Ideological purity tests roil Republican primary contest for Forsyth commission
Often described as a donut, the multi-representative Forsyth County Commission District B circles the urban core of the county, and includes parts of west Winston-Salem, Kernersville, smaller municipalities such as Clemmons and Tobaccoville, and rural unincorporated areas.
Three Republican incumbents are defending their seats against five challengers. Challengers Mark Baker, Jimmie Boyd and Gene Lowder are challenging incumbents Richard Linville, Gloria Whisenhunt and Dave Plyler from the right, while Bob Prescott emphasizes economic development and John Bost stakes more moderate positions.
Republicans hold a significant advantage in voter registration, and the Republican primary plays out as a tug-of-war between outspoken conservatives who draw hard lines on issues such as taxation, prayer before government meetings and immigration, and moderates who are willing to work more closely with the board’s two Democrats.
The three Republicans who clear the primary will meet Winston-Salem Democrat Gail McNeill in the general election. Four years ago, Republicans landed the top three spots, with the best performing Democrat falling short by more than 10,000 votes.
Revenue is a critical factor: A scheduled revaluation this year is expected to land an $11.4 million hit to the county’s budget in 2014.
“I directed the county manager to keep the same tax rate,” commission Chairman Richard Linville said, addressing a lunchtime meeting of the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Tea Party Patriots at the Fox and Hound on April 12. “I believe we can do that, but I’m not absolutely sure because we have to look at the revenue.”
A farmer who lives outside of Kernersville, Linville has served on the commission since 1981.
Gloria Whisenhunt of Winston-Salem, another incumbent, took pains to reiterate her ideological bona fides, telling the conservative Republican group that she is most proud of her vote to defend the county against a lawsuit challenging its practice of sectarian prayer. The US Supreme Court declined to review the case last year following a ruling against the county by the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals.
“We did everything possible to keep Jesus’ name in our prayer,” Whisenhunt said.
Whisenhunt drew a distinction within the party that was not lost on many in the audience.
“There are some Republicans on the board that are very conservative,” she said, implying by extension that some are not.
Conservative Republican incumbents have had plenty of opportunities to burnish their credentials, most recently with a vote to endorse state legislation to require voters to show picture ID at the polls. Some across the aisle have criticized the legislation as an attempt to disenfranchise minorities, the poor, the elderly and students.
Linville and Whisenhunt voted for the resolution. Dave Plyler of Kernersville, the third Republican incumbent, crossed party lines to vote with Democrats Walter Marshall and Everette Witherspoon against the measure.
“I’ve always considered voting a sacred right, and I continue to consider voting a sacred right,” Plyler said before the decision. “Using the word ‘sacred’ brings to mind something that I think we ought to consider. Because if we’re sold on the necessity of showing ID… then maybe we should suggest to the churches of our community that before we go to service you have to show an ID. I can tell you that will never happen.”
Jimmie Boyd, one of three candidates challenging the incumbents from the right, voiced his support for the voter ID resolution before the vote. He said he is taking two disabled family members who don’t drive to the DMV to have photo IDs made.
“It should be no trouble to go over and get an ID, to walk up, to show it, to cast your vote and be an American citizen,” he said. “And go home.”
Mark Baker, another conservative challenger, expressed gratitude to Linville and Whisenhunt for another recent vote — to allow people with proper permits to carry concealed weapons in most county parks. A principal at a Christian school, Baker has served on the Tobaccoville Village Council since 2007 and ran unsuccessfully for county commission two years ago. He said he took a similar vote on village council to allow concealed weapons in parks, adding, “There is one commissioner who’s not here who did not vote that way.”
Plyler appears to be the most vulnerable of the three incumbents considering that he placed third in the 2008 Republican primary, but he led balloting in that year’s general election, reflecting support from Democratic voters. If Plyler is eliminated by a more conservative Republican candidate, the prospects of the lone Democrat in the general election are likely enhanced.
Plyler reminded a meeting of the Forsyth County Republican Women that since he rejoined the commission in 2008 — he was previously defeated by Democrat Ted Kaplan in a 2006 at-large race — the county has not raised taxes.
