Welcome back to Carolina Democracy. Today I share some thoughts on the U.S. Supreme Court news, I give a quick update on the latest in NC elections and gerrymandering, and then I speak with Greensboro City Councilwoman Tammi Thurm about her time on Council, the challenges the Council has faced with the pandemic, and the things she still hopes to accomplish in the months and years to come.
Learn More About Councilwoman Tammi Thurm:
Tammi Thurm: The question I had to put to myself is, “Okay, if you're willing to complain about it, then you got to be willing to do something about it.” And that's kind of what launched me down this road.
JD Wooten: I love it.
JD Wooten: Hey everyone, JD Wooten here. Welcome back to Carolina Democracy. Today, I’m going to share some thoughts on Justice Breyer’s retirement announcement and his potential replacement, I’ll hit a quick update on the latest North Carolina GOP shenanigans and the gerrymandering case, and then I speak with Greensboro City Councilwoman Tammi Thurm about her time on City Council, the challenges the Council has faced with the pandemic, and the things she still hopes to accomplish in the months and years to come.
So, the big news last week for anyone who wasn’t paying attention, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer announced he will soon retire. Although a date has not yet been set, his retirement is expected at the end of the Court’s current term, which will conclude this summer. Because our judiciary, both state and federal, is immensely important to a healthy and vibrant democracy, I’m going to spend a few minutes on this topic.
Shortly after news broke of Justice Breyer’s retirement, President Biden recommitted to his campaign pledge to nominate a Black woman to the U.S. Supreme Court. I was surprised by my own immediate reaction – both excitement and anxiety. Given the last several years, I’m excited to see an aging justice retire from the Court on his own terms, with a president and a senate who will likely nominate and confirm a replacement of similar ideological beliefs. It also comes at a time when the current 6-3 ideological split of conservatives and liberals on the Court will stay unchanged, so hopefully conservatives will be slightly less ridiculous in their attacks on the nominee.
And that’s where the anxiety kicks in. While it’s so exciting to think that finally, for the first time in the Court’s multi-century existence, a Black woman will finally sit on that bench, I also find myself cringing at the attacks that have already started. To be clear, it wouldn’t matter who President Biden nominated, there would be criticism, but he hasn’t even named his nominee yet, and her credentials are already being called into question. I think these attacks on more than qualified Black women are absurd and should be laughed out of town. I also think it should also be noted that many of these same critics didn’t seem to take issue with the previous administration’s nomination to the federal judiciary of people who couldn’t even answer basic law-school level questions about federal law and procedure. I think we can all agree that we would like our federal judges to be at least a little more competent than your average law student.
This brings me to another point on the criticism President Biden has been facing when it comes to his nomination of other judges on the Federal bench. One of the lines of attack on President Biden’s judicial nominees so far that is particularly infuriating to me, and that I fear we will hear again and again, is captured in a single sentence of a National Review piece by Ed Whelan. He wrote, “The fact that black women are massively overrepresented among Biden’s appellate picks of course means that other groups haven’t fared as well.” Yup, he actually wrote that. First of all, that’s just a brazen and transparent us-versus-them style argument, red meat for the conservatives, and does nothing to advance the legal profession or society at large. It’s no more than a literary thirst trap that only serves to perpetuate systemic racism.
Here are some facts – according to U.S. Census data, women make up just shy of 51% of the U.S. population, and roughly 13% of the U.S. population identify as Black or African American. By comparison, according to the American Bar Association, 37% of attorneys are female while only five percent of attorneys are Black. That means Black women make up roughly 7% of the U.S. population at large but only 2% of American attorneys. Looking just at federal judges, only 70 out of 3,840 federal judges to ever serve – or about 1.8% – have been Black women. Of the current 1,395 federal judges, 56 are Black women – roughly 4%. When President Biden took office, only 8 Black women had ever served as federal appellate judges in the nation’s history, and none on the U.S. Supreme Court. Today, 10 Black women serve as federal appellate judges of the 293 total – about 3.4%, and that should break 5% soon as half of President Biden’s 16 federal appellate judge nominees so far have been Black women.
Now you may be thinking enough with the numbers. Fair, but here’s the takeaway – we have a long way to go to have a legal profession and a federal judiciary that is reflective of the U.S. population at large, especially when it comes to Black women. And yes, that means that if we want our federal judiciary to represent America, we have to be deliberate about correcting the historic and current imbalance. To do anything short is to perpetuate systemic racism. Let’s be excited for whomever President Biden nominates and move beyond the ridiculous attacks on her qualifications – she’s qualified, period – and her demographics. This nomination is long overdue.
