Former Democratic Guilford County Commissioner Skip Alston has dropped the “former” from that title and added “new” to it. On Thursday, May 4, Alston will be sworn into that position by Guilford County Superior Court Judge Patrice A. Hinnant at the start of the Board of Commissioners meeting.
Alston said this week that he’s raring to go.
He also said that he knows he’ll be in the minority on a nine-member board run by five Republicans, but he added that he believes the Democrats, including himself, can work with the Republicans.
“We need to put politics aside,” Alston said.
Chairman of the Board of Commissioners Jeff Phillips is being equally conciliatory at this point.
In an email to the Rhino Times, in response to a question on his view of Alston’s return, Phillips stated, “We welcome Skip Alston back to the Board of Commissioners. We’ll try to make his transition as seamless as possible so we remain focused on the priorities of our citizens. In recent years our Board has become less about our individual members and more about serving our citizens’ needs to the absolute best of our ability each and every day. I’m sure Skip will agree with those ideals.”
Phillips also pointed out that a lot has changed since Alston’s departure.
“I think it goes without saying that things are much different at the County since 2012,” Phillips wrote. “Much of our key staff is different, how we do business has changed dramatically, and our board’s responsibilities and priorities have shifted significantly. Not to mention the dramatic improvements with the county’s financial health and operational efficiencies. Things are far from perfect, but a lot has changed for the better, on many fronts. I think most citizens that have paid even a little bit of attention recognize that. Heck, if I was Skip, I’d want to come back too! It will take him a little time to get his bearings, but everyone will do their part to get him up to speed so that, together, we can continue moving the county in a positive direction. Sure, we have a new member that happens to have been a commissioner before, but it’s not the first time that’s happened. He’ll be fine. The board will be fine. Most importantly, our citizens will be fine. Hey Skip, two words. Welcome back!”
Likewise, Alston said he thinks there can be more cohesion than some might anticipate, but he also made it clear he’s going to be a strong, outspoken advocate for the constituents he represents now and represented for 20 years in his first go-round as a commissioner.
“I am going to stand up for District 8,” he said.
Alston said his first order of business is going to be a “listening tour” of the district that includes much of east Greensboro and the surrounding area. He said that will give him a lot of information he needs as to what his constituents want to see from the current Board of Commissioners.
He also said that, countywide, two of his main priorities are helping promote economic development and providing sufficient support for education.
Alston said that, though most of his former 20 years as a commissioner was with a Democratic majority on the board, there were two years, 1996 to 1998, when Republicans had a majority – and, he said, he learned at that time that he could be effective while in the minority party. Alston said former Republican Commissioner Joe Bostic was chairman when some Republicans on the board, including former Commissioner Steve Arnold, wanted to make draconian cuts that Bostic didn’t like. So Bostic said he was going to cut a budget deal with the Democrats. That included, among other concessions for the Democrats, Guilford County giving $250,000 to the International Civil Rights Center & Museum.
“Joe called Steve’s bluff,” Alston said. “He said, I’m going to work with the Democrats.”
Alston said that, when an alarmed Arnold saw Bostic had actually cut a deal with the Democrats, Arnold backed down but it was too late. Alston said Arnold went back to Bostic but Bostic said no, he already had a deal with Alston and he was sticking to it.
Now, in 2017, the five Republicans stay pretty much in sync, but they do have disagreements where Democratic votes can come into play, and that will no doubt continue. Alston also pointed out that some of his goals – such as promoting economic development – are shared by the Republicans.
Alston’s selection to the Board of Commissioners happened via a twisted and heated process that came close to putting upstart politician April Parker into that District 8 seat instead of Alston. Parker, a mother, grass roots organizer, Black Lives Matter activist and organizer in the LGBT community, would have been the first openly gay commissioner to serve on the Guilford County Board of Commissioners.
However, after a heated battle, members of the Executive Committee of the Guilford County Democratic Party representing county commissioner District 8 bestowed that honor on Alston at a meeting on Wednesday night, April 26.
The seat was vacated when former Guilford County Commissioner Ray Trapp stepped down on Sunday, April 2, to take a new job as the director of government relations for North Carolina A&T State University.
