Democrats appeared likely to sweep all four open seats on the Wake County Board of Commissioners on 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 178 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.
Throughout the evening, candidates watched the results in the same way they had campaigned: together by party, with the Republicans gathering at Shucker’s restaurant in the trendy Glenwood South district, and Democrats at the Grand Ballroom in the historic Capital Club building downtown.
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. Some had launched personal attacks at one another.
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 finally 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, they warned, taxes would rise, making Wake County less attractive to businesses and new residents.
Democrats drilled in on school spending, especially teacher salaries, saying county residents were able and willing to do more to improve the quality of education for their children. They 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 will lose its reputation as a desirable place to live and that growth with halt.
Though the county has been trending increasingly Democratic in recent years, neither side would say publicly in advance of the election which way they thought the vote would go. Political consultants had predicted that local races such as the Wake board’s would follow the vote for statewide races, especially the contest for the U.S. Senate between Republican Thom Tillis and incumbent Democrat Kay Hagan.
Individually, Republican candidates, all incumbents, tended to emphasize their experience in business and government, while Democratic candidates touted their energy and fresh ideas.
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.
Joe Bryan, an investment banker and a Republican in his third term on the board, lost his District 1 seat to Sig Hutchinson, a Democrat who once said he would never run against Bryan but finally did so, he said, because Bryan had moved politically too far to the right.
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, board Chairman Phil Matthews of Garner, a Republican who runs a sight-and-sound company, lost his seat against challenger Matt Calabria, a business lawyer who lives in Fuquay-Varina. Matthews, 64, has spent 12 years in elected office, and hoped his experience as a Navy officer and a business owner would help him prevail over Calabria, 31, who served in campus government while a student at UNC.
Republican Rich Gianni, 54, of Cary, who took the District 3 seat on the board this year when Tony Gurley resigned, lost to Democrat Jessica Holmes, 30, also of Cary. Gianni is a corporate financial officer. Holmes is an attorney for the N.C. Association of Educators.
Republican incumbent Paul Coble, in his second term on the board, was defeated in District 7 by Democratic challenger John Burns. Coble, 61, is an insurance broker and a former mayor of Raleigh who has been a frequent critic of the Wake Board of Education’s school construction spending choices. Burns, 44, is a business lawyer with three children in the public schools and said during the campaign that his experience in business disputes could help the two boards work better together.