In divisive Wake commissioners race, little consensus on which forums to attend

08/29/2014 6:33 PM

08/29/2014 6:45 PM

The election is two months away, but contestants in the race for control of the Wake County Board of Commissioners already are making political choices as they decide whose candidate forums and debates to participate in.

The four Republican candidates up for re-election on the board are boycotting three events that had been planned by the League of Women Voters of Wake County and WakeUP Wake County, saying organizers could not provide the impartial setting “needed for a full and fair discussion of local issues.”

Meanwhile, the Wake County Taxpayers Association was disappointed that the four Democratic challengers all said they had other plans when the group held what it hoped would be a lively candidate forum during its regular monthly meeting Thursday night.

The League of Women Voters and WakeUP Wake County are officially nonpartisan groups with members from different political parties, but their policy views are often described as left-leaning. The Taxpayers Association, also officially nonpartisan, often is described as right-leaning.

For their part, candidates from both parties defer to busy schedules that include jobs, family and other obligations, including campaign fundraisers and personal appearances. They also cite other events going on between now and the Nov. 4 election at which all the candidates likely will appear. They say they welcome the chance to meet their opponents – and differentiate from them – in public.

Seven of the eight attended an event last week in Pinehurst sponsored by the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce.

“Speaking from our side, nobody is avoiding them,” said board chairman Phil Matthews, a Republican running for his second term. “These forums are a good chance to tell people what you do, what you believe, where you stand. But with eight people, there’s not going to be a perfect time for everybody. Our schedules get jammed up pretty quick.”

Matthews’ challenger, Matt Calabria, said candidates have been inundated with requests to appear. Some events are sponsored by groups whose membership is likely to be overwhelmingly friendly to a candidate’s views, while others may seem more hostile.

“I really think all candidates are doing the best they can to attend everything that they can,” Calabria said. He said he hoped members of the Taxpayers Association would go to some of the other events planned between now and Nov. 4.

Other candidates for seats on the board are Republicans Joe Bryan, Paul Coble and Rich Gianni, who face Democratic contenders Sig Hutchinson, John Burns and Jessica Holmes, respectively.

Candidates for the seven-member board are elected at-large, though each represents a geographic district of the county. They are elected to four-year terms, and elections are staggered so that every two years, three or four seats are up for re-election.

Battle for majority

This year, the four open seats all are held by Republicans, who gained the majority on the board in 2010 and have led its discussions and decisions with an emphasis on fiscal restraint.

Democrats need only defeat one of the four to reclaim the majority on the board. If they’re not successful during this election, they won’t have another opportunity until 2018. Only three seats are up for election in 2016 – not enough for a majority.

The battle for control is fierce; the board oversees a $1 billion budget, with 3,800 employees serving a population of 1 million people.

The largest portion of the budget, 33 percent, goes to education, and the board often is divided along party lines on issues of school spending. For several years, board members have differed in their support of the county Board of Education’s approach to school construction.

Most recently, Democrats on the board wanted the county to significantly increase teacher salaries to help with recruitment and retention. Republicans approved an average increase of about $250 per teacher, which Democrats said would not be enough.

Transit is another issue viewed across a partisan divide. Republicans on the board are not inclined to invest taxpayer funds in a system they say would disproportionately benefit urban residents at the expense of rural ones. Democrats say expanded transit choices would improve the quality of life across the county and that construction will only get more costly the longer planners are made to wait.

With so much at stake, the League of Women Voters of Wake County had hoped to host three candidate forums around the county. It had scheduled the events for Sept. 17, Oct. 2 and Oct. 9.

Marian Lewin, who chairs the league in Wake County, said the group has held such events for decades. WakeUP Wake County, which has been active in the debates over school funding in recent years, had planned to co-sponsor the forums.

‘Too narrow’

But on Aug. 11, the four Republican candidates signed a letter saying they would not participate in any of the League events. “While we appreciate your offer, we believe your group has a scope that is too narrow to adequately preserve the impartiality of the setting needed for a full and fair discussion of local issues,” the letter said. The letter added, “We would welcome your attendance at the debates already scheduled.”

Lewin said that while the League has taken positions on policy issues, “We are to the core nonpartisan. We never, ever endorse candidates or political parties.

“We have worked very, very hard to make sure that these candidate forums are very comfortable for all the candidates,” Lewin said.

“No one has ever accused us of being partisan until this letter.”

Lewin said that under the League’s rules, it can’t hold a candidate forum with candidates from only one party.

Donna Williams, chair of the executive board of the Wake County Republican Party, said it’s important for voters to get informed and that forums are a good place to engage with candidates and to watch them interact with one another. The candidates may accept invitations at the risk of being ambushed from time to time, she said.

“It really depends on the organization that’s putting it on,” Williams said.

She recalled when she was a school board candidate previously and took part in a debate where it appeared organizers had given Democratic candidates a list of questions in advance. The list wasn’t shared with the Republican candidates, she said. And during the event, she said, the other side was given longer to answer, though they were all supposed to be allowed the same amount of time.

“I could have been a crybaby and made an issue of it, or just be a big girl and deal with it,” she said. When candidates ask her whether they should accept invitations to forums sponsored by the group now, she said, “I tell them, ‘Don’t go to that one.’ ”

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