It’s good to be the king – and it’s also good to be a Guilford County commissioner.
That must be true because, in 2018, all six county commissioners with expiring terms are running for reelection. The 2018 hopefuls whose current terms run out in early December are Commissioners Carlvena Foster (District 1), Alan Perdue (District 2), Justin Conrad (District 3), Carolyn Coleman (District 7), Skip Alston (District 8) and Kay Cashion, the board’s at-large representative. All six commissioners say they plan to file to run again during candidate filing period, which runs this year from Monday, Feb. 12 to Wednesday, Feb. 28. The primary this year is on Tuesday, May 8 and the general election will be held on Tuesday, Nov. 6.
Several commissioners said this week that they feel that the current Board of Commissioners has a very good working relationship and a positive dynamic and that’s one reason those on the board wish to continue serving.
Alston, the only one of the six not elected in 2014, said he has enjoyed being back on the board after a five-year hiatus. He said that’s true even though, as a Democrat, he’s now part of the board’s minority. Alston served as a Guilford County commissioner from 1992 to 2012 before handpicking former Commissioner Ray Trapp to take over that District 8 seat. The district’s voters did elect Trapp; however, in May 2017, Trapp stepped down to take a job with NC A&T State University. Alston was then named to that position by Democratic Party officials representing District 8. If Alston wants to finish out the next two years of the term Trapp began, he must win that seat in the 2018 election. He’s the only commissioner running for a two year, not a four year, term.
Alston, who’s campaigned and won the District 8 seat five times before – six counting the vote by Democratic Party officials earlier this year – said that, given current Republican dominance at all levels of government, it’s more important than ever to have seasoned Democrats serving as Guilford County commissioners.
“It’s a very important time,” Alston said. “The Republicans are in charge of the federal and state government, and, if the Democrats are going to have a possibility of influence, it will have to be at the local level. You need strong, experienced commissioners, and I bring that.”
Alston said he wants to win the right to finish out the current term, which lasts until 2020, and then he’ll decide at that time if he should seek another term. He said his main concern is that District 8 continue to have a strong advocate on the board.
“My concern is my community,” Alston said. “I gave the seat up in 2012, but I didn’t have to give it up. I’m not going to leave my district without strong representation.”
He said he wants District 8 to have a “fair opportunity” when it comes to getting new businesses as well as being the focus of county projects and programs. Alston represents much of east Greensboro, one of the more economically depressed areas of the county. He fought hard in the budget negotiations last June for county funding for the Renaissance Community Cooperative grocery store so that those in east Greensboro have more access to affordable fresh food. Alston has also been an advocate for greater school funding.
Alston pointed out that he, Cashion and Coleman have, combined, served many, many years on the board. He added that, while the Democrats remain in the minority, they can still be effective at getting parts of their agenda implemented, given all that collective know-how.
“Experience matters on how to affect that majority,” Alston said.
In 2002, Alston became the first black chairman of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners and he served for a county record of five times in that position, including four consecutive years as chairman from 2008 to 2012. He said this week that he would use all of his experience to provide “a strong and effective voice for the citizens in District 8.”
In northwestern Guilford County, Conrad, a Republican who represents District 3, said he intends to run. He said there was a lingering family-related issue that could have stood in the way of that run, but now it looks all but certain that that wouldn’t keep him from seeking the District 3 seat again.
“I’m planning on it,” Conrad said of running.
Conrad added that this is a critical time for northwest Guilford County. There’s been a great deal of development in the area in recent years and, currently, the county and other local government partners have commissioned a major study that could pave the way to the creation of a large water system to serve much of that area. Most residents in northwest Guilford County who do not reside in the city limits rely on well water and many of them have faced water supply and quality issues.
“I think everybody knows we have water issues,” Conrad said of District 3, adding that the new study should provide a lot of needed answers soon. “We need to dig down deep – no pun intended – and address this. That’s important, not just for District 3, but for the entire county.”
Conrad added that his district is home to the new megasite at the Central North Carolina International Airport, formerly known as Piedmont Triad International Airport.
“We have a great opportunity at the airport,” he said. “It’s a great facility with a great staff.”
Conrad said he knows the Greensboro-Randolph Megasite just to the south of Guilford County is the “big shiny penny” that everyone is talking about right now, but he added that, as soon as the airport megasite is ready to take on new aeronautics companies, there will be an excellent chance to bring a lot of high paying jobs to Guilford County. He said one reason he wants more time as the District 3 commissioner is to help oversee the growth of the airport megasite.
Coleman, who represents District 7, which includes Pleasant Garden and much of the surrounding area, said this week that she’s raring to run again for her seat.
“I’m going to run – I’m excited about it,” Coleman said. “I’m like a football player before the big game. I can’t wait; I can’t wait.”
Like Conrad, Coleman talked about a county megasite as one reason she wants to be part of the county’s future leadership after 2018. In her case, though, she’s more focused on the Greensboro-Randolph Megasite and the way it could spur growth in the part of the county she represents.
Coleman said that attracting one or more major tenants to the Greensboro-Randolph Megasite would spur development in southern Guilford County and transform that area. She said even if no huge tenant is found, southern Guilford County is an ideal area for businesses.
“I’d like to see us identify [US] 220 and [US] 421 as an area to recruit certain kinds of businesses,” she said, adding optimistically that that stretch could become something like Research Triangle Park.
Coleman said she’s been a strong advocate for school funding during her years on the board. She also said that, with the Republican commissioners having the most say over the budget, the school system isn’t getting everything it needs, but she and other Democrats were able to bump up school funding at least a little before the current county budget was adopted.
