Matt Calabria does not dispute that Wake County currently possesses some positive momentum. The young Fuquay-Varina attorney does disagree with the current county commissioners majority on what’s driving it.
And he certainly disagrees with its assessment on what staying the course will bring.
“Wake County continues to be a great place to be, but it continues to be a great place to be in spite of what the commission is doing, not because of it,” Calabria said. “We are already seeing problems develop that are the product of their failed leadership.”
Calabria is part of a quartet of Democratic challengers to the four Republican incumbents on the Wake County Board of Commissioners. His opponent, Commissioner Phil Matthews, was the most recently elected; the former Garner alderman tipped the balance in 2010.
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While incumbents accept credit for an economy growing and strengthening faster than most in the nation, the challengers say the commissioners have stood largely idle as seeds sown by others have grown.
While Matthews credits low taxes and fiscally responsible local governance, Calabria argues that prior investments in public education have created a solid workforce attractive to companies, as have investments in Research Triangle Park. Strong municipal leadership and an infrastructure have also helped, he said.
But while the county has been attracting growth at a rapid rate, he said the commissioners have been too slow to commit to the investments needed to have schools and transportation ready when the new residents and businesses arrive. That, he said, could erode the area’s built-up advantages.
“Schools in parts of the county are now getting so over-crowed that students are having to go farther to go to school, because our school construction hasn’t caught up with our growth need,” Calabria said. “They have had a substantial head start in getting this done, and they have squandered it.”
Wake County’s school board has projected a need for 40 new schools by 2020. A school bond recently passed will fund 16 of them, including South Garner High and a new elementary school near it.
Matthews, meanwhile, warns that the new candidates would raise taxes to a level that would burden residents and discourage businesses from locating in the region. He also said the inexperienced group would not be as efficient at maximizing tax dollars, finding savings and fixing mistakes. He has also criticized the fact that none of the challengers, which include three attorneys, have run businesses nor served in public office.
Eye to public service
Calabria, 31, regards himself as a product of public schools. Until attending law school at Duke, he attended them from elementary through his undergraduate studies.
After growing up outside of Charlotte, Calabria set off to Chapel Hill to attend UNC, where he graduated in 2005.
Although he wanted to be a scientist when he was younger, his interests shifted toward philosophy and law, and ultimately he decided to become an attorney. He graduated from Duke’s law school in 2009, and that year he moved to Wake County. He currently works as a business litigation attorney, handling disputes between companies.
He said his decision to run for public office grew out of a long-held desire to engage in public service. This race in particular prompted him to act.
“My wife and I expect to raise kids here, to continue living in Wake County,” Calabria said. “Wake County has well-run municipalities and a strong school system. I felt the county commissioners were threatening the quality of life in Wake County by failing to make the kind of investments that need to be made.”
He began to speak to friends and family and seek out others who were wired into the issues facing the county to learn more and assess the possibility of running. He said just about everyone he encountered was encouraging.
He hopes to replace Matthews in District 2, which encompasses the southwest part of the county including Fuquay-Varina and Garner. Like the rest of the candidates in other districts, he is running county-wide.
While polling in county races in midterm elections provides a limited perspective, a Democrat-leaning Public Policy Polling August survey showed all four with leads over incumbents, Calabria’s was the second-narrowest at 43 percent to 39 percent. Needing just one win to create a majority, the challengers have attacked the commissioners for what Calabria called “an overarching lack of vision.”
The current commissioners warn of inexperience among the challengers and a desire to make dramatic costly changes. But Calabria doesn’t see it that way.
“One thing I find interesting is some of the Republican candidates have said things I agree with. All of us say we need a plan that meets our needs, should look for savings wherever appropriate,” he said. “The difference is that the incumbents will attack us for being financially irresponsible for saying the same things they are.”