The Guilford County Board of Commissioners just got a lot more interesting – but not as interesting as it could have been.
Former five-time chairman of the board and 20-year veteran of it, Skip Alston was elected to the Board of Commissioners by a 39-to-35 vote of the Guilford County Democratic Executive Committee at a Wednesday, April 26 meeting at Democratic Party headquarters in Greensboro.
Alston will take the seat of former District 8 Commissioner Ray Trapp, who stepped down from the Board of Commissioners in early April to take a job at NC A&T State University since that job, director of government relations, would have been a conflict of interest.
At the April 26 meeting, Alston narrowly defeated April Parker – the only other person nominated. Parker, a librarian for Guilford County Schools, is a Black Lives Matter activist who would have been the first openly gay person on the Guilford County Board of Commissioners.
Alston was the candidate all the current Democratic commissioners wanted on the board with them – in fact, he was also the one wanted by the Republicans on the board once they saw the alternative, though the Republican commissioners didn’t, for the most part, speak publicly about the battle between Parker and Alston that had been raging all week in District 8.
The election of Alston followed a rollicking meeting of the Guilford County Democratic Party Executive Committee just over a week earlier, when the committee voted abruptly to adjourn after Alston was nominated. This time the committee took a vote and Alston came out the winner.
Alston said he was extremely gratified to be the choice of the executive committee and, before the votes were cast, he said he didn’t know how the votes would turn out. He did say that, if all of his supporters showed up and voted, he thought he would come out ahead.
Alston had requested many prominent Democrats to show up to support him and those included former Commissioners Bruce Davis and Kirk Perkins. Only District 8 executive committee members could vote, but it was impressive the vast amount of Democratic firepower Alston brought with him to the meeting.
At the April 18 meeting the week before, there had been a lot of chaos and many procedural questions and, a few days after that meeting, the brand new chairman of the county party, Ralph Rodland, resigned.
So, for this meeting, the county’s Democratic Party brought in a big gun: Jim Slaughter, the most renowned parliamentarian in the area and one of the most respected in the country. Slaughter, an attorney, literally wrote the book on parliamentary procedure – two books actually, including The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Parliamentary Procedure.
After last week’s meeting, Democratic Party officials had requested Slaughter run this meeting. One staff person for the county Democratic Party said that at first Slaughter had told them he had a conflict, but then he called back and said he could do it. That was a good thing because this meeting was a lot of chaos waiting to happen – like the meeting a week earlier – but Slaughter maintained firm control on it from the start.
“Think of the magnitude of what’s happening,” Slaughter told the crowd. “If it’s not filled by next week, you lose your right.”
The selection process had seemed so chaotic in the eight days leading up to the meeting that it appeared at times during the week as though perhaps no selection would be made within 30 days of Trapp’s resignation – which would have meant the Board of Commissioners with a Republican-majority would have been able to choose a Democrat who lives in District 8 to serve on the board.
Slaughter said the candidates had agreed to limit their time to five minutes each, and he held up a timer to show he was going to hold them to that.
He explained that the vote was not a secret ballot but was open, and that some of the committee members had more votes than others because the party uses a weighted system based on numbers of voters from precincts who cast votes for the Democratic candidate for governor in the last election.
Parker was nominated first and she spoke first.
“I’m the loudest librarian you’ll ever meet,” Parker said.
She said she would work to reenergize the party, and to “welcome those who had been discouraged.” She also said she would fight “queer phobia” and “trans phobia” and would bring transparency and accountability to the office. Parker stated that her priorities would be education and effective social services and she added that she would work to “positively impact quality of life in District 8.”
County Commissioner Carolyn Coleman then nominated Alston, and Guilford County Clerk of Court Lisa Johnson-Tonkins seconded the nomination.
Coleman said, “Some people ask ‘What happened?’ while others make things happen.” She said Alston made things happen and then she gave his long resume including the fact that he’d spent two decades on the Board of Commissioners.
