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Complete coverage of Elections 2020. Reporting on major contested races in New Hanover and Brunswick Counties.

Elections 2020: NHC Commission Candidates - Watkins, Cohen, Horton

New Hanover County’s Board of Commission has three of five seats open this year.  

Jonathan Barfield is the only incumbent  running for re-election, while Commissioners Pat Kusek and Woody White are not.  As part of the 2020 CoastLine Candidate Interviews, WHQR spoke with all six of the candidates.  Here are excerpts from interviews with three of them.


Skip Watkins, an independent financial advisor who teaches economics part-time, previously served one term on the county board.   He narrowly lost his bid for re-election in 2018.  But he says he’s been proud to see his past work benefitting the county today.  Instituting a storm water program was one of his initiatives.

Skip Watkins:  If you and I were our neighbors, we had to keep our ditch clean in the unincorporated area, and people just couldn't do it. So now that program, I'm very proud to say, July One of this year, this fiscal year, was kicked in and it's going to take a little bit of time, but it's going to solve a lot, a huge amount of problems.

He’s also very proud of voting for the first property tax decrease in decades.  

SW:  And the recent commission recently initiated the new budget under that tax rate. And every year, including this year, once the year is over, we will have saved $40 million for the County citizens, $10 million per year. And that stays in people's pockets.  Yet we still fully-funded schools, public safety, etc.

When it comes to the ongoing conversation about racial reconciliation, Watkins says all lives matter.  

SW:  I almost got in trouble one time. I told people I don't have any friends of color. I don't have any Black friends. Don't have any Brown friends. Don't have any Jewish friends. I don't have any Native American friends. I just have friends. I don't demographically separate my friends because I just love them for who they are.

Leslie Cohen says a big priority for her is fostering transparency in local government.  As soon as she’s seated, she says she wants to change the time of County Commission meetings to six PM – to make them more accessible to more people.  

LC:  I think it was about a year ago, they canceled the agenda meetings and that was in some twisted way supposed to be more transparent because those were not public meetings. But what it means is our commissioners are less informed and our County staff has less opportunity for input. So I want to reschedule those and televise them.

The Confederate statues in the Cape Fear region?  Because they went up during the Jim Crow era, she says their message needs to be put into perspective.  

LC:  So I would completely support creating a museum. We could put it in Long Leaf Park and have the history of racial relations and racial tension in New Hanover County. And talk about who these people were, the good and the bad… And each of these people had things that they contributed and ways in which they damaged our community. 

Dr. Kyle Horton says her agenda in New Hanover County includes refining the relationship with the school board.  

Kyle Horton:  I think we need to put back sort of a set of budget development meetings that are public and available so that, sort of, the power of the purse that we have as County Commissioners ends up being more of an oversight role than what it has been in the past. You know, our funding structure, if we look at we're roughly six in wealth in terms of ranking the counties in North Carolina, but we're somewhere around 20th for funding our public schools.

The current county commission has engaged in what she calls “breaches of transparency” – including, she says, blindsiding the public by the hospital sale.  To rebuild trust, like Cohen, she wants to move county meetings to a more convenient time and reinstate agenda meetings.  

And for Horton, the conversation around racial reconciliation is about more than statues.

KH:  So, you know, you can expect me as County commissioner to really look at diversity and inclusion and equity from the perspective of public health and addressing maternal mortality for African-American women that's been three times higher in this country and to really take the conversation just away from symbols, to really having a hard look at ourselves and this country and what we have chosen to do in propping up structural racism over generations.

Kyle Horton and Leslie Cohen are two of the three Democratic candidates for the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners.  Skip Watkins is one of three Republicans.   

Rachel hosts and produces CoastLine, an award-winning hourlong conversation featuring artists, humanitarians, scholars, and innovators in North Carolina. The show airs Wednesdays at noon and Sundays at 4 pm on 91.3 FM WHQR Public Media. It's also available as a podcast; just search CoastLine WHQR. You can reach her at rachellh@whqr.org.