by Jordan Green
A “classic race” between progressive Democrat and conservative Republican for the sole at-large seat on the Forsyth County Commission could determine the balance of power on the board.
A “classic race” between “a typical Democrat with a philosophy of tax and spend” and “a textbook conservative” is how Republican Bill Whiteheart describes his matchup with Democrat Ted Kaplan for the sole at-large seat on the Forsyth County Commission.
“He’s kind of in the yesterday, and I’m in the tomorrow,” Kaplan says.
Although Democrats hold the plurality of registered voters in the county, Republican candidates have won the at-large seat for much of the past 20 years. Then a former state lawmaker, Kaplan unseated Republican Dave Plyler in the 2006 election. Four years later, amidst a voter backlash against President Obama, Whiteheart ousted Kaplan by a 3.4-percent margin.
The rematch between Whiteheart and Kaplan is likely to look more like the 2006 election, when Kaplan edged out Whiteheart by less than 400 votes. The tight US Senate race between Kay Hagan and Thom Tillis this year seems unlikely to create coattails for candidates of either party further down the ballot. And since the last election, the state General Assembly eliminated straight-party voting, a measure Kaplan applauded as making “it a bit more of an equitable race.”
With a staggered election schedule, the makeup of the Forsyth County Commission often resembles a game of musical chairs. Before winning the at-large seat in 2010, Whiteheart had been elected to the Republican-leaning District B in 2004. After losing his at-large seat in 2006, Plyler knocked Whiteheart off the ballot in the 2008 Republican primary for District B, and rejoined the board. Plyler has turned out to be one of the more moderate Republicans on the board, often voting with Democrats Walter Marshall and Everette Witherspoon. When Whiteheart returned to the board in 2010, he joined a conservative Republican-majority voting bloc, often finding himself at odds with Plyler.
“One of the things that I am very proud of is that — as you know, the lion’s share of county government is paid for by ad valorem property taxes — the four conservatives held fast and were diligent and worked hard in a real-estate market which was depressed,” Whiteheart said. “In a down real-estate market we came up with a way to pass a budget without raising taxes.”
Kaplan said he sees a shift toward moderation underway on the board. Earlier this year, retired Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools Superintendent Don Martin defeated conservative Mark Baker in the Republican primary for District B.
“With Don Martin being elected in District B, the board has taken a more moderate swing,” Kaplan said. “Our election would continue that, and put Forsyth County on a more forward-thinking path.”
Kaplan said if he’s elected, Forsyth County residents can expect more investment in education and economic development.
“I’m willing to hold the line on taxes, but I’m not afraid to put a bond issue before the voters,” Kaplan said. “I noticed that this board has turned down every bond that’s come before it.”
Kaplan voted to put a library bond on the ballot in 2010, while three of Whiteheart’s conservative colleagues on the board voted against it. Kaplan said that at some point in the next term the school board is likely to request a bond to finance school construction.
“I want them to be assured that the door won’t slam shut,” Kaplan said. “This board’s kind of done that.”
Nonsense, Whiteheart said in response.
“There is no one else that has the responsibility to fund the physical plant of schools but county commissioners all across the state,” he said. “If you cannot afford to build the schools out of the cash flow that you have from property taxes and fees, the only other way to do that is with a bond. Any county commissioner who would say that he is opposed to bonds for schools doesn’t understand the oath he took.”
Kaplan said he’s concerned that Forsyth County hasn’t experienced adequate economic growth. He dates the turning point to 1994, when the late Republican lawmaker Ham Horton took his seat in the state Senate and forfeited state transportation money for Winston-Salem’s planned Urban Loop.
“Since 1994, this county’s gone way off to the conservative side to the point where it’s held us back,” Kaplan said. “Fayetteville’s moved up. Durham’s moved up. We really have kind of stalled.
“Guilford’s grown pretty well,” he added. “If we don’t get on the move we’re going to become a bedroom community for Guilford County.”
Whiteheart said he’s pleased with Forsyth’s economic growth, citing President Obama’s 2010 visit to the Caterpillar plant in Winston-Salem as a reflection of the county’s success.
“I had been a county commissioner not very long at all in 2004 when I first got elected when I got to vote on the Dell incentives, which at that time was the biggest incentives package in North Carolina, not just the county but the whole ball of wax with state funds and the Golden Leaf Foundation,” Whiteheart recalled. “As a fiscal conservative Republican businessman who believes wholeheartedly that capital or the free enterprise system should come from stockholders and interest-bearing bonds and leveraging I still voted for that incentives package because I thought it was right for Forsyth County. It turned out to be not right for Forsyth County and not right for Dell. Our legal staff created clawback provisions in the incentive deal for us where Forsyth County was not a loser like some other municipalities and counties have been losers like Detroit. I cannot think of an incentive I have voted against.”
Kaplan said Forsyth County’s remoteness from Piedmont Triad International Airport and Interstate 85 relative to neighboring Guilford doesn’t need to be a liability.
“We could have light rail directly from downtown Winston-Salem to the airport,” he said. “You could park your car, catch a [Piedmont Authority for Regional Transportation] bus or light rail and go to the airport. It would be great.”
The candidate declined to speculate on a timeframe for such an initiative.
“It takes thinking a little outside the box and putting your foot forward,” Kaplan said. “This board wants to go backwards.”
On a number of issues, Kaplan would have voted differently than the majority of the current board.
The four members of the conservative Republican majority either voted against putting the library bond on the ballot in 2010 or were not on the board at the time. Last year, they opted for the least costly alternative of renovating the Central Library, disappointing many who hoped a new facility at Merschel Plaza would drive downtown redevelopment.
Kaplan said he doesn’t know whether a new board could revisit the decision.
“We need to check with the county attorney,” he said. “I would like to do that, but I don’t know that we can.”
One of the current board’s signature decisions was voting to allow concealed-carry permit holders to carry firearms in Tanglewood Park. Whiteheart noted that he “supported and carried the water” for the measure.
“If you are a concealed-carry permit holder that means that you have had the training,” he said. “It’s not just the training in target practice. More important is the training that instructs you according to the rule of law as to when you can exercise deadly force. Instructors teach you to stand down and take alternative measures as much as you can until the moment your life is threatened. If we can increase the number of people in the parks that have that authority and power we can save lives, and at the same time it is going to be a deterrent. There are some people who think my vote was just to arm the general public. The difference is anchored in the bedrock stone about what concealed carry is: They must be at a state of confrontation to exercise deadly force.”
Kaplan said he didn’t like the decision, but said he doesn’t know if it can be reversed at this point.
“I’m not committing one way or the other,” he said. “My preference is to not have guns in Tanglewood.”