GREENSBORO, N.C. (WGHP) – For approaching a decade now, Nancy Vaughan has been mayor of Greensboro. Before that, she was a member of the City Council, and during her public life, she has seen the city through many ups and downs and successes and calamities and even assaults on its sovereignty by partisan forces serving in Raleigh.

Now, the question of whether Vaughan gets another four years at the helm is very much up in the air. City Councilmember Justin Outling filed early in a delayed election season to challenge her, and then businessman Eric Robert — pronounced ro-BEHR — and former judge Mark Cummings entered the race.

This election was supposed to be staged last year in the 4-year rotation for the county-wide mayor’s race and the district and at-large races to serve on the City Council.

But delays in the execution of the U.S. Census, caused first by politics and then by the COVID-19 pandemic, delayed the release of population counts until early fall. That meant that the figures required to set the lines for the voting districts for some seats on the council weren’t in hand in time to vote last November.

The City Council considered conducting its at-large voting—mayor and two seats—last fall and then the five district seats this year, but ultimately the races were kept on the same calendar, which means early voting starts April 28 for the Primary Election on May 17 and the General Election, which will be July 26.

Because the mayoral and council races are non-partisan, the top two vote-getters for mayor on May 17 will face off for the job in November.

Each candidate has unique reasons for running and personal history in the community. WGHP submitted an identical series of questions to each candidate, and each response included thoughtful answers built on rich experience and observation. Each showed a command of the issues and the ability to express answers that voters should be able to grasp and understand.

WGHP did not receive a completed questionnaire from Cummings. We offer these lightly-edited responses to our questions from Outling, Robert and Vaughan in alphabetical order.

Why do you want to be mayor of Greensboro?

OUTLING: I am proud of Greensboro’s rich and progressive history.  We were in the forefront of the Civil Rights movement, we’re home to two institutions who were early champions of women’s education, and for over a century we have been a magnet city for the entire region. But we have fallen behind our peers and the question now is how do we build on that legacy in a way which allows everyone to share our future. I am running because I have listened to the community and I can be an effective advocate who brings the city together around ideas and solutions.  I will provide substance over symbolism.

ROBERT: I have been fortunate to live the American dream. I immigrated to this country from France via Gabon almost 39 years ago and it is clear that America has given me a great deal. Greensboro has enabled me to have the success I could not have experienced anywhere else. From all that I experienced, I am only too aware that many residents of this city are struggling and experiencing uncertainty and inequality daily. I believe the majority of people in Greensboro have much more in common than it may appear on the surface. We have challenges but we can overcome them as a city, as a community, as neighbors. We must have the difficult conversations in order to do so. Most of our current City Council members have served for a long time, and most have served their communities well. Others promoted a divisive and exclusive atmosphere, self-serving devoid of any real point of view or distinct flavor. They, too often, promoted deceptive legal maneuvering while blurring the ethical boundaries. I am running for mayor because I simply believe we deserve better; I believe we deserve a fresh perspective with evolved points of reference.  I strongly believe we can be cool on our own terms because we, as a community, have a whole lot to offer beyond logistic qualities due to our geographical location.  My goal is to acknowledge our individual past while embracing our collective future and to help articulate a clear vision, where mediocrity and insignificance are no longer an option. I believe we need to support and elevate people when possible and build a legacy for the future by creating opportunities for ALL, not just the well-connected individuals. We need to rethink our overall humanity, public safety and reinvent economic growth. We must become small-business friendly again. We must reaffirm that, elected officials are elected to work for the citizens of our city and that the city attorney and his staff work for the citizens. They must represent the community, because if the public can’t know about it, then they should not be doing it.  We often hear that Greensboro is successful in spite of itself. … I for one would love to see what we would become if we were successful on purpose!

VAUGHAN: I have been honored to serve the residents and businesses of Greensboro as their mayor for a little over eight years.  We have been through a lot of difficult times together; a devastating tornado, a pandemic, a COVID-related recession (and recovery) and issues surrounding public safety.  Through it all, I have shown strong, steady leadership. People need a mayor who puts them first.  Above their own professional career.  Our residents and businesses deserve a mayor who is present, available and responsive.  I believe that it’s “our time” and I know that I am the person who is best equipped to carry us forward.

What do you see as the biggest issues facing Greensboro in the next four years?

OUTLING: We have to position ourselves to take advantage of a growing regional economy, avoid becoming two cities by finally delivering on decades of unmet promises to East Greensboro, and deal with a surge in violent crime that has seen us rated (according to US News) the eighth most dangerous city in America.

