RALEIGH — Editor's note: This is the third story on candidates vying for the four seats on the Wake County Board of Commissioners up for election in November .
Tony Gurley, chairman of the Wake County Board of Commissioners, has much more political experience than opponent Steve Rao, but Rao thinks his newcomer status might work to his advantage in the contest to represent District 3.
Republican Gurley, 56, a pharmacist and lawyer, is in his second four-year term representing a district that includes the western Wake towns of Apex, Morrisville and Cary, and he's in his second go-round as chairman. He can point to achievements such as the planning that allowed the county to fund its under-construction criminal justice building without a tax increase.
"The manner that our staff and the board of commissioners came together on that project illustrates everything that's good in Wake County," Gurley said. "And our work with Wake Tech has been one of the leading accomplishments of the last eight years - it is the leading economic engine in Wake County."
Democrat Rao, 40 and almost a generation younger than Gurley, said Friday he's hearing from voters who say they are ready to see some new faces on the seven-member commission.
A former college tennis player, he emphasized his youth and energy by going for runs in every Wake County municipality during the campaign.
"The fact that I'm a new face is something that people sort of like," Rao said. "I think it's going to be a close race between Tony and me."
Rao, the founder and CEO of the sports management and coaching company TSG Academies, wants to bring a spirit of entrepreneurship and high-tech savvy to the board of commissioners. With years of experience in software companies, he thinks the county can save money on the tech side of its operation at a time when funding is badly needed.
"The revenues are declining, and the expenses are going up - we've got a problem," Rao said.
Rao has opposed actions of the Wake school board majority because the zone-based direction they were taking toward student assignment seemed likely to create high-poverty schools. That plan, which would have divided Wake into 16 community school zones, was spiked last week during an acrimonious school board meeting.
Gurley said he hasn't seen enough of a student assignment plan to comment on it, but he continues to back neighborhood schools, with the caveat that a plan must be carefully crafted.
"I don't want to see this board simply substitute one set of unhappy parents for another set of unhappy parents," he said.
Gurley, strongly conservative, wants to hold the line on taxes, while Rao, concerned about meeting increased demand for school capacity, would like Wake to consider new sources of revenue, including impact fees.
"I believe he's a little naïve in accepting some of the arguments of some of his fellow Democrats," Gurley said. "But he's run small businesses. He'll do fine if he applies his knowledge and separates himself from some of his tax-and-spend colleagues."
A few missteps
Rao concedes his recent entry into politics is behind glitches in his record. He explained his donation of $100 to the Wake Schools Community Alliance as based on a misreading of its true intent: electing candidates opposed to using diversity as a factor in student assignment.
Gurley donated $2,000 to the same organization last year.
The county record listing the donation also gives Rao's occupation as "lawyer," when in fact he has a law degree but has not passed a bar examination. Rao said he couldn't explain the mistaken listing and noted that he doesn't describe himself as an attorney in campaign literature or elsewhere.
In addition, despite living in Wake County since 2000, Rao never cast a ballot until the general election of 2008.
"I just was traveling so much, and didn't get really involved in politics until then," he said.
Rao is likely the first Indian-American to run for countywide elective office in Wake, and he has received substantial contributions from the large Indian-American community in Morrisville. He said his ethnic background has not emerged as an issue.
Even the North Carolina Indian-American Political Action Committee, which donated to his campaign, takes a bipartisan line, also giving to each of the four school-board candidates who won new seats last fall.
Gurley has had to deal with a reputation for being, as he concedes, abrasive, cantankerous, combative or just plain old cranky.
"That's the way I am," he said. "I probably honed those skills in my 12 years of racing cars. If somebody tries to push you into the wall, you push them into the wall."
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