Featured photo: Democrat James Upchurch (left) faces Republican Jim Davis (right) in the District 6 county commission race in Guilford County. (file photos)

As the pandemic rages on, renewed mobilization within the Democratic party may threaten the Republican candidate in the District 6 county commission race.

Renewed interest in national politics may mobilize Democratic voters in Guilford County and put Republican county commission candidate Jim Davis in a tighter race against Democrat James Upchurch in the District 6 race, despite the district having been historically right-leaning.

In September 2016, there were slightly more registered Republican voters in the district — which covers the western portion of the county into Colfax and towards Oak Ridge to the north — but this year, Democrats have about 2,000 more registered voters compared to Republicans as of Tuesday afternoon. In February, Upchurch ran unopposed on the Democratic ticket while Davis won against Jason Ewing by more than 20 percentage points.

A map of Guilford County commission districts. (screenshot)

Republican incumbent Hank Henning, who is not running for re-election, has held District 6 since 2012 and served as chairman in 2015. In 2016, Henning narrowly fought off Democratic contender Rick Forrester, winning the district with 51 percent of the vote compared to Forrester’s 49 percent.

As might be expected in a Republican-leaning district, Jim Davis holds the fundraising advantage. As of July 10, Davis reported having $3,955 cash on hand while Upchurch reported about a third of that at $1,024.

Funding schools remains top priority

When interviewed in February, both candidates emphasized the importance of public education, and both continued to express the need for funding for school facilities but differed on the amount of investment.

“With the pandemic, that uncovered a lot of issues that people have been speaking about,” Upchurch said in an interview. “Not every student has access to a computer or the internet. I think it’s more obvious than ever than not every student has access to resources outside of school.”

While both of the candidates highlight education as pillars of their platforms, they diverge on the issue of funding, specifically when it comes to the May vote in which county commissioners approved a $300 million bond referendum to put before voters in November, compared to the $1.6 billion that was requested by the Guilford County School Board.

Upchurch, a former public-school teacher at Ragsdale High School and Smith High School and currently an instructor at St. Andrews University, said he was shocked at the number that county commissioners approved at the end of May.

“Because I have been a student and a teacher in our school system, I have a unique perspective of what happens in our schools,” Upchurch said. “It was a slap in the face. If I was a commissioner at that time, I would have advocated for a larger amount, and if I’m elected I will advocate for another bond in 2022.”

Davis, who won the Republican primary in February against Jason Ewing, also expressed initial “shock” at the final amount but said that it makes sense given the county’s financial situation due to the pandemic.

“I never thought they would approve $1.6 billion,” Davis said in an interview. “When I looked at the county’s finances, I understand how they came up with that number. I think that the commissioners will certainly revisit that in the future once county revenues go back up…. I’m in support of a future bond. The needs are still there; $300 million hasn’t fixed all of our problems.”

As school officials debate whether to open for in-person learning or not in the coming weeks, Upchurch said that he wants to be safe and work towards a proactive solution.

“We’re already in reactive mode,” he said. “We need to be figuring out what it’s going to look like and what it’s going to cost if kids go back to school. If it’s not done in a safe way, we can’t let it happen because it’s going to continue to spread.”

Davis said he supports kids going back to in-person learning, stating that kids need social interaction for their mental health.

“Our kids need to go back to school,” he said. “I think kids need to socialize with other kids, and the achievement gap will certainly widen. I think kids learn better in an in-person environment.” Davis also said concern for parents who can’t work because they have to watch their kids if they are attending school virtually from home.

“We really need to look into that,” he said.

Differing views on how leadership has handled pandemic

When it comes to how the county has handled the coronavirus pandemic as a whole, both candidates expressed that they felt county leadership, including the current commissioners, have done what they can to help the community. Both said they wished the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding reached more people and that information around the federal funding was more accessible.

“They could improve communication to the public about what’s available through the CARES Act,” Davis said. “There was confusion around small business grants versus loans. I don’t think people have taken advantage around that because they don’t know it exists.”

Upchurch on the other hand said he wished more CARES funding had been used for rental assistance.

For the most part, Upchurch said that he believes that local and state officials have done their best with dealing with the pandemic, stating that the situation is unprecedented.

“Governor Cooper has handled it well,” he said. “I do think it could have been handled a bit better but obviously this is a situation it doesn’t seem like they were prepared for.”

For President Trump, Upchurch had stronger words of disapproval.

“There hasn’t been a concise answer,” he said. “It’s been Don’t wear a mask, Wear a mask; This is a hoax; it’s gonna go away when it gets hot outside. It’s a huge problem.”

Upchurch said he feels there’s been misinformation “from both sides.”

“We don’t know what the truth is,” he said. “People are just saying things and we don’t have facts to back it up…. There’s a lot of misinformation being put out.”

However, he did emphasize the need for the community to work together to combat the virus.

“We need to come together and say we’re going to treat this seriously,” he said. “If everybody doesn’t come together, it’s not ever going to go away.”

Like Upchurch, Davis’ view of how state and federal leaders have handled the pandemic lines up along partisan contours.

