Forsyth County Commission at-large race draws three candidates

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Forsyth County Commission at-large candidates (l-r): Keenen Altic, Ted Kaplan and Buddy Collins

A third-party challenger from the left complicates prospects for a centrist Democrat defending the at-large seat on the Forsyth County Commission from a high-profile conservative Republican opponent.

The Forsyth County Commission at-large seat — the only one that is on the ballot for every single voter in the county — typically toggles between a Democrat and a Republican.

Republican Dave Plyler held it from 2002 to 2006. Then came Democrat Ted Kaplan, until he was unseated by Republican Bill Whiteheart in 2010. And then Kaplan won the seat back in a rematch in 2014. Whiteheart, who passed away in 2017, won’t be a factor in this election, but Kaplan faces a formidable Republican challenger in Buddy Collins. A lawyer based in Kernersville, Collins was the most popular member of the Forsyth County School Board elected from suburban District 2 when he was appointed by then-Gov. Pat McCrory to the State Board of Elections in 2013.

This year’s predicted blue-wave surge of enthusiasm among Democratic voters might seem like a good hedge against a Republican challenge, but the centrist Kaplan is also defending his left flank this year.

In 2017, the Republican majority in the state General Assembly passed legislation to reduce the number of signatures needed to get a political party on the ballot over the veto of Democrat Gov. Roy Cooper. In June, the Green Party nominated Keenen Altic, a 33-year-old electrical technician from Winston-Salem, to the county commission at-large race.

Running for office wasn’t part of Altic’s plan when he first got involved with the Greens in 2016. That year, he collected signatures to help get the party on the ballot. Earlier this year, he took part in an April 15 Tax Day protest that linked US military support for the Saudi war in Yemen with mass incarceration. Altic and fellow Green Party activist Tony Ndege talked about the need for candidates. And in June, after an interview with party leaders, Altic accepted his party’s nomination for the county commission race. Altic said the party decided to aim for the county commission because the county legislative body controls funding for the sheriff’s office and jail, and sets the property tax.

Kaplan downplayed the potential for Altic’s candidacy to create a spoiler effect.

“I always have worried about elections,” he said. “I don’t think it matters whether there’s a Green Party candidate or not. I’m always running as if I have opposition and it’s tough.”

If Altic is an improbable candidate, Kaplan is a politician out of central casting. After serving in the Navy, the RJ Reynolds High School graduate was elected to the state House from 1976 to 1982, and then served in the state Senate for the next 10 years, ascending to majority leader in the final four.

Kaplan, who lives in Lewisville, expressed satisfaction that the commissioners have worked well together over the past four years, and have avoided any major controversies. He said he’s most proud of the economic development initiatives, some with cooperation from the city, undertaken over the past four years.

“Our wages are pretty fair; they obviously can be improved,” Kaplan said. “We’ve done our best to encourage businesses to move here.” He cited Wilson-Cook Medical’s announced plan to move into Whitaker Park, formerly an RJ Reynolds Tobacco manufacturing plant. The county commission approved an incentives grant of $2.4 million in exchange for the creation of 50 new jobs on Sept. 20. The company already employs 650 people in Forsyth County.

An Amazon fulfillment center expected to employ more than 900 people is under construction at the western end of Guilford County, but Kaplan noted that it will provide opportunities to workers in Kernersville. And trumpeting hospital expansion and school construction, Kaplan added, “We can’t take credit for all of it, but we’re doing our best to keep the ball rolling.”

One pall over county over county governance in recent years is a string of health-related deaths at the Forsyth County Law Enforcement Detention Center, including two men who died within the same month in 2017.

“Yes, the commissioners are concerned,” Kaplan said. “We have been for some time. We let an invitation to bid out to several companies.” Correct Care Solutions, the current vendor, was the only company that responded to the solicitation.

“We asked our hospital if they would take over the service; they politely declined,” Kaplan continued. “We’re kind of stuck.”

Altic said he would not vote to renew Correct Care Solutions’ contract.

“We shouldn’t even be contracting with companies that are just trying to make profit off of jailing people,” he said. “That’s one thing that’s driving mass incarceration. In terms of how we administer public health in jails, that’s a service that should be carried out by the county itself.”

Altic also said he opposes a referendum to impose a quarter-cent sales tax to raise $120 million to pay for a new courthouse.

“Absolutely not,” he said. “I think we have an affordable housing problem. Public health problems should take priority.”

Altic also said he wants the sheriff’s office to end its inter-governmental services agreement with the US Department of Homeland Security to house immigrant detainees for Immigration Customs Enforcement.

Collins did not respond to emails and phone calls for this story. The candidate, who lives in Kernersville, announced his resignation from the State Board of Elections, where he served as vice-chairman, in March. Chairman Bill Cobey, who himself resigned earlier this month, lauded Collins for his service in a press release at the time.

“He’s also been a great friend, willing to do everything I asked him to do,” Cobey added, “but also willing to challenge me and give me ideas.”

But Collins’ state appointments have drawn controversy because of a history of opposition to LGBTQ rights.

Collins cast the only no vote on a 2009 motion approved by the Forsyth County School Board to add “sexual orientation” to a list of characteristics prohibited under the district’s bullying and harassment policies, the Winston-Salem Journal reported. The change brought the school district’s policies in line with state law.

Collins has clashed with the Gay Lesbian & Straight Education Network, a national advocacy group. The school board member argued in a 2002 guest editorial in the Journal that at the dawn of the 21st Century, “society finds itself faced with the far-reaching effects of the disintegration of the American family,” adding that schools were forced to account for “same-sex unions that a generation ago would have been ridiculed as perverse and illegal.”

The 2002 editorial continued: “Boasting more than 700 clubs in schools nationwide, [GLSEN] has an agenda to use public schools as a place to seek acceptance of its sexual practices. The members begin with seemingly innocuous requests for policy changes, move on to demand sensitivity training among the faculty, and finally insist on the infusion of their beliefs in the curriculum.”

In late 2013, Chris Sgro, then the executive director of Equality NC, protested Gov. McCrory’s appointment of Collins to the NC Task Force on Safer Schools.

“Given his derogatory views of LGBT families and willingness to put some of our state’s most vulnerable children at risk of bullying — it defies logic that Gov. McCrory would appoint Mr. Collins to a position so directly tied to protecting the rights and safety of all North Carolina students.”

Kaplan noted that politics at the national level are increasingly polarized, but expressed optimism that an upturn in the economy will promote a drive towards moderation in local politics.

“I’ve been in politics for a while, and I have noticed those years when we have extreme politics and when we have constructive politics,” he said. “The economy plays a huge role in whichever way that pendulum swings. The economy is going well. People have jobs and wages are fairly good. When I go out and give speeches people seem to be grateful and want to keep it going. I do, too.”

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