Republicans vie for votes in Guilford County Commission District 6

by Eric Ginsburg

Three Republican candidatesare jockeying forDistrict 6 Guilford CountyCommissioner, a seat inthe middle of the western part of thecounty.Republicans Hank Henning ofJamestown, Tony Wilkins of Greensboroand Jeremy Williams of HighPoint are all running for the position,and will face either DemocratLinda Kellerman or Dan Miller inthe general election.

While the threemay be competing, each one appearedfocused on spreading their messageand reaching out to voters and lessinterested in the specific differencesbetween themselves and the othercandidates.The newly drawn District 6, withno incumbent running, leans Republican, with 16,378 registeredRepublicans compared to 15,784 registered Democratsand a large block of unaffiliated voters. John McCain andPat McCrory, respectively the Republican presidential andgubernatorial candidates, carried the district in 2008, as didRepublican incumbent US Senate candidate Richard Burr in2010.

Still, Democratic challenger Kay Hagannarrowly carried the district over Republicanincumbent Elizabeth Dole in the 2008 Senaterace, showing a Democrat can will under specialcircumstances.Henning and Williams both said the need torein in spending to decrease debt and promotelimited government was the centerpiece of theirplatform, arguing taxes needed to be lower toencourage business and lessen the burden onresidents.

“We need to foster an environment where thefree market itself can thrive,” said Williams, theregional human resources director for CintasCorporation. “We really need to create an environmentwhere we have a competitive tax ratethat is lower.”Henning hit similar notes as Williams, but isalso focused on education, as his oldest son willenter school in the fall.“Jobs are created because we have a thrivingprivate sector and there’s an opportunity for entrepreneurialism,”said Henning, who works asan account manager at Brady Services, a heatingand air company.

“We need to push for limitedgovernment. The way we bring employers intothis community is by showing them we have thestrongest schools.”Henning graduated from Michigan Statewith a degree in political theory and Williamsleft Trinity College, where he was a Biblicaltheology major. Both candidates said they wouldwant to communicate closely with the schoolboard, and Williams said his humanresources experience made himuniquely qualified to do so becauseof his communication skills.

Wilkins admitted that the three Republicancandidates saw eye-to-eyeon the importance of bringing jobs tothe county and balancing the budget,saying spending should be cut be hesaid he couldn’t specify where untilafter he studied the budget moreclosely.“I like the two gentlemen that I amrunning against and consider themfriends,” Wilkins said.

“Every candidate’sissues are economic growthand jobs, but when you ask mostpeople to be specific it’s difficult. Ona case-by-case basis, I would try andimprove the job situation and bringin new employers to our community.”Speaking at the Guilford County Republican Conventionearlier this month, Henning said he had been a conservativeactivist his entire life and emphasized his experience in theMarine Corps, saying he enlisted after 9-11 to protect thenation.

“If they were asked to serve I wanted be there with them,”Henning said in an interview about the military. “I’ve alwaysbeen an idealist in a way. My kids are about to enter theirschool age, and I want to do my part to put things on the righttrack.”Williams also said he was motivated by thinking about thefuture he was leaving for his children, and talked about theneed for conservatives to come together because their commonalitiesare greater than their differences.

“Life is too short… to harbor a grudge,” Williams said,referring to Rich Brenner’s funeral earlier that day. “It’s aboutthe legacy we’ll leave behind when we go to heaven.”Williams has been active with Conservatives for GuilfordCounty, a tea party-affiliated group that has had some frictionwith the Republican Party, but Williams said he identifieswith both groups and sees the squabbles as between a fewindividuals.

“I’m not going to be a part of anything that divides us fromour common goals and concerns,” he said in an interview.The convention was postponed a few hours to allow peopleto attend Brenner’s funeral, frustrating some in Conservativesfor Guilford County to the point of registering a complaintwith the state Republican Party to no avail. Brenner had beena fixture in the party who expressed his disagreement with theparty’s involvement in social issues like marriage.

Williams and Henning are both running for office for thefirst time, but each has experience working on other conservativecandidates’ campaigns. Williams worked on US Sen.Richard Burr’s reelection campaign in 2010 and is a fellow with the Institute for Political Leadership, which he described as a nonpartisan group focused on elections in North Carolina.

Henning has worked on conservatives’ campaigns for US Senate and House, and said his experience on campaigns, business experience and military service all prepared him to be a county commissioner. While he said there would still be a learning curve, Henning said it wouldn’t be steep and that his goal was to represent a conservative Republican viewpoint, though he would work with all the commissioners.

Neither Williams nor Henning grew up in Guilford County. Henning moved here in 2007 with his wife because her family is here and Williams came to High Point 20 years ago when he was 19. Wilkins, by contrast, has spent his whole life in the county, which he sees as one of the factors that distinguishes him from his opponents.

Wilkins runs Furniture Connection, and said his business experience running the company and balancing its budget qualifies him for the position. He currently serves on the Greensboro War Memorial Commission and was the executive director of the Guilford County Republican Party for two years.

Wilkins filed to run on the last possible day.

After working as a firefighter for four years, Wilkins said public safety and funding the sheriff’s department and fire department were top priorities for him.

When asked why voters should choose him over the other Republican candidates, Williams said he is uniquely positioned because he has been addressing and researching the commissioners for two years, and announced his intention to run a year ago.

“It was not a snap decision for me,” he said. “I’m the only one prepared to hit the ground running because of the homework that I’ve done. I’ve actually been involved in it.”

Williams was part of a group that scoured the county budget, making recommendations about where money could be saved in lieu of raising taxes. Nine of the 11 commissioners came to hear about their findings, but their recommendations weren’t implemented. Williams said the experience not only gave him credentials, but also encouraged him to run for office.

Henning said he was running because he has never been one to sit on the sidelines and complain, and felt he could make a big difference individually on a local level.