Republican Guilford County Commissioner Hank Henning in the District 6 commissioners race this year is being challenged by Democrat Rick Forrester – who knows he has an uphill battle if he’s going to unseat the incumbent in a conservative district that tends to favor Republicans in elections.
But Forrester said he’s up to the challenge and added that Guilford County would be a lot better off without Henning and without a Republican majority on the Board of Commissioners.
Henning was elected to the board in 2012 and served as chairman in 2015. Earlier this year, Henning ran unsuccessfully in the Republican primary for the 13th Congressional District seat, where he finished third in a 17-canidate race, and now he’s fully focused on retaining his position on the Board of Commissioners. He said he hopes all that campaigning in the congressional race will help bring in some votes in his District 6 commissioners race.
Henning, 41, is an account manager for Brady Services, a Greensboro-based firm that provides HVAC and other services to businesses, while Forrester, 67, is an attorney who lives in High Point and works in Greensboro, where he shares office space with Don Vaughan, a former Greensboro city councilmember and former state senator.
Forrester has also run for office before – 36 years ago when he ran and lost in a 1980 primary race for a District Court judge seat. This year Forrester is hoping the second time’s a charm – even if that second time is occurring more than three-and-a-half decades after the first.
Forrester said Henning and the current Republican majority that runs the Board of Commissioners are focused on cutting government and taxes at all costs, to the point of impairing how that government serves the people.
Forrester said county employees and citizens alike would be better off if they elected him rather than Henning – something that would give the Democrats a majority on the Board of Commissioners and therefore completely change the nature of Guilford County government.
The Democrats held a majority on the board from 1998 to 2012 before Henning and other Republicans won seats and gained a 5-to-4 majority. That could be turned on its head if Forrester wins in November – or for that matter if former Commissioner Kirk Perkins beats Commissioner Alan Branson in the District 4 county commissioners race that’s also on the ballot this November.
Forrester says Guilford County needs a Board of Commissioners that doesn’t constrain government and that funds necessary services and county positions.
“If you take a conservative line, all you’re going to do is cut, cut, cut,” Forrester said, pointing at Henning and his fellow Republicans.
He said that Guilford County government has a devoted employee base that needs to be supported by the county’s leadership. Forrester said Henning and the conservative board have been cutting county services and staff and that’s meant that staff is overworked due to the county’s increasing population.
“We’ve been growing 20,000 to 30,000 a year for a long time,” Forrester said of Guilford County, adding that the number of county employees hadn’t increased to handle that population growth.
Guilford County government currently has 2,494 permanent positions, down from 2,547 in 2012.
Henning said the cuts and consolidation by Republicans have made the government leaner and more efficient over the past four years.
He said Forrester is now very critical of the way the county is run, but years ago Forrester and other Democrats just stood by silently and watched while a dismal corrupt Guilford County government ran amuck, since it was their party that was in power.
Henning said it’s ironic that Forrester would complain about Guilford County government now, since no one heard a peep from Forrester or his Democratic associates when, he said, the Democrats were driving up costs, allowing outright corruption under their noses, and taxing citizens more every year to help finance the cost of that mismanagement. At that same time, Henning added, the Democratic board wasn’t increasing school funding, as the Republicans have done every year.
“He was a ghost,” Henning said of Forrester while the Democratic Board of Commissioners oversaw a derailed county government in 2009 and 2010.
In fact, Henning said, his opponent is still something of a ghost. He said he hadn’t heard much out of Forrester this election season. When he heard last December that Forrester had filed to run against him, Henning said his first reaction was, “Who?” and Henning said this week that initial impression hasn’t changed much.
“I haven’t heard anyone who knows him,” Henning said.
Henning said the Democrats didn’t have anyone to run in the District 6 race and they therefore convinced Forrester to throw his hat in the ring.
“He’s a candidate who’s running partly because the Democratic Party couldn’t find anyone else to run,” Henning said.
