Joe Bryan is one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet in public life. A financial guy by occupation, he’s a former mayor of Knightdale, where he’s immensely popular. And as a veteran county commissioner, Bryan, a Republican, occasionally seemed to mute some of the harsh rhetoric coming from other GOPers. He’s just a good guy.
But he and three other Republicans, Paul Coble, Phil Matthews and Rich Gianni, went down to a thunderous defeat Tuesday at the hands of four Democrats who ran a unified, positive campaign and managed to convince voters that it was time to clean house. Nary a speck of Republican dust will be left. All seven commissioners will be Democrats.
Many expected Bryan to survive because of his moderate image. And it’s true that the county has enjoyed good growth and good schools and seems to have been on the upswing during the Republican tenure in power. But in this campaign Bryan was aligned with other Republicans who seemed to be angry at being challenged, who lacked positive ideas other than keeping the tax rate low. And Bryan and Coble have steadfastly opposed the idea of putting a small transit tax to the voters, so that Wake might join Orange and Durham counties in planning for commuter rail and expanded bus service and perhaps other options.
It was a shortsighted, narrow-minded and frankly unenlightened view in a county where newcomers and up-and-coming young professionals have more foresight and optimism than a commissioners’ block that seemed more interested in how things used to be rather than how they could be.
The Republicans also didn’t help themselves with an unfortunate incident wherein veteran Democratic Commissioner Betty Lou Ward wanted to participate in a meeting by phone because she had been ill, and the Republicans nixed the idea. People understand partisan bickering and personal disputes. But they didn’t like that.
And so, in an election that nationwide was marked by Republican anger at President Obama, who was the target in state after state including this one, and by nasty television commercials and slam-bang negative and sometimes vicious outside ads (on both sides, yeah) and by exhausting attempts to play on the public’s fears, Wake County’s commissioners’ race was a breath of fresh air. It really was.
Yes, there was a sorry moment when the Wake Republican Party did a spot trying to link Democratic commissioner candidates to the Rev. William Barber, he of the NAACP and the Moral Monday demonstrations. It was absurd and amounted to playing a race card. It also didn’t work.
But Democratic candidates Sig Hutchinson (who should be the new board chairman), John Burns, Jessica Holmes and Matt Calabria basically offered voters hopes, not fears. They talked about working with what is now an outstanding school board to improve public education, about protecting the environment, about parks and greenways, about transit, about guiding growth in a reasonable and sensible fashion.
They talked about what they liked about Wake County and why. Burns, with three kids in the public schools, had a strong case for why he wanted to serve because of his family’s flesh-and-blood investment in the county. Holmes, a young lawyer, had a perfect balance between a firm resolve to make the county better and a positive outlook on its future. Likewise Calabria, a 31-year-old lawyer, whose fresh, hopeful outlook was not distracted by Republican criticisms.
The Democrats won not on partisanship and not based on attacks on entrenched incumbents, but because they had a forward-looking, optimistic vision of all the county can be. They conveyed to voters that it’s more important to dream of what might be than to circle the wagons and protect what is.
The Republican commissioners are not bad people, and they did have a sense of public service. But they misread their constituents and listened only to those who agreed with them. That’s something that happens in campaigns. The problem is, in so doing, candidates are like surfers who don’t check the tide forecasts, and they’re undone by surprises.
In the case of Wake County, the surprise was that voters were far more hopeful and interested in what the future might bring, and willing to install in office people who shared that view. And that’s exactly what they did.