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Candidate Interviews: Districts 3 and 4

Early voting begins Thursday in Greenville’s municipal election. Voters will select one City Council representative from each of five districts along with an “at-large” councilor and mayor. In late July, The Guardian hand delivered to the address provided on each candidate’s election filing an invitation to participate in a two-step voter education initiative. Step one was completion of a questionnaire, to be submitted along with a current resume. (You’ll find candidates’ replies to the questionnaire here and here.)

Step two, scheduled upon completion of the first step, was an in-person interview with editor Lisa Ellison. Today we continue our publication of full transcripts of her interviews with those candidates who accepted our invitation and completed step one. (Complete publication schedule here.)

District 2 incumbent Rose Glover is running unopposed, and did not reply to our invitation. We therefore continue today with District 3, where incumbent Marion Blackburn faces a challenge from Katherine Wetherington, who opted not to participate.

District 3: Incumbent, Marion Blackburn

GG: There are those who say you’ve done nothing but try to stop progress since you’ve been on council. How do you respond to this accusation?
Marion Blackburn: It’s important to look at the political landscape. I’ve been witness to a pattern of bloc voting and the bloc voting is often based on what individual members of the voting bloc would like. There have been times when I have been a part of the voting majority. There have been many times when I have not been part of the voting majority. I think that because the policies I advocate are often those that are opposite to some of the interests represented by the voting majority, I often frequently end up the minority.

What I’m trying to say here is there’s a voting bloc which opposes my general policy direction. My policies do not often pass. This has certainly been true in the last two years. When I hear people say, “Why are you standing in the way of progress? Why haven’t you done anything?” I would like to point out that in the past several months I’ve initiated a rental registry that would allow us to better hold landlords accountable. This was first supported by the majority vote and then within a month’s time, when we were going to get more information, suddenly the votes were no longer there. I don’t know what happened in the month’s time. The rental registry is therefore policy I proposed, solicited support for and tried to get passed and in the end it was defeated and I believe it was because of investment property owners and their influence on council.

Other proposals that I have advocated for that have not met with a voting bloc majority are parks and improvements for the eastern part of Greenville, specifically Eastside Park, where we need a parking area and trails. I’ve advocated for the floor improvements [in the building] at Jaycee Park. Again, this has been defeated by the voting majority. I have advocated for improvements regarding [traffic] speed and roads and bike lanes and this sort of thing, and again, when the voting majority has not supported my policy, I have been unable to have success.

Now, going back to the reasons for the voting majority, I would say that what we’ve seen in the last two years — and I think it’s abundantly clear — [is] that the voting bloc majority has represented special interests. These are interests such as landlords, investment property owners and others who have narrow special interests.

I’m specifically familiar with the investment property owners. I’d also like to say that I’ve met with some landlords in the University community and there are some good ones. There are folks who have put hundreds of thousands of dollars into their homes, and I would call them out publicly, but they may not appreciate that. But I want to say there are good investment property owners in the University community. Unfortunately, they are the very slim majority, and what we have is a situation where landlords in the University community continue to ask the city to subsidize their business. Basically they’re trying to turn the University community into their little shop and they want the city to come pick up trash, assist with noise, parking violations, keep the grass cut — and they’re not doing their part, and they want more and more.

So going back to the votes on council, I believe this is one of the interests that has had a lot of influence on the voting bloc majority. So let me get back to your original question which was that I haven’t done anything, which I would invite anyone to sit down and talk with me and I will tell them exactly what I have done. Advocated for greenways consistently. We have a new greenway that is called the South Tar Greenway, starts at Greensprings, goes down to the Town Common. I was one of the very strong and vocal proponents of getting the Greenway west to the hospital. I have advocated for and supported parks opportunities throughout the city. I have been a very strong advocate for Bradford Creek Golf Course. When there were special interests that wanted BC to go under private management and potentially be sold to a private company, I was one of the most vocal and actively engaged advocates for BC. I’ve been actively advocating for our Town Common.