In other news, the GOP majority in the North Carolina state legislature tried to push out the date of the primary election to June. The current date in May was set by the state Supreme Court as part of the gerrymandering case, so in effect the legislature tried a shameless power grab from the Supreme Court. No need to speculate on why they did that as Governor Cooper quickly vetoed the bill. The GOP brazenly gerrymandered the maps, and now it’s in the hands of the state Supreme Court. They’ll hear arguments this week and hopefully we’ll hear something soon about their position on partisan gerrymandering and whether it violates the state constitution, as well as what comes next.
Finally, I had the chance to catch up with Greensboro City Councilwoman Tammi Thurm. We had a great chat about the things the City Council has accomplished so far during her first term in office, how the pandemic has impacted the Council’s way of doing business and their long-term planning, and what she hopes to accomplish during the remainder of this term and hopefully into her next term. As we discussed in the interview, a side effect of the gerrymandering case and the election delays is that it’s still unclear when the next Greensboro City Council elections will be held. The last election was November 2017, and the next election was supposed to have been in November 2021. It was delayed to align with the 2022 primary elections due to delays in receiving the 2020 census data, giving the Council a few extra weeks to finalize its own redistricting after that census data was released before candidates would have to start filing for office. However, the delays to the 2022 primary election due to the ongoing gerrymandering case have put the Greensboro City Council elections on hold as well. I’ll be sure to share as soon as we know when the Greensboro City Council elections are officially scheduled. Now, here’s my interview with Councilwoman Thurm.
JD Wooten: All right, with me today is Greensboro City Councilwoman Tammi Thurm, representing District 5. She was first elected to the Greensboro City Council in 2017 and will be up for reelection here in the coming months. Welcome Councilwoman Thurm!
Tammi Thurm: Thanks for having me.
JD Wooten: Yeah, absolutely delighted to be able to get you on the show. Before we dive into all the great things you worked on during your first term on the City Council and all the great things I'm sure you will pursue during your second term, why don't you share a little about your background and how you first got involved in politics.
Tammi Thurm: Well, I first came to Greensboro in the '70s actually to go to UNC-G, fell in love with the area and stayed. I raised my son here. I'm married, have five grandchildren here, so that's my motivation for wanting to see Greensboro move forward. I want my grandkids to be here and come back here after school.
JD Wooten: A lot of connection to the city.
Tammi Thurm: Absolutely. In terms of my career, so to speak as a politician, I am not a career politician. I never really had aspirations to go into politics. We got to Trump's election and that was a wakeup call for all of us that we all needed to get involved. And that, together with my Jewish background, you know one of the concepts in Judaism is tikkun olam, or the idea that we as individuals are obligated to repair the world and to fix what's wrong in the world. And I kind of saw Trump's election as a, you know, caution light that there's a lot going on and if people were happier at home and the local level that that would spread to the national level as well. And we needed good people to get involved. Quite frankly, the question I had to put to myself is, “Okay, if you're willing to complain about it, then you gotta be willing to do something about it.” And that's kind of what launched me down this road.
JD Wooten: I love it. I had similar feelings myself after I woke up on what was that, November 9th, 2016?
Tammi Thurm: Unbelievable.
JD Wooten: Yeah, it got a lot of us involved, and it's been a whirlwind of a journey ever since, right?
Tammi Thurm: Absolutely.
JD Wooten: So something I want to highlight right away, and we'll remind everyone of this several times, is that the release of the 2020 U.S. Census data was delayed, so as a result, redistricting efforts were delayed across the country and that had a tremendous impact on some local races like yours. You were originally set, I believe for a 2021 election, which has been pushed back multiple times at this point. And so at least as of today, what are the current dates for the primary and general elections for the Greensboro City Council?
Tammi Thurm: I'll be honest, I'm not really sure. To the best of my knowledge at this point, our primary will be May 17th, 2022. Not really sure when the general election would be after that. The GOP wanted to push the election to June 7th and they actually passed that, but the governor vetoed that. So we're back to May 17th and that is all pending what happens in the North Carolina Supreme Court.
JD Wooten: Well, we will definitely be watching that closely, and we will keep everybody up to speed on when they need to be showing up to cast their ballots. So for those who may not know, the Greensboro City Council has nine members: the mayor and three at large seats, all of whom are elected by the entire city, and five seats elected from geographic districts in Greensboro. You're one of those geographic districts, District 5, so could you tell us a little about the district you represent? What area it covers and some of the major businesses or communities that you represent?
