb that says, ‘The lion’s story will never be told so long as the hunter is telling it,’” Bellamy-Small said. “My leadership style is one of get it done. You’ve got to have someone on council who is a grassroots-er, who gets out here in the community and who can very articulately talk about what’s happening. That’s me.”
Bellamy-Small has always taken care to tell her own story, rarely entrusting something so important to the press. She speaks at length during city council meetings, describing her activities in the community and expressing disappointment in political adversaries at the other end of the dais. She’s been known to express confidence that the press will misrepresent the facts, and compensates through a direct, candid style of speaking at community meetings. She’s the only council member who produces an annual report. Like her remarks at the end of council meetings, the report is chock full of information about how citizens can access city government and avail themselves of resources.
For example, the 2010 annual report describes the roles and responsibilities of various executive staff members and department heads; offers information about how businesses can take advantage of federal and state tax credits if they invest in depressed areas; informs citizens of their right to fair housing without discrimination; and includes updates on the Downtown Greenway construction and sidewalk projects.
The report makes fascinating and provocative reading for any student of urban geography and politics. For example: “Since 2000, the Greensboro [Fire Department] identified the southeast portion of Greensboro with the most significant number of residential fires. Referred to as a ‘burn belt’ this area is generally defined within the boundaries of Highway 29 on the east and Interstate 85 on the southwest and following Wendover Avenue on the north. For the past 10 years, 85 percent of residential structure fires in Greensboro occur in the burn belt.”
What follows naturally is almost a full page of household prevention fire tips.
Bellamy-Small did not respond to repeated requests by phone to be interviewed for this article. She maintains a practice of communicating with reporters by fax. Community leaders and constituents often complain that she is impossible to reach. Other constituents remain fiercely loyal to her because of her untiring advocacy for a district that is considered to be historically under-served by the city.
“It’s sort of like being the child that gets ignored,” Bellamy-Small said at a recent candidate forum. “If you want people to know that you want your piece of chicken then you’ve got to speak up and ask for it. That’s what I’ve done in my last eight years in office.”
Since winning election in 2003, Bellamy-Small has survived a recall effort, weathered battles over the firing of former City Manager Mitchell Johnson and the attempted reopening of the White Street Landfill (she opposed both), defied the Simkins PAC, and endured an effort by Guilford County Commissioner Skip Alston to instigate discontent among constituents over discomfort with the greenway. She has quietly and not so quietly worked with staff on something she calls a “parity plan” to put District 1 on equal footing with the rest of the city.
Bellamy-Small led the effort to establish the Interactive Resource Center, a homeless day center. During her tenure, the district has seen economic development in the form of a nanotechnology center and an O’Reilly Auto Parts distribution center. Over the years, Bellamy-Small has become a champion of the Greensboro Coliseum as an economic development driver. She serves with Councilman Robbie Perkins on the regional Transportation Advisory Committee, which plans new roadways.
Over the past two years, Bellamy-Small has found herself on the losing end of several votes, often joined by Perkins and sometimes also by Councilman Jim Kee. Those decisions included a series of votes to reopen the White Street Landfill before a legal opinion by the city attorney tipped the balance of power, a redistricting plan proposed by Councilwoman Mary Rakestraw that played havoc with Bellamy-Small’s electoral base, actions to deplete financial reserves for infrastructure by reducing water rates, a vote to deny a staff request to hire a federal lobbyist and a successful effort to seek state legislation so that the city attorney would report to council instead of the city manager.
But early in this current term, Bellamy-Small was on the prevailing side of a narrow vote to fund construction of the Greensboro Aquatic Center, part of a coalition that also included Perkins, Kee, Councilman Zack Matheny and Mayor Pro Tem Nancy Vaughan.
“I can truthfully stand here and say that all of the positive things that have been brought up for the city of Greensboro I did vote for them,” Bellamy-Small told a predominantly white audience at Congregational United Church of Christ recently, “whether it was the coliseum complex… whether it was to give more police officers for crime.”