A third conservative challenger, Winston-Salem site development contractor Gene Lowder, has criticized the incumbents for voting to give themselves lifetime healthcare coverage. Whisenhunt acknowledged in an interview that the commissioners approved the plan, but explained that the General Assembly enacted the policy and that commissioners must serve 10 years before they can qualify. Lowder said he would vote to repeal the plan if elected.
“I believe that we are a Christian nation, and that we live in a conservative community,” Lowder told the Republican Women. “As a Republican, I’ve always believed in lower taxes, fewer services and fewer entitlements.”
Like Lowder, Boyd and Baker have made strong statements in favor of prayer during commission meetings. Boyd has pledged to “vote pro-church” and Baker states on his campaign website: “I believe that local clergy have a right to pray at commissioner meetings any way they choose.”
All three candidates acknowledged in interviews that the commission is obliged to comply with the 4 th Circuit Court of Appeals’ ruling. Boyd said he would like to see county commissioners join citizens in a class-action lawsuit against the ACLU, which represented plaintiffs who complained their rights were violated by sectarian prayer. Baker said he hopes the Supreme Court rules on a similar case and overturns the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision. Those positions align the two challengers with the three incumbents, including Plyler.
Boyd and Baker also want Forsyth County to adopt 287(g), a federal partnership that allows sheriff’s offices to enforce immigration law by identifying and processing people for deportation. Sheriff Bill Schatzman, who is also a Republican, has resisted the push to use county resources for that purpose.
Where some of the challengers part ways with the incumbents is on tax incentives to encourage job creation. Linville, Whisenhunt and Plyler have consistently voted to award incentives to Caterpillar, Novant Health and Inmar.
“We do help create jobs through incentives,” Linville said. “And we help large and small businesses. Most of the incentive money the businesses actually pay for it themselves through taxes and we give them some of that back.”
Baker and Boyd oppose incentives. “I believe that it’s corporate welfare, that it’s the government picking winners and losers,” Baker said. “There are studies that have shown it’s not always as successful.… It creates an atmosphere where you have companies in your county like Inmar, where they say, ‘If you don’t give us incentives were going to leave.’” Boyd has said that if the county cracked down on illegal immigration it would create opportunities for legal residents to work. At one point during the lunchtime meeting, Boyd said, “If we’ve got to go out and form the groups to run the illegals out of here...,” adding that the tax base would be rebuilt and entry-level jobs would come back to Forsyth County.
Challenger Lowder, like the three incumbents, supports incentives, arguing that enlarging the tax base is the best way to keep the tax rate low.
Bob Prescott, a former Kernersville town alderman who lost his seat last year after placing sixth in at-large balloting for five seats, often focuses campaign remarks on his biography as a US Airways pilot and a Marine with combat experience in Vietnam.
He laid out his social conservative credentials before the tea party group: “I believe in pro-life. I believe in the Second Amendment. I believe marriage should be between a man and a woman.”
That was a prelude for an argument that the county must focus on growth by improving infrastructure, and that it must attract new employers and maintain quality public schools.
Perhaps the most unique among the pack of eight Republicans vying for the three District B seats is John Bost, mayor of Clemmons. Bost is proposing that the county adopt a ward system, arguing that the current system doesn’t serve the county’s urban municipalities well.
Bost said he’s not particularly concerned with the question of whether a ward system would weaken Republican control of the commission. Four out of seven commissioners are elected from District B; the terms are staggered.
“I have done most of my work and I think a lot of my successes have taken place in a nonpartisan setting,” he said. “When you’re sitting on a board, you need to do the business of the board instead of the business of the party.”
Bost said he would like to see the commission develop a vision for coordinated growth and land-use planning. He cited improvements to Lewisville Clemmons Road as a specific need. He said the county needs to bal ance growth with preservation of green space and agricultural land.
The tea party gathering was something of a setup for Bost. Vernon Logan, the namesake of an outfit that bills itself as a “white civil rights organization,” asked Bost about his association with CHANGE, a Winston-Salem community organizing outfit.
Bost explained that CHANGE was hosting a dialogue on homelessness and needed to raise money to pay for a meal so that homeless people could have something to eat and participate in the discussion.
An ordained pastor, Bost said there were three reasons he contributed $150 to pay for the meal and attended the meeting.
“I’m a Christian,” he said. “Number two, I’m on the 10 Year Plan Commission on Homelessness. There was a need. If $150 will accomplish that, I’m happy to pay it out of my own pocket.”