The midterm election Tuesday, Nov. 6 is less than a month away, which means the races are starting to heat up and candidates who have been trying for months to get people to pay attention are finally having some success.
Tuesday, Oct. 9, the League of Women Voters of the Piedmont Triad and the News & Record held their first candidates’ forum of the season at Temple Emanuel on Jefferson Road. This forum featured the candidates for sheriff, at-large Guilford County Board of Education and the District 3 Guilford County Board of Commissioners.
After all the brouhaha in Washington, it was refreshing to see political opponents sit down and answer questions in a calm and reasoned manner. There were no questions from the audience; in each race the candidates were asked the same two questions and then asked how they were different from their opponent. There were no opening or closing statements, which usually add very little to a forum.
The only statewide races on the ballot are for the Court of Appeals and the North Carolina Supreme Court. The sheriff and at-large school board are the only two countywide races where there is opposition. There are two other countywide races on the ballot but neither candidate has an opponent. Democrat At-large Guilford County Commissioner Kay Cashion and Guilford County Clerk of Court Lisa Johnson-Tonkins both were present at the forum, but a wave to the crowd was all the recognition they needed.
Republican Guilford County Sheriff BJ Barnes was first elected in sheriff 1994 and has weathered all the political storms since then. He is facing Democrat Danny Rogers, which is a repeat of the 2014 election.
When asked how he differentiated himself from his opponent, Barnes said, “I’m the only candidate with the experience of being sheriff and I’ve been sheriff for 24 years.”
Barnes also noted that he was on the Governor’s Crime Commission and had been appointed to that commission by governors of both parties.
Barnes noted that since he has been sheriff there has been a 65 percent reduction in crime in Guilford County, which is higher than any of the surrounding areas.
He said that his opponent would talk about the fact that the Guilford County sheriff’s office was not accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA), but noted that only 4 percent of the law enforcement agencies in the country choose to be accredited.
On the same question, Rogers said, “I’ll bring the law enforcement experience I do have to the office.” And, as Barnes predicted, Rogers said, “I will continue to push CALEA.”
Rogers said that CALEA would make the sheriff’s office more transparent and assure that the correct policies and procedures were in place. He also said, “We bring a new vision and we bring a positive change for everybody in Guilford County.”
The candidates were asked what they would do with the $1.5 million in revenue the Guilford County jail generated each year, which turned out to be a bit of a trick question.
Rogers said he would like to see the funds go to grant programs to help the inmates become productive members of society and to use it for more drug and mental health treatment in the jail.
Barnes noted that the $1.5 million was generated by keeping federal prisoners in the jail and that the money didn’t go to the Sheriff’s Department but went into the Guilford County general fund, which means the commissioners, not the sheriff, get to decide how it is spent.
Barnes added that currently the money was being used to pay down the bonds on the jail so that taxes didn’t have to be raised on the citizens of Guilford County.
He added that there is a reentry program at the jail, to help inmates get jobs when they were released, and that he was working to expand the program.
Republican District 3 Guilford County Commissioner Justin Conrad and Democratic challenger Tracy Lamothe were also given the opportunity to differentiate themselves from their opponent.
Conrad said, “I’m happily running on my record, running on what we have been able to accomplish in the past four years.”
Conrad noted that the commissioners had increased funding to public education and come up with an additional $10 million in bond money to fund school security. He said they created the Family Justice Center in Greensboro and were in the process of opening one in High Point.
He said that the last two Guilford County budgets had passed unanimously, which is an indication of how well the Democrats and Republicans are working together on the board.
Lamothe seemed more intent on talking about how the two candidates were alike. She said they lived in the same neighborhood and went to the same high school. She added, “My attitude toward government is different than Justin’s. I have a different priority on how money is spent.”
When asked about the Cure Violence program Guilford County and Greensboro are considering to help reduce violent crime in certain Greensboro neighborhoods, Conrad said, “I’m open minded. I did vote to look at the program and go forward.” Conrad said that he had some questions about liability and whether it should be a county program or run by a nonprofit.
Lamothe said, “I think it’s a wonderful program and I think we need to do it.”
She said she liked to see nonprofits involved but did see how that could pose a funding problem so that maybe nonprofits were not the way to go.
The two candidates were asked about a state law requiring counties to buy new voting machines by 2019. Lamothe said that she wasn’t familiar with the law but that it would take six months to get voting machines up and running and it was important to have the voting system working without problems.
Conrad said, “This is a bad piece of legislation.” He said Guilford County didn’t have any issues with the current voting machines, which currently back up the electronic votes with a printout on paper. Conrad also said it would cost Guilford County $7 million in the next budget to pay for new voting machines and the county had asked the state to reconsider because it didn’t make sense for Guilford County.
The at-large Board of Education race has no incumbent. Former Chairman of the Guilford County Board of Education Alan Duncan stepped down after winning the Democratic primary because he was appointed to the North Carolina State Board of Education. The Democratic Party chose Winston McGregor, the executive director of the Guilford Education Alliance, to take Duncan’s place on the ballot and she is running against retired Greensboro Police Officer Marc Ridgill.
The candidates were given a long list of issues and asked which one they considered most important.
McGregor said that the board should try to liberate teachers to teach and not saddle them with additional responsibilities. She said the budget should reflect a clear strategic plan and focus on student outcome. She added that it is important “to invest in the development of teachers and principals.” McGregor also noted that the reduced funding for schools had created issues.
Ridgill said, “School safety. School safety.”
He said, “Gangs are back in schools.” And he said the system was losing teachers because they were tired of being assaulted in the classroom. He said the school security issue inside the schools had to be solved first, so the perimeter could be made secure.
Ridgill added that the aging facilities were a problem. He said, “We have mold in our schools.” And added, “Airborne pathogens are a health issue.”
McGregor said what made her different was that she lived in a multigenerational home and worked for nonprofits in the community. She said, “We have to stay very focused on the outcome for kids.”
Ridgill said that in his retirement he seemed to be busier than when he was working and his eight years as the school resource officer at Grimsley High School had given him a lot of insight into what the students were dealing with every day. He said he had worked in east Greensboro for 15 years and understood the problems of that area.
Ridgill said, “I do not believe in the status quo. I believe the strategic plan has very little strategy in it.”