“This is an especially difficult time for Democrats on that board,” Coleman said. “We are in the minority. We need someone who can hit the ground running.”
She also said, “There is no better candidate at this moment. We need someone who will fight those Republicans. I would ask that everyone consider Skip Alston for this time and this moment.”
Alston only spoke briefly. He said, “This is not about me, it’s about us – it’s about us as a team.”
He also talked about his extensive experience and said he knew the county budget extremely well and knew how to stand up for District 8.
“I ask for you to vote for me to be your commissioner,” Alston said. “Here am I. Send me.”
After the speeches, the voting members of the committee retired into a back room where the votes were tallied. After about 10 minutes, Slaughter came out announced that Alston had won, which drew heavy cheers and applause from Alston’s supporters.
Alston had shown up to the meeting about 30 minutes early and started shaking hands. It was a packed house and, after the vote, the victor Alston was all smiles and he even grabbed a baby to hold during a TV interview with WXII.
The Democratic Party Executive Board’s decision to choose Alston comes one week and one day after one of the committee’s most contentious meetings in history.
At the April 26 meeting, no one seemed sure how it was going to turn out, but at the April 18 meeting, most everyone in the room assumed Alston would get the nod. At that time, Alston was the only candidate for the District 8 opening and he had the support of the sitting Democratic Guilford County commissioners as well as Trapp and most of District 8.
Alston was also the only person nominated at that April 18 meeting. However, as soon as the nominations closed at that meeting, former North Carolina District 58 Rep Chris Sgro – a District 8 resident and the executive director of the LGBT rights organization Equality NC – made a motion to adjourn and postpone the vote until April 26, in order, he said, to allow others to run for the position.
Since Trapp resigned at the start of the month and the event had been highly publicized, many in the room were angered by Sgro’s motion – especially when it became clear that Sgro had the votes to pass the motion.
Though District 8 is about two-thirds black, only six of 20 precincts are organized, and currently white precinct chairs wield a lot of power due to the weighted system.
Details aside, the April 18 meeting amounted to this: There was a room full of District 8 residents, largely black, who, along with all of the sitting commissioners and Trapp, wanted Alston to take the seat, but there were about a half dozen white people from organized precincts who had enough votes to adjourn that meeting. Many people at the meeting pointed out the racial implications of that.
Over the past week, there has been an epic battle going on among District 8 residents, with Alston, perhaps the best known black Democratic politician in Guilford County in that last century – a five-time chairman of the Board of Commissioners – going up against a woman whose name was not known by many until this week.
One commissioner said that Parker had a reputation of being a “grenade thrower” and that there was a concern that she would bring a lot of disruption to county commissioners meetings if she won.
Republican Commissioner Hank Henning said he was ready for either candidate.
“I’m ready. I served in Iraq,” Henning said.
Rodland, the former chairman, apparently wasn’t ready for this type of turmoil: He handed in his resignation just about two weeks after being elected chairman.
Many considered it a big mystery why he did so but it was clear Rodland was about at the end of his rope after the tumultuous April 18 meeting. When the meeting got out of control, claims of unfairness and of a lack of proper notice of that meeting were leveled against him, and there were other complaints from the floor as well.
Rodland stated in public during that meeting that he would have “the shortest term of any party chair – eight days.” In the back room when the votes were tallied that night, he also said he was going to resign. At the end of that meeting, due to those statements, the Rhino Times asked Rodland if he was in fact going to resign. He said at that time that he was not actually going to step down. But his level of frustration at that point was so high that it should not be surprising to anyone if he did later.
One county official joked this week, “Whoever thought that Skip Alston would someday be the ‘conservative’ choice for Guilford County commissioner?”
Republican Commissioner Justin Conrad has said he’s been watching the District 8 showdown closely, even though this is a totally Democratic fight.
Conrad posted on his Facebook page, “Pass the popcorn,” though he used the emoji for popcorn.