Democrats swept each of four open seats on the Wake County Board of Commissioners Tuesday, setting the stage for what candidates have said for months will be a shift toward more generous spending on schools and faster action on public transit.
With all 200 precincts reporting, Democrats Sig Hutchinson, Matt Calabria, Jessica Holmes and John Burns each led by at least 9 percentage points. Calabria and Holmes led by double digits.
By defeating all four Republicans on the board — all of whose seats were in play in the elections — Democrats will occupy all seven seats on the board starting in January, and will be able to test their belief that Wake County residents want more government services and are willing to pay for them.
“I’m so pleased with all the work that everyone has put into these elections, and taking this as a signal that Wake County is ready for a change,” Calabria said. “We built a campaign of making smart investments in our future, particularly education and public transportation, and the voters told us tonight that they’re ready to move forward.”
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Tuesday’s results mean Democrats will be in control for four years. Even if Republicans won the other three commission seats in 2016, Democrats would be in the majority until 2018.
But Hutchinson said Democrats recognize that many voters didn’t back the party’s candidates. He said they’d work to represent all the voices in the county.
“I don’t want anyone to think that just because we’re in the majority that means we don’t want everybody’s voice at the table.” Hutchinson said.
It had been a costly and bruising battle; by mid-October, the eight candidates had raised a total of about $750,000, the most for a Wake Board of Commissioners contest in a decade. Pre-election reports showed the four Democrats all raising more money than the Republican incumbents – Paul Coble, Joe Bryan, Phil Matthews and Rich Gianni.
Both sides have said the future of the county was at stake. Republicans, who took the majority in 2010, cited progress on school construction as money from last fall’s bond issue began to flow. They pointed to the county’s AAA bond rating and its national accolades as a good place to live and work, and said Republican leadership would maintain that quality of life while keeping taxes low.
If Democrats took over the county board, Republicans warned, taxes would rise, making Wake County less attractive to businesses and new residents.
Democrats drilled in on school spending, saying county residents were able and willing to do more to improve the quality of education for their children. Democrats faulted the Republican majority with not putting a referendum on Tuesday’s ballot asking for voter permission to raise sales taxes to pay for teacher raises.
Democrats also criticized the Republican-led board for waiting three years to take any action on a transit plan while neighboring counties have begun to raise money to build their systems. If the county didn’t begin to invest more in its schools and infrastructure to keep up with growth, Democrats warned, Wake would lose its reputation as a desirable place to live and that growth would halt.
Individually, Republican candidates, all incumbents, tended to emphasize their experience in business and government, while Democratic candidates touted their energy and fresh ideas.
The campaign got more heated in the last week as the Wake County Republican Party charged that Democrats would “rubber stamp Rev. Barber’s Moral Monday demands all over our county.” The Rev. William Barber, the president of the state NAACP, accused the Wake GOP of “race-baiting,” “fear-baiting” and “scare tactics.”
In Wake, the county is divided into seven districts, with one member on the board who lives in each district, but all candidates are elected at large.
Hutchinson defeated Bryan, a Republican running for his fourth term, for the District 1 seat. Hutchinson, 61, of Raleigh, runs a consulting and professional speaking business and is a longtime activist for parks and open spaces in the county.
In District 2, Calabria defeated Matthews, the chairman of the board who was seeking his second term. Calabria, 31, is a business lawyer who lives in Fuquay-Varina.
In District 3, Holmes defeated Gianni, who was appointed to the seat this year when Tony Gurley resigned. Holmes, 30, is an attorney for the N.C. Association of Educators who lives in Cary.
In District 7, Burns beat Coble, a long-time Republican stalwart and former Raleigh major who was running for his third term. Burns, 44, is a business lawyer from Raleigh with three children in the public schools.