Right now, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are sucking up just about all of the public’s election attention.
However, locally, another political race with major consequences is heating up: the District 4 battle between Republican Guilford County Commissioner Alan Branson and Democratic former County Commissioner Kirk Perkins.
There’s no love lost between the two men, and this race could – like the District 6 commissioners race between Democrat Rick Forrester and incumbent Republican Commissioner Hank Henning – turn the Board of Commissioners from a Republican body to a Democratic one. Currently, Republicans hold a 5-to-4 majority, and a one-vote swing would change the entire complexion of the board. The Republicans who are now calling all the shots in Guilford County government would be relegated to the sidelines, where they could whine and complain, but not much else, as they sat by and watched the majority do what it wanted.
Now, with summer vacations in the book and the heat and humidity index pulling back a little, the true countdown to Tuesday, Nov. 8 begins.
“They say Labor Day kicks off the campaign,” Perkins said this week of the Monday, Sept. 5 holiday.
Perkins said it will be interesting to see how the divisive and high-profile presidential race affects the local races in Guilford County, including his.
“Most people are overwhelmed with media on the presidential campaign,” Perkins said. “I don’t know if that makes much difference down the ballot.”
He said the noise from the presidential election has drowned out much of the attention that would normally go to other races, and voters therefore aren’t hearing much about local races. He said that even big statewide battles seem to be flying under the radar right now.
Branson said he wonders how the presidential race, and all the attention it’s getting, will affect his race. He said there’s a lot of disenchantment with the presidential candidates this year.
“I’m not pleasantly pleased with anybody at the top of the ballot,” Branson said. “I will support Trump and wish for the best.”
Branson added that he’s now rested from a late July vacation at Atlantic Beach and is charging ahead with his campaign.
“I’ve been knocking on doors, raising money, kissing babies and I’ve been going to every function I can find,” Branson said.
Branson added that he’s also using large signs and he may buy billboards and get a mailer out soon so it can influence early voters. Branson said he has a big fundraiser planned for Saturday night, Oct. 1 at the Shriner’s Club in Greensboro with the blue grass band Butternut Creek. He’s expecting 350 to 450 people, with individual tickets going for $100 each – though those who want to bring others with them can get additional tickets at a lower rate.
“We’re going to absolutely rock the house,” he said.
District 4 is known for its upbeat fundraisers and former Guilford County Commissioner Billy Yow used to really blow it out at Rider’s in the Country, a motorcycle bar in southern Guilford County.
Branson has also posted a couple of slickly produced videos on Facebook that look a little like Apple commercials in their simple design aesthetic. In one short video showing Branson’s support of first responders – and showing some of their support for him – a total of zero words spoken.
While Branson has been working, Perkins, who’s eager to regain his seat on the board, has been doing some campaigning of his own. The former commissioner is making his case every chance he gets at fish fries, barbeques and any other gatherings in eastern Guilford County or in other parts of his district.
Perkins said he doesn’t run into Branson on the campaign trail often but he does see him “every now and then.”
The two certainly had an interesting coincidental meeting last December when Perkins happened to file to run at the same time as three Republican commissioner candidates – Henning, Branson and current Chairman of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners Jeff Phillips, who’s running unopposed this year.
Perkins said he feels certain he’ll see a lot more of Branson in September and October.
“There will be a lot of forums as there always is,” Perkins said.
The former commissioner added that he has already received some questionnaires from civic and political groups asking for his stand on issues, but said the public’s attention was only now turning to the District 4 race.
There’s not much activity on either candidates’ most recent finance reports that were due on July 12 and cover activity from March 1 to June 30. In that period, Perkins didn’t receive any contributions and his report shows cash on hand of $95. Branson received $180 in contributions and had $4,676 cash on hand at the end of the period.
Perkins said District 4 is an interesting place to campaign because the layout of the sweeping eastern district isn’t conducive to door-to-door visits, as are some more compact county districts that contain more dense neighborhoods. District 4 is the only district that touches three of the county’s four borders.
“The distance in my district is so big I can only do so much,” Perkins said of door-to-door campaigning. “It is by far the largest district in the county.”
Branson shares that sentiment.
“It’s a whole lot of trouble to reach out to people door to door,” he said, adding that sometimes those in rural District 4 don’t particularly want strangers or slick-talking politicians dropping by unannounced.
Branson and Perkins have gone head to head over the seat before. Branson knocked Perkins off the Board of Commissioners in 2012 by getting 53 percent of the vote to Perkins’ 47 percent. Perkins had served two back-to-back four-year terms from 2004 to 2012.
In 2014, Perkins ran against fellow Democratic Guilford County Commissioner Kay Cashion in the at-large commissioners race. Cashion won big in that Democratic primary in May that year, pulling in over 71 percent of the vote to Perkins’ 29 percent.
