RALEIGH — Democrats are mounting a challenge to try to regain the majority on the Wake County Board of Commissioners, saying the county’s status as a progressive example for the rest of the state is at stake.
Four Democratic contenders have emerged, one for each seat that’s open in the fall election. The four seats all are currently held by Republicans, who will try to keep the majority they gained in 2010.
Three of the challengers are lawyers; the fourth runs his own sales and communication skills training company. All four say recent Republican leadership has tarnished Wake County’s reputation as a forward-looking place that nurtures a high quality of life.
“Wake County is a great place to live,” said John Burns, a business attorney who lives in northwest Raleigh and will run in District 7 against two-term Republican incumbent Paul Coble. “And we are not what we are by accident. It’s because people 30 and 60 years ago had a vision. We are living that vision. And I don’t see that vision in this crop in the majority on the board of commissioners now.”
Republicans point to continued growth as evidence that Wake remains one of the most desirable places in the country to live and say a return to Democratic leadership would result in overspending and increased taxes.
Thursday, the four Democratic candidates came to downtown Raleigh to support Jessica Holmes when she filed at the board of elections office.
Holmes, 29, is a Pender County native who was the first in her family to attend college. She went to UNC as an undergrad and for law school, and is now the attorney for the N.C. Association of Educators, which advocates for teachers and school employees in the state.
Holmes lives in Cary and will run for the seat now held by Republican Tony Gurley, who is no longer eligible to run in that district because it was redrawn. Republican Rich Gianni also has filed to run for that seat.
Holmes said her familiarity with the issues educators face, and her appreciation for the difference individual teachers can make in students’ lives, would be an asset to the board.
“I want to make sure every child has the chance that I had, the chance to come up through a quality public school system, with quality teachers and quality classrooms,” she said.
School spending has been a contentious matter for the board of commissioners. Republicans on the board have been loath to release funds to the Democratic-led school board, including money from the $810 million school bond issue voters approved last fall. The group wants to take control of the school-building process, saying the school board has not always spent money wisely.
The long-running battle is the main reason Burns said he chose to run for election.
Burns, 43, served three terms on Raleigh’s environmental advisory board, but this is his first run for office.
The father of three children in the public schools, Burns said the commissioners’ efforts to frustrate the school board’s building program, as well as their refusal to allow the public to vote on a transit plan, show a lack of leadership.
“When you knee-jerk say ‘No’ to everything, you’re not saving money. You’re not being fiscally prudent,” he said. “You’re just leaving it for some future commission to deal with.”
Sig Hutchinson, a former Dale Carnegie Sales Course instructor who now runs his own consulting and professional speaking business, has worked with the board of commissioners for years on green-space issues and has worked to get Wake voters to pass bond issues for open space, parks, transportation and affordable housing.
He has been especially upset by the current board’s decision to add a restriction on the use of voter-approved open space bonds that means the county will no longer help fund greenways in municipalities. Hutchinson said he also believes the board of commissioners needs to stop fighting with the school board, and that it must engage in planning public transit for the future.
Hutchinson, 61, will run against Joe Bryan in District 1.
“We’ve got to start thinking like a 21st-century region, and not a 19th-century region,” Hutchinson said. “The best way we can keep our taxes low is to continue to be the best place to live so young professionals want to come here and help share the tax load. We have to invest in public education and infrastructure. That is only going to make us more marketable nationwide.”
Tipping the balance?
Matt Calabria, also a business lawyer, is running against Republican Phil Matthews in District 2 on a platform of giving businesses and families a sense of confidence in the county’s future.
He believes, he said, that Democrats can take back at least one seat to regain the majority on the board, and possibly more.
“The challengers this year are folks who are smart, committed to rolling up their sleeves and understanding the issues,” he said. “They’re very thoughtful people who are willing to listen to different viewpoints before making a decision.”
The filing period for candidates remains open through Friday.