RALEIGH — Partisan political drama is increasingly topping the agendas of Wake County's board of commissioners and school board, with power brokers from both parties taking behind-the-scenes roles and contentious meetings of both bodies breaking sharply along party lines.
Republicans hold the chairmanships of both the school board and the board of commissioners, and party leaders say their recent aggressive tactics have come in response to voters' wishes to accomplish their agendas, which include ending mandatory busing for diversity and mandatory year-round schools.
Democratic operatives say the county Republican Party wants to use the officially nonpartisan school board - with the cooperation of the board of commissioners that holds the school district's purse strings - to flip Wake to the GOP column in future big-picture elections.
In one example of high-level involvement, a newly released e-mail message from an official of the Wake County Republican Party to school board chairman RonMargiotta gives credit to longtime state Republican power broker Art Pope for strong performances by GOP-backed school board candidates. Handed over by Margiotta after a public records request, the message was sent Oct.7, the day after the first round of voting for the panel in October. Another round of voting in November clinched control of the board by a new, Republican-backed majority that is promising major changes for North Carolina's largest school district.
A millionaire Raleigh businessman and former state representative, Pope has for decades backed Republican candidates and several right-leaning institutions, including the John Locke Foundation, a Raleigh-based conservative think tank.
"I am fairly pleased with the elections yesterday - especially with the school board," GOP county finance chairman Marc Scruggs wrote to Margiotta. "Art Pope's plan [that] the GOP implemented worked very well - and THANK YOU for your help and service."
Art Pope the architect
In the e-mail, Scruggs also tells Margiotta that the party will raise money to aid the run-off election efforts of school board candidate John Tedesco, a member of what would become the panel's new majority. Tedesco fell just short in October voting of gaining the majority that would have avoided a runoff; he won the seat in November.
"We don't have a solid game plan yet, but Art will be the architect," Scruggs wrote.
Repeated efforts to reach Scruggs and Pope by phone were unsuccessful.
Margiotta said Friday that he barely recalled the e-mail and knows Pope only slightly.
"My involvement with the county party was extremely minimal, if at all," Margiotta said. "How much impact they had, I don't know how you measure that."
Tedesco dismissed the suggestions that he's a pawn of the Republican Party or leaders such as Art Pope. The money and endorsements that he received mean they support his views, not necessarily that he supports theirs, he said.
Tedesco said the board is no more partisan now than it has ever been. He noted that Wade Smith, a former state Democratic Party chairman and founding partner of Tharrington Smith, the law firm that advises the school board, spoke in favor of the diversity policy during the campaign.
In addition, Tedesco noted, Stan Norwalk, a Democratic member of the Wake board of commissioners, held fundraisers for school board candidates who favored existing policies on diversity.
Other Democratic county commissioners also helped school board candidates who promised to support existing policies. Several Republican commissioners gave money to help the school board candidates who promised to shake things up.
Both the Republican and Democratic county parties sent out campaign literature on behalf of the school board candidates they were supporting. And several local Democrats formed a political action committee to run a television ad against the school board candidates who backed neighborhood schools.
"Party politics are being played no more than they were in the past," Tedesco said.
Wake in the big picture
County Democrats say their Republican counterparts want to use voters' concerns about local government to return Wake to the days the GOP carried the county in most presidential and U.S. Senate races from 1996 to 2004.
"If they can get a foothold in Wake County, that helps them throughout North Carolina," said Wake Democratic Party chairman and former county commissioner Jack Nichols.
Claude E. Pope Jr., chairman of the Wake County Republican Party, said that the party is indeed raising its profile on the countywide panels. Successful efforts there will help the GOP ticket all the way up to national elections, he said.
"An energized base helps all of our candidates," Pope said.
Additional actions that brought controversy have included the selection of a long-time GOP attorney to review and possibly take over the school board's legal work. On the board of commissioners, a partisan wrangle included a vote for the chairmanship taken while Democrat Betty Lou Ward took an unexcused bathroom break and initial resistance to Norwalk's request for food to combat his diabetes during a long meeting.
"I think it is particularly disturbing when you have a county commissioner who has suffered a health problem, that folks were trying to take advantage of that situation," said state Rep. Jennifer Weiss, a Cary Democrat.
Newly elected chairmanTony Gurley has charged that Democratic commissioners were using behind-the-scenes strategies to gain an edge while former chairmanHarold Webb is recovering from a stroke.
As it works to remake the county schools, the Republican-backed new majority has encountered charges of partisanship in its choice of Raleigh attorney Thomas Farr for the job of monitoring the board's legal contracts and costs.
Farr's record as a key Republican lawyer includes his 2006 nomination for a federal judgeship by President George W. Bush; the nomination never reached the U.S. Senate for consideration.
At last week's school board meeting, Tedesco read a letter from Raleigh attorney James A. Roberts noting that Farr is included on lists of Best Lawyers in America and received the highest ranking from the American Bar Association after his judicial nomination.
Repeated efforts to reach Farr by phone for this article were unsuccessful.
Tedesco denied bringing in Farr because of his GOP ties. He asked whether other people who have contracts with the school system should have to face the same questions about affiliations.
"Let's not make it a partisan issue," Tedesco said.
This article includes material from staff writer T.Keung Hui and TheAssociated Press.
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