Perkins said he’s been attempting to keep the new campaign positive.
“I don’t really say much about Alan – I talk about Kirk,” Perkins said.
He said he tries to point to his own accomplishments on the board and said he feels he has a very good record to run on.
He said that, as a commissioner, for instance, he pushed hard for the development at Northeast Park and that’s something that has benefited District 4.
“Northeast Park had been kind of on the shelf,” Perkins said.
He added that he pushed for improvements at Hagan-Stone Park. Perkins said that, along with the rest of his board, he helped bring the county a new jail, brought about the purchase the BB&T building on the governmental plaza in downtown Greensboro, and the nearby Independence building.
Perkins also pointed out that he served on the board that hired Guilford County Attorney Mark Payne. Payne, who took the job in late 2009, is still with the county in 2016 – which is somewhat astonishing considering that, in the year prior to Payne’s hiring, Guilford County ran through six county attorneys or interim county attorneys. (Payne jokes that it’s actually seven because one of the firms the county hired that year – Nexsen Pruet, actually used two attorneys for that role.)
“We also built schools,” Perkins said. “A lot of things happened on those eight years on the board. I’ve got a proven record that people can look at.”
Branson said that he’s more than happy to put his record up against Perkins’ any day.
“I’ve said from the beginning, from the time we filed on the same day, that he has his record and I have mine,” Branson said.
Branson said Perkins and his fellow Democrats managed to simultaneously “drive the tax rate through the roof and flat-line the budget.”
He said the Republican majority that was voted in in 2012 has cut costs while still doing things like funding the Guilford County Family Justice Center, which is a central location for handling domestic abuse and other family-related issues. Branson said that has been getting the county some good recognition.
“I think it’s very positive not only here in Guilford County but across the state and across the nation,” Branson said.
Branson added that Republicans had kept spending in line, reined in an out of control social services department, and put that department under the commissioners after merging it with the county’s health department.
“We’ve also been working together with High Point and Greensboro for economic development,” Branson said. “Things like that I think are a positive.”
He said he and other Republicans have tried to work with the cities on others things but he added that that’s always a bumpy road.
“It’s not 100 percent perfect,” he said.
Branson added that the Republican board hadn’t shown political favoritism with county decisions, as the former Democratic boards were known to do.
And then, of course, there’s property taxes – something Branson wants to talk about every chance he gets between now and November. The Republicans have reduced taxes in three of the four last years and did not raise taxes in that remaining year. Those cuts total just over 2 cents per $100 of assessed property value.
On the other hand, from the time Perkins joined the board, taxes rose steadily – increases of 2 or 3 cents a year weren’t uncommon. And, the year Perkins was chairman, the 2008-2009 budget included a 4.6-cent tax increase – the largest property tax increase this century.
Still, those decreases have been modest. In those discussions Branson was one commissioner arguing for even larger cuts, but some fellow Republicans were cautious about offering bigger cuts while the economy was so unstable.
Those aren’t giant tax decreases, but Republicans say that at least the tax rate is finally headed in the right direction after years of Democratic hikes.
Perkins said the Republican cuts are more symbolic than anything and aren’t meaningful to property owners.
“Those cuts mean nothing to taxpayers and cost the county millions,” Perkins said.
Perkins also said the lost county revenue from those cuts could have gone to the schools or to other county services that have needed more funding.
Perkins said that, during the 2012 campaign, Branson went after him hard, and he said it’s easy to throw stones and make promises when Branson didn’t have to sit up at the dais and make the hard decisions. He said that now, however, Branson has been representing District 4 for four years, and voters can judge which brand of government they prefer.
Perkins also said he served on the board at a time of the 2008 economic collapse, which made the job of commissioner trying, but he said he’s proud of the way those board’s guided the county through those times.
Perkins said he’ll be fine with whatever the voters decide.
“I had a blessed life before and I’ll have a blessed life after,” he said.
Branson is seeing some solid support from his fellow Republicans on the board who want to see the county maintain a Republican majority.
Board of Commissioners Jeff Phillips, who’s running unopposed this year for the District 5 seat, has been using his Facebook page to say nice things about Branson and point out his achievements.
Branson, who’s now vice chairman of the Board of Commissioners, could be in line to be the board’s next chairman if he gets past Perkins in November.
Commissioner Justin Conrad, who was the president of Libby Hill Seafood for many years and now runs a seafood supply company, knows a thing or two about serving up seafood and Branson said it’s likely some of Conrad’s catch will end up being served at his campaign events.
“I’m trying to work with Conrad,” Branson said. “The oysters are supposed to be really good in months that end with R.”