A&T vote inspires fiery city council campaigning

Sal Leone, an at-large candidate for Greensboro City Council, speaks from the well.

About a hundred conservatively dressed, most female students filed into a NC A&T University auditorium to address questions to candidates for Greensboro City Council last night during a forum hosted by the Alpha Mu Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Inc. on Wednesday evening.

At the end of the program Cherrell Brown, chair of the sorority’s political awareness and involvement committee, asked how many of the college students were registered to vote. Virtually every hand went up, prompting applause from council members.

“Myth debunked,” Brown said. “Students are registered to vote.”

The university is located in District 2, and the three candidates for the seat – taking nothing for granted in the run-up to what is traditionally a low-turnout primary – engaged in a spirited debate to try to win the students’ vote. Challenger C. Bradley Hunt II, himself a student at A&T, and incumbent Jim Kee, an alum who serves on the university’s board of visitors, delivered particularly contentious challenges to one another’s character and record of leadership.

Kee discusses his ability to work with conservative council members on matters of common interest such as bringing a grocery store to east Greensboro. Hunt took advantage of the opening to attack.

“There are certain issues in the city that are not worth a compromise,” Hunt said. “When you talk about a landfill that’s going in your backyard, in a backyard where there’s 85 percent African Americans – environmental racism – when you have to deal with the stench and the rodents, the trucks going back and forth in your neighborhoods, we don’t need to compromise on those situations.

“Councilman Kee was willing to negotiate a landfill for economic development,” the challenger continued. “That’s not right. Not in District 2. If you elect me, I’ll give you a voice. I will tell them, ‘No, that’s wrong,’ and I will say it to the top of the Melvin Municipal Building. And let everyone in Greensboro know that it’s wrong. So no, my style of leadership is a fighter, and not a compromiser.”

Kee struck back.

“This young man here is distorting the facts,” he said. “And if you’ve got people that are running for city council that are going to lie to you before they get on council, imagine what they are going to do after they get on city council.”

The incumbent pulled out a June 2001 copy of the News & Record showing him addressing city council on the White Street Landfill.

“I was a community activist fighting to close the landfill,” Kee said. “You know, I was pretty angry then. As a matter of fact, a group that I helped form called Concerned Citizens of Northeast Greensboro is the organization that [got the landfill closed in 2006].”

Kee went on to say that he believed when he got elected and still believes that waste-to-energy technology is a viable alternative to landfilling.

“You call it a compromise,” Kee said. “But let me tell you about waste to energy. Waste to energy is a new technology that [converts trash] to electricity or diesel fuel. And it creates green jobs for Aggies, jobs that pay $50,000 or more. Now, my suggestion was that we form a public-private partnership with a company, the city of Greensboro and North Carolina A&T because A&T can acquire those $30- and $50 million energy grants that President Obama has put out so we can research alternative energy.”

Yvonne Johnson, an at-large candidate, reminded the audience that she had served on the council that made the decision to close the landfill in 2001. Mayoral candidates Robbie Perkins and Tom Phillips, and at-large candidate Nancy Vaughan were also part of that vote. Johnson said the Golden Leaf Foundation, on whose board she serves, gave A&T upwards of a million to research waste-to-energy technology.

“We need to go to waste to energy, but we don’t need to open the landfill to do that,” Johnson said. “We can do that someplace else. We can do it at the transfer station. And so the only thing I am hoping will happen with that landfill one day is that we will have the technology from North Carolina A&T State University to mine that landfill, environmentally safely mine it, and take all that crap out of it.”

Dianne Bellamy-Small, the incumbent in the District 1 race, was in rare form and good spirits. Challenger Donnell “DJ” Hardy, in contrast, took a subdued, low-key approach.

“There’s an African proverb that says, ‘The lion’s story will never be told as 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 the 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.”

The incumbent representative used an anecdote about her negotiations with Honda Aircraft Co. to illustrate her commitment to ensuring that people of color and women receive equal access to jobs.

“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 on 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 that in private.’ ‘Yeah, and I brought it up in public.’”

One of the students asked candidates how they planned to work with universities to bring jobs to Greensboro.

Robbie Perkins, one of two mayoral candidates who showed up at the forum, leaped form his seat.

“This is one of the great opportunities that we have in our city,” he said. “We’ve got 35,000 college students in our city and we need to keep more of them here, and the only way we’re going to keep them is create jobs. Now, one of the four critical clusters that has been identified by the business community is the nanotech-engineering cluster with the joint venture between A&T and UNCG over on East Lee Street. You’ve got a $21 million building that’s open, and we’ve got a $58.8 million building that should open in the next few weeks. And that’s going to be one of the leading sources of tech jobs in this region.”

Perkins went on to outline his vision for expanding the roadway network to create opportunities for economic growth in the area of the nanoscience campus.

