Well, one big election is finally over but there’s still another big one coming up: On Monday, Dec. 5, the chairman and vice chairman of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners for the coming 12 months will be elected.
Not that many years ago, the battle to become chairman of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners was a knock-down drag-out fight each year, one that took months of behind-the-scenes political wheeling and dealing and horse trading. This year, however, the next chairman is likely to be the commissioner who’s willing to do it.
Republican Vice Chairman of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners Alan Branson is the natural choice to be chairman, and he said this week that he’s assessing whether he wants to seek that position this year. The vice chairman’s job is usually the stepping stone to the chairmanship, and it sounds like he has the support of his fellow Republicans if he decides he wants the job. According to Branson, discussions regarding the next chairman have just started to take place.
Republican Commissioner Justin Conrad said this week that he would like to be vice chairman of the board.
The chairman of the Board of Commissioners – at least in this century – has always been from the majority party; and, with five Republicans and four Democrats on the board, it’s a sure thing that that will be the case once again this year.
The board got a late start on the discussion of who should be chairman because no one wanted to jinx the Nov. 8 election. Two Republican county commissioners – Branson and Hank Henning – faced Democratic challengers in that election, and if either had lost, the discussion right now would be about which Democratic commissioner would be chairman.
Just before the Nov. 8 election, Democratic Commissioner Ray Trapp, when asked who would be chairman this time around, replied, “It will be a Democrat.” When he was informed that Republican majority boards never select a Democratic chairman, he said he knew that and he added that the board would have a Democratic majority after the Nov. 8 election.
Trapp’s prediction, of course, didn’t pan out, but early in the election returns it appeared the Republicans might lose that majority. Both Branson and Henning ended up in battles that were closer than most expected. And as the returns came in, it appeared they were neck and neck in the early part of the evening, until the final batches of votes were reported. A loss by either one would have meant a Democratic majority on the Board of Commissioners and meant that Guilford County government would be run in an dramatically different way for at least the next two years. It would also have meant the board would elect a Democratic chairman on Dec. 5.
The five Republicans now serving on the Board are Commissioners are Branson, Henning, Alan Perdue, Justin Conrad and current Chairman of the Board of Commissioners Jeff Phillips.
Of those five, the three who haven’t served as chairman are Conrad, Perdue and Branson. This week, Conrad and Perdue said they aren’t interested in being chairman this time around. Both men cite their very busy work schedules as a reason not to seek that top job on the board. Conrad runs a seafood supply company and, although Perdue retired a few years ago from being Guilford County Emergency Services Director, he still does consulting work in that field. That leaves Branson, who’s currently the vice chairman.
Branson said he would consider the opportunity but he added that the November election had taken everyone’s time and energy, and added that it had suppressed the usual discussion about the board’s chairmanship. Branson said he was mulling over whether or not he wanted to make that kind of commitment. He said that being a commissioner is time consuming as it is; being chairman, he added, is even more involved.
Branson is an executive in a family trucking company with about 50 employees, and in previous years he has said that his business was one thing that kept him from seeking the chairmanship. Last year, Branson decided late in the process to seek the position of vice chairman, but sources say he wasn’t sure he wanted to do it until late in the game.
This year Branson said he has some thinking to do.
“I’m still a little bit up in the air,” he said. “I haven’t made up my mind. I had some discussion with my wife about whether it was the right timing. I have plenty on my plate without that piece of it.”
Branson said that, as chairman, “You get a lot of emails and calls and have a lot of appearances.”
He added that he was in a better position to serve as chairman than he has been in previous years.
“I’ve gotten some things behind me,” he said of business matters. “I was glad to put them to bed.”
The chairman of the Board of Commissioners is sometimes called the “mayor of the county,” since he or she is the highest-ranking political leader in Guilford County government and has the highest public profile of any of the commissioners. While he or she only gets one vote like every other commissioner, the chairman, working in tandem with the vice chairman, largely sets the agenda for the year and has a great deal of say about the direction Guilford County government takes during his or her year at the helm. The chairman frequently speaks on the board’s behalf at public ceremonies, such as ribbon cuttings for new county facilities. The chairman also attends a lot of staff meetings that other commissioners don’t – and also has a great many documents to sign.
Conrad said that, although he isn’t interested in being chairman this year, he would like to serve as vice chairman. He said that, between his seafood supply business and other upcoming obligations in 2017, he is going to be too busy to be chairman, but not too much so that he could not serve as vice chair.
Conrad, who has served as chairman of the Guilford County Board of Public Health in the past, said it would be an honor to be chairman of the Board of Commissioners at some point, but added that, with what he’s got going on, it’s not a responsibility he feels comfortable taking on right now.
“A chairman has to do a whole lot more,” Conrad said. “I’d love to be vice chairman and see what next year brings. I feel comfortable I could do that.”
Perdue said this week that he didn’t desire to be either chairman or vice chairman at the present time given his current schedule. He said he does a lot of traveling, and, in fact, he’d just gotten back into town when he made that comment and was heading off to Charlotte the following day to watch his daughter cheer at a college football game.
“Not this year,” Perdue said of serving in either capacity, adding that, in the future, he may seek the chairmanship.
Henning said he would be willing to be chairman if no one else wanted it, but he added that he’d had that opportunity two years ago and he believes it makes sense to let others have their turn if they want it.
“I think it’s healthy to give other commissioners the opportunity to hold the chairmanship,” Henning said. “It was a great experience.”
Henning said he thinks any of his fellow Republicans on the board would do a great job.
“I would vote in a heartbeat for any of those guys,” Henning said.
“We all work well together.”
Henning pointed out that he, Phillips and Branson were referred to early on as “the three amigos” when they were all elected in 2012 and came into county government together.
“He’s the vice chairman,” Henning said of Branson, alluding to the fact that that position is usually the precursor to being chairman. “I would support him and I think the others would too.”