Featured photo (L-R): Ted Kaplan, Dan Besse, Fleming El-Amin, Tonya McDaniel, Phil Carter, Gardenia Henley, Malishai Woodbury

Seven Democrats are fighting to make it to the general election in this year’s Forsyth County Commission primaries.

The seven-member Forsyth County Board of Commissioners is the governing body of Forsyth County and is responsible for adopting the county budget, setting the property-tax rate, acting on zoning and land use and enacting county policies. The partisan board also appoints members of citizen boards, committees and other commissions. Four commissioners are elected from District B, two from District A and one is voted at-large. Each member serves a 4-year staggered term, and partisan elections are held in even numbered years. Each December, the board chooses its chair and vice chair.

In the at-large race this year, there are two Democrats running, the winner of which, will face Republican Terri Mrazek in the general election come November.

In District A, five Democrats will fight to make it to the general election. The top two vote-getters will face off against Republicans Reginald Reid and Michael R. Owens who do not have a primary.

AT-LARGE

Ted Kaplan (i)

Lifelong politician with decades of experience

Ted Kaplan has a long history in Forsyth County, as well as in local and state politics. His family began what was to become the Kaplan Learning Center when he was a child. After a stint in the Navy, he was elected to the NC House of Representatives in 1976. He was elected to the NC Senate in 1982, where he served for a decade, including as the Senate Majority Leader from 1988-92. He was first elected to the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners in 2006. Kaplan is proud of his bonafides.

“Experience matters,” he said. “Having served in the US Navy, three terms as county commissioner and eight terms as a legislator, I have plenty.”

In 1994, Kaplan helped secure $3.1 million dollars for what was to become Innovation Quarter. His other work included helping to preserve the Nursing Program at Winston-Salem State University and helping with the creation of the film program at the NC School of the Arts.

When it comes to budgets, Kaplan’s previous roles in government indicate some experience as well.

“I have dealt with billion-dollar budgets for years,” he said. “Budgets that are balanced and fair.”

Kaplan is pleased with the current budgets.

“[We are] keeping our AAA Bond ratings and meeting the needs,” he said. “Our biggest challenge today is finding employees.”

Kaplan’s view toward law enforcement is that the sheriff’s office is “a constitutional office that the state requires the county to fund.” In that respect, he is against cutting funds.

“Crime continues to be a problem, particularly in our cities,” he said.

Dan Besse

Former city councilmember focused on public schools, health and safety

Dan Besse served for 19 years on the Winston-Salem City Council, successfully running for election and re-election five times. Two years ago, he was recruited by the NC House Democratic Caucus to run for a Republican-leaning swing seat for NC House, a contest which he narrowly lost. Besse has also been actively involved in Democratic Party work, from serving as a precinct chair to serving on the national board of Democratic Municipal Officials. This is his first time running for county commission.

Besse is primarily concerned with the public: “Public schools, public health, public safety, affordable housing development,” he said.

Besse wants to avoid what he calls “boondoggle pet projects,” an example being the commercial events center previously proposed for Tanglewood park.

Besse’s opinions concerning law enforcement funding and control are varied and highly detailed, related to his time on the Winston-Salem City Council.

“I adamantly oppose reducing law enforcement funding,” he said. “Good community policing with well-trained and managed law enforcement officers is essential, and it’s not cheap.” He continues, “At the same time, I fully recognize that the experience with law enforcement in many communities has not been positive historically.”

He insists on high standards of police conduct and accountability and acknowledges the difficulties of the job.

“We must respect that, and ensure that we provide the training, supervision, compensation, resources and support they need to do a tough job well, he said. “Finally, there must also be investment in other community safety programs, including violence interruption, mental health services, neighborhood investment, education and poverty reduction programs.”

Besse’s views on national politics and the possible effects community, county, and state-wide are what he calls “a serious strain of anti-democratic thinking, which rejects the outcome of elections they don’t win as necessarily ‘fraudulent’ and accepts the alternatives of voting suppression as a routine political tool and even political violence when that fails.”   

Besse is also a proponent of community involvement.

“None of these crises will solve themselves, and we can’t fix them with social media hand-wringing,” Besse explained. “All of us who care about the well-being of our communities must get out of our chairs and get to work on rebuilding civic engagement and the democratic process.”

