Candidate profile: Chris Phillips
As the author of a book called Take Over Liberalism in America and a presenter at Conservatives for Guilford County’s “People First Spending Reform Summit” earlier this year, one might expect Greensboro mayoral candidate Chris Phillips to have an inside track in the group’s endorsement process.
As it turned out, Conservatives for Guilford County nominated Bill Knight, a fiscal conservative and embattled incumbent who has staunchly defended his effort to reopen the White Street Landfill. Phillips, a political newcomer and self-described conservative who volunteered for Republican Theresa Yon’s campaign for NC House last year, has taken a decidedly more nuanced position on the landfill.
“To keep the peace in Greensboro I would say keep it closed right now,” Phillips told an audience at the International Civil Rights Center and Museum during a candidate forum hosted by Conservatives for Guilford County last week.
“Saving money, if the White Street Landfill is the best option, I’d say, ‘Let’s do that,’” the candidate continued. “But what we need to do also is the city of Greensboro needs to prove to the people in the area that it is the best option — that there is no foul odor…. As an African American, I can say that I have struggled with asthma, I have struggled with bronchitis, so any children that live in that area, we need to make sure that they feel safe, that there are no health hazards.”
Formerly homeless and unemployed, Phillips has worked hard to attain a managerial position at the appliances and electronics store HH Gregg. But he clearly yearns for more. The 45-year-old candidate noted that he is not married and has no children, adding, “those are some desires that I do have one day.” He told the audience that he graduated from UNCG with a bachelor’s degree in journalism.
“I thought that when I graduated the world was going to be my oyster, so to speak,” Phillips said. “I thought: I’m smart, and I’m going to get a job, and I’m going to live happily ever after. And please don’t get me wrong: I thank God for HH Gregg, and I thank God for my job, but there are other gifts, other dreams that I would like to put in place, and I know a lot of other college students who feel the same way that I do.”
Along with the other mayoral candidates in the primary race — Knight, Bradford Cone, Robbie Perkins and Tom Phillips — Chris Phillips faced two questions prepared by the hosting group. Considering that Phillips had disclosed that he is a regular user of public transportation, moderator Algenon Cash noted that the city of Greensboro has recently eliminated two services and asserted that buses are often underutilized during non-peak hours. He then asked Phillips what changes he would propose to make the system more efficient.
If the conservative voters in the audience hoped the candidate would advocate service cutbacks, they were surely disappointed.
“In riding the buses every day, as I do, I understand what Greensboro’s residents who ride the buses go through every day,” Phillips responded. “I think that we need to make sure there’s a safety net in place for the transit system so the money is used for that purpose.”
He added that the Greensboro Transit Authority could experiment with using shuttle vans for areas with low ridership and invest in more fuel-efficient vehicles.
In keeping with his fiscal conservative philosophy, Phillips says on his campaign website and at candidate forums that he wants to make city government more efficient “by eliminating waste and unproductive programs.” But he readily admits that he’s not familiar enough with the budget to know “where the fat needs to be trimmed, so to speak.”
Consistent with eliminating government waste, Phillips endorses a philosophy of self-reliance, particularly with regard ot black citizens.
“One in four people in Greensboro are living on some kind of government assistance,” he told the audience at the civil rights museum. “So that means they’re not growing economically. So we’ve got to make sure we can get people off of government assistance. Not saying it’s not needed, but it should be a temporary fix. It should not be a way of life, especially for African Americans. African Americans cannot live off of government assistance and expect to economically grow.”
The candidate may not be aware that the city of Greensboro does not administer any social welfare programs. The Guilford County Department of Social Services administers Work First Family Assistance, a federally funded cash assistance program for families in financial crisis.
I met Phillips for lunch at Applebee’s one day last week near his store on the bustling West Wendover Avenue corridor.
The candidate readily acknowledged he still needs to study some issues that have been raised by voters and other candidates so that he can develop informed positions. He hasn’t taken a side on water and sewer infrastructure, with Knight the lone candidate arguing for keeping water rates low, and Perkins, Tom Phillips and Cone advocating for building a healthier reserve fund. Chris Phillips said he was also unaware that black officers have outstanding claims of racial discrimination within the Greensboro Police Department. He also said he would look into the matter of property being reevaluated next year and the likelihood that maintaining even tax rates will result in decreased revenue.
Saving taxpayers money by merging some functions of city and county government has been a perennial campaign topic in recent years, but relations between the two governments are as strained as ever. Phillips said he would like to bring the two sides together. When asked if he could think of ways to improve cooperation between the cities of Greensboro and High Point, the candidate issued a dramatic proposal.
“If possible, I would say, ‘Merge,’” he said, adding that he envisioned High Point being absorbed into Greensboro and the former city relinquishing its name.
Phillips often talks about the frustrations of graduates from Greensboro’s many colleges who have difficulty finding employment. The past leadership has failed to create jobs, Phillips likes to say, and a new generation should have the opportunity to try. As mayor, he said he would focus on reviving manufacturing.
“There are going to be a lot of people who don’t have degrees, but they do have technical skills,” he said. “Another area I would focus on is bringing in big companies. Why can’t Greensboro have an Apple or a Microsoft or an Oracle?”
Like other candidates, Phillips said he believes the political division on display at city council meetings hurts Greensboro’s image and hampers its ability to attract new employers.
“I think it’s ideology,” Phillips said. “You have conservative, liberal — two different elements going at each other. You have elements of prejudice…. That needs to stop. There needs to be no element of discrimination. When people disrupt city council meetings and play the race card, that doesn’t need to happen. That’s where an affective leader comes in.”
The candidate said he faults the current mayor for not taking a strong enough stand against disruption in meetings. Those who make a scene should be warned and then removed, he said.
Despite associating his childhood experience with asthma with his African-American identity during his remarks at the Conservatives for Guilford County event, Phillips said in an interview that from what he can tell, the landfill controversy has little to do with race. He added, “It’s probably going to be hard to get race out of this issue.”
While he works out the nuances of policy details and navigates the complexities of race relations in Greensboro, Phillips return to a realm on which he is certainly an authority — his own life experience.
“I’m not a politician,” he said. “I’m a real working person. Having been through some struggles in life, I want to be a voice for people who have been though the same things. I’ve been homeless. I’ve been unemployed.
“If elected mayor, I want to be mayor for all of Greensboro,” he added. “Hopefully it can be a better Greensboro, one we can be proud to call home. I’m not a politician. I’m a real person. Please vote for the person you think can best lead our city. Hopefully, that will be me.”