While Alston won the seat on April 26, a week earlier – in his first attempt to get the party’s vote – it looked like Alston’s plan might be upset. On the Tuesday night, April 18 meeting, the Guilford County Democratic Party Executive Committee met and a small but powerful voting block of white Executive Committee members voted, with a slim majority, to adjourn the meeting to see if any candidates besides Alston stepped forward to represent the predominantly black district.
The vote was also very close on Wednesday, April 26 when Alston won the seat by a 2 percent margin over Parker after the Executive Committee had tallied the vote.
Alston said the seat is still not his in reality.
“It’s not Skip Alston’s seat – it’s the people’s seat,” he said of the District 8 seat he now occupies.
In 2012, Alston didn’t run for reelection to the Guilford County Board of Commissioners after serving for 20 years straight on that board. During those two decades, he was chairman of the board five times – including his last four years on the board.
At the time Alston stepped down, he hinted that people would see him back in politics before long, and in 2014 he made an unsuccessful bid to knock state Sen. Gladys Robinson out of the North Carolina District 28 Senate seat. Robinson pulled in 59 percent of the vote to Alston’s 41 percent in the May 2014 Democratic primary that also decided the general election winner, since there was no Republican opposition.
Alston was first elected as a commissioner in 1992 and never lost an election for that District 8 seat, and rarely did he even see any real opposition.
In 1999, Alston served as vice chairman of the Board of Commissioners and, in December 2002, he became the board’s first black chairman. He was elected again as vice chair in 2007 before his subsequent four-year run as chairman.
Alston is a businessman who’s had his hand in everything from real estate and car dealerships to hot dog stands and other fast food establishments. While on the Board of Commissioners, the liberal Alston was often a lightening rod for conservative political foes such as outspoken Republican Commissioner Billy Yow. In Alston’s final four years as a commissioner, he formed an alliance with Arnold and others that kept Alston as chairman of the board.
Alston said this week that Arnold had texted him congratulations after Alston won a seat back on the board. At the April 26 Executive Committee meeting where Alston was named chairman, former Commissioners Bruce Davis and Kirk Perkins were there as a show of support for Alston. Perkins said that perhaps he’ll run again someday and it will be like old times serving alongside Alston.
One thing that helped Alston in his cause to be a commissioner once again is that Trapp told the Rhino Times when he stepped down that Alston was the only person for the job. Trapp said the Board of Commissioners is entering into the discussions over the upcoming 2017-2018 budget and the Democrats therefore needed someone with a knowledge of Guilford County government who could step in right away and play a role in that process. Trapp was at the April 18 meeting where there was a vote to adjourn but he was not at the April 26 meeting when Alston was finally named to the board. Trapp, now serving in the new job with A&T, has tried to distance himself somewhat from the political battles. If Parker had won, Trapp, as the university’s new government relations director, would have had to work with her and other county commissioners to advance the university’s interests.
Alston is certainly familiar with Guilford County government and budgets, but it’s not clear how large a role he’ll be able to play in that process this year given that Republican commissioners now hold that thin but very consequential 5-to-4 majority. One county official said Alston would be a lot like “a new Billy Yow.” Yow was a very colorful and outspoken Republican commissioner who was in the minority party and therefore rarely got his way on key issues because the Republicans were always outnumbered.
Commissioner Carolyn Coleman, who nominated Alston at the April 26 meeting for the job, said this week that she thought Alston would be an excellent man for the job and she is very glad to see his return.
Republican Commissioner Justin Conrad said he had been looking forward to working with whomever the Democrats selected. Conrad said that, even though he and Trapp had often differed politically, Trapp was pleasant to deal with. Conrad added that, on those occasions when he’s had dealings with Alston, those had also always been pleasant.
“Ray was always a gentleman and, in my interactions with Skip Alston, he has been a gentleman as well,” Conrad said.
Commissioner Hank Henning also said he welcomes Alston to the board and hopes the new board can work together constructively.
Commissioners don’t want to say so on the record, but many of them are pleased with Alston’s selection because Parker has something of a reputation as a “grenade thrower,” and the current Board of Commissioners likes its county business to be copacetic.