Like every other council member, Bellamy-Small voted to offer incentives to Honda Aircraft Co. to expand its operation at Piedmont Triad International Airport. She told students at the A&T candidate forum that she used her position behind the scenes to hold corporations accountable for equal employment opportunities.
“Every time a new business comes to us and wants an incentive, I ask, particularly when they talk about engineering jobs and that kind of stuff, I say, ‘Have you been over to A&T?’” Bellamy-Small recounted. “They’ll kind of fumble around…. ‘Well-uh-well-uh.’ ‘Have you been over to A&T?’ ‘We’ve got engineering graduates over there.’ You saw in the paper how HondaJet — we’re waiting on them. When HondaJet came before us, I always ask, ‘How many minorities? How many women? And will you hire ex-offenders?’ The last time, HondaJet said, ‘Yes, we’ll hire them.’ You know how many they hired? Forty out of 550. You do the math. When they came this time, I said, ‘Something’s wrong with this picture.’ They said, ‘We’ll deal with it.’ So they thought behind closed doors they tried to answer my question. I asked in public, and the man said, ‘Oh, we talked about it in private.’ ‘Yeah, and I brought it up in public.’”
Bellamy-Small has been consistent in her support for staff and criticism of her conservative colleagues for what she considers micro-management of staff. In other areas, she has not been so predictable. As a former police officer with the Greensboro Police Department, Bellamy-Small might have been expected to support a group of black and Latino police officers who complained about discrimination and retaliation. Instead, like the rest of council, she staunchly backed City Manager Rashad Young as he signed off on a raft of terminations.
Last November, she joined Kee and Vaughan in opposing a downtown teen curfew proposed by Matheny. Earlier this year, she cast the lone vote against a rezoning request to increase the density of a residential development in her district, siding with residents over a local developer. She voted with Perkins, Vaughan and Kee in unsuccessful efforts to restore pay to reserve police officers and to a nonprofit economic development partnership in the recent budget cycle. She cast a lone vote against a plan to scale back early voting in this election.
During much of the recent year, Bellamy-Small’s public face has been one of heightened outrage.
When her conservative colleagues tried to ram through a redistricting plan widely characterized as “gerrymandering” in April, Bellamy-Small said the current council would be remembered for “its elitism, racism, destructiveness, lack of transparency and reckless fiscal management.”
She railed against fellow council members in June after a staff member called her to inform her that the majority of council had reached a “mutual separation agreement” with City Attorney J. Rita McNeil-Danish.
“The high-handed behavior shown by the leadership of this council — and by that I do not mean the mayor — is reprehensible and insulting to the citizens, the staff and members of this council who believe in democracy and not just who is on the ‘winning side,’” Bellamy-Small said. “This ‘mutual separation agreement’ that lacked the participation of all council members until the closed session today is wasteful, mean spirited and undermines the leadership of our city manager.”
In July, Bellamy-Small surprised practically everybody by filing to run for mayor. Political observers wondered why she would risk splitting the vote when her longtime political ally, Robbie Perkins, had declared his intentions to run a year prior and would likely appeal to the same east Greensboro constituency.
The candidate posted the text of Langston Hughes’ poem “I, Too, Sing America” on her Facebook page after filing to run, declaring that she would return “respectful, responsive and responsible government to the people.”
After weeks of speculation, Bellamy-Small and Perkins spoke about their respective political aspirations over the phone. Perkins told YES! Weekly that Bellamy-Small asked him if she would have “a seat at the table” on a council in which Perkins was the mayor. Perkins said he assured Bellamy-Small that every member of council would have a seat at the table, including her.
The next week, just before the end of filing, Bellamy-Small switched into the District 1 race, seeking reelection to the seat she currently holds.
“After further careful consideration of my filing for mayor of the city of Greensboro and more discussions with the constituents in District 1 and in Greensboro,” Bellamy-Small wrote in a letter to the Carolina Peacemaker, “I have decided I can strategically be more effective on the city council as part of a tactical team to bring sensibility back to city government by rescinding my filing for mayor and becoming a candidate for District 1 for a fifth term.”