by Eric Ginsburg
If there’s anything political rivals Paul Gibson and Jeff Phillips agree on, it’s that their race for Guilford County Commission District 5 presents clearly distinct options for voters, and that the race will be competitive. Both men have two daughters, own their own companies, were born in the area, want to create jobs and agree a new jail was necessary, but the similarities end there.
Following a brutal redistricting process, Democrat and veteran Commissioner Gibson is running in the district rather than at-large as he has in the past, facing conservative Jeff Phillips, a first-time candidate to the commission promising a significantly different take on the role of local government.
Phillips said his platform can be boiled down to the two words printed under his name on his campaign material: “Limited government.” To Phillips, who started Phillips Wealth Management in 2009 after working for companies such as Wachovia and Prudential, everincreasing county spending and rising property taxes are a serious threat to residents and the county.
Gibson is running on a platform of “smart government,” which he described as avoiding wasteful spending without being limited government. Gibson named a list of priorities, including enhancing the county’s strategic plan, reducing crime and violence, supporting education and addressing redistricting.
District lines were completely redrawn last year, changing the number of seats from 11 to 9 on the commission. The current map bears almost no resemblance to its predecessor, with District 5 switching from the more rural southern and eastern parts of the county to a wedge beginning in the center near downtown Greensboro and snaking north and slightly west before opening up into a bloom in the central-northern part of the county.
Voters in District 5 lean right, particularly outside of Greensboro, but Gibson’s name recognition and deep ties to the area could balance the odds. As always, it’s a matter of who shows up to vote, and Phillips is hoping an energized conservative base can help him and others sweep in districts 4, 5 and 6 against Democrats, including incumbents Kirk Perkins and Gibson along with newcomer Linda Kellerman. With fewer seats on the commission, Phillips hopes the outcome of the election in November will deliver a majority to fiscal conservatives.
Phillips was born in Winston-Salem but grew up in Oklahoma, moving there with his mother after his parents divorced. Phillips came from a poor family and was primarily raised by his single mother, he said, and started working at 16.
By the time he was 19 he was married and paying his own way through the University of Central Oklahoma, and in 1995 the couple jumped at an opportunity to move with their young daughters to Greensboro. Laurie, his wife of 30 years, works with him at Phillips Wealth Management in an office off Pisgah Church Road, and they attend Fellowship Church in High Point, which he described as evangelical and nondenominational.
The strong work ethic he developed as a teen and his relationship with God are driving factors in how Phillips views the world and would approach county government. Phillips said he can relate to people who are struggling or in transition because of his lived experience, and said he works to follow Matthew 25 where Jesus instructs his followers to care for and serve the least among them.
“Scripture is sort of the litmus test for my life,” Phillips said.
That’s the reason he helped found Men Of Vision and Excellence, or MOVE, in 2005, a faith-based group aimed at helping men becoming better husbands, fathers, friends and community members. His faith has called him to work with the homeless and be concerned about the county’s high unemployment rate.
After a bid for fellow conservative Howard Coble’s US Congress seat two years ago — which Phillips said he had no illusion about winning — he became more focused on the local, deciding to challenge Gibson and focus on decreasing the county’s “disturbing” debt level and cutting from county departments wherever possible. Phillips beat Don Wendelken in the Republican primary, garnering 5,347 votes over Wendelken’s 1,940.
“It’s angering many people in our county,” Phillips said of increased taxes over the last eight years and increased spending over the last 15. “I believe we’re on the brink of crisis in this county if we don’t change that soon. No department that’s being funded by the taxpayers of this county should be off the table. I’d like to help influence a shift, a change in philosophy.”
Phillips did not name any specific departments or areas within them that he felt could reduce spending, but said he would work closely with department heads to identify where spending could be reined in or where departments could combine resources to be more efficient.
Without a decrease in spending, he said, property taxes will continue to rise, putting an unfair burden on taxpayers and stifling business.
Gibson, a lifelong Guilford County resident whose father was the sheriff before BJ Barnes, sees it differently. Drafted during the Vietnam War while attending Guilford College — where he later returned for a political science degree — Gibson served in the XVIII Airborne Corps responding to civil disturbances east of the Mississippi.
He was initially elected to the commission in 1984, but decided he was spending too much time away from his daughters, and did not run again until 2004 when they went off to college.
“I’m like the cicada; I come around about every 20 years,” he said.
This is the first election Gibson hasn’t run at large, a consequence of redistricting, but he said he has strong support in his district. Gibson has worked in textile apparel for a long time, and still runs Paul Gibson Sales in the industry.
Gibson is proud of his record and hopes to continue his work as a commissioner but said he will find a way to serve the county even if he loses. He is part of a Family Justice Center Task Force to create a one-stop location for women experiencing domestic violence or sexual abuse similar to one in Alamance County, an effort he hopes to continue in the next term.
Gibson easily named other priorities — reducing recidivism at the jail, providing services for needs like mental and physical health, creating an alternative redistricting process that would be politically independent and nonpartisan, proactively recruiting a new county manager that will avoid the “egregious missteps” of Brenda Jones Fox and focusing on education as an economic driver.
“I have fought like the dickens to maintain that dental clinic on Friendly Avenue,” said Gibson, who added that the clinic serves poor youth. He also said he was proud of the county’s involvement with the Interactive Resource Center, a homeless day shelter, and for his successful push for a new jail, replacing what he called “inhumane” conditions in the old one.
While Phillips said the jail was necessary, he said the county made a “baffling oversight” by not allocating funds for associated parking.
The commissioner named other possible changes, like making the board chairman elected at large similar to the mayor on city council, and other accomplishments of his tenure, like securing $45 per day from the state to house misdemeanants, which the state initially planned to force on counties without compensation, he said.
Gibson said that adjusted for inflation, county spending hasn’t increased as compared to 1998-1999. While Phillips pointed to lower taxes in places like Wake County, Gibson said the conditions were markedly different — Wake has experienced strong growth allowing for an expanded tax base while major industries here have withered away, he said. Plus Guilford County must provide services to two metropolitan areas while many other counties contain one.
“Our county spending has been pretty flat,” Gibson said. “We’re spending what we need to spend to supply the services that the residents of Guilford County want. Our taxes are in line with what Guilford County… needs to do.”
Phillips’ said that people in need should be taken care of by the community, the private sector and through the individuals’ faith rather than relying on the public sector.
“Government funding is not the long-term solution to this homeless issue,” Phillips said while discussing his work as a team leader with the Salvation Army’s Night Watch program. “[In general] I believe government ought to play a lesser role.”
Phillips said it would require sensitivity at every step, but that he was confident that significant budget cuts could be made. While most residents would be open minded to funding short-term assistance to people in need or transition, Phillips said increases should come with decreases elsewhere. Without naming any specific departments, Phillips said there were some services that were required by the state and others that could be cut back.
“I think my opponent sees county government as the enemy,” said Gibson, who said he sees it as a tool to help people. “I think there’s a very clear choice in District 5.”
Gibson said Phillips would make deep cuts to social services like the ones proposed by Conservatives for Guilford County that eliminated funding for the residents most in need by eliminating all but the required positions.
“I would never cut that budget… for anything that is providing needed and necessary services for those people [in need],” Gibson said, adding he would raise taxes if he had to in order to maintain essential services.
Phillips said that government was getting in the way of people doing what they do best with creativity and ingenuity and that government in general was impeding the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness. Phillips said there is a direct correlation between lower taxes and a lower unemployment rate, and that the county was vulnerable to going bankrupt like other local governments around the nation.
In most ways the two candidates’ outlooks couldn’t be more different, possibly translating to less voters on the fence about who to support.