Veteran Raleigh City Council member Mary-Ann Baldwin had it right in a cautionary note for Democrats who swept four seats to make the Wake County Board of Commissioners a one-party board: "Governing is different from campaigning. My advice would be to take it slow and steady, not overreach."
It will take some restraint for Sig Hutchinson, John Burns, Matt Calabria and Jessica Holmes to take that advice. The four join Betty Lou Ward, James West and Caroline Sullivan on what now will be an entirely Democratic board. That's power.
And the Democrats rightly could interpret their wins, all substantial, as evidence that the election was a referendum on the performance of the Republican majority. That majority had held hostage a vote on a transit tax that would let Wake cooperate with with Orange and Durham counties on light rail and expanded bus service along with commuter rail. Durham and Orange passed the tax a while back.
GOP commissioners also likely were deposed because they had a tense relationship with a popular school board (also run by Democrats) and talked mostly about holding down taxes and protecting the status quo in a county that wanted, and now has, more progressive leadership.
A different approach
The new commissioners will talk transit soon, next week in fact. But they're facing myriad issues, and voters signaled they want a different approach.
Those issues include, perhaps first, public education. County commissioners hold the purse for public schools, and in this county, where the school population is going up at a rate of 3,000 students a year, more building will be needed and likely more operating funding as well. The Democratic commissioners have indicated support for boosting the county's teacher supplement, for example, and for at the least being open to listening to school board members' requests for additional money.
And what about development? Most of it seems to have been concentrated in the western part of the county. Commissioners need to find ways to steer new businesses to Eastern Wake, whose less-dense population is more spread out.
The new Democrats and the incumbents will be dealing as well with trying to improve mental health care and accessibility, something that's an increasing problem evidenced by the large percentage of people in county jails who have mental health problems.
The jail seems to be well-run by Sheriff Donnie Harrison, but will there be tensions between the new commissioners and Harrison, who's arguably the most popular Republican among elected officials? That won't happen if Harrison reaches out and commissioners are receptive.
Housing and environment
Also under consideration as a new commissioners' board takes over is the ever-present need for affordable housing. This board seems inclined to be more proactive in such areas, and let's hope it will be. In parts of Wake County, particularly the western part, such housing is virtually nonexistent, and that's not good for anyone, especially not for keeping school populations naturally diverse.
The Board of Commissioners also needs to keep a keen eye on the environment, particularly the lakes that furnish this area's drinking water and areas being considered for reservoirs.
Residents shouldn't expect a sudden shift in priorities or a tax increase to cover parts of the Democratic agenda. Planning for transit options and directing county staff to work on environmental and mental health concerns won't require a tax hike.
One new commissioner, John Burns, said it well in terms of the new board's agenda: "We need to remember, I think, that we were elected by a certain percentage of the county's voters, but a good percentage of the voters did not vote for us." That attitude, refreshing and candid, reflects a realization that not every election is a mandate for radical change.
But voters do want positive change. Now the new commissioners have to live up not just to their own promises but to the voters' expectations.