In other areas, I have advocated for alternative transportation, good planning–I’ve stood up for good planning decisions. I’ve been one of the supporters of our economic development, and certainly in looking at bio, biotech, medical research, these are the kinds of areas I’ve been an advocate for and I’ve supported, and I can go on, [but] I just want to conclude [with] that, I’ve been a strong advocate for economic development. Good paying jobs, growth and a safe community. And if there are any specifics you’d like about what I have done, I’d be happy to share those with you and if the people who say I haven’t done anything would like to sit down and they’ve got two or three or four or five hours, I’d be happy to list for them what I’ve done.

GG: Can you define what you mean by special interests? What distingues a special interest from something like spending money on parks?
MB: When you’ve got a group of people advocating for a policy because it allows them to make money, specifically to make money and doesn’t really do anything else for the community, and may hurt the community, I call that a narrow special interest, a potentially harmful narrow special interest.

When you have people who are vocal about things like parks, good roads, general economic development, these are things that benefit us all. I don’t call those special interests. I call those our interests.

I’d like to go back to another way I might define a special interest. It’s a group of people whose agenda is very specific to them. Now in some cases, a “narrow agenda” might have some real good benefits for the community such as a business that’s going to allow one person or an entrepreneurial group to come in and they’re going to make money, but they’re going to put a lot of people to work in the process, and they’re going to build the tax base and they’re going to just create a better economic climate. That’s a good kind of special interest. Special interests that are for the entire community, I don’t call those special interests. I call those shared interests.

GG: Let’s talk about the things that have influenced you. You are a writer, and I’m under the impression that writers have to be good at a lot of things since they essentially have to create a complex and complete picture of the world every time they write something, whether fact or fiction. So what specific writer’s skills do you think have helped you as a councilperson?
MB: That’s a great question. One word: Synthesis. I’m able to, and I’m required to as a writer, to bring a lot of aspects, opinion, objective fact. I’ve got to put all of that together in an article that, if I do my work, it’s going to be a picture of something that is genuine and authentic and true, with a little t, for people. As a council member, that is, I think, my most important job — is to be able to synthesize, bring together, make a full and true picture of a lot of parts.

I have one person who is very mad about a certain thing. I have another that may like this certain thing. I have a public policy about this certain thing. Say, the way we pick up our trash. I have to be able to synthesize and say what’s best for our city, what is maybe not so bad for this person over here or this person over here. Or maybe, “Can I help this person or that person,” and in the end, I have to get a full and complete picture of trash. Almost as if I was going to write an article about it, so I could present all the information and make decisions about what has value.

So I think as a writer, the ability to synthesize information has been essential to my work on council. Being a writer has also given me the ability and the opportunity to make decisions that often aren’t crystal clear. As a writer, at some point, I have to make a decision about what I’m going to write and what has value. I do the same thing on council.

GG: In what way do you think your time at the Sorbonne in France and in the Czech Republic informed your understanding of an ideal city or city government?
MB: I appreciate your asking about that. As much as I love the tobacco farm and growing up on it, I have to say it was terribly isolated, and as a little girl I spent a lot of time reading about other places and other people and other languages and I’ve always been fascinated by these other people and languages. So when I was in France and the Czech Republic, I got this opportunity to learn about other people and what I think it allowed me to do was bring back an understanding that we all share so many things in the world, but also there are different ways to look at the world.

For instance, when I first went to France, it shocked me that you could live without a car. It was just amazing. I didn’t have a car for two years. And that, I believe, is something I can bring back of value and can apply to my time on council and my life here. We don’t have to be car dependent. In the Czech Republic, going in right after the fall of Communism, it allowed me to appreciate, probably more than ever, our American spirit. You wake up in the morning, your feet hit the ground and you go out and you hustle and you work hard and at the end of the day, you can count on being rewarded for it. That was something that, of course, was not present under Communism. And it was something I felt that my Czech students and Czech friends, it was almost strange to them to have this kind of motivation and ambition, so I guess when I came back, it allowed me to appreciate when I get really busy and have so much to do, I’m really grateful for it because I can get up in the morning and work and hustle and go out and be an entrepreneur or whatever I want to be, and I’m going to make money for it and I’m going to be treated fairly. So I would say those are the two large impressions or conclusions I drew. There are many more but I will spare you.

