Speaking Up: Yadkin official pushing hard for change, even if she steps on a few toes in the process

Kim Clark Phillips enjoys running, lifting weights and traveling around the world.

She also likes to mow the lawn.

“It’s immediate gratification,” she said.

Phillips, who was elected to the Yadkin County board of commissioners in November, is the type of person who sets goals and can’t stand it if she feels there is something in her way. For her, it’s all about results.

It doesn’t matter if she’s doing yard work at her home, banging out eight-minute miles on the treadmill or going head-to-head with fellow commissioners about nearly every substantive issue before the board.

“Somebody has to push,” she said. “Somebody has to champion the change.”

Phillips certainly pushes. In the 11 months she has been a commissioner, she has loudly opposed many of the board’s biggest decisions, including the 2005-06 budget that included heavy cuts to county services.

Lately, she has expanded her critiques beyond pure policy.

When three commissioners blocked a Hispanic woman from serving on the county’s health board last month, she accused them of discrimination.

“I think it represents prejudice against the Hispanic community,” she said at the time, but admitted that she couldn’t prove her claim. The commissioners who voted against the nominee – a schoolteacher named Ana Mendoza – said they opposed Mendoza because, although she is a legal resident, she is not a U.S. citizen and is not registered to vote.

Phillips also made waves last month when she publicly chided Commissioner Brady Wooten, who owed the state $110,140 in environmental fines. Since then, Wooten has reached a settlement, agreeing to pay 20 percent of the fines. At a board meeting two weeks ago, he lashed out at Phillips.

“County business has taken a backseat to your personal vendetta against me,” Wooten said in a statement.

Phillips was shaken up by Wooten’s remarks, but she said she will not change her approach to her job. She knows she can be aggressive – even abrasive – and she seems OK with that.

“That means I step on toes,” she said. “I figure I’ll make everybody in the county mad at me at least once. I don’t appreciate personal assaults, and that’s what I’ve been getting.”

Phillips is an anomaly in Yadkin County politics, and she knows it. She is just the second woman ever to be a county commissioner. At 47, she is also the youngest member of the board.

And like her fellow commissioners, she is a Republican. But she is practically a leftist by Yadkin standards.

“I’m a Republican,” Phillips said. “But more than a Republican, I’m a realist.”

That attitude has led her to make policy proposals that are anathema to some of her more conservative colleagues and constituents.

She has said repeatedly that the county needs to raise taxes to support basic services, especially schools. She is more willing than other commissioners to take out loans to finance projects such as the proposed construction of a public water and sewer system in western Yadkin.

Peggy Boose, the county coordinator for Citizens for a Sound Economy and Freedom Works, two conservative economic groups that recently merged, criticized Phillips’s tactics.

“She is unwilling to compromise in any manner, and she does not understand how many poor people there are in this county,” Boose said. “And when I say poor people, I mean poor, elderly people.”

Phillips, who got more votes in November than any other commissioner, said she has many supporters. She believes that she represents a growing progressive viewpoint in the county.

“You can either go forward or you can go backward. You can’t stand still,” she said. “We have a mindset in the county that our kids should go to Surry Community College, that our kids should live here at home and get a job here in the county.”

Phillips, who pays out-of-county tuition to send her 10-year-old son to Forsyth County schools, bucked that trend. After moving to Yadkin when she was in the ninth grade, she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and then got a doctorate at UNC Chapel Hill.

She is an epidemiologist at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center. She loves to travel. In the past 18 months, she has been to Paraguay, Jamaica, Thailand and Chile, and she plans to travel on a church mission trip to Mexico.

Despite the progressive mindset that Phillips talks about, her success so far as a commissioner has been mixed.

She is often on the losing end of 3-2 votes, with the three most conservative commissioners -Leon Casstevens, Allen Sneed and Wooten – outnumbering Phillips and her one usual ally, Chairman D.C. Swaim.

With all the controversy Phillips has stirred, she has not done much to persuade other commissioners to join her side.

Even Swaim acknowledged that the board’s obvious personal disagreements have hurt the board’s ability to agree on policy.

“I think that has influenced some of the relationships on the board,” he said. “Sometimes you just take a position against an issue depending on who supports it. I try not to do that. But that happens.”

Phillips said she will not claim that she has achieved her goals until the county is building new schools and public water lines. Despite the increasing friction between her and other commissioners, her strategy will not change.

“When it gets like that, just slow down,” she said as if giving herself a pep talk. “Catch your breath. And then hit it again.”