Republicans signaled their willingness to fight to hold their majority on the Wake County Board of Commissioners last week, with three incumbents and a like-minded newcomer arriving in unison to file as candidates in this year’s elections.
All four seats up for election on the seven-member board this year are held by Republicans. Of the four, only Tony Gurley will not run again, because the third district has been redrawn since his election and he no longer lives within its boundaries.
Board Chairman Phil Matthews, along with fellow incumbents Joe Bryan and Paul Coble, encouraged political newcomer Rich Gianni to run for Gurley’s seat.
All five men trudged through leftover ice and snow Friday afternoon to meet at the elections office in a show of solidarity that reflected the way they have worked together since Republicans took over the majority in 2010.
“We just felt that it would show a good strong team effort,” Matthews said. “We’re willing to work together, and continue the good work that we’ve done the past three years.”
Democrats have complained that Republicans have at times worked too closely with one another, excluding other points of view.
“I don’t think they’ll be successful at keeping their majority on our board,” said longtime commissioner Betty Lou Ward, one of the panel’s three Democrats along with Caroline Sullivan and James West. “I think they’ve had their time.”
So far, one Democrat has filed to run for an open seat: Matt Calabria, who will challenge Matthews in District 2. Others are expected.
Since they took the majority on the board, Republicans have emphasized their desire to keep from raising taxes and cited that over-arching goal as they inserted themselves deep into the process of building schools. That’s a statutory function of the board of education, which determines where and how schools will be built but must get funding and approval from the board of commissioners.
The board of education is led by a Democratic majority. Republican commissioners have said repeatedly they would be better stewards of the public’s money, including the $810 million in bonds county voters approved last year for school construction and improvements.
Republicans have said they will try again this year to get the legislature to allow commissioners to take control of the school-construction process, which they failed to do last year. Matthews has said that if Republicans can control the process, they might be able to stall – or even prevent – tax increases that voters were told would be necessary to pay for the bonds. That could involve postponing or significantly changing some of the new schools and renovation projects the bonds were designed to fund.
The board also has been divided over the future of transit in the county, with Republicans loathe to spend public money on projects they say would benefit mostly those who live and work in Raleigh, Cary or RTP, at the shared expense of those who live in Wake’s more rural communities. Democrats have said it’s important to move forward with transit planning, including for light rail, so it can be coordinated with work underway in Durham and Orange counties and because continued rapid growth in Wake will make it more difficult and costly to secure rail routes.
If Democrats regain control of the Board of Commissioners this fall, Matthews and his fellow GOP members have said, spending and taxes are sure to rise.
“I’m afraid spending could get out of hand extremely quick,” Matthews said. “Their approach it wouldn’t take long to see the fund balance start drying up, taxes going up, and we might even lose our AAA bond rating. It should be a big concern to people.”
West said such claims are an attempt to further divide voters.
“Just to say that if you get another Democrat on the board, you’re going to start throwing money away and not be efficient and effective? I don’t agree with that,” West said.
In talking with possible candidates to run for the open seats, West said, “We want people who will govern well and use common sense. It’s not about the left or the right. It’s about the people.”
Calabria, the Democrat who filed as a candidate last week, lives in Fuquay-Varina with his wife and works in Raleigh as a commercial lawyer. His only political experience is serving as student-body president while he attended UNC, but he is critical of the effort by Republican commissioners to take over school construction, ownership and maintenance. The effort has created the appearance of instability in the county, he said, which is disconcerting to families and business leaders.
Gianni, also new to politics, is chief financial officer for Ziptronix, a Raleigh semiconductor company. Originally from West Virginia, he has lived in the Triangle for more than 20 years and has spent his professional life in budget management, mostly for startups. He and his wife and their youngest child live in Cary.
Gianni said he would like to use his budget and cash management expertise to help conservatives decide how to spend taxpayers’ money.
Coble, who is seeking his third term as the commissioner from District 7, said the difference between the way conservatives and progressives look at a budget may come down to a matter of planning.
“I tell people, ‘If it’s a good idea, I’ll spend the money – if it’s there,’ ” Coble said. “Democrats will say, ‘It’s a good idea, let’s do it, and then figure out how to pay for it.’ ”
The brilliance of a democracy, he said, is that, “You get both schools of thought to come to the table. I would never want a board of all conservatives or a board of all liberals. You need to have that argument.”
The filing period is open through Feb. 28.