In December, the News & Record wrote that Branson, in District 4, was the only incumbent county commissioner who faced opposition this year. Forrester had already filed at that time but was completely overlooked by that newspaper. Forrester was good-natured about the snub, but it was an indication of the work he had cut out for him.
Henning said Forrester will no doubt attempt to increase his name recognition between now and November.
“I’m sure he’s going to get out there,” Henning said.
Forrester said he’s a serious candidate who’s going to work very hard to unseat Henning, and he added that he thinks the missteps that the county has made over the last four years will help in that effort. He said he has a “good crew” helping with his campaign and that he’s been walking neighborhoods in District 6 and taking his message to the people.
“I had a real successful fundraiser,” Forrester said of a recent event, adding that he was planning another one coming up.
Campaign finance reports show that, as of June 30, Henning had $12,583 in the bank for his campaign while Forrester had $4,201.
Forrester said Henning got a head start on the campaign by being in the congressional race earlier this year, and Forrester added that he’s hoping his own fundraising efforts will bring in a good deal more in the coming weeks. He said time is a factor since recent early voting expansion means the candidates must get their words out to voters even earlier than anticipated.
Forrester said Henning and the Republican majority now running the board are making all sorts of mistakes in their die-hard commitment to not raising taxes.
He said that, unlike Henning, he’s not afraid to raise taxes when it’s necessary, but he added that he wants to make it very clear he doesn’t believe Guilford County needs a property tax hike right now.
“I’m not going to come in and say, ‘Let’s raise taxes right away’ – because I don’t think you need it,” he said. “It’s a last resort. But if you say, ‘Read my lips,’ – you just get hosed. Anyone who says, ‘We’re never going to do anything’ is asking for trouble. Who knows what the future holds?”
Forrester also said that Henning and other commissioners were asleep at the wheel when it came to the Guilford County Animal Shelter last year and he said that the outsourcing of those duties, combined with a lack of oversight, helped lead to the monumental scandal that became statewide news.
Henning points out that the Democrats were outsourcing of the county’s Animal Shelter services long before the Republicans took control in 2012. Henning also said that Forrester was silent – as were a lot of Democrats, he said – when Guilford County District Attorney Doug Henderson, a Democrat, decided not to prosecute in the Animal Shelter case.
“The evidence was there,” Henning said.
Henning said the Republicans that have been in power since 2012 have consolidated Guilford County government in an intelligent way while simultaneously reducing property taxes. He pointed to the consolidation of the former health department and social services department into the Guilford County Department of Health and Human Services as one example, and he added that the Republican board consolidated parks, facilities and property management into one department as well. Henning said the Republicans have cut the tax rate and paid down the debts run up by the Democrats. He added that Democrats falsely told citizens that the giant 2008 bond package wouldn’t increase taxes.
Henning also said that the voters of his district have a clear choice this year and they now know what to expect if he’s elected and the Republicans maintain a majority.
“We’re going to continue to run the county like a business, pay down the debt, and continue to run our government lean – and release that bond money to the schools,” Henning said. “There’s nothing magical about it.”
He said that, under the Democrats, there was a different work order that included funneling funds and favors to friends of county officials.
“I think people have forgotten all the corruption,” Henning said. “Every week, the Rhino Times had a brand new story about more corruption.”
He said the years of Democratic rule had left Guilford County government in a dire condition when the Republicans took control.
“The question people need to ask is, ‘Is the county better off than it was four years ago?” Henning said.
Henning said that Forrester is running to unseat people who are taking the county in a positive direction and it’s strange to him to hear anyone has a desire to return to a Democratically controlled board given what’s happened in the past.
“What’s he for?” Henning said. “More spending? More tax more hands in the cookie jar?”
Forrester said that he’s for lean, efficient honest government and he added the Republican’s penchant for cuts and “privatization” is destructive when it’s not counterbalanced by a realization that government services meet the legitimate needs of citizens, and the private sector doesn’t always do things better.
