Style and experience set apart conservative candidates in District 74 GOP primary

by Jordan Green

Forsyth County Republican voters will get the opportunity to choose among three conservatives, including two experienced politicos and one newcomer, in the primary contest to determine who succeeds Rep. Dale Folwell in NC House District 74.

Larry Brown of Kernersville has been a member of the NC House since 2005, and before that served on the Kernersville Town Council for 18 years, including seven as mayor. Debra Conrad of Winston-Salem has held a seat on the Forsyth County Commission since 1994, including two terms as vice chair. Glenn Cobb, also of Winston-Salem, is chief staff executive for the Winston-Salem Regional Association of Realtors. The three Republicans vieing for their party’s nomination in the May 8 primary.

The three-way contest for the seat results from the current occupant’s bid for lieutenant governor. A popular representative, Folwell hasn’t shirked from ultra-conservative initiatives such as sponsoring legislation to place a constitutional amendment before voters that defines marriage as being between a man and a woman, and pushing to require parents to declare whether their children are citizens before enrolling them in school.

Those causes are well within mainstream opinion among the electorate in District 74, where voters supported Folwell over Democratic opponents by wide margins in the last two elections and where he ran unopposed six years ago.

The new district travels westward from north Kernerville along the northern end of the county, bypassing Democratic-leaning African- American areas of east Winston and neighborhoods around Wake Forest University where liberal white voters predominate, to pick up rural communities such as Rural Hall, Tobaccoville and Pfafftown before hooking into well-todo areas of Winston-Salem’s west side. Voters in the new district broke for John McCain in the 2008 presidential election by 57.2 percent.

The 69-year-old Brown’s current district, which included the eastern flank of Forsyth and part of neighboring Davidson County, was eliminated in a redistricting process controlled by his own party. Brown said the population remained relatively even in Forsyth County, compared to rapid growth in Mecklenburg and Wake, so Forsyth lost the equivalent of half a seat. Brown said District 73 was cut because it was the only Forsyth district that was partially in another county.

Support for social conservative causes such as cracking down on illegal immigration among Forsyth County Republican voters was evident at the county’s annual convention on March 3 when Tony Gurley, a candidate for lieutenant governor, received enthusiastic applause when he described how the state dealt with Uriel Alberto, who was arrested at the General Assembly last week.

“Winston-Salem sent an illegal immigrant to Raleigh to disrupt the legislature a couple days ago, but they made a big mistake because he was arrested and placed in the Wake County Jail,” Gurley said. “We were one of the first counties to have the 287(g) program. We verified that he is an illegal alien. He is in jail awaiting deportation back to his home country.”

Speaking to party regulars, the 60-year-old Conrad emphasized fiscal policy first, but then quickly shifted to social issues for the remainder of her minute of allotted time.

“You also know that I am a social conservative,” she said. “I’ve been pro-life all my life, a Republican all my life. I support the Second Amendment. As you know, the county commissioners recently voted to uphold the state law that allows concealed weapons in our county parks. And I’ve defended prayer against the ACLU for five years.”

She ended by highlighting her desire to continue Folwell’s offensive against illegal immigration.

“Dale Folwell has some unfinished business, particularly in the areas of public education, and also the areas of illegal immigration,” Conrad said. “I’m the only commissioner that supported the 287(g) program here in Forsyth County.”

For his part, the 48-year-old Cobb emphasized his background as a small business person who understands the challenges of meeting payroll, and told the Republican rank and file to remember him as “consistent and conservative.”

Outside of the convention, Cobb suggested that social issues will not play a significant role in the Republican primary because there’s little disagreement among the candidates and voters in the district.

“Conservative values are important,” he said.

“In this primary I think you’re going to find that most everyone that’s voting as well as all the candidates are pretty consistent on those social issues. I don’t think any of us would say we’re not conservatives. So there’s really not much difference between the three candidates there.”

No candidate in the race has been more outspoken about conservative social values than Brown, who could not be reached for this story.

Brown told the Winston-Salem Journal in January 2011 that the constitutional amendment on marriage was one of his legislative goals for the year. Then, the newspaper quoted him as saying the government shouldn’t spend money to treat HIV among people “living in perverted lifestyles.”

That remark followed a leaked e-mail the year before in which the lawmaker referred to gays as “queers” and used the term “fruit loops” in reference to an award given to then-House Speaker Joe Hackney by Equality NC.

“I hope all the queers are thrilled to see him,” Brown said in the e-mail. “I am sure there will be a couple legislative fruit loops there in the audience.”

