Despite new, GOP-drawn election maps for the Wake County Board of Commissioners, Democrats are all but ensured to retain control of the panel until 2018.
Democrats last year gained control of the board, which controls property tax rates and funds everything from road improvements to public school construction. Every Republican was voted out and the resulting board has raised taxes and supports higher levels of support for public schools and mass transit.
Six months later, the Republican-led North Carolina General Assembly changed election rules and maps for the Wake Board of Commissioners, prompting a lawsuit from liberal-leaning groups who claim the changes unfairly favor Republicans and limit the influence of black voters. A judge is reviewing their complaints now.
While some election changes won’t take effect until 2018, one change expanded the board from seven seats to nine – offering Republicans a previously unexpected chance to regain a majority in 2016.
Without the changes, three of seven board seats would have been up for election next year. Now five of nine seats are up.
However, the candidate sign-up period ended at noon on Monday with Republicans filing to run in only four of them. That means if Republicans were to win each race they are contesting, they would remain in the minority.
Candidates from both parties filed to run in districts 4, 6, A and B. But commissioners chairman James West of southeast Raleigh, a Democrat who has served on the board since 2010, will run unopposed in District 5.
The Wake County Republican Party recruited several potential candidates to challenge West but got no takers, said Charles Hellwig, spokesman for the party.
“In the end, they all had their own reasons,” Hellwig said. “That’s OK; the party’s very excited about the team we have.”
A Republican could beat West by running as a write-in candidate, but that scenario is unlikely. So Democrats celebrated the end of candidate filing on Monday, saying Wake residents can expect the board to focus on education and transportation for at least three more years.
“The commissioners showed this year how committed they are to making sure we have a well-funded education system and that teachers are properly paid,” said Brian Fitzsimmons, chairman of the Wake County Democratic Party.
The board this summer raised property taxes 3.65 cents per $100 in property valuation to help fund the county school system.
“We can use 2016 as an opportunity to show people the incredible progress we’ve made,” Fitzsimmons said.
A stable Democratic board is good news for advocates of a regional transit system. Before Republican commissioners were voted out, they were hesitant to fund an expanded countywide transit system and unwilling to consider trains as part of any plan.
This spring, commissioners are expected to approve plans for an expanded transit system – one that builds a train network by 2027 – and to call a November referendum on a half-cent local sales tax to help fund it.
“Advancing transit is the most important thing our community can do to plan for growth and mobility in the coming years,” said Karen Rindge, executive director of WakeUP Wake County.
“We’re looking forward to working with a county commission that supports public transit,” she said.
Republicans, meanwhile, are optimistic about positioning themselves to retake the board in 2018, Hellwig said.
“It’s a stepping stone for us in an important election,” he said.
Republicans lost by wide margins last year – about 30,000 votes apiece – after opponents said they ignored education and transit needs and weren’t open to compromise.
GOP candidates are striking a more moderate tone this year, with many promising to increase teacher pay and bring renewed focus to education. One candidate, John Adcock, is vowing to spend on road improvements. And another, Kenn Gardner, declined to take a position on the property tax increase passed by the board earlier this year.
Here’s a breakdown of the contested races:
▪ District 4, which covers western Wake, features a matchup of two former commissioners. Democrat Erv Portman will face off against Republican Kenn Gardner.
▪ District 6, which covers northern Wake, is the only race featuring candidates with no experience on the Wake board. Republican former Raleigh councilman John Odom will face Democrat Greg Ford, a former Wake public school principal. The winner will replace Democrat Betty Lou Ward, who has held the seat since 1988.
▪ In District A, a new overlay district that encompasses urban areas mostly in central Wake, former Raleigh city council candidate Craig Ralph will take on incumbent Caroline Sullivan.
▪ District B, the new overlay district that covers most of Wake’s rural areas, is the only one with a primary.
On the Republican side, political newcomer John Adcock of Fuquay-Varina will take on former Wake board chairman Phil Matthews of Garner.
Former commissioner Lindy Brown and Morrisville town councilwoman Vicki-Scroggins-Johnson will square off on the Democrat side.
Candidates in districts 4, 5 and 6 can be voted on by all Wake voters, while candidates and A and B can only be voted on by voters in those districts.
Winners of races in districts 4, 5 and 6 will serve two-year terms, while district A and B winners will serve four-year terms.
The primary is March 15. The general election is November 8.
In 2018, District 1 through 7 will be up for election and at-large voting will end. Voters will only be able to vote for candidates representing their numerical and alphabetical districts – a change critics say favors Republicans.