GG: You’ve made a lot of big decisions. Going to graduate school in France, you’ve run how many marathons now?
MB: Two.

GG: That’s no small thing, what’s been the scariest thing for you?
MB: That’s another great question. You know, the scariest things for me are those things that have to do with things that are personal or precious. In some ways it is easier to go to Paris than make a decision that’s going to affect a lot of people, say a budget decision, because that’s personal and precious. People are personal and precious.

Blackburn

District 3 incumbent Marion Blackburn

Anytime a person’s in leadership, if you’re doing it right, I think it should be scary. And I think that, even though I enjoy it, it scares me in a good way. In the sense that it makes me stay on my toes and take it very seriously. Though I have to say, mile 18 of a marathon is also very scary because you know you’ve got 6 more and your legs aren’t working quite as well as you’d like.

GG: You’ve had four years on council now. Has anything about the experience so far been surprising — city observations, observations about human nature, etcetera?
MB: I would say the most obvious thing that’s surprising is how contentious it can be. Really contentious and argumentative. And some people would say, “That’s just why politics is so awful,” and that’s a terrible thing.
Sometimes, though not often lately on the losing end of a vote, sometimes that contentious, that argumentative environment is very difficult for all of us on council, whether we get the vote or not. That contentious, argumentative environment to me is the heart and soul of a democracy. Our job is to thresh out policy. And to do it in a climate that is vigorous and is emotional if it has to be. It is difficult because if it’s not difficult, we’re not doing it right. So that’s the first thing that surprised me.

The other thing was that it would be possible from time to time to do things that I really see make a difference. Because sometimes with a 70, 71 million dollar budget and miles and miles of roads and issues and code problems, concerns, garbage collection — there are so many things, operations in the city that you just have to take care of — [that] it’s hard to do those things that you feel make a difference down the road. And that’s surprised me, that sometimes a simple decision does have a big effect. Parks decisions, when we allocated money to make sure Eastside Park was going to be funded. That’s a decision I was able to participate in for the Eastern part of Greenville. The transit center, being able to vote and be a part of a decision like that, that’s going to help change the face of Greenville. So I would say that’s the second thing that’s been most surprising. Every now and then there’s a decision you can make that’s going to make a difference in the long term, it’s going to change that compass needle.

The third most surprising thing is on the other hand, just how difficult it is sometimes to do things — I won’t talk about those now because I don’t want to sound critical — the kind of things that continue to deeply disturb me. Situations, conditions, policies that I would like to see changed. Even though they seem on the surface like that would be a good direction, it’s highly inconceivable to bring those changes. That would also be my third most surprising aspect to working on council.

GG: Have you discovered anything about yourself?
MB: Well, I’ve discovered I’m able to separate the personal from the politics. I am a compassionate person. I am a caring person. But I’ve found that when the public has put its faith in me to represent them, I can’t turn away from doing difficult things. The public depends on me to stand up for them. The district depends on me to stand up for them. And I’ve got to be able to do that, and that sometimes means [when] in discussion, making sure I don’t back down, making sure I’m able to do that difficult thing my district needs me to do. And I’d say that’s the thing I’ve learned about myself, that I can do that and it’s not always easy but that I actually want to do it because my district depends on me to do it.

And I’ve discovered how much I like the people in the district and speaking for those people who don’t feel comfortable being in the public eye. It’s really a service I can do for people that maybe can’t get up there and get in the middle of an argument, or don’t want to. I don’t blame them. And I really do like the people I represent. I consider them my family. I’ve been going door-to-door for my campaign. People invited me inside, “Sit down! Can I get you something to eat, something to drink? Thank you so much for fill-in-the-blank! You helped me so much! Thanks for not backing down,” or, “I’m having a problem with my neighbor’s trash.”

I’ve not heard too much disagreement, people are sometimes reticent, but people in general have been so warm when I’ve come to their door and I just feel like they’re my family. This is one of my favorite times of year when I do get to go out and campaign door-to-door, and catch up with people and sit in their kitchen. Yesterday I got jumped on by dogs and cats. All the things that come when you get into a neighborhood and go into their houses. I love that.

