March 28, 2012 10:53

Republicans vie for votes in Guilford County Commission District 6

CoComm 6

Three Republican candidates are jockeying for District 6 Guilford County Commissioner, a seat in the middle of the western part of the county. Republicans Hank Henning of Jamestown, Tony Wilkins of Greensboro and Jeremy Williams of High Point are all running for the position, and will face either Democrat Linda Kellerman or Dan Miller in the general election.

While the three may be competing, each one appeared focused on spreading their message and reaching out to voters and less interested in the specific differences between themselves and the other candidates. The newly drawn District 6, with no incumbent running, leans Republican, with 16,378 registered Republicans compared to 15,784 registered Democrats and a large block of unaffiliated voters. John McCain and Pat McCrory, respectively the Republican presidential and gubernatorial candidates, carried the district in 2008, as did Republican incumbent US Senate candidate Richard Burr in 2010.

Still, Democratic challenger Kay Hagan narrowly carried the district over Republican incumbent Elizabeth Dole in the 2008 Senate race, showing a Democrat can will under special circumstances. Henning and Williams both said the need to rein in spending to decrease debt and promote limited government was the centerpiece of their platform, arguing taxes needed to be lower to encourage business and lessen the burden on residents.

“We need to foster an environment where the free market itself can thrive,” said Williams, the regional human resources director for Cintas Corporation. “We really need to create an environment where we have a competitive tax rate that is lower.” Henning hit similar notes as Williams, but is also focused on education, as his oldest son will enter school in the fall. “Jobs are created because we have a thriving private sector and there’s an opportunity for entrepreneurialism,” said Henning, who works as an account manager at Brady Services, a heating and air company.

“We need to push for limited government. The way we bring employers into this community is by showing them we have the strongest schools.” Henning graduated from Michigan State with a degree in political theory and Williams left Trinity College, where he was a Biblical theology major. Both candidates said they would want to communicate closely with the school board, and Williams said his human resources experience made him uniquely qualified to do so because of his communication skills.

Wilkins admitted that the three Republican candidates saw eye-to-eye on the importance of bringing jobs to the county and balancing the budget, saying spending should be cut be he said he couldn’t specify where until after he studied the budget more closely. “I like the two gentlemen that I am running against and consider them friends,” Wilkins said.

“Every candidate’s issues are economic growth and jobs, but when you ask most people to be specific it’s difficult. On a case-by-case basis, I would try and improve the job situation and bring in new employers to our community.” Speaking at the Guilford County Republican Convention earlier this month, Henning said he had been a conservative activist his entire life and emphasized his experience in the Marine Corps, saying he enlisted after 9-11 to protect the nation.

“If they were asked to serve I wanted be there with them,” Henning said in an interview about the military. “I’ve always been an idealist in a way. My kids are about to enter their school age, and I want to do my part to put things on the right track.” Williams also said he was motivated by thinking about the future he was leaving for his children, and talked about the need for conservatives to come together because their commonalities are 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 about the legacy we’ll leave behind when we go to heaven.” Williams has been active with Conservatives for Guilford County, a tea party-affiliated group that has had some friction with the Republican Party, but Williams said he identifies with both groups and sees the squabbles as between a few individuals.

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

Williams and Henning are both running for office for the first time, but each has experience working on other conservative candidates’ 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.

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