Robbie Perkins stays busy. The 55-year-old commercial realtor who has served on Greensboro City Council since 1993, with the exception of a two-year break in the past decade, often starts his day with a five-mile run. He doesn’t listen to music in the car. Instead, he’s generally on his cell phone.
Perkins is running for mayor. As the most experienced council member, he sees it as a natural move. The incumbent, Bill Knight, was elected two years ago as something of an outsider, having never served in elected office before. And while Knight has alienated key constituencies, he has also attracted a loyal base of conservative supporters.
Perkins was enjoying himself on Tuesday night. The council meeting had been mercifully short — about an hour and a half long. He had a seat on the patio at M’Coul’s Public House. The air was cool, the pollen had been banished, and the candidate leaned back in his chair.
Perkins said he expected that both he and Knight would survive the primary, although he predicted the race will be tight. He remarked that Tom Phillips, a former colleague on council who is presenting himself as a third-way alternative, doesn’t seem to be gaining much traction. He didn’t mention Bradford Cone, the only registered Democrat in the race, who seems to be turning some heads and could pose a threat to Perkins’ left flank. Chris Phillips, a fourth Republican, is also a candidate.
“The key is absolutely voter turnout,” Perkins said. He noted that the last municipal election brought out 6 percent of registered voters in the primary and 18 percent in the general election. Four years ago, when Perkins’ political ally Yvonne Johnson was elected the city’ first black mayor, turnout in the general election was 20 percent.
“That 2 percent difference between 2007 and 2009 made the difference for Yvonne,” Perkins said.
The candidate predicted he will perform well across the city, not just in east Greensboro where there is a high number of black voters who have traditionally supported him. He said he expects to do well in Irving Park and Starmount, old-money neighborhoods that supported Knight in the last election.
“My goal is to be mayor of the city,” Perkins said. “I spent the last 30 years in the business community. I’m in politics because of my experience in Leadership Greensboro, a program sponsored by the chamber of commerce.
“We’re working on a number of sectors,” he added. “Obviously, we’ve got strengths in the business community, we’ve got strengths in east Greensboro, and we’ve got strengths in the neighborhood groups because of the redistricting process. The way that was handled by the other group ticked people off, and I think we can take advantage of that.”
Before we began the interview, the candidate had considered ordering food, but decided against it. He followed my lead in ordering a pint of Ayinger Oktober Fest-Märzen, a Belgian-style ale. Perkins obliged my request to take his picture, prompting a light detour in our conversation from the more intense topics of policy and politics.
“I really like beer,” Perkins said. Appraising the beverage in front of him, he added, “This stuff is great. It tastes like a loaf of bread.”
He described himself as a “Bud Light guy,” but also gave praise to the Greensboro area’s two local brands, Natty Greene’s and Red Oak. When I mused on whether Greensboro’s micro-brewing industry compares favorably with other municipalities across the state, Perkins didn’t hesitate to offer his opinion that Greensboro had the best.
As a campaigner and sitting councilman, Perkins is quick to draw contrasts between himself and the incumbent, and doesn’t hesitate to criticize the council’s performance under Knight’s leadership.
“Look at what we’ve not accomplished,” he said. “We’ve followed a process of distraction. We’ve deviated from our true goals. We’ve been distracted by speakers from the floor and the city attorney. The issues we went down to Raleigh and fought for didn’t have anything to do with job creation.
“Most of the time we spent trying to keep the train from going off the track,” Perkins added.
Asked if the council accomplished anything in the past two years that he takes some pride in, Perkins readily offered one example.
“We got two good budgets in tough times,” he said. “We voted on it together, and I’m proud of that. I don’t think it was a conservative accomplishment. I think it was a council accomplishment.”
Perkins said that in 2010 he cobbled together a majority to support a tax decrease of an eighth of a cent. Some members wanted a deeper tax cut and others didn’t want any decrease at all, so Perkins said he figured an eighth of a cent would be viable compromise. The budget passed 7-2, with two conservative members peeling off.
If elected, Perkins said that his goal as mayor, after resolving questions about where the city's solid waste will go, would be to build a fund for infrastructure improvements as a positive signal to private industry.
"My responsibility as mayor is to talk to council about things we can really agree on, get a super majority and give the staff a list of tasks to accomplish," Perkins said. "It will be important to build trust between the council and the community and to build trust between the council and staff.
"If a majority of council agrees," Perkins added, "I'd like to move speakers from the floor back to the beginning of the meeting. The mayor is the chairman of the board. The council is the decision-making body. You've got to build consensus by working with your council members one on one. Nobody is going to be left out of the discussion. I'll be out there, but it will be based on the majority of the council."
Not to say he expects the other members to be a rubber stamp.
"If you do your job and you work on things that are good for Greensboro, there's plenty of credit to go around," Perkins said. "The thing I like about a number of council members is that they're feisty, they're opinionated, and their heart's in the right place. I'm not going to hold that against anyone."
Perkins’ political appeal can sometimes be a mystery to those who do not live in Greensboro. He’s a registered Republican aligned with the council’s liberal faction. He makes his living as president of a commercial real estate firm, but he enjoys strong support in the black community.
To the candidate, there’s no contradiction.
“Jobs and public safety — this is the common element,” Perkins said. “You go to one side of town and then you go to the other, and you hear the same thing.”
Then tacking against his opponent’s faction, he said, “It’s the other group that’s fixated on taxes.”
Perkins is quick to marshal a stream of factoids to argue against a perception among some that the council prior to Knight’s election was fiscally profligate. He said the only time the city raised taxes was to cover the cost of voter-approved bonds. He said the city had reasonable although not spectacular growth over the past two decades to cover the cost of investments, and maintained adequate reserves. In 2002, he said the city didn’t have to raise taxes in the aftermath of a recession that prompted the state of North Carolina to strip funding to cities.