Tammi Thurm: Absolutely. District 5 is really, probably one of the most diverse districts in Greensboro. It has always had the reputation of being one of the most conservative districts of the city. But it stretches from Horsebend Creek area out to The Cardinal, out past the airport and almost to the Farmer's Market. It crosses over 40, goes down west Wendover to the Stanley Road area, goes up Hilltop Road, takes in Adam's Farm, West Gate City Boulevard, goes down to Grandover, around to Smith High School. And then just recently I picked up one more precinct that is the next precinct over, it's kind of behind Four Seasons Mall. So everything out by the airport is in my district, Procter & Gamble out there, West Market Street is in my district, most of west Wendover, and all the way down that direction.
JD Wooten: Wow, quite the spread!
Tammi Thurm: It is a spread and economically we go from very, very challenged neighborhoods all the way up to Grandover and The Cardinal. We have a large Asian population, a large Hispanic population, large African-American population, so it's a great, diverse district, and it's a lot of fun.
JD Wooten: I love that. With geographic districts, I know that sometimes it's more difficult to get the broad perspective, but it sounds like your District's been crafted in such a way that it really does help bring that bigger picture to the forefront.
Tammi Thurm: It does.
JD Wooten: So turning to your first term on the City Council, which has now lasted for over four years I might add, so thank you for your steadfast service, what are one or two things that you feel really proud that the City Council has been able to accomplish in that time?
Tammi Thurm: Well, certainly with the announcements of the past couple of weeks, the economic development announcements and work that we've done, has been very exciting. We started with Publix, back one of our first projects and then Toyota, and just this week, Boom. Those are huge for us. On a more personal level, I've been very, very involved in our first permanent supportive housing project that is finally coming to fruition just off of 29 North, and I'm very excited about that. I'm also really excited that we were able to pass and institute bringing all city employees up to at least a $15 an hour minimum wage. And I think that sets a very good tone for the community and for the other businesses in Greensboro.
JD Wooten: I think that's great. Now of course I do feel obligated to ask the flip side, maybe what are some of the things that the Council has come up short on, maybe lack of support or resources, or even just things beyond your control, things that you're still looking to try and accomplish?
Tammi Thurm: You know, there's so much more to do. Certainly housing and affordable housing is a huge piece and something that we're very focused on building. Just our last business meeting, we approved zoning for over a thousand new homes to be built in Greensboro, but we're thousands behind. So housing and affordable housing is a huge piece that I wish we were further along on, but we're just not yet. And certainly, unfortunately the gun violence and the number of homicides and crime in this area is something that I think we all wish we were further along on. We're tackling it. You know, I'm proud to say that, though the numbers are not good, unlike most communities, we had a decrease in homicides last year. And there are a lot of communities that would like to be saying that. A lot of communities in our state were up 30, 40%. So while the numbers weren't good, and not where we want them to be, I do think some of our efforts are paying off and making a difference.
JD Wooten: Right. I'm sure that's a tough needle to thread there. It's always difficult when they're better than they could be, but they're still not good enough.
Tammi Thurm: Exactly. And there are so many factors that go into that equation, and housing is just one of them, one of the many factors.
JD Wooten: Absolutely. So now your time on the City Council has been split almost 50/ 50 pre pandemic and pandemic reality, I think. How has the pandemic impacted the City Council's ability to do its job?
Tammi Thurm: Well, certainly you know, in terms of employees being onsite and us being able to get together to work on projects, it's slowed us down quite honestly. Not only in terms of us working on projects with ourselves, but in our outreach and how we get out to the public. That's been huge. Conversely, we've also actually found some benefits. We found that when you can do a quick Zoom call for a meeting instead of trying to schedule everybody to be in the same place at the same time, that actually helps. The fact that where you've had hybrid and Zoom City Council meetings has really opened up our meeting accessibility to a whole new group of people that perhaps couldn't, or didn't feel comfortable participating in the past. Now are able to access and participate in our meetings. So in that regard it's been a positive.
JD Wooten: Do you have any sense of how many people might dial in when y'all are streaming your Council meetings?
Tammi Thurm: It's hard to say, because we also broadcast on GTM and I know that a lot of people watch on GTM that don't have computer access. So people can watch on YouTube, they can watch on GTM, they can watch on our website, and then there are actually the participants that are actually dialed into the Zoom, so I really don't know.