ROBERT: Cronyism and basic lack of understanding of our multiple audiences, paired with the absence of perspective and creative thinking, are, by far, our largest issues as they impact everything we are and all that affects us. They affect housing, poverty, crime, economic growth, public safety, racial relations, homelessness, inequities, and whatever the cause of the day is.

Our City has been plagued with the same issues for decades, and, most current candidates are hoping to get reelected on the promise that, this time around, they can address these issues.

The lack of educated perspective and creative thinking illustrates our current leadership’s mindset which promotes reactive, predictable, mediocre and ineffective results as the methodology and the incestuous players are often recycled and remain the same. It is time to imperatively and proactively address local social issues as part of our evolution and economic growth while promoting innovation, compassion and creativity in all initiatives. The most our current leadership has been able to accomplish is to blame bars and restaurants for increasing crime rate, all while allocating large amounts of monies to a colleague council members’ and her non-profit to manage an ineffective taxpayers-funded program.

VAUGHAN: Affordable housing – Greensboro has one of the hottest housing markets in the country.  While we welcome new residents, we must be mindful and intentional of supporting people who have called Greensboro their home. Rents are outpacing wages, there is lack of housing stock, and we must be willing to support programs that will allow people to maintain their homes or have affordable rents.  In order to implement our 10-year housing study, which will address many of our overarching needs, I proposed a bond referendum that will be on the July 26th general election ballot to fund solutions and increase our housing stock.

  1. Workforce Development – I will ensure that our recent economic development announcements will benefit the people of Greensboro.  We will provide the skills and training for our residents to successfully compete for these well-paying jobs. We will see equitable economic growth throughout our city, especially in underserved and historically under-resourced areas. 
  2. Public Safety – People across our city deserve to live in an environment free of fear.  I have worked closely with the Greensboro Police Department and community groups to build relationships and trust. It is important to make sure that GPD has the tools they need and it is just as important to invest more in areas that are hardest hit by crime.

How has your personal experience/journey positioned you – uniquely or otherwise – to lead the city through this period?

OUTLING: I saw my dad take a job as a garbageman in Buffalo, New York, when the economy there took a downturn, so I know the value of hard work and the challenges faced by working families.  As an attorney who has worked with large and small businesses, I know how government can work as a partner in growing the economy.  My most important role as a husband and father gives me a stake in helping Greensboro become a city where my children and the generations to come can grow and prosper.

ROBERT: I have a unique perspective in that I have aspired to create beautiful, functional environments my entire life, throughout the world. I have lived and worked on three continents. Locally, I have become fluent at taking long-abandoned, blighted structures and resuscitating them to become, once again, a vital part of our community. A good example is when I renovated a 15-year abandoned laundry on Lewis Street (now Boxcar), igniting one of the coolest little enclaves in our center city. As a small business and property owner, I have invested more money, blood, sweat and tears in our city than most other candidates combined. I have seen first-hand how difficult it is to invest and do business in Greensboro.

Unlike some of my opponents who like to come with little packaged speeches all prepared for them by local nonprofits with agendas, I am eager to learn and research how other cities throughout the world deal with similar issues. What were the successes and what were the failures?  I research what world-renowned experts have to say on particular topics. I admit when I do not know and, that, in itself,  is a huge point of difference. But rest assured that what I do not know today will be researched in depth for tomorrow. Unlike the other candidate, I believe City Hall culture must change and most city departments retrained to be reminded that their sole purpose is to serve and facilitate our common evolution. They must offer guidance towards resolution instead of arbitrary rejection.

I believe in active citizen’s participation in creating legislation and policies.  Once again, I want to reaffirm representation for ALL, not just the connected, the partisans and groupies. I believe in individual freedoms, the Constitution and all of its 27 Amendments. I believe in small intelligent and educated government, but also in the power of community. Every candidate’s platform seems to include the perpetual issues of public safety, economic development, poverty, etc. I doubt any of these issues can be addressed with current players, task force or mindset.  So, what makes me different, well I am not a lawyer, or a current politician. I am a designer, a creative with an economics degree and an MBA. We all know our city could use a little more creativity in all aspects … not corporate creativity, but pure creativity paired with the willingness to look at paramount problems with a fresh perspective and new players. Unlike the others who have advocated to emulate Chattanooga or Greenville [S.C.], I believe in Greensboro and that we are cool on our own terms. We are enough. I am happy to confirm that my resume includes no professional experience as a politician. I was born in Lyon, France, finished high school in Port Gentil, Gabon (West Africa) and emigrated to the USA in 1983, where I lived in Washington DC and St Augustine, Florida, before moving to Greensboro in 1986. I graduated with a Bachelor of Economics from UNCG and went on to grad school for my MBA at what is now Elon University.

