RALEIGH — Candidates, take your corners.
Following convincing victories by a Republican-backed coalition in last year's Wake school board elections, the GOP is muscling up for Round Two. Candidate filing starts today for North Carolina's 2010 political races, including a Wake board of commissioners battle that could give Republicans financial control of the biggest trophy in local government, the county's 140,000-student school system, the largest in the state.
In Wake, Democrats now hold the majority on the seven-member board of commissioners, which controls the purse strings on school spending. Democratic commissioners such as Stan Norwalk and Harold Webb oppose the new school board majority's initiatives and say voters may want a check on plans to end the county's long-standing diversity policy in favor of neighborhood-based schools.
"I don't approve of that at all," said incumbent Commissioner Lindy Brown, a Democrat running for re-election, of ending the policy of blending students from different economic backgrounds in each school. "I don't see the business community or the citizens of Wake County going that route."
Expect a raucous repeat of last fall's contentious school board elections in Wake's board of commissioners race, with timeless Southern issues of self-determination, race, class and entitlement likely to emerge.
Three Republican incumbents and one Democrat seek re-election this year. Three other Democratic incumbents aren't on the firing line.
The state NAACP would like to cast the new school board's plans as a return to pre-civil rights days, while GOP leaders dismiss the claim and note that plenty of voters support the new board, as witnessed by candidates' lopsided margins in fall elections.
Also, the pushback against President Barack Obama's health-care plans and response to tough economic times could help turnout for local candidates, said Carter Wrenn, a longtime Republican consultant. Growth in the heavily Republican suburbs and more media attention to county races are additional factors.
"There was a time when local politics was kind of quiet and genteel," Wrenn said. "There wasn't a lot of information going into media about local government. Now there are 16 blogs and 27 groups. There's a lot of information flying around."
Both sides concede that partisan politics are playing an ever larger role in local government.
"You can argue about whether diversity is good policy, but most of the fighting about it is political," said Wrenn, who rejects charges that the board's action will resegregate schools. "I think the politics has a whole lot more to do with it than the policy. Manners have gone out the window in this fight."
But rank partisanship in a local race could backfire, said Bob Hall, executive director of Democracy NC, a nonprofit research and advocacy group.
"No politician is going to be able to assume that they can win by virtue of party loyalties," Hall said.
Commissioner Joe Bryan says he and other incumbent Republicans will run well even if, for example, the national take on Obama changes before the fall elections. Bryan and fellow commissioners Paul Coble and Tony Gurley are up for re-election this year.
"Paul and Tony and myself will be strong in an election, whatever the national issues are," Bryan said.
Bryan faces opposition from Democrat Don Mial, a National Guard member and youth-home administrator who lost to Bryan in a race for the same seat in 2006. Mial said he's also concerned about proposed changes in the school system.
"I'm very comfortable with the system we have in place," he said.
Steve Rao, a Triangle software executive, is seeking the Democratic nomination to oppose Gurley, the board chairman, who has positioned himself as a firm ally of the new school board majority.
And there will be a Republican primary race to pick an opponent for Brown, the Democratic commissioner. Former commissioner Phil Jeffreys, a maverick member in his former term, is mounting a campaign. So is Phil Matthews, a former Garner Town Council member who says he's running as a true conservative.
Jack Nichols, a former county commissioner and chairman of the Wake Democratic Party, said he hasn't heard that any Democrat will challenge Coble, a conservative Republican and former Raleigh mayor.
How it affects schools
The five-member majority on the school board will need support from the county commission if its initiatives require any new money.
Commission members of both parties made plain their support of school board candidates in the last election.
"Are the two races related? Absolutely," Nichols said.
The new school board majority has won plaudits from long-frustrated parents and others with its plans to end busing for diversity and stop forcing any students to go to year-round schools against their parents' wishes.
It's not clear whether the plans will cost more.
Particularly disturbing to some Republicans is the charge that the proposed changes will result in the resegregation of Wake's 140,000-student system.
"That's an old playbook," said Claude E. Pope Jr., the Republican Party chairman in Wake. "They're going to use that even if we succeed. We are not racist; we are not bigoted; we are not for resegregation. When you can't argue the merits of a situation, you tend to resort to name-calling."
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