Conservative District Up For Grabs:
Conrad and Thompson Go For It
Libby Hill Seafood President Justin Conrad and former Greensboro City Councilmember Danny Thompson didn’t waste much time getting into the Guilford County Board of Commissioners’ District 3 race once incumbent Commissioner Linda Shaw announced she wasn’t going to run again.
Within a couple of hours of Shaw’s announcement that she wouldn’t seek a fifth four-year term, both candidates were publicly stating their intention to run.
Though District 3 lines were redrawn during redistricting in 2012, the district is one that’s expected to continue to be a Republican stronghold. Conrad, Thompson and anyone who files before the end of February will face off in the May Republican primary, and the winner of that race is expected to win the district in November.
Both men were born and raised in Greensboro, both are married with children in local schools. Conrad's daughters attend Greensboro Academy a charter school and Thompson's school-aged children attend Caldwell Academy a private school. Conrad is the president and CEO of Libby Hill Seafood, which has eight restaurants in central North Carolina and one in Virginia. Thompson is the owner and operator of Comfort Keepers In-Home Care, which provides home care and living assistance to seniors.
Both Conrad and Thompson have served on boards overseeing a large public entity. Conrad is on the Guilford County Board of Public Health, where he serves as chairman, and Thompson served ibe tern as a Greensboro city councilmember. Also, both men say that their proven ability to run a successful business is one of their key qualifications for being the next District 3 commissioner, and, whenever they’re asked a question about any aspect of Guilford County government, in most cases the response from either of them is likely to lead immediately back to the county’s massive $900-million debt and the need to address that problem first.
Thompson said he was able to grow his company, Comfort Keepers, without using debt. He said he managed his revenue and expenses and he added employees only as they were needed to support growth in the customer base. He also said that Guilford County government can use all the business acumen is can get.
“What do I bring to the table in difficult budget times? I’ve built a multi-million dollar business from scratch. I built it from the ground up from the basement of my house without acquiring debt.”
He added that his business provides a very beneficial service and employs a great many people.
When Conrad is asked what he can offer the citizens of District 3 and Guilford County, like Thompson, he points to his business sense.
“I understand budgets; I understand cost; I understand employees,” he said.
Conrad said that, in addition to operating a large chain of restaurants, his work on the health board and his time as chairman of that board have given him a lot of insight into the county’s budget process.
“It’s been interesting to work through the county’s budget process,” he said.
Thompson said that serving as a city councilmember provided him knowledge and experience that would benefit him as a county commissioner. He said two big differences between city and county government are that the county has to fund education and also manage a lot of “pass through” dollars from the federal and state government, but he added that there are plenty of similarities as well – with both the city and the county having parks, public safety, planning departments and other services that mirror one another.
Until last week, Conrad was executive director of the Guilford County Republican Party – a post he stepped down from when he decided to run for the District 3 seat. Conrad said he’s optimistic that his work in the Republican Party will help him in his quest for the commissioners seat this year.
“Obviously, I know a lot of grass roots folks,” he said.
The race should be a lively one and the two already seem be taking light jabs at one another. For instance, Conrad likes to point out that Thompson wasn’t going to get into the race if Shaw had sought the seat again. Conrad said that, if someone is interested in running for office, he or she should run for that seat and their decision shouldn’t depend on who else is running.
Thompson, on the other hand, likes to stress that he built his business from scratch – which could be taken as a dig at Conrad, who runs a business started decades ago by his grandfather.
Conrad said he thinks that the fact that his family has had such a well-known business that’s been around for decades will only help his cause. He said he worked his way through the business starting in the most basic jobs. He eventually took over Libby Hill from his father, Ken Conrad, in 2005.
On the issues, both candidates sound very much like Republicans: They each talk a great deal about getting the county’s debt under control and lowering taxes.
Thompson said the City of Greensboro had more money to fund initiatives than the county did, since the city isn’t facing the same massive debt that the county is saddled with. Thompson said debt has to be a central factor for any county commissioner worth his or her salt.
“The budgetary issues are the biggest issues the county commissioners face,” Thompson said.
He pointed out that Guilford County is going to have to add millions in debt payments in the budget in the near future just to pay back the money the county has already borrowed.
“Just the debt service has really put us into dire straights as to what we’re willing to do,” Thompson said.
He added that raising taxes is not an option.
“We are already one of the highest taxed counties in the area and the state,” he said.
Conrad also said taxes are too high. He said that getting the tax rate down will help business and help unemployment.
“We have an 8 percent unemployment rate in Guilford County and we’re paying taxes at a rate that’s in the top 25 percent of counties in the country,” Conrad said.
Conrad also said one thing the county can do is “stop throwing incentives money around.” He said that getting taxes down and keeping them down is the best thing the county can do to draw business here.
The question of whether Guilford County should pay out economic incentives to private companies is one of the most heated questions the board addresses. Conrad said he’s against them.
“I believe government should not be taking money from business A and paying it to business B,” he said.
Thompson, on the other hand, said he would look at incentives requests on a case-by-case basis. He added that the county’s current haphazard policy is a mess and needs to be fixed.
“They haven’t had any systematic plan in providing incentives,” he said of the commissioners.
That view also seemed to be the consensus of many Guilford County commissioners when they discussed the matter at their retreat two weeks ago.
Thompson said that, given the way incentives have been handled in recent years, he doesn’t feel there’s been much benefit to citizens, considering the money the county spent.
“I’m not convinced the incentives given out have provided the returns – we haven’t seen the return on investment,” he said.
Both Conrad and Thompson say they think the current Board of Commissioners – in which Republicans won a majority in late 2012 for the first time this century – has been doing a pretty good job. In June, the board adopted a budget with a slight tax decrease and managed to pay all the bills and fund the school system at a level at which school officials didn’t grumble too loudly.
Thompson and his wife, Jane, have four children. He grew up in Greensboro, attended Western Guilford High School, graduated from Asbury College in Kentucky and worked in Washington, DC, before taking a job with Jefferson Pilot and eventually opening his own insurance company. He then went into the senior care business.
Conrad and his wife, Andria – “a nurse by trade,” Conrad said – have three daughters. He grew up in Greensboro and went to Grimsley High School before graduating from East Carolina University and going into the family business.
When it was pointed out to Conrad that East Carolina is consistently ranked as one of the top 20 party schools in the United States, he said, “It wasn’t because of me – I knew where the library was.”
BY Scott D. Yost
January 30, 2014
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