“Now, I don’t think that that’s a big enough area over there to accommodate what I see as a large-growth industry,” Perkins said. “Councilwoman Dianne Bellamy-Small and I have been working for the last several years on the TAC, which is the Transportation Advisory Committee, that basically works on roads in this area. And we think it’s imperative that there’s a new road that’s going to run from that nanotech center north where that stop light hits Lee Street. And if you run it right, you can run it all the way to Penry Road where GTCC has their campus. And if you really want to expand the vision, you expand the vision from a 75-acre park that the university owns and that the nanotech buildings are being built on, you take everything from the east of that road out to our belt loop around the city, and you make that the research park of the future.”

Kee said he supports Perkins’ road proposal, but he would go a step further and extend the road to Cone Boulevard. That has been a politically sensitive initiative, considering that the proposed road would go past the White Street Landfill, and make reopening the landfill more politically palatable by relieving heavy truck traffic from residential neighborhoods. Greensboro voters supported a bond for the project, but the city has yet to issue the debt to finance the Cone Boulevard extension.

Bellamy-Small said she supports the strategy of creating jobs through nanoscience research, but argued the city needs to take a broad-based approach.

“There is no other kind of economic generator in Greensboro at this time that provides the kind of jobs, whether it’s part time,” she said. “I’m over at the coliseum. I was over at the aquatic center today swimming with the little children. We hire A&T students. We hire UNCG students. Yeah, the nanotechnology center is very important, but if you can get a part-time job or a full-time job, or if you can work the ACC, those are the kind of things that do put some money in your pocket.”

Hardy championed a more entrepreneurial approach.

“Portland, Oregon is what I would to model Greensboro after if I have the chance,” he said. “They go and find companies that are two and three big – two and three people in garage – who have a business plan and have something that can work and hire thousands. Out of 20 that they might fund, 15 of them might crash and burn. It’s those five that make it through that will make thousands of jobs.”

Kee went on the offensive against both of his challengers in the District 2 race on the topic of job creation. Kee criticized opponent Dan Fischer for his reservations about the Greensboro Coliseum’s operating deficit, arguing that the coliseum’s economic impact translates to a 100 to one return on the investment. Kee also ridiculed a statement by Hunt at a previous candidate forum acknowledging acknowledging that, in contrast to Kee, Hunt is not a business person.

“You don’t want a council person who’s not business astute,” Kee said.

Hunt hit back.

“You also don’t want a developer as a council member because this creates a conflict of interest,” he said. “Any time that you put development and business over people, it’s when you’re willing to compromise the White Street Landfill. No, I’m not a developer; I don’t think Councilman Kee is either.

“A&T has been around since 1891 and I haven’t seen too much or any economic development for students,” Hunt added. “If you elect me, one of your own, I will see to it that we get jobs.”

Several candidates responded to a question about how they see council working with college students.

“I just created the first ever internship program, where interns from A&T and Bennett College will intern for the city council, get paid for it, get experience, and have something to put on their resume,” Kee said. “That program just started – wasn’t it October 1st, Robbie? Robbie Perkins and I are funding the program.”

Jim Lewis, an activist with Conservatives for Guilford County had questioned whether the program was appropriate at a city council meeting the previous evening. Discussion about the program revealed that, in fact, the funding is coming out of council members’ travel budgets. District 5 Councilwoman Trudy Wade, part of the council’s conservative coalition, said that she, Mayor Bill Knight, at-large Councilman Danny Thompson, District 3 Councilman Zack Matheny and District 4 Councilwoman Mary Rakestraw, returned their share of the travel budget to the general fund, and that the money was reallocated to purchase reflective vests for community watch volunteers.

Tom Phillips, who is also running for mayor, went on the attack against Perkins, who is considered likely to make it through the primary with incumbent Bill Knight. Knight and two other mayoral candidates, Bradford Cone and Chris Phillips, did not attend the forum.

“I believe it’s going to require leadership coming in from outside the current council, because it’s become so divisive,” Tom Phillips said. “But unless you have a massive change on the council – and historically that has not happened; it may happen this time, but historically it hasn’t – unless we have a massive change, we’re going to have several people on the council who will not work with Robbie. So we’re going to have two more years of bickering.

“I also am retiring December 31st,” Phillips continued. “I can’t have any conflicts of interest on zoning cases, things of that nature. Mr. Perkins, being in the development industry, can’t help but have conflicts of interest, whether they’re real or perceived. Those are two the main differences between myself and my good friend, Robbie.”

After declaring his intention to withdraw from the race earlier in the day, at-large candidate Sal Leone resurfaced at the forum. The candidate went on the attack against conservative incumbents and their political philosophy, holding the floor for almost six minutes.

Leone charged that at-large Councilman Danny Thompson broke a promise to residents of east Greensboro when he said during the 2009 campaign that he was not in favor of reopening the White Street Landfill. The line of attack echoed a spirited statement by another at-large candidate, Marikay Abuzuaiter, a week earlier.

“He said he implemented a curfew, which is anti-conservative,” Thompson said. “But he took credit for it because it looked good. More lies. He’s not here because he can’t defend lies. What’s he going to say to you? He didn’t go to the Interactive Resource Center. Know why? There are poor people there. They don’t care. He’s not here because the conservatives think you won’t vote. That’s what they’re counting on. Bennett College, UNCG, A&T, GTCC – you guys have the power, and they know it.”

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