Forsyth County Commissioner Map

DISTRICT A

The District A race has two seats available with five Democrats — including two incumbents Fleming El Amin and Tonya McDaniel — fighting to make it to the general election. The top two vote-getters will move on to the November general election. The two Republicans who have filed — Reginald Reid and Michael R. Owens — will face off in the general election.

Fleming El Amin (i)

Incumbent focused on economic development and reducing gang activity

Fleming El Amin has served on the Forsyth County Commission since 2017. He previously served on the Board of Elections and was chair of the Forsyth County Democratic Party for two terms. He serves on the State Executive Committee of the Democratic Party and is vice chair of the Shalom Project and the Consolidated Human Services Board. He is a board member for Triad Cultural Arts, Inc., Northwest NC Advocates for Disabilities, Triad Chapter — Americans United and Interfaith Winston-Salem. He is a lifetime member of the NAACP.

As commissioner, El Amin wants to continue working on what he said are “three critical needs in District A”: more resources for a focused economic development, employing resources for more public safety and reducing gang activity, and a focusing of more resources towards academic excellence.

“I promoted 80 percent of all ARPA funding to be allocated in Qualified Census Tract communities, most of which are in District A,” El Amin said.

ARPA is the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, which addressed the economic and health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

When it comes to budgetary concerns, El Amin believes that his finance history makes him a good candidate, having worked with large budgets as a former Wall Street banker at Chase Manhattan Bank and as a former employee at Guarantee Bank and Trust in Chicago.

El Amin is also a Vice Chair of the Audit Committee of Forsyth County. A believer in workforce development, El Amin wants to spend less money on PAYGO funds, which is a budget rule that requires that tax cuts must be offset by tax increases or cuts in spending.

He also told TCB that doesn’t believe in reducing law enforcement funding.

 “We have provided funds for that department to address reduction of gang activities with more community-based alternatives for the youth,” he said. “Less funding is not a realistic solution to providing a safe environment for our citizens.”

El Amin believes he will make a competent Commissioner. “Leadership in this often-toxic political environment requires courage, commitment and character in order to serve the best interest of our community.”

Tonya McDaniel (i)

Incumbent with clear ideas about budgetary goals

Tonya D. McDaniel was first elected as a county commissioner in 2018. She received her undergraduate degree from Winston-Salem State University and graduated with a bachelor of arts in political science. In 2016, she graduated NC Central University with a master’s in public administration. She is also the goddaughter of a former commissioner and community leader, the late Earline Parmon.

“For over 14 years, I have worked at the precinct level, worked for the Board of Elections, managed several federal, state and local candidates’ political campaigns,” she said.

She believes that she is one of the most experienced candidates with a clear vision.

“Forsyth County has invested a total budget of $65 million in the Sheriff’s Department,” she said. “We have approved approximately $3.5 million in the Juvenile Intervention Team, and $1.5 million to work alongside the Cure Violence Initiative to combat gun and gang violence.” As for schools, they “have $150 million for infrastructure, which includes funding for teachers, assistants and staff,” she said. She plans to work alongside state representatives and school board to ensure a cohesive budget.

“I am also looking forward to recognizing our LGBTQ+ communities in the future and continuing the work on supporting the state goal of 100 percent clean renewable energy by 2050 and creation of green jobs,” she explained.

In her work with a federal non-profit, McDaniel maintained a budget of over $2 million in human resources over a period of nine years. Citing the $500 million budget she has overseen as a commissioner, she’s excited to help put more resources in her community.

“I am excited Forsyth County has written a resolution to utilize 80 percent of the $74 million ARPA dollars in the census tract of the marginalized communities,” she said.

McDaniel recognizes a need for local law enforcement, stating “[F]rom my own personal experience dealing with domestic violence and gun and gang violence, I would have to admit law enforcement agencies are necessary in serving and protecting our citizens. I am grateful to live in a county where our sheriff’s department understands the need for behavioral health. It has to be an all-inclusive body of work.” 

Phil Carter

Activist with focus on fighting for housing rights

Phil Carter is a longtime activist and community leader. Currently the co-chair of Housing Justice now, he has been the second vice-chair of the Forsyth County Democratic Party, precinct-chair at several precincts, auxiliary president within the Forsyth County Democratic Party, and is currently a State Democratic Executive Committee Member.

“As co-chair of Housing Justice Now, I have fought alongside tenants who are facing wrongful eviction,” he said. “HJN also supported Crystal Towers United in their recent victory, which guaranteed their building will not be sold and will in fact be renovated.”

