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Republicans attempt to retake Guilford commission seat

by Jordan Green

Democrats currently occupy the two at-large seats on the Guilford County Commission, the result of a hard-fought contest in 2004 that saw Democrat John Parks unseat Republican Trudy Wade. Election night returns showed the incumbent winning by only 74 votes, but the provisional vote flipped the result. After two recounts and 18 months of court battles, Parks was ultimately seated.

The other Democrat, Paul Gibson, led voting that year with less than two percentage points over Parks and Wade.

The Republican Party would clearly like to have at least one of the at-large seats back, and an aggressive challenger emerged at the top of the heap in last month’s Republican primary to take a stab at it. Larry Proctor, a Jamestown landscape-supply business owner and chairman of the county Planning Board, led candidates of both parties in first-quarter fundraising, and outpaced his nearest rival in the Republican primary by 10 percent as he carried nearly 9 out of 10 precincts across the county.

And yet energy and momentum have not been on the GOP’s side in Guilford of late. As an indicator of voters’ interest in Republican primary, the second-place finisher didn’t even campaign and has raised no money. Wendell Sawyer, a Greensboro lawyer who specializes in traffic cases, helped knock out a developer, a retired Greensboro firefighter and a former Klansman to secure a place on the ballot. Sawyer said he believes he won 26 percent of the vote on the strength of his name recognition; he’s represented a large number of clients over the years, and some voters remember his father, who served three terms in the state House and nearly completed one in the Senate before he died.

He said the odds don’t favor his party this year, pointing out that Democrat John Kerry carried Guilford in 2004, even though Bush won North Carolina and reelection to a second term as president.

“It’s really hard to prevail when the top of your ticket goes the other way,” Sawyer said. “It will be very difficult for a Republican to win a countywide race if in the presidential race Barack Obama carries Guilford County. I don’t care how much you campaign, if the current is going the other way it’s tough.”

Democrats hold a significant advantage over Republicans in registration numbers in the county; nearly half are Democrats and 31.1 percent are Republicans with the balance falling in the unaffiliated column. Registration among Democrats and unaffiliated voters climbed more than 5 percent from January through May, while Republican registration has remained flat.

Parks, the Jamestown Democrat who succeeded Wade in 2006, demurred when asked if he held any apprehensions about Proctor’s challenge. “I’ve always run my own strategy and put the issues out there to the people,” he said. “I don’t look at it as being about the weaknesses or strengths of the opposition.”

And yet supporters have demonstrated a cognizance of the perils of the race in the aftermath of their candidate’s slim victory over Wade last time around.

SunTrust bank executive and former Wilmington mayor Spencer Broadhurst and his wife, Kimberly, hosted a fundraiser at their home in Greensboro’s North Hyde Park neighborhood in March. The event brought in more than $5,000 from Democratic notables, including former Guilford County Sheriff Walter “Sticky” Burch, former Greensboro Mayor Jim Melvin, real estate lawyers Henry Isaacson and son his Marc Isaacson, fellow Commissioner Kay Cashion and state Board of Transportation Chairman Doug Galyon.

As of April 20, Parks had raised a total of $18,211 and had $17,129 in cash on hand. In comparison, Gibson, a former chairman of the commission, had raised only $7,769, almost 95 percent of which came from Greensboro donors.

A commercial real estate broker with High Point-based Price Commercial Properties and a former teacher, Parks’ campaign has found support in both those sectors, alongside the county’s lawyers. His campaign receipts reveal solid poles of support in both Greensboro and High Point and checks have come in from Triad donors from Kernersville to Elon. Parks’ top contributor was Replacements Limited CEO Robert Page, whose houseware sales company is the namesake for a Greensboro political action committee whose election guides rate candidates on their friendliness to gay and lesbian interests.

Parks acknowledged that on one of his signature campaign issues – education – he has steered a comfortable middle course.

“We’re always in a situation where there’s a school board request [for funding], and then it’s what the commission feels can be afforded,” he said. “It’s not always been what the school board has requested. I always believe in making a good-faith effort to consider what they’re proposing.”

Republican candidate Proctor indicated he would take an even harder look at funding requests from the school board.

“I think one of the biggest disappointments that citizens have with the school board is the way they spend money,” he said. “I would have to agree with them on that. I would take a personal interest in how they spend money on buildings. I would be a watchdog.”

As a Democrat in county government in a national economy beset by multiplying troubles, Parks said job creation in Guilford would depend on striking a balance between promoting the county to corporations, keeping taxes reasonably low and tending to quality-of-life concerns.

“We’re in hard times,” he said. “We’re going to do our best to get the companies here and keep existing companies here. For there to be a tax rate that’s not unbearable, you’ve got to be cognizant of that. You’ve got to have a pro-business attitude.”

He said he would promote the Nussbaum Center for Entrepreneurship, a Greensboro business incubator, and the Gateway University Research Park, a two-campus partnership between UNCG and NC A&T University, to potential investors. He also said he would support the expansion of drug treatments services.

Gibson said the current economic situation weighs against new tax increases.

“This will be my eighth budget,” he said. “I’ve raised taxes every time. With the economy the way it is now, I’m going to be hard pressed to raise taxes over the voter-approved bonds. The bonds that were just passed, this year’s installment is about three and a half cents on the tax rate…. I see that as voter approved, and have no problem starting there. After that, I’d like to fully approve the schools and a lot of things, but it’s going to be tough.”

Gibson applauded the recent passage of a $114.6-million bond referendum to build a new jail.