Continuing on the theme, he noted that former City Manager Mitchell Johnson — one of the conservatives’ bêtes noire because of his willingness to listen to black police officers complaints of mistreatment — started cutting back on city hiring in 2008, “10 months before the meltdown on Wall Street.”
“He was probably our most conservative city manager since Tom Osborne,” Perkins said.
As to his business background and strong appeal with black voters, Perkins noted that he was elected by the business community to represent District 3 in 1993. He took the chamber of commerce’s “Other Voices” class, which teaches about diversity and valuing people from all walks of life.
Mayor Vic Nussbaum also whetted Perkins’ appetite for community improvement in east Greensboro.
“I spent a lot of time working on eliminating impoverished areas of Greensboro,” Perkins said. “I worked with Vic Nussbaum. He initiated and fought to establish a housing program in Greensboro. In those days we had money — federal, state and local — that could be spent in those areas. We changed the face of east Greensboro. When I first came here, in 1979, there were areas of the city that just looked bombed out. This area looked bombed out.”
Perkins’ appreciation for equality also developed as a student in the 1970s at Duke University, where he ran competitively for coach Al Buehler. Perkins said Buehler forged a strong relationship with the track and field program at historically black NC Central University at a time when Durham was divided by racial tension. Runners in NC Central’s track and field program would train on Duke’s track. Perkins also credits Buehler with readily giving up scholarship money to accommodate Title IX, federal legislation in the early 1970s that forced educational institutions to provide equal funding to female athletes.
Perkins said he has run with many women, including Ellison Goodall Bishop, a celebrated Duke runner. Perkins came to Greensboro to get started in business in 1979 after completing his MBA at Duke, but he ran competitively in Europe through the early 1980s.
The topic of running animates him more than almost any other. He seemed to particularly relish a recollection of running with the late Greta Waitz of Norway in a five-mile race through a series of mills in Milan, Italy.
“After you ran with her, drank with her, and ran with her the next day, she would wear you out,” Perkins said.
Perkins’ familiarity with real estate gives him a degree of expertise in community development and housing, but his livelihood also presents frequent conflicts of interest, such as when he had to recuse himself from a vote on extending water and sewer lines to the new GTCC aviation campus near Oak Ridge because of financial interests in commercial development in the area.
Brushes of familiarity between the two worlds causes discomfort to some voters, conservative and otherwise.
Perkins has said that he got into city politics through his involvement with an organization that was a forerunner to the Triad Real Estate and Building Industries Coalition, or TREBIC. The coalition holds its annual “Pigs, Poultry and Politics” campaign reception next week at Castle McCulloch in Jamestown. The organization typically puts out a barbecue spread with a bluegrass band providing entertainment. The website for the event conspicuously notes that members of the general public are not invited. Candidates are invited to make short public speeches, but the most significant impressions are made by candidates working the room and chatting with developers, builders, bankers and lawyers, who typically ramp up campaign contributions after the primary.
The relationship between Perkins and TREBIC took a surreal turn last year when the city’s proactive housing inspection program, known as Rental Unit Certificate of Occupancy, or RUCO, was up for discussion. Perkins’ company, NAI Piedmont Triad is a member of TREBIC, and TREBIC led efforts to dismantle RUCO on behalf of its members, property management companies and apartment owners in particular. As city council liaison to the RUCO Board, which was heavily stacked with real estate professionals, Perkins was an outspoken defender of the RUCO program.
“RUCO needed to be put in place because of the deteriorated housing stock we had at the time,” Perkins said during his interview at M’Coul’s. “It was the only way that I thought we could get rid of substandard housing.”
Perkins said it’s not a big deal for him to take a position opposite of TREBIC.
“I’ve bucked TREBIC in the past,” he said. “Everybody in Greensboro knows that I have an opinion. Everyone on council has an opinion. You probably don’t get elected unless you have some strong opinions.”
RUCO has now been dismantled, thanks to a new law passed by the NC General Assembly that prohibits proactive rental housing inspections. The council voted in June to continue a decision on whether to take a position on the pending legislation. Perkins defended the council’s handling of the item, arguing that the legislature was scheduled to vote on the bill the next morning, and a resolution by city council for or against would not have been noticed anyway.
The Greensboro Police Department has been beset by racial tension, since at least the middle part of the last decade, when black officers began complaining about what they considered unwarranted investigations by a special unit. The allegations led to the resignation of Chief David Wray, and a political backlash resulted in the council voting to fire City Manager Mitchell Johnson, with Perkins in the minority on the decision.
Allegations of discrimination and retaliation have continued to emerge from within the department since Wray’s departure, and five black and Hispanic officers who have complained about mistreatment have been fired. In contrast to the landfill, the council has maintained a relatively united front on the police issue, solidly backing City Manager Rashad Young.
“Police departments, by their very nature, are moving targets,” Perkins said. “There’s always going to be discussion and debate. What you have to remember about police is that police is a paramilitary organization. Chain of command is important.”
Perkins is a deft politician, and he ably shifted the trajectory of the discussion to an aspect of the policing likely to make more constituencies happy than dwelling on the department’s shortcomings.
“I’ve always backed them from a resource allocation standpoint,” the candidate said. “We’re waiting for this compensation study. We’re losing police officers to High Point and Burlington. We’re losing them to the Guilford County Sheriff’s Office — that never happened before. When you spend $80,000 to train them, and they move on, that’s a huge cost to taxpayers.”