To Wake County Commissioner chair Phil Matthews, the proof is in the pudding. In November, he hopes to have convinced the county it’d like some more amid some cries, county-wide and locally, that more could and should have been invested into Wake County by the current county commissioners.
The Harnett County native and Garner resident says the emergence from recession and recent growth of Wake County suggests strong, experienced county government that’s on the right path. To him, changing course doesn’t make sense.
To him, the core of government’s job is to keep essential services ticking and draw in new business without spending a dollar more than needed. He says that taxes haven’t raised on his watch aside from a school bond voted for by referendum and he vows to keep them at a minimum, in part to attract businesses.
“We do have low taxes and we’re business friendly. There’s good examples of that working, with high-paying jobs coming in,” Matthews said. “One of the big things I really feel proud of has been working with municipalities and bringing in businesses, bringing in jobs.”
Matthews faces a challenge from Democrat Matt Calabria, an attorney from Fuquay-Varina, but all four Republicans on the seven-member Board of Commissioners face election threats from a group of Democrats. (Each commissioner represents a region but faces a county-wide vote.)
Both sides have spoken of the four races as a collective, and Matthews believes it to be one where all the experience in government, business sense and fiscal responsibility fall on one side of the ballot.
“The experience level isn’t there... Nobody’s bringing anything to the table except it sounds like they want to raise taxes,” Matthews said.
Criticisms of the current group in power have included under-investing in transportation and the schools. And locally, the Town of Garner’s staff and leaders have pushed for better support of a cash-strapped fire department and greater advocacy and progress on a transit plan including commuter rail and expanded bus service that the town supports.
Military to public service
Matthews grew up on a farm near Angier. After graduating high school in 1968, he was drafted into the Army, “where they teach you to shoot and blow up things” he cracked.
After serving in Vietnam he returned to the state and settled in Garner in 1970. But he remained with the military, joining the Army Reserve. The infantry officer retired from the Army about 20 years later after achieving the rank of major.
He also developed a career in sales and marketing, particularly consumer electronics. More than a decade after leaving the military he went into business for himself and founded Matthews Sight and Sound, a DJ, lighting and sound business that specializes in weddings and other events.
The two-term Garner alderman lost a bid for mayor in 2005 to mayor Ronnie Williams that generated above-average acrimony for a Garner election; he briefly acknowledged the sparring but said “it was just politics.” Two years later, he lost his alderman’s seat.
“Municipal elections are obviously different from county and above,” Matthews said. “People changed their mind; new people came in, and people don’t come out and vote. We came up short and it was what it was.”
But after some introspection on whether to keep at it, he rebounded in 2010 when he won a narrow, 1.5-point victory over incumbent Lindy Brown in a 2010 county commissioner race. His win, along with three incumbent GOP victories, created the current majority.
Since 2010, Matthews believes events have gone well. Against a backdrop of slow-and-steady growth in the nationwide economy, Wake County continues to grow quickly.
Challengers say the commissioners are holding Wake County back by not investing in infrastructure and education in a growing county. Infrastructure, a good education system and talented work force attract employers, they argue.
But Matthews doesn’t buy it. The tough choices, his side maintains, allow for the low taxes that entice business to locate in the county. Experience enables the incumbents to make those tough choices, he said. And he said the challengers want to undo that economic advantage by overtaxing and overspending.
Asked whether he had any regrets from the past for years, he said he wouldn’t change a thing.
“We’ve got a great track record we feel good about, things we can stand on,” Matthews said. “Voters have got every reason in the world to elect us for another four years.”