Guilford County Democrats selected political veteran Skip Alston to return to Guilford County Commission after a nearly four-year hiatus, with elected officials past and present lining up to support him against an insurgent campaign by Black Lives Matter activist April Parker.
The vote by a 19-member panel of party executive committee members who live in county commission District 8 narrowly returned in Alston’s favor. The complex system, which weighted votes the votes of electors by the Democratic voting strength in their precincts, resulted in 39.5 out of 75 points for Alston, and 35.5 points for Parker. The relatively close outcome reinforced a pledge of cooperation between the two candidates after a week of brutal division within the party.
After the results were announced, Alston said he’s committed to cultivating new leadership in the party, while contending that he agreed to a request from his colleagues to finish out the term of his protégé, Ray Trapp, because it’s important for the Democrats to have a strong budget negotiator. Trapp replaced Alston when he announced his previous retirement from the commission in 2012. He resigned earlier this month to take a job at NC A&T University.
“I served 20 years in the position and I thought it was time for another generation of leaders to step forward,” said Alston, who proudly held up his first grandchild for a television news crew. “That’s why I mentored Ray Trapp. I hope to mentor April Parker and others like her because the next generation, they have the energy, they have the excitement, they have the desire to serve. So it’s up to my generation to make sure we give them that opportunity.”
After the vote, Parker sought Alston out to shake his hand.
“I think me even running was a catalyst to us really building intergenerationally in our community, really valuing mentorship,” Parker said. “Ray and Skip have already committed to lifting me up in that mentorship and running a righteous campaign in 2018.”
As Alston joined Parker to pose for a photo, the victorious candidate remained noncommittal about whether he would back Parker’s candidacy the next time the seat comes up for election.
“I’m going to mentor her starting tomorrow,” he said.
Alston said he hasn’t decided whether he’ll run himself in the next election, and he said he also wanted to leave the door open to support another up-and-coming candidate.
Commissioner Carolyn Coleman, who represents District 7, made the motion to nominate Alston to fill the vacancy, as fellow Democratic commissioners Kay Cashion and Carlvena Foster stood at her side. Former Democratic commissioners Kirk Perkins and Bruce Davis joined them, along with Byron Gladden, an activist who has worked with Parker to promote LGBTQ rights and was elected to the Guilford County School Board last year.
“I can tell you that this is an especially difficult time for Democrats on [the county commission],” Coleman said. “We are in the minority. And as a result we need someone who can hit the ground running, someone who knows how the board of commissioners’ work, someone who knows how Guilford County works, someone who knows the budget. It is so important to know how the budget is prepared, where the bones are hidden in the budget. Skips Alston knows that, and perhaps knows it better than anyone else in this party.”
Alston’s nomination received a second from Lisa Johnson-Tonkins, who serves as Guilford County clerk of superior court.
Parker was nominated by Elizabeth Keathley, a county executive committee who is a fellow Glenwood resident. Sylvia Neal seconded the motion, acting as a proxy for Carrie Archer, also a Glenwood resident. The panel of electors also included former state lawmaker and Equality NC Executive Director Chris Sgro and his husband, Ryan Butler, who backed Parker, and Guilford County School Board member Deena Hayes-Greene, who backed Alston.
Leading up to the vote, party leaders acknowledged that only six out of 20 precincts in District 8 had been organized, effectively limiting a channel of representation for registered Democrats to participate in the appointment vote. Alston and his supporters charged that the sequence of events surrounding precinct organization and a successful motion one week ago to delay the appointment amounted to white people attempting to dictate the leadership of the black community. As a result of the precinct organization, 50 percent of the electors are white while 67.8 percent of registered voters are African American.
Alston said he regrets that over the course of his 20 years on the county commission from 1992 to 2012 “I didn’t get more involved in making sure that the Democrats were energized to address not only issues on a local level but on a state level and a national level.”
He said he intends to immediately begin organizing the 14 moribund precincts in District 8.
“It’s shameful that out of 20 precincts we only had six precincts that was organized,” he said. “I haven’t been involved in the past four years. When I was there we made sure that most of our precincts were organized. So my commitment is within the next 120 days that’s what I’m going to be focused on — organizing our precincts.”
Buoyed by her respectable showing in the balloting and a multiracial contingent of supporters carrying signs reading, “Black lives matter” and “Parker 4 commissioner,” Parker was looking ahead to the next election.
“I think we can’t talk about race without also talking about class,” she said. “Queer-phobia and transphobia is real. If we develop policies that hold up the most marginalized of us, then we all advance.”
Meanwhile, Parker indicated she intends to leverage the relationship she’s built with Alston over the past several days to bring about more transparent governance.
“I think he needs the youth close to him so he can move away from some of that wheeling and dealing that hasn’t really benefited the black community,” she said. “I do not believe the black community is monolithic. I think we’re diverse and vast.”