Brown’s anti-gay rhetoric has drawn unflattering national media attention from outlets such as Huffington Post and, as well as condemnation from the Human Rights Campaign, a national gay advocacy group.

Brown said in an interview that he faults the Journal for not publishing his complete statement, which is that he does not oppose spending government money to treat people with HIV who are willing to change the behavior that led them to contract the disease. He added that while his sentiments were sincere, he did not articulate them as well as he would have liked.

“I have a tendency to say things that are on my mind,” he said, “but maybe I could have had a better choice of words.

One Democratic candidate for the seat, David W. Moore, has charged that Brown’s rhetoric is an embarrassment to the citizens he represents.

In an interview, Conrad drew a sharp distinction between her own values and her primary opponent’s rhetoric.

“I believe in speaking respectfully to people,” she said. “I don’t believe in name-calling.”

All three candidates said their primary focus is improving the economy and encouraging job creation.

Conrad stressed her experience serving on board of Winston-Salem Business Inc., an economic development group, and on the board of Novant Health, along with the Piedmont Triad Film Commission and the Forsyth County Tourism Development Authority. She added that she’s played a role “in every incentive deal that’s come before the county commission.”

That’s a point of contention between Conrad and Brown.

“Real Republicans want to help the small business person, but not at the disadvantage to the larger company,” Brown said. “We all want the large manufacturing company with the highpaying jobs. But if it were all that good Dell computers would not have gone south…. I’m very delighted they had jobs in Forsyth County as long as they did; don’t get me wrong. It was not a long-term solution.”

After receiving a generous incentives package from state and local governments in 2004, Dell closed its manufacturing facility in Forsyth County. Since then, Caterpillar has begun manufacturing axles for large mining trucks at the site.

“The secret to good incentives is to keep them tight in terms of what you’re willing to offer the company, maintain high expectations about what the company is paying in wages and have great clawback provisions,” Conrad said. “We got every penny back [from Dell]. I always say, ‘You don’t have to give them the farm, maybe just a barn.’” To become more competitive with neighboring states, Conrad argues that North Carolina needs to lower its corporate tax rate. The candidate also expressed concern about the state’s debt to the federal government for unemployment insurance, which she said threatens to impose a burden on business owners.

Similarly, Cobb said North Carolina must reduce corporate taxes and gas taxes, which fund the state’s highway trust fund.

“China is becoming a much less desirable place for investment,” Conrad said. “Every year wages are going up 20 percent. We’re the only area of the country that can compete. We’re a right-to-work state…. We need to position ourselves by lowering our corporate tax rate to get that re-shoring.”

Both Conrad and Cobb said the state needs to assess its port and rail system to take advantage of increasing freight levels coming into Wilmington.

“We’ve got to get our ports and rail infrastructure back up to speed,” Cobb said.

Brown said he wants to find ways to reduce regulation on small businesses so they can create more jobs. He said he has demonstrated leadership in protecting taxpayers by helping to defeat legislation that would allow counties to levy a land-transfer tax and by promoting annexation reform to give property owners more power to ward off revenue-hungry municipalities. Brown said he did not vote for the legislation that was enacted last year because he disagreed with some aspects of it, but he supports the broad thrust of reform.

“Nobody worked harder on annexation reform than I did,” he said. “And I don’t think either of my opponents have the knowledge and experience to have proceeded with such legislation.”

If elected, Brown said he will continue to pursue annexation reform.

“My next intent is to require those cities that have annexed people without providing the services – either provide the service or the annexed people can defer tax on their property until they get the service.”

While Brown takes pride in saying that he has never voted for a tax increase, he said he would like to find a way to give state employees raises and wants to maintain funding for education.

“I disagree with some of my colleagues on education,” he said. “I think we need to put the resources in early education, so we won’t have to spend it later on prevention programs and prison programs. If children don’t have a good foundation, they’ll always be behind and they’ll have difficulty with reading.”

Cobb said as someone who is a newcomer to politics he will be able to relate more closely with constituents than his two opponents.

“The difference is who’s going to be accessible to the people of the district and who’s going to be participating and answering questions,” he said. “And really focused on the most important issues before us. And that’s jobs and getting the economy moving forward.”

Conrad and Brown both highlight their experience.

“I have an 18-year track record,” Conrad said. “I’m very proud of the votes that I’ve taken. I haven’t changed a lot since I first ran in 1994. This district has a lot of overlap with my commissioner district. Within my commissioner district they know me. Hopefully they approve because I haven’t changed.”

Brown said he is the lone incumbent in any of the five Forsyth House races this year, although District 74 is technically an open seat.

“If you don’t have some experience to hold our delegation together,” Brown said, “it’s liable to go any which way.”