“I supported the construction of the new jail,” he said. “The facility we currently have is not a nice place to warehouse people. It’s just a horrible place to put prisoners. It’s a horrible place to work. We need to treat people with dignity. The new jail will have a 48-bed substance abuse center and a 48-bed mental health unit. The important thing is the programs that will be developed that will follow them when they leave there. I’m talking about housing initiatives, job initiatives. We’re going to have to develop those kinds of things before it opens because if we don’t they’re going to be right back.”

As of April 20, Parks was slightly behind Proctor in fundraising. The lead Republican candidate had pulled in $19,355 in receipts, but spent more than $3,800 to win his primary – a chore avoided by Parks and Gibson since they had no primary challengers. More than three quarters of Proctor’s campaign funds come from a $15,000 loan he made to himself. Proctor has garnered strong campaign-finance support from the 27407 Zip code, which covers southwest Greensboro, Adams Farm, Sedgefield and the Grandover area.

Among those donors is Tony Wilkins, a Republican activist and blogger who owns Furniture Connection in Greensboro. Another conservative opinion leader, blogger Dr. Joseph Guarino, gave his nod of approval to both Proctor and Sawyer before the primary election, while the avowedly conservative Rhinoceros Times swung its considerable weight behind Proctor.

In spite of his quiet start, Sawyer said he plans to actively campaign for the general election in November.

“My primary reason for running is I think the property taxes have gone up and up and up,” he said. “I think there needs to be some relief for the taxpayers.”

Increasing government transparency, particularly in spending, could reveal savings opportunities and reduce the tax burden, Sawyer said.

“My feeling is that whether you’re liberal or conservative, a Democrat or a Republican, transparency is important,” he said. “People need to know where their money is going…. People argue about the need for money for schools. We really don’t know what we’re arguing about. I want to know what the county pays for pencils. If you put [the expenditure] up on the website, it’s obvious to anyone who shops at Costco whether they’re spending too much on pencils.”

Sawyer added: “The economy appears to be getting worse. People are really hurting with the mortgage crisis. If we could find areas where we could cut spending, that’s something we should do. If the constituents have to make sacrifices, we should be able to, as well.”

The other Republican contender, Proctor, is best known for his role on the county planning board, which considers rezoning requests. He was appointed to the board in 2001 and first elected its chairman in 2005. Proctor voted with the majority in a 5-2 decision in August 2007 to rezone a 560-acre tract in northern Guilford County to allow a Florida development company to build a gated golf community on the Haw River. Bluegreen Corp. withdrew its request ahead of a scheduled hearing by the county commission in January after the planning board decision was appealed.

The company ultimately agreed to sell the land to the state of North Carolina to be added to the Haw River State Park. The fight galvanized Guilford County environmentalists, and the result rated a rare victory for activists concerned with controlling the growth of residential development in the Piedmont Triad.

Proctor has reached outside of North Carolina to accept two $500 donations – significant but not record-setting sums in local politics. One came from Leo Vecellio Jr., owner of the Vecellio Group, a privately held company in Florida that specializes in highway construction, mining and energy services. A subsidiary of the company, Sharpe Brothers, brought a rezoning request before the planning board in May 2007.

The proposal to rezone a site northeast of the intersection of the Urban Loop and US Highway 421 in Fentress Township drew protest from residents of the affluent Stonebrook Farms and Lynwood Lakes subdivisions, but minutes from the meeting indicate that Proctor noted his comfort with the zoning change by describing “the I-85 Bypass as a ‘divider’ of the residential and industrial uses.”

The board voted unanimously to approve the request. Voters in the township’s two precincts did not punish Proctor for his vote, giving him comfortable pluralities.

Vecellio did not return a message left at the company’s Florida corporate headquarters.

Proctor said he spoke to the county attorney about the donation. After assuring her the case was closed and that he’d had no prior communication with Vecellio about the check, he decided it was a legitimate campaign contribution and deposited it in his campaign account.

Proctor said he visited the Sharpe Brothers site a dozen times before voting to approve its rezoning request.

“If he came with another case, I’d do the same research,” he said. “I’d make the same common-sense judgment. You can’t buy my vote.”

In August 2007, the board’s decision was upheld by the county commission in a 9-2 vote, with Democrats Paul Gibson and John Parks joining the majority.

Proctor and Parks have both received $500 contributions from WS Morris III, president and CEO of Georgia-based Morris Communications. The company owns a number of properties including Morris Publishing – two of its largest newspapers are The Florida Times-Union and the Savannah Morning News – and Fairway Outdoor Advertising. The billboard company, in turn, often recoups money from candidates who advertise their campaigns in prominent roadside locations.

Sawyer, the Republicans’ second-place finisher, has not cleared the threshold of viability necessary to be wooed by the likes of Morris.

“The way I feel about it, just like any other candidate, I want to win,” he said. “Sometimes, like anything else, you can want it too much. If I lose, I can walk away from it and I won’t sink into any deep, dark depression.”

For his part, Gibson said he takes nothing for granted.

“I will do some of the traditional things that all politicians do,” he said. “I’ll have yard signs. I’ll have some advertisements in some of the newspapers. I like to walk neighborhoods. I’ve been doing that since 1962 when my father ran for sheriff.

“I wore out three pairs of shoes last time,” he said. “I got three identical pairs from the Summit Avenue shopping center. I was on a roving account. I went to High Point, and I parked my car at the Wal-Mart and I walked to I-85 and back. I talked to people coming and going until they ran me off.”

To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at jordan@yesweekly.com.

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