He also said that Henning’s decisions haven’t taken the needs of county employees into consideration.
“It’s kind of popular these days to say, “We can find someone to do this cheaper and more efficiently,” Forrester said, “But that’s not always the case.”
He said the Republican board points to tax cuts as a big achievement but those cuts have been minor and property owners only see a small reduction in their tax bills.
Since 2012 the board has cut just over 2 cents per $100 of assessed property value off of the county’s tax rate.
“People get a small tax cut that will cover two or three trips to Food Lion, but they are losing two and a quarter million dollars” Forrester said of the most recent tax cut. “That’s being penny wise and pound foolish.”
Henning responded, “Oh, so he’s saying government knows how to spend people’s money better than they do? Frankly, I think that’s insulting. That’s the kind of Communist thinking that – oh I’m sorry, did I say ‘Communist’? I meant to say ‘communal.’”
Henning added, “It’s not governments money, it’s the citizen’s money. What about people on fixed incomes? That’s more money in their pocket that’s not going to government.”
Forrester said the cuts burden the county’s workforce, including first responders such as Emergency Services employees and those in the Sheriff’s Department.
“They are constantly squeezing them for every penny,” he said of the Republican board.
Henning said that, in fact, the county has added beneficial services. He said Democratic Commissioner Kay Cashion had been trying to get the Guilford County Family Justice Center for years under a board run by fellow Democrats but, under a Republican board, it was accomplished and now the Justice Center is getting national awards and recognition.
“There’s a lot of hypocrisy,” Henning said of those attacks.
Henning said that, for years, with the Democratically controlled board, raised taxes but didn’t give more money to the schools, while the Republicans have cut taxes each year while increasing school funding.
One of the biggest issues in the District 6 race is likely to be the highly publicized battle over Rich Fork Preserve in High Point. In early August, Henning and other Republicans on the board, in a controversial move, voted to approve mountain biking at Rich Fork.
Forrester said Henning’s handling of that issue was very poor from start to finish and he said he thinks most voters in the district agree.
“I think it’s going to be an issue in High Point,” Forrester said. “A lot of people are upset about it.”
Some of the contributors to Forrester’s campaign were Rich Fork mountain biking opponents, and some of them were no doubt inspired by that issue to help unseat Henning.
Forrester said those who voted to allow mountain biking were opening themselves up to criticism.
“It’s really steep and really wild looking in parts – it’s also dangerous,” he said of the mountain biking trails at Rich Fork. “I think there’s a considerable safety concern, but no one wants to talk about that.”
Forrester said he knows first hand from eight or nine years ago how dangerous the sport can be – one of his children was seriously injured in a mountain biking accident.
He said that the topography at Rich Fork is conducive to serious accidents.
Henning said he didn’t think Rich Fork Preserve was going to be big issue in November. He said that the crowd was vocal but added that there are many people who enjoy mountain biking or who don’t do it but realize it won’t detract from Rich Fork.
“The vast majority of people I talk to realize there are over 100 acres out there,” Henning said.
Forrester was born in Washington, DC and graduated from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro in 1973 with a degree in English. In 1977, he graduated from Wake Forest University School of Law and he later spent a year working as an assistant district attorney in Guilford County before going into practice for himself.
Henning was born in Detroit and attended Michigan State University. He’s a member of the National Rifle Association and has been a very outspoken critic of Common Core, the national education initiative to standardize subject matter and testing in schools. Henning is an Iraq war veteran, a Marine, who served two tours overseas in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom II.
There are 43,899 registered voters in the district – 15,627 Democrats, 15,836 Republicans, 231 Libertarians and 12,205 unaffiliated.
Forrester said the very interesting presidential race this year might affect who comes out and votes but he added that he and his campaign staff aren’t sure what it will mean for local candidates like himself.
“Who knew when I filed in December that Trump would be the nominee,” Forrester said. “As for what it will mean for this election, we’ve talked about that and the consensus is God alone knows.”