GG: Any other comments?
MB: I’d like for us to be a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week city. We can, and we should. I don’t care who you are. You should be able to walk or ride your bike wherever or whenever throughout the entire city. I’m very interested in parks, clean energy, alternative transportation, economic development in the new economy.

I’m also interested in animal welfare and that’s something I’d like to do more with as a city. Working for education about spaying and neutering, working for more info about not keeping a dog on a tether — there are groups that will come and help you put up a fence, you can get decent-size pens. If you’re having a problem with a dog barking, figure out why it’s barking and don’t go surrender it [to animal control]. If you’ve lost your job and can’t afford to pay for your cat, let’s see if we can connect you with some vet services and some food. This is really an area that, no, it’s not going to take as much of our attention as police, fire, economic development, but animal welfare is something that I think we can do more of and I’d like us to do more of.

So that would be the last thing I’d like to emphasize in things I look forward to doing in the next two years, if I am returned to office, is more work on animal welfare and the new economy.

Our interview with Rick Smiley follows.
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District 4: Open Seat

This seat, currently held by Calvin Mercer, is open due to Mercer’s candidacy for the At-Large seat. Two candidates, Rick Smiley and Terri Williams, seek to fill it. Both were invited to participate in the questionnaire/resume/interview process. Williams did not respond.

Candidate: Rick Smiley

GG: You’ve held a lot of appointed offices in the city and private enterprise. Do you think these have prepared you for public office and, if so, how?
Rick Smiley: Yes. I think if you’re going to try to work with the city, you need to know something about it. There’s a lot of detail. There’s a lot of context. There’s a lot of moving parts. There’s a lot of history. There are a lot of people. I certainly don’t think it’s possible to know all of that before you [are elected], but if you’ve seen a bit of it, I suspect, it will be helpful. I’ve worked on two or three different commissions, Historical Preservation Commission, the Neighborhood Advisory Board, the Public Transportation and Parking Commission. That gives you a chance to meet different staff members, see sort of how it works on the inside, get a sense of the types of issues the city council needs to be able to work with.

I’ve worked in Uptown Greenville and we did a lot of work with the city. I was very active with UG when we took out the Evans St. mall and put in the street that’s there now. We worked closely with the city engineer at that time and with GUC a lot, looking at the utilities. Again, my mother and I did a lot of the onsite supervision work. Because we were representatives of UG working with the city engineer and some of the architects. We did a lot of purchasing–some of that stuff the city couldn’t buy because there’s some very customized stuff, and UG bought it because they didn’t have to put it up for bid. They just went ahead and bought it, so that was interesting.

On the NAB, I’ve been able to work with people from across the city, citizens from various walks of life all sharing the same interests. It’s been interesting to see which issues are important to narrow slices of the city and which issues are important to a wide array of interests.

I’ve run a small business through Uptown. We renovated a number of buildings–Emerge is one, the Jones Lee House across from the library, did a lot of work on Globe Hardware, which is where Winslows is now. I did work on the Proctor Hotel, Jefferson’s Hotel. We did a lot of measuring and things prior to them being purchased and renovated.

GG: You have a long family history in Greenville. Your mother is a good resource for historical matters.
RS: Yeah, she’s interesting. She lives with us. We have a multi-generational family. When my grandmother died, my grandfather sold us his house and we put an addition on the back that my mom lives in so the kids get to see their grandmother every day. I worked with her for many years, we ran a general contracting, historic rehabilitation, historic preservation firm. My grandfather was a librarian at ECU for a number of years. My mom’s father was a dentist, O.R. Pearce, and he had an office on the corner of 4th and Harding for decades. He practiced — he said he wasn’t practicing anymore, he knew how to do it — until the late 90s, when he finally retired. Literally dozens of my family members have been to ECU.

GG: Taking that history into account, does that give you a different view of Greenville than many other people, you think?
RS: I certainly think that knowing something about the processes and challenges the city has worked through over the past few decades is an important piece of context. Take the Town Common. There’s a lot of discussion now about how the city might best use the river and Town Common. I think it’s important to know how the city came to possess that land. You know, in the early 60s there was a process the city went through to condemn and purchase that land, using methods which probably you could not use today. Not only would they be illegal, but certainly the public would not stand for them. They were, a lot of those methods, were coercive. We certainly can’t go back and undo the difficult process by which the city came into that land, but I do think it has to guide our decisions when we use that land. It would be a betrayal in some ways, another betrayal, of the citizens who once owned that land to put it to use that was not noble or public in nature.

