Candidates outline goals, make cases for election

Incumbents in Districts 1, 2 and 5 face opposition on November ballot

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In Chatham, the five-member board of county commissioners acts as the main policy-making body for the county’s government. This year, three of the board’s five seats will be contested on the 2020 general election ballot.

Each of the three incumbents — Democrats Karen Howard (Dist. 1) and Mike Dasher (Dist. 2) and Republican Andy Wilkie (Dist. 5) — face opposition. Commissioners represent one of five districts but are elected and serve at large for four-year, staggered terms, which is why Commissioners Diana Hales (Dist. 3) and Jim Crawford (Dist. 4) aren’t on the ballot this year.

Here’s an overview of the candidates in each race:

District 1

In the District 1 race, Howard, the current chairperson for the board, has served on the commission board since 2014. She’s a retired attorney and former member of the Chatham County Board of Education. In August this year, she was also elected to the North Carolina Association of Black County Officials.

“I am running for County Commissioner because I believe that strong local government is critical to the health and wellbeing of our community and that the best decisions are made closest to the people we serve,” Howard said in response to a News + Record questionnaire. “Over the past six years, I have demonstrated that I am equal to the task of representing our diverse community and its unique challenges and opportunities.”

Howard currently serves as the BOC liaison for 10 county boards and committees, including the Board of Education, the Chatham County Partnership for Children and the Juvenile Crime Prevention Council. Following the murder of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis, Howard has consistently challenged the board to continue thinking critically about how it can contribute positively on issues of equity and justice within the county. As chairperson of the board throughout the coronavirus pandemic, Howard has also stressed the safety of the county’s staff and citizens at board meetings and in the county at large.

Howard said two measurable goals for another term would be to work toward county-wide access to affordable, reliable broadband service and increased options for safe, affordable housing for Chatham residents across the income spectrum. If she is not re-elected, Howard said she will continue to serve the community in the ways she always has: volunteering to tutor students, serving on local boards and donating to local nonprofits as she is financially able.

“I do not have to be in public office to support and uplift my community,” Howard said in her questionnaire. “I would happily join the ranks of those who quietly do good work without accolades every day.”

Still, she believes she is the right candidate for Chatham.

“Chatham deserves a strong voice and a committed representative,” she said. “I am she.”

She faces Republican Jay Stobbs, an engineer and financial advisor who has managed large-scale projects as an officer in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. He told the News + Record in his questionnaire response that he is seeking office as commissioner to help the county incentivize business opportunities and economic growth to create “badly needed jobs.” In that same answer, he also added that the county needed to recognize the role of veterans, specifically calling for the county to “honor this past by restoring the Veterans Memorial.”

“As a 30-year veteran U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officer and Professional Engineer, I have experience and expertise in managing large-scale projects including the need to work with a variety of stakeholders and customers,” he wrote. “As a financial advisor with an MBA, I have the business acumen to understand detailed plans, budgeting, and reports. As a taxpayer and responsible citizen, I have the ability to make fiscally responsible decisions to ensure a bright future for our youth.”

Stobbs said the most significant challenges for the county in the coming year are “to provide the requisite leadership, management, and encouragement” to position the county as a smart place for the opening of new businesses and growth of existing ones. His objectives as a commissioner would be to reduce county spending and create a tax structure that would meet the county’s needs and incentivize business growth. If not elected, Stobbs said he would continue his “extensive volunteer work” with military veterans groups.

Stobbs said Chatham has done a great job following state COVID-19 guidelines, but expressed doubt in North Carolina’s response due to what he characterized as “conflicting reports,” suggesting reported case numbers “may be highly inaccurate.”

Stobbs also emphasized a need for transparency in county government.

“I will be transparent and make decisions and recommendations on what is best for the county,” he said. “I will strive to continue to use the West Point mantra and choose the harder right rather than the easier wrong.”

District 2

Dasher, running as a Democrat, has served as the commissioner representing District 2 since 2016 and works in construction and building. He is currently a managing member of Orange Communities LLC, a property development and construction company. If re-elected, he hopes to work toward the board’s adoption of a unified development ordinance and ensuring broadband access in the county.

“I’m running for re-election because I want to continue the important work we’re doing to move Chatham County forward,” he said in his questionnaire response to the News + Record. “I’m proud of the progress we’ve made over the last 3.5 years, but there is still work to do.”

He added: “I want to continue working on the things we all value — good, safe schools and access to college and job training, quality affordable housing, clean water, opportunities for employment, and a responsive and effective county government.”