VAUGHAN: I was elected mayor in 2013.  Prior to that, I served as a District Four and an At-Large council member.  I know how to collaborate with stakeholders, including my fellow council members, to get things done.  Success is teamwork.  I am a consensus builder, and I have a history of working with people to achieve our goals. While technically mayor is a part-time job, it has to be your full-time focus.  There are meetings every day, and our residents deserve someone who is committed to representing them every day. I worked 30 years in the private sector.  In my last position I was operations manager for a national parts and service company.  I ran the everyday operations and understand developing and working within a budget.  I was accountable and made daily decisions impacting our customers, our employees and our bottom line. I have shown leadership on all the major projects in the past 10 years. I was on the negotiating team for Publix, Toyota, Boom and many of our smaller economic development projects.  I am unconflicted by personal or professional relationships.

What have been decisions made by city leaders that you wish would get another review?

OUTLING: The city settled $682,000 in unpaid fines to Arco, a real estate company run by the Agapion family for $200,000.  In 2018 a fire at one of their properties resulted in the death of 5 refugee children. Since the reason offered by the mayor for the settlement was that city staff misplaced documents we should have a comprehensive review of the process. And we absolutely must hold slumlords accountable, which means not letting them go after decades of mining human misery for money while placing families in danger and avoiding paying the city what it is owed.  If we make unwise settlements, as in the Agapion case, we are failing to protect the most vulnerable populations in our community.

ROBERT:

  1. The refusal to appoint an independent commission into the death of Marcus Smith.
  2. The unethical acceptance that a sitting council member can also be the leader of a nonprofit entity funded by municipal taxpayers.
  3. The decision to go to 4-year terms for City Council members.
  4. The safety review board for bars and restaurants while exempting city-owned facilities.
  5. The city’s agreeing to a subordination agreement on a loan made to developer Andy Zimmerman.
  6. The refusal to pursue Lee Comer/Iron Hen on her loan default from the city.
  7. The refusal to lobby to make videos available from police body-worn cameras.

VAUGHAN: I regretted that we lowered the amount of 2016 housing bond. In 2016, the housing bond passed the City Council by a vote of 4-3 just to get on the ballot. In order to secure the votes needed, we were forced to lower the amount. We have an opportunity in July to continue and accelerate additional housing by passing the 2022 Affordable Housing bond.

How can you help a city dominated by Democratic voters get its fair share with a largely Republican hierarchy in state government?

OUTLING: Throughout my career, I’ve been viewed as a coalition builder and as someone who listens to a wide range of community voices.  I have significant support from Democrats and Republicans which I believe will enhance Greensboro’s standing across party lines.

ROBERT: Simple, as a registered independent, I do not have to adhere to party talking points and agendas. Our elected “leaders” too often forget that good government is not about Republican or Democrats, it is about the constituents and the community’s greater good. I am convinced that we have more in common than the parties lead us to believe. My only concern is the well-being and representation of the constituents … all of them, no matter the affiliation or affluence. As an independent, a creative professional and a small business owner, I am perfectly positioned to bridge the gaps and have the tough conversations.

VAUGHAN: As chair, now past chair, of the North Carolina Metro Mayors Coalition, I worked closely with legislative and administrative decision-makers on issues that were important to North Carolina and Greensboro.  I have established relationships that will continue to serve Greensboro well.  We have seen a greater presence in state leadership in our city working on issues that are important to us.  We have become an economic driver and a force in the global market.  We were able to achieve these landmark announcements because of our partnership with the legislature and administration. 

What is your wish list for the city?

OUTLING: Shared economic growth, safer streets, and a local government that is transparent and responsive.  I want to see technology and jobs coming to the proposed innovation corridor (which would include NC A&T and the Nussbaum Center for Entrepreneurship), expanded public transportation to provide access to good jobs to all sections of town, and property tax relief for seniors. For more details I would direct you to https://voteoutling.com/.

ROBERT: Open and transparent government working for the greater good of all the constituents instead of the enrichment of just the few connected individuals. Participative democracy that includes all constituencies including our 50,000 college students and historically underserved communities. Develop and nurture small businesses and under-represented communities to further solidify and promote our identity as Greensboro instead of badly emulating other municipalities. Return to the organic creative and participative evolution that creates great urban centers instead of the current controlled corporate HOA approach promoting tasteless and often mediocre results.

VAUGHAN: My goals are:

  1. A city where all residents and visitors are safe.
  2. A city where all people have the tools to meet their full potential.
  3. To be known as one of the best mid-size cities in the U.S.