GG: Your degree is in political science. I might be remembering this wrong, but you were working on a graduate degree in English and were teaching English classes. Is that right?
RS: I graduated from Sewanee in 1991. I came to ECU and worked on a degree in Rhetoric and Composition. I was at ECU for a couple of years. I did teach Freshman English for multiple semesters, part of being a graduate student. Some of the time I taught English, some of the time I did research for the Associate Dean in the College of Arts and Sciences, which didn’t seem like a big deal at the time, but in 2003, when I was making a career transition [and] got the job I have now in the Research Grant office at ECU, the fact that I had some experience in grad school in the office of research actually proved useful. I ended up leaving ECU and Greenville to go get married. The woman who is now my wife was in Tennessee and it became clear I needed to be where she was. Jessie and I got married in 1995 and returned to Greenville.

GG: I’m interested in your liberal arts background as sort of a backdrop to a lot of “businessy” job titles you’ve held in operations and management. And then looking beyond into public service — how does the liberal arts background fit into that?
RS: Well the school I went to, the University of the South in Sewanee, TN is a liberal arts school. It’s built around the premise that you never stop learning. The point of an education is not to learn a specific set of skills and then be done. The point of an education is to develop the ability to learn and the capacity to learn and the confidence that you can learn and the willingness to work in order to learn. I think that’s a hugely valuable thing. It’s an ever-changing world. It’s a rapidly changing world. The way we make in it will always lead us to new experiences and the notion that somehow the things you learned when you were 19, 20, 21 is all the information you’ll need for the rest of your life is not a feasible approach. I’ve certainly found it to be useful.

Liberal arts education means studying subjects from a very wide array of fields. Everything from physics and astronomy, chemistry, biology to sociology and anthropology and religion to history and foreign language — though I didn’t do well with the foreign language. [That education style has] been very useful in my business career. There is no point at which I have run into a body of knowledge or a process that I felt like I just can’t learn this. It’s just a case of, “I need to dig in and find where the information is and pull it out and become familiar with it.” It’s certainly true that every time I’ve had a new job or encountered a new situation there’s always been a collection of stuff to know: a bit of history, a bit of context and rules and regulations and so I think certainly a liberal arts background has helped in that. Plus there’s a huge amount of writing at Sewanee. I think I wrote a ten-page paper in a calculus course. The ability to write has been useful to me in every endeavor I’ve been involved in.

GG: What did you learn from your run for the at-large seat two years ago that you’re bringing to your campaign this time?
RS: The process stuff, you know, what forms do you file, how do you order campaign supplies. Then there were a lot of contacts. I met a lot of people. Some of them I’ve been able to maintain. Others, I’m reintroducing myself to people I met a couple of years ago and finding that these folks are happy to see me running again.

When you start running for public office, there’s a process of presenting yourself for consideration by people either you don’t know at all or only know a little. Bringing your ideas in situations like that, to strangers, takes a mindset of being comfortable saying, “This is what I think, I’d like to know what you think.” If we disagree, that’s fine. In any circumstances, we worry about disagreement. We worry about saying things that if perhaps people will think differently from how we do, we should shy away from, that we should not talk about that. It’s easier for us to be friends if we talk about only things we agree about. So getting comfortable with disagreement and getting comfortable talking to someone and finding areas that you do agree and in fact don’t agree about but still having a productive discussion and being comfortable with that. Just because we don’t agree doesn’t mean we can’t still work together and cooperate.

I’d never done that before, but running for office requires you do it almost on a daily basis, only because you’re dealing with so many issues, people have a right to know what you think. You simply can’t stay silent about them. So having run before, I’ve found it’s much simpler, easier and quicker to get into that mindset again, to approach people with, “You have a right to know what I think. I recognize you may not agree with it, now tell me what are your important considerations in this issues.” Those are the pieces that have been easier this time around.