Dasher has been impressed by the county’s handling of the pandemic, he said, particularly the “staff’s ability to adjust and adapt and maintain the excellent level of service that our residents expect.” He also said that while he thinks the state has responded well overall, “we’ve all been hampered by the failure of our federal government to take this seriously from the start.”

He acknowledged what he called a “justifiable skepticism” toward public service, and said he still thinks serving as a commissioner is worth it.

“I encourage people to get involved whenever, wherever, and in whatever capacity they’re able to,” he wrote. “Democracy is a participatory sport. Run for office. Show up, be heard. Not because you always win, but because that’s the only way you ever will.”

Running against Dasher is Republican Jimmy Pharr, who has lived in Chatham County for 45 years and works as a college Bible professor. He has not held any previous elected offices, but said the local GOP urged him to run on the basis of Republican representation.

“The makeup of this county (including the fact that 65% are rural), is not reflected in the makeup of elected leaders. 4 of 5 commissioners are Progressive Democrats. The local NC Senate and House seats are Democrats. Our nonpartisan School Board, Town Council, and Pittsboro mayor have no registered Republicans,” he wrote in his questionnaire response. “This is a whopping imbalance — an unbridled monopoly really. This is not healthy.”

In his questionnaire response, Pharr repeatedly criticized Democrats — suggesting their responses to the coronavirus have not been influenced by medicine and writing that “for nearly 4 years all Democrats have done is wage war against the President.” In his response to the News + Record’s question regarding this summer’s racial injustice protests, Pharr said he doesn’t care for “‘lives’ slogans,” referencing “Black on Black crime” and the victims and families of convicted rapists as justification for the phrase “All lives matter.”

If elected, Pharr’s main goals would be to “respect citizens’ personal liberty and property rights” through “common-sense” zoning and taxes, and creating jobs with a competitive tax structure and reasonable regulations.

District 5

In the final contested commissioner race, Republican incumbent Andy Wilkie will face Franklin Gomez Flores. Wilkie, who has served on the board since being appointed to fill a vacancy in May 2019, is seeking a full four-year term. He is a Chatham County native, served six years as a paratrooper in the Army Reserves and operated a business and non-profit in Sanford.

Only a few months after being appointed as commissioner, Wilkie held the singular dissenting vote on the board in regards to the removal of the Confederate monument from the historic Chatham County Courthouse in downtown Pittsboro. At the time of the board’s vote that August, Wilkie said he voted “no” as an attempt to represent his District 5 constituents, which includes most of the land south of Siler City and west of Goldston.

“I am the only conservative on the board,” he wrote in his questionnaire response. “My district and the western half of the county is rural and conservative. We have fewer school children, require fewer county services and pay property taxes that go to support the ever-expanding population in the northern and eastern sides of the county. With the setup we now have in electing commissioners the only hope we have to control taxes is to keep trying to elect a majority of 3 conservatives to the board and get control of spending and taxing.”

If re-elected, Wilkie’s main priorities would be to reduce debt, as well as property taxes, by adding to the county’s industrial tax base with new development. His answer regarding steps he will take to serve the county if not re-elected was simple: “Pay my taxes.”

Wilkie said the question he wanted to be asked was, “What do you like most about living in Chatham County?” To that, he answered, “the people.”

“After talking and listening to them you come to the understanding that we all have so much more in common than we have in differences,” he said. “Let’s talk (less) and listen more.”

Wilkie is running against Gomez Flores, a registered Democrat who is seeking office as an unaffiliated candidate. A Siler City resident, Gomez Flores serves on the Chatham County Planning Board and said he decided to seek office after realizing District 5 would be going into its third unopposed election. He also wishes to represent Siler City, since he says it’s been nearly 20 years since anyone from Siler City was elected to the commission board. Gomez Flores petitioned to appear on the ballot for commissioner until March 3, collecting 3,500 signatures — well over the 2,148-signature requirement.

He hopes to represent Latin Americans in Siler City and work toward providing a high-quality public education, employment opportunities that pay a living wage and affordable housing to communities in need.

“Our community members need a quality public education, local employment opportunities, housing that is not cost-burden, and a proponent for responsible growth,” he wrote in his questionnaire response. “I bring those values to the table.”

If elected, Gomez Flores’ main goals would be to prevent overcrowded and underfunded schools and keep water quality within its range. Though he thinks Chatham leaders have generally responded well to the COVID-19 pandemic, he said he wishes there was a better method of providing information across communities, particularly to non-English speaking communities.

“I have a genuine desire to serve my community. I am not here to ‘fill a slot,’” Gomez Flores wrote. “I realized that if I do not like the way things are run, then I must seek a seat at the table where one has the power and influence to make the change.”

Reporter Hannah McClellan can be reached at hannah@chathamnr.com.

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