Privately, some county officials say the selection of Alston really makes very little difference to the direction of the county because, like Trapp, Alston will be in the minority party. As Phillips has pointed out, Guilford County government in 2017 is a far cry from what it was five years ago when Democrats controlled the Board of Commissioners and Alston ran the show.
Alston will serve until the first Monday in December 2018 – at least. The November 2018 ballot will include candidates for the unexpired term of Trapp’s seat and then, after 2020, the District 8 seat will be back on a regular four-year election cycle. Alston said this week that he may run for the seat again in 2018 and perhaps even in 2020, but he said that depends on a number of factors, including whether there’s someone from District 8 that Alston feels is a leader who can effectively defend the interests of those constituents. Alston said he had no trouble handing the seat over to Trapp in 2012 because Trapp was such a capable leader.
Phillips said he expects the board to proceed with its business in much the same way it has since the Republicans took control of the board in December 2012.
“I think one thing we’ve shown is that we respect the opinion of others and that we understand the process and that everyone has a different perspective,” Phillips said.
Phillips, who’s now in his second year as chairman, said he feels that in recent years the board has done a good job of discussing matters in a calm and deliberative manner and that both Democrats and Republicans have been able to make their cases.
“Our board has done a really good job of being professional,” he said.
In the decade before 2012, the Board of Commissioners was frequently known as a raucous and chaotic body, and some county citizens referred to the meetings as “the Thursday Night Fights.”
Alston said he hopes he sees Trapp back in politics at some point since Trapp is an excellent representative of his constituents.
Trapp said recently that he’s enjoying his new job with A&T a great deal. Before the last Board of Commissioners meeting on April 6, Trapp said he would attend, but he was a no show.
“I was working late,” Trapp said this week.
He said that his new job is enjoyable and demanding and it kept him from making it by the Old Guilford County Court House to officially say goodbye to everyone.
There was surprisingly little reference to Trapp at that meeting. There was no official recognition of his stepping down, no reading of his resignation from the dais and his name wasn’t mentioned until the Democratic commissioners made note of his departure in the commissioners’ closing comments at the end of the meeting.
Trapp said recently that it hit him recently how parallel his career path was to that of Downtown Greensboro Inc. President and CEO Zack Matheny, a former Greensboro city councilmember.
Trapp said they had served on the Greensboro Planning Board together, then got elected to the Greensboro City Council and the Board of Commissioners – and then both stepped down from elective office to take new jobs.
Trapp said he had tried to find a way to remain a commissioner and take the A&T job but that the conflict of interest problems were insurmountable.
Both Trapp and Alston had a special focus on mental health issues and jail matters.
In 2008, Alston led an effort to reduce the jail population in Guilford County’s overcrowded jails, which seems to have worked very well since, after opening the new jail, the county has closed down one jail, closed its Prison Farm, is now talking about closing the High Point jail and the county’s new jail sits half empty. Before the jail reduction efforts, experts predicted that all of the county’s jail, including the large new jail, would be full or nearly full soon after the new jail opened.
When Alston was running for state Senate, he told the Rhino Times that he planned to fight bullying in schools with an anti-bullying campaign.
When the Rhino Times asked Alston if that meant he would put an end to bullying in politics – something his opponents have accused him of – he said, chuckling, “No, bullying in politics will still be fair game.”
Alston attended North Carolina Central University in Durham where he majored in business administration before moving to Greensboro and becoming a key political figure in Guilford County’s black community. He made civil rights and racial equality signature causes.
He was a founder of the International Civil Rights Center & Museum in downtown Greensboro, and he is a permanent member of the board of directors for Sit-In Movement Inc., which runs the museum.
Alston is married and has two sons and is the president of S & J Management Corporation.
Through the years, Alston, in a addition to being a county commissioner, has served on the Guilford County Board of Health, the Greensboro Chamber of Commerce board of directors, the North Carolina Association of Black County Officials, the Greensboro Branch of the NAACP, the North Carolina State Conference of NAACP Branches and the National Board of Trustees for the NAACP.
He has also served on the North Carolina Real Estate Commission and he was chairman of that organization as well.