Coleman also said she’s been one of the commissioners who’s fought hard for Guilford County to enter into more contracts with Minority and Women Business Enterprises (MWBE).
“I’ve tried to improve the numbers of MWBE,” Coleman said.
According to Coleman, Guilford County still has a long way to go in that regard but, in her time on the board, she said, she has at least been able to help move the needle in the right direction.
Coleman recently played a big part in a huge win for her constituents in the Pleasant Garden area: the commissioners rejected a rezoning request that would have allowed a rock quarry operation near Pleasant Garden. Late last year, the board voted unanimously to reject the rezoning request from Lehigh Hanson. An overwhelming number of residents in that area were opposed to the project, and Coleman, along with the rest of the board, shut the door decisively on that proposal. That alone is no doubt going to win her a few votes in 2018.
Perdue, representing District 2, has also chosen to throw his hat into the ring this year. He said there are a lot of things the county really needs to focus on in the coming years, including an improvement in the administration of mental health services in Guilford County. Perdue and other county officials have been meeting in order to see what can be done.
“We’re doing some research and asking, ‘What are Guilford County’s needs?’” Perdue said.
He also said the participants in those talks are trying to avoid just “going through the motions” and instead find cogent, effective answers.
Perdue said he believes county citizens have been pleased with the “professionalism” of the Board of Commissioners in recent years. Like other Republican commissioners, Perdue also points to the fact that Republicans have steadily brought down property taxes since gaining a majority on the board in 2012.
“I look at it as being fiscally responsible, and lowering the tax burden while increasing spending for education and public safety,” Perdue said of the moves made by the Republican-led board in recent years.
He said another critical project now underway is the county’s second Family Justice Center, which is in the planning stage.
“I am very interested in seeing the completion of the Family Justice Center in High Point,” Perdue said. “The one in Greensboro has had a significant impact.”
Perdue’s district includes parts of High Point, Greensboro and a large strip of southern Guilford County. He said he didn’t want to say his district’s layout was “convoluted,” but others might in fact say that.
The High Point voters in Perdue’s district may be an interesting part of the equation in 2018. There are a lot of voters in that city who are upset the Guilford County Board of Commissioners hasn’t helped fund High Point’s downtown stadium project. Though that project is moving forward without any financial help from Guilford County, there’s still a lot of ire directed toward the commissioners.
Foster, who represents District 1 – which includes parts of High Point – and is seeking to do so for another four years, was the Board of Commissioners’ only steadfast supporter of stadium funding. Despite the fact that she couldn’t garner support in that cause, her efforts will no doubt help her in the coming election. One high ranking High Point official said Foster was considered a “hero” in High Point for her attempts to move her fellow commissioners toward stadium funding.
Cashion and Foster both made their intentions to run again clear at a recent meeting of Guilford County Democratic Women earlier this month.
Conrad, a Republican, had very nice things to say about Cashion. He pointed out that Cashion, the board’s at-large representative, lives in his district.
“She’s thoughtful, knowledgeable – and she’s going to be hard to beat,” Conrad said. “Kay is Kay.”
In these highly partisan times, it might seem strange for a Republican to speak so highly of a Democrat during an election year, but the Board of Commissioners has developed a remarkable cohesiveness at a time when partisan politics has made some government bodies nearly unable to function.
When told it was unusual for a Republican commissioner to say such nice things about a Democrat in an election year, he said, “We’ve got a little different board.”
As one illustration of the non-political nature of the current Board of Commissioners, Conrad pointed out that the votes don’t usually break down along party lines. The current board adopted the 2017-2018 budget unanimously, voted down the Pleasant Garden rock quarry 8 to 0 (after Commissioner Alan Branson was recused due to a business-based conflict of interest), and the board also elected Branson chairman and Conrad vice chairman in early December on unanimous votes.
Alston made the same point: The majority and minority party have been working very well together. He said being in the minority on the board is unusual for him.
“I’m used to being in charge,” he said. “For 18 of 20 years that I served, I was in the controlling party.”
He said that, during the years the Democrats controlled the board, hard-core former Republican commissioners, like Walt Cockerham and Steve Arnold, fought tooth and nail against the Democratic initiatives.
“They came with an agenda to disrupt us,” Alston said.
He said that changed in 2008 somewhat, when commissioners from both parties started to work together. He said the harmony people are seeing now is a continuation of that.
Alston said that, by working with Republicans, the Democrats are more likely to get some of the things they are fighting for.
“I told Justin [Conrad] and Alan [Branson], I need to bring some things back to my district too,” he said. “I’m not going to be able to get everything I want but I am going to be able to get something.”
Alston and the other five commissioners running to hold on to their seats in 2018 will find out soon if they have any opposition in their attempt to return to the board.
In the meantime, Guilford County Elections Director Charlie Collicutt said his office is gearing up for 2018.
“Filing period is kind of an unofficial kickoff,” Collicutt said of the election season that’s about to heat up.
Collicutt said this will be an interesting year.
“We will not have a US senator on the ballot,” the election director said. “That can have an influence on turnout.”
He also said it will change the type of ads state residents see on TV this year because the state won’t have that major statewide race to decide.
Collicutt also noted that there are redistricting battles going in and, due to a dispute between the governor and the NC General Assembly, there’s currently no State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement to oversee things or do things like approve and certify election machines.
Right now, Collicutt said, Guilford County has everything it needs to hold the election, but he said that could change.
“For the time being, we’re clear,” he said. “That may not be the case the next time you ask.”