Smiley

District 4 candidate Rick Smiley

GG: Are you approaching it differently this time than you did last time?
RS: I think it’s a confidence issue, back to what we were talking about before, not worrying so much about whether my ideas will be well received. When you talk to people, the human psyche naturally wants to say things that make people happy. You like people to agree with you and enjoy your stories and laugh at your jokes. You have to make sure it doesn’t become, “I will say whatever it takes.” Most people ultimately get to the point, I think, if they’re honest and have integrity, where they’ll just say what they think and people will either accept it or they won’t. This time around, I’ve gotten there much quicker, actually started there. Somewhere in the last campaign, I realized I would never be all things to all people, it was senseless to try. I wasn’t actively trying, but eventually I could feel this desire or natural tendency to be careful about what I said if people would disagree. This time there’s much less of that and I feel like I can safely say, “This is what I think. Tell me what you think.”

GG: Do you think part of that has to do with running for a district seat instead of city-wide?
RS: It’s certainly easier that way. There’s no doubt that when you run citywide, the variety of opinion and issues is much larger than it is in a district. You can end up talking to people with very different sets of interest. If they’re in the same room, it’s helpful because then your message is consistent. If you talk to people at different times and places you have to make sure you’re giving consistent messages when there’s certainly a psychological reward for telling people different things. People feel better about themselves if they say things people like, and that can be dangerous.

I imagine once you’ve done this for a while, you see the whole city as a discrete piece that fits well within the reach of your arm. I think you have to have done this for a while. Right now, the district I’m in feels like something I can reach out and touch all of and understand, and when I ran last time there were times when I felt the city was a lot bigger than I could easily understand in very real and concrete terms. My goal is to understand the whole city [but] I’m just not there yet.

GG: It sounds like you might be considering the possibility of another citywide run in the future.
RS: Ah, well, I don’t lay awake at night thinking about it. I recognize that there are opportunities from time to time… who knows what the future will bring? Right now, I’m focused on this district and being a good representative for the people in it.

GG: When did you decide to run for the D4 seat, and was it coordinated with Calvin Mercer’s decision to run for the at-large seat?
RS: I’ve obviously worked very closely with Mercer for years now. He had city-wide interests. The issues he was dealing with, the issues he has been taking on, clearly go beyond D4. I talked to him from time to time, saying that if he has this level of interest and this level of support around the city that I wouldn’t be surprised if he was considering city-wide office. I didn’t know exactly what he was going to do, though. He went away on vacation and it wasn’t clear what he was going to do when he returned. I don’t know that he knew himself what he was going to do. When he came back, he told me he was going to file for city-wide and so I went and filed for D4.

GG: Do you have any initiatives in mind?
RS: This goes hand-in-hand with what I was trying to say. Cities have to create plans. Those who sit on city council come from a wide array of backgrounds. They’re never, and they’re not supposed to be experts on the technical aspects of running a city. That’s what the city staff is for. What the council is supposed to do as I understand it is to set a vision, to point the city toward long-range goals and in order for those goals to be achievable, they have to be broadly supported. They have to capture the interests and address the needs of a wide array of interests within the city. If they do not, they won’t be long-range goals.

If the collection of city council members at the moment push through policies which are narrowly focused and do not enjoy wide support, then there’s no way the leaders in the next 5, 15, 20 years will be bound by them. Their initiatives can only last as long as they remain in power. If they’re not broadly supported, there’s no way future leaders will work toward the same goals. What you get instead is a particular group of people put into place their pet priorities and when they leave council, the next group, if they’re not working toward a strategic goal, they put into place their priorities.

The last two years, we’ve seen council executing step one of that process. A lot of narrowly focused priorities without a lot of public input or broad public support. Next city council can’t execute step two of that process which is to get rid of everything that council put in and their own pet priorities, because that’s not step two, that’s step one all over again. My focus, the thing I am most interested in is for city council, is to return to a process of thinking long-term, building broad support, creating plans that capture the interest and needs of the full spectrum of the community in the city, putting the city on the path to achieve those goals.

TOMORROW: Candidates for District 4.

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