JD Wooten: Well, I'm sure it's quite a bit more than would have been attending in person down at the municipal building.
Tammi Thurm: Absolutely.
JD Wooten: So, what would you say is the biggest adjustment that you've had to make as a member of the City Council based on the realities of the pandemic in the last couple of years?
Tammi Thurm: I think the biggest impact has been outreach and communication with my constituents. I used to attend all the community watch meetings of every neighborhood, I'd go to Homeowners' Associations, I felt like I was a lot closer to people, and present out in the community. And that's been a challenge to overcome. Whether it be schedule a meeting with a particular community or something of that nature, especially some of my older constituents that may or may not be as computer savvy, or areas of town that have less access to the internet. So that's been one of the biggest challenges is actually communicating with our constituents or with my constituents. It's challenging sometimes to get the word out right now because so many people are not reading newspapers. You talk to people that have changed their cable TV contracts and no longer get local stations. They're only streaming or they're not watching local news. There are people that don't participate in social media, so you really have to push everywhere to try get out and get that communication going.
JD Wooten: Yeah, I know how hard it can be to try and reach voters under the best of times, and I'm sure that it's even more difficult over the last couple of years. And not just voters, your constituents, whether they vote or not.
Tammi Thurm: Right.
JD Wooten: Y'all have important services to provide, whether somebody chooses to show up to the polls or not.
Tammi Thurm: I've had lots of meetings in carports, and front porches, and those kinds of things, you know, just on the specific areas or, you know, specific issues. And so it's been challenging, but you know, we're getting there, we do it.
JD Wooten: Well, I love it. Great to see the way that that's been working out so far. I love that engagement piece. It's an unfortunate silver lining of the pandemic, I think is the amount of engagement we can have and connection.
Tammi Thurm: The other challenge has been that it's much harder to balance the work on our long-term projects and goals with the immediate crisis of the moment. When COVID first struck, I was coordinating the women and the individuals that were sewing masks in their home, and I would pick up masks and I would drop them over to the IRC, or we bring them to City Hall. And there was a lot of that focus on the immediate execution of how we move forward in the pandemic. And it did take away from our focus and our work on our long-term goals. And that's been, been challenging, you know, we think we've got it licked, and then we get a new version come out and Omicron comes out or Delta comes out or whatever, but we just keep pushing through because that's what we need to do.
JD Wooten: Absolutely. So again, because of the delays in the normal election cycle for the Greensboro City Council, the next election for all members of the Council is, at least as of right now, scheduled for May 17th, 2022, and that will be the primary election. And since Greensboro City Council races are nonpartisan, that means that if more than two people were to file to run, regardless of their party, there will be a primary election to narrow the race to two people. And then either way, two candidates will proceed to the general election, which we believe will happen, perhaps sometime in July.
Tammi Thurm: Maybe?
JD Wooten: We'll stay tuned. So at least for now, how's your race shaping up? Do you anticipate that you'll have a primary and a general? Do you have any sense of that yet?
Tammi Thurm: Well, you know, with the delays and the court staying the election and all that, filing for office was actually shut down midway through the filing. As it turns out, the one opponent that I do know, he and I both filed the last day before they shut down the filing period. So I know I've got an opponent, and I don't know. They will reopen the filing period, I believe, the end of February, first half of March is what I'm thinking it will be. And at that point, we'll know more about whether I will have primary. I have not heard of anybody else running, but we just don't know until we know.
JD Wooten: Again, we'll stay tuned.
Tammi Thurm: There's so much up in the air!
JD Wooten: So, what are some of the big things that you'd like to tackle during your next term, whenever that may happen?