“Personally, I think [President Trump] got ahead of this thing by issuing travel bans early on,” Davis said. “He got our corporate partners building respirators. I personally have not had any issues getting masks or hand sanitizer or PPE.”

Davis continued by stating that he believes that Gov. Cooper has been too strict with keeping the state closed.

“I think he needs to revisit this Phase 2 lockdown that we’re in,” Davis said. “I think for our county to have job growth, we need to move on.”

On the racial justice uprising

Davis and Upchurch also understandably have differing views when it comes to responses to the racial justice uprising and demands that the community has made in the wake of George Floyd’s death. Upchurch, who was raised in a conservative household but is a generation younger than Davis, said that he would sit down with community leaders and activists to come up with solutions to address racial inequities in the county if elected to the board.

“A couple of groups have put out certain demands, and that’s a good start,” Upchurch said. “If elected, I think the county commissioners need to take into account what the people want. People want leaders who are going to listen.” When pushed to state which specific demands he supports however, Upchurch didn’t give a response.

“I don’t have demands that I’m going to ask for, but I am going to be meeting with many groups,” he said.

Davis was even more ambiguous in his responses around racial justice. He said that he supports peaceful protests but that he “doesn’t think of color.”

“I have coworkers from different ethnic backgrounds and to me, a man’s a man and a woman’s a woman, but I certainly see that there’s some injustice in the world,” he said.

When asked specifically about the Guilford County sheriff’s office’s partnership with Guilford county schools to provide officers in schools, both candidates supported the use of officers in schools, but Upchurch said he doesn’t think they’re the best answer. Upchurch was working as a teacher at Smith High School in December 2018 when an armed man came onto the campus, leading to a lockdown. No one was harmed during the event and the suspect was arrested by the school’s police officer and two school administrators.

“I am for our schools being safe,” Upchurch said. “At this point, I feel they are needed…. But SROs are not the best answer. I’m sure there are better answers out there…. There needs to a wholesome approach to fixing the issue. Maybe a security guard that doesn’t have a gun? There’s a lot of conversation that needs to take place and I’m someone that will be leading that conversation.”

Davis said that he supports officers in schools and that he wasn’t aware of any disparities between students of color and white students when it comes to policing in schools.

“I’m not aware of that,” he said. “That’s never been brought to my attention. I would certainly like to find out. If that’s happening, we need to fix that.”

According to 2015-16 national data analyzed by the ACLU from the US Department of Education, Black students were arrested at a rate three times that of white students in schools. In Guilford County for the 2017-2018 school year, Black students were five times as likely to receive short-term suspension as white students, according to data published by the Southern Coalition for Social Justice (SCSJ). For the same school year in Guilford County schools, Black students made up 73.6 percent of short-term suspensions even though they only made up 40 percent of the school population. While the SCSJ stated in their April 2018 “State of Discipline in NC Schools” report that there is not enough evidence on the impact of SROs in schools, the report did state that increasing presence of officers in schools correlates with an increase in the number of students being referred to court for minor behavior. In 2016-17, the Division of Juvenile Justice reported that almost half of all juvenile complaints came from schools, according to the report.

Graphs by SCSJ for data from the 2017-18 school year in Guilford County Schools

Davis volunteered later in the interview that he doesn’t support defunding the police and pointed out that the current sheriff, Danny Rogers, is Black.

“Our leadership at the county sheriff’s department are African-American; they’re minorities,” Davis said. “Not every police officer is bad. There are some bad ones in this country but generally I think we have good people. I don’t think they wake up and think, I’m going to go arrest this guy, I don’t think they do that. We have good people.”

Upchurch also stated that he does not believe in defunding the police, but said he thinks officers need additional training and he will look at the department’s budget closely.

“I do think that with every department I need to look at their budget and if there need to be cuts then we’ll do that, but it would be in conjunction with the sheriff,” he said.

When asked about the county’s contract with Wellpath, a private healthcare company that provides medical care in the Greensboro and High Point jails, Upchurch admitted that he didn’t know about the contract, which was renewed by county commissioners in June.

In the past, the company has been criticized by activists who say the care provided by Wellpath has been insufficient. In 2015, Ellin Schott, a 57-year-old woman, died at the Greensboro jail after staff failed to provide her with anti-seizure medication. More recently in neighboring Forsyth County, a Wellpath nurse was arrested and charged with involuntary manslaughter of John Neville, a Black inmate, along with five detention officers, in July.

Davis, who was aware of the county’s contract with Wellpath said he believes that the company’s performance has been “successful” and that he would have to “get up to speed and learn a little bit more” about the contract before saying whether he supports the partnership or not. He also stated that the reason why Wellpath continues to operate in the jails might be because there is a limited number of providers to choose from.

Upchurch said he would have a conversation with Sheriff Rogers if there was a problem at the jail.

“I don’t know what’s happening there,” he said. “That’s a conversation the county commissioners need to have with Danny, and we need to let the public know what’s happening. In the past there’s not been a lot of transparency. Whenever you’re transparent with your community, that’s how you can move forward.”

The general election takes place on Nov. 3. To find more election coverage, visit triad-city-beat.com/category/election-2020.

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