The biggest challenge Carter wants to address is housing.

“The absence of affordable housing…could be mitigated by using county surplus land to create community land trust, and…investing more funds in home-ownership programs,” he said. “Furthermore, the eviction rate within the county — which is one of the highest in the nation — is completely unacceptable; I would work to implement assistance to citizens facing eviction by investing funds for the Right to Counsel; this would guarantee tenants have legal representation on winnable cases.”

With budgetary issues, Carter is adamant.

“[O]ur commissioners currently and easily invest taxpayers’ money in large corporations and developers, not local businesses or the everyday person,” he said.  “They too need incentives to sustain and thrive, and I will fight to support citizens and small businesses.”

If elected, Carter intends to be a “critical thinker, review budget analysis, and keep a keen eye on wants, needs, and savings of the taxpayers’ taxation.”

Carter’s views on current law enforcement policies are that they need addressing.

“I think we need to look at reallocation of funding and move towards more community-driven programs and intervention programs to combat crimes and the need to commit them,” he told TCB.

Carter also said he wants to be open and transparent if elected to office.

“When elected county commissioner for District A,” he responded. “Therefore, I hope that through zealous and quarterly citizen engagement meetings together, we can always resolve the issues and concerns of the citizens of District A with a peaceable attitude towards one another.”

Gardenia Henley

Veteran who has run for office multiple times

TCB attempted to contact Gardenia Henley multiple times for this story and received no response. All information is sourced from her 2016 campaign website, and other media where noted.

Gardenia Henley was born and raised in Winston-Salem. An Air Force Veteran, she received a bachelor of science degree in accounting from Shaw University and a master of science degree in taxation from Southeastern University. She is a retired US Diplomat Inspector General Officer, from the Department of State’s US Agency for International Development, where she was employed for 22 years.

She has been a member of the Winston-Salem Chamber of Commerce, The Women’s Fund, and is a lifetime member of American Veterans. She ran for governor in 2012 and lost with only 5.24 percent of the vote. She has run for US House in 2014 and 2016 and, most recently, NC House in 2020.

From her campaign website: “If elected I would work to decrease the tax rate, increase Forsyth County employee salaries, support non-profits and others that work towards assisting taxpayers with affordable housing and work to decrease homelessness and hunger. I would do whatever is possible to support economic growth.”

Malishai Woodbury

Former school board chair focused on education

Malishai Woodbury has served on the WS/FCS Board of Education for almost four years, with three of those years as chair. Notably, she is the first Black school board chair in Forsyth County history. She received her bachelor of arts in communication studies at UNC and received her master’s degree in history at NC A&T State University. She later taught history at NCA&T.

“Teaching political courses is a great way to authentically experience the exchange of ideas and beliefs regarding political issues and the behaviors of political leaders,” she said.

This is her first run for election for county commissioner.

Focusing on District A, Woodbury wants to “help make Forsyth County the best place to live in NC no matter which side of 52 you live,” she said.  “In order to make our county the best, we must strengthen District A.”

Woodbury thinks schools are still insufficiently funded, Pre-K accessibility needs attention and her experience on the school board helps inform her belief.

“I have experience working with the school district’s budget, which is comparable to the county’s budget,” she explains. “As of 2021, the school district received a ‘0’ error audit and increased our fund balance.”

Her thoughts on other ways that the budget could be utilized is similar.

The county should invest more money in increasing educator pay supplements, Pre-K accessibility, and restorative juvenile justice, to name a few,” she said. “I think Forsyth County should spend less money on luxurious amenities for certain parts of the county.”

Woodbury’s views towards law enforcement are similar to those of her colleagues who are running for office.

“I agree with law enforcement reform that is a collaborative effort between community members, elected officials and law enforcement leaders,” she said. “I think policing has a negative connection to the history of slavery in this country; however, I believe all citizens want to live in a safe community that is protected by men and women who serve to keep the peace.”

She’s also expressed her opinion about the current state of the nation and its myriad of social issues.

“I am concerned about the future of this country if we don’t authentically deal with the core issues that hinder our progress, like racism, sexism, elitism, etc.,” she said.

As an elected official, Woodbury said she wants to emulate the past leaders who also served as longtime public servants. “I will work to uphold the legacy and commitment of servant leaders like Mazie Woodruff, Earline Parmon and Walter Marshall,” she said. “In my opinion, their work to justify human and civil rights was the greater mission that benefitted all citizens of Forsyth County.”

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