Tammi Thurm: Well, between now and the next term, some of the big things I need to tackle even before that term is connecting with my new constituents of District 5. As I said, I picked up a new precinct. I've got to get out there and meet those folks and get to know their issues and their neighborhoods. So that's high on my list of priorities. Other issues that we've got going on that we need to tackle and address is we've got to get creative with our transit system. District 5 has really a shortage of public transportation out there. We've got a little bit of, you know, the tail end of routes. But if I want to get from Friendly Avenue to Wendover for a job, I have to go from Friendly all the way downtown, and then back out Windover. And that can take two, two and a half hours. It just doesn't work for the people of District 5. In addition, we look at certainly Boom, coming out to the airport area and all that will build, we don't have any public transportation that goes out there yet. You look at the Grandover area and all the growth that's happening out that direction and the employment out there, there's no bus service out there. So, working on micro transit, crossline transit, is going to be a huge factor. There are jobs with Boom, Toyota, even on the east side of Greensboro, the Publix when that gets there, that we've got to figure out how to get people to those jobs. It's great to have jobs, but people that don't have their own transportation, have to be able to get to them. So transit is going to be a huge factor for us going forward. Continuing to build our housing stock and not only the quality, but the quantity, is also going to be a huge factor. I know that we are working on some innovative approaches to land banking and neighborhood development in the existing neighborhoods so that we can create and build and support our existing neighborhoods, which are in dire need of support. And that will be a huge piece. We have the GSO 2040 Plan that we established, and that calls for a lot of creative approaches to housing. So we've got to look at that. Other things going on, certainly the permanent supportive housing is huge, and the other piece is when we look at economic development and pushing economic development, we've had some great announcements. There are more opportunities in the wings, but we also have to focus on our local homegrown businesses and supporting those businesses and creating an environment where everybody feels like they have a place in the Greensboro economy. Whether you're the small entrepreneur, the small manufacturer, whatever it is, we need to make sure that we're addressing the needs of those businesses too. Because as we saw with Dell in Kernersville, right? Big companies can come, but they can also go. It's the small businesses that keep us humming. With the opening of Tanger Performing Arts Center, our downtown is going to continue to grow and thrive and is a huge opportunity for businesses to come into downtown as well. So there's a lot to work on, there's a lot to do, but we're ready to do it, and I'm looking forward to jumping in and working on the next chapters.
JD Wooten: That all sounds amazing. All of that is extremely exciting. I don't remember the numbers off the top of my head, but I want to say it's something like, when an out-of-state business comes only 20% or so of the dollars actually stay local. Whereas when it's a local business, generally, it's upwards of 80% of those dollars stay local.
Tammi Thurm: That's right. We're looking at some innovative things to help entrepreneurs, folks that maybe they want to open a retail establishment and they can't really afford to sign a four- or five-year lease on a downtown site. So what other options can we offer them? The Nussbaum Center is looking at some exciting things to do with the Steelhouse to support small entrepreneurs and businesses. And there lots of good things coming up and it's going to be an exciting time. I think the next five to 10 years are just going to be incredible for Greensboro and great growth and great development. And I want to make sure we do it well, and that we make sure that all the residents of Greensboro benefit from this growth and this new start.
JD Wooten: That is amazing to hear and I love it. So where can people go to learn more about you, your campaign, and how they can help get you reelected to see this vision through?
Tammi Thurm: I love it. My website is votethurm V O T E T H U R M .com. Go there to volunteer, to ask for a yard sign if you're living in District 5, to donate to the campaign, we need all of the above to work the polls, all of the above. I am also on Facebook. Instagram Twitter. I will be honest with you, I am not a great Instagram and Twitter person, but I'm learning. Facebook is Vote Thurm and people of course are welcome to follow my personal Facebook too. I'll be honest, I do more on Facebook than anywhere else, but that's just kind of my comfort zone. So that's where you can find me.
JD Wooten: We'll make sure to drop links to all of that in our show notes, so whoever's listening, just check out your show notes. We'll put all of that down there so click right to it. Now I know you have a fundraiser coming up soon. I think it's on Thursday, February 10th I believe?
Tammi Thurm: I do. It's actually my birthday fundraiser. We're combining a fundraiser and birthday celebration, actually my birthday and my campaign manager's birthday are the exact same day. So we're celebrating both of our birthdays. But we're going to be joined by Senator Michael Garrett and hear some of what he's doing and his latest work in Raleigh and should be fun. It is a zoom event, you can look for that again, there should be a link on my website and it's pinned on Facebook and Instagram and all that and feel free to click through and join us. We'd love to have you join the party.
JD Wooten: Well, thank you so much Councilwoman Thurm, we've really appreciated you being with us today.
Tammi Thurm: This has been great. Thanks so much, I appreciate your time. Thanks to all the listeners out there.
JD Wooten: Thanks again to Councilwoman Thurm for joining me today, I hope you enjoyed it. A few notes – don’t forget to visit Councilwoman Thurm’s website and social media pages to volunteer, donate, get a yard sign, and to get your ticket for her birthday fundraiser on February 10th. Links are in the show notes. Also, if you or someone else you know should be on the show, send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’ll drop that email in the show notes, as well.