Two Republican candidates with political experience hope to bring a conservative voice back to the Wake County Board of Commissioners, which has been ruled by Democrats since 2014.
Three district seats are up for grabs Nov. 8, when Wake voters’ choices could highlight public opinion on transit, taxes and school spending.
Republican Kenn Gardner and Democrat Erv Portman are vying to represent District 4, which spans from south Raleigh to the north side of Holly Springs. Caroline Sullivan currently holds the seat, but a recent court ruling on district boundaries left her unable to run for re-election.
Republican John Odom and Democrat Greg Ford are vying to represent northwest Wake in District 6. Betty Lou Ward has represented the district since 1988, but she isn’t seeking re-election.
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Board Chairman James West is running unopposed to keep his District 5 seat, which includes east Raleigh and parts of eastern Wake County.
The seven-member board, currently made up entirely of Democrats, is responsible for overseeing government operations, from funding school construction and the Wake County Sheriff’s Office to handling requests from developers in unincorporated areas of the county.
Gardner served on the board of commissioners from 2000 to 2008. Odom served 16 years on the Raleigh City Council until 2015.
After serving four years on the Cary Town Council, Portman was appointed to the board of commissioners in 2011 and held the District 4 seat for a year. In 2012, he launched an unsuccessful campaign for a state Senate seat.
Gardner and Odom are taking a more middle-of-the-road approach to the campaign trail than the Republican commissioners who lost their seats in 2014.
In interviews, neither criticized recent county budgets. Instead, they expressed general concern about the rising cost of living while highlighting their experiences working with the other side of the political aisle.
“I served with a Republican, Democrat and an unaffiliated mayor, and I was the mayor pro tem with all three,” Odom said. “That shows I can work with all political parties while staying conservative.”
Led by West, the county board has increased spending on schools, raised pay for county employees and put a half-cent sales tax referendum on this year’s ballot that would fund an expanded public transit system.
To cover the costs, commissioners increased the property tax rate by 3.65 cents last year and then another 1.35 cents this year. The moves meant the average Wake County homeowner paid an additional $97 in property taxes in 2015 and an additional $36 this year.
All the candidates say education spending is a priority.
Portman said he wants to develop a long-term plan for funding schools so Wake County school leaders don’t have to worry each year about how much money the district will get from the county.
Along with school construction, the county supplements teacher pay from the state.
“The county takes the tax revenue from growth and doesn’t apply it to the schools commensurate with the growth,” Portman said.
“The solution that makes more sense is to articulate what we want to do, gain community support for that plan and then use that plan to pressure the legislature to do their fair share,” he continued. “What level do we want our teachers paid at?”
Ford, a political newcomer, worked a combined 18 years as a teacher and principal in Wake. He said he supported Ward’s failed motion in July to give the school system $5 million more than the board ultimately gave.
Gardner suggested the board should have put a school construction bond referendum on the ballot this fall. He said his priorities are education, job creation and protecting the county’s strong financial standing.
“One of the biggest problems with the current board is that they have shut down open debate of issues and have no diversity of thought,” Gardner said. “This has led to very poor decisions for our community, such as again delaying the much-needed school construction bond.”
Odom said he doesn’t mind spending money “so long as it’s not wasteful.” He said his goals are increasing teacher pay, keeping taxes low and creating more affordable housing.
“Teacher pay is always one of my top priorities since my mother was a teacher,” he said.
Under a judge’s ruling on Wake’s election districts, commissioners will serve two-year terms instead of the typical four-year terms. Each seat will be up for election in 2018, barring further court rulings or legislative action.
Education: Bachelor’s and master’s degrees in architecture from Georgia Institute of Technology; master’s degree in business from Central Michigan University
Professional experience: LEED-accredited architect
Political resume: Served on the Wake County Board of Commissioners from 2000 to 2008; was chairman in 2004
Family: Wife, Betty, and three daughters and two grandchildren
Education: Bachelor’s in urban and regional studies from University of Wisconsin Oshkosh
Professional experience: President and CEO of WestStart Precision
Political resume: Appointed to the Cary Town Council in February 2007; elected to the Cary Town Council in 2007; appointed to Wake County Board of Commissioners in 2011; lost race for state Senate in 2012
Family: Married 43 years; has four daughters and nine grandchildren
Education: Degrees in biology and history from St. John Fisher College in Rochester, N.Y.; master’s of school administration from UNC-Chapel Hill
Professional experience: Worked 18 years as a principal and teacher in Wake County public schools
Political resume: None
Family: Husband, Anthony, and three children
Education: Two years of college of Oak Ridge Military Academy near Greensboro; Richmond Technical Community College
Professional experience: Owner of two Meineke Car Care Centers; executive director of Greater Raleigh Merchants Association for 25 years
Political resume: 16 years on the Raleigh City Council. Ran unsuccessful campaigns for Raleigh mayor and North Carolina insurance commissioner.
Family: Married with two children and five grandchildren