Wake County

Wake County leader hopes to help erode GOP control of NC

Matt Calabria, left, was sworn in to the Wake County Board of Commissioners on Dec. 1, 2014.
Matt Calabria, left, was sworn in to the Wake County Board of Commissioners on Dec. 1, 2014. N&O file photo

Wake County Commissioner Matt Calabria announced Thursday that he will run for a seat in the state legislature.

Calabria is the second Democrat to declare candidacy for House District 36, joining Jennifer Ferrell of Apex as a challenger to seven-term Republican Nelson Dollar.

Ferrell unsuccessfully ran in 2016 for the same seat, earning 46.5 percent of the vote to Dollar’s 49 percent. She announced her candidacy on Monday.

House District 36 comprises the suburbs of western and southern Wake County, including parts of Apex, Cary, Garner, Fuquay-Varina, Holly Springs and Raleigh.

The areas have seen toss-ups between Republicans and Democrats in recent national elections. The District 36 seat seat is seen by some as a key opportunity for Democrats to break state Republicans’ veto-proof supermajority.

The Wake County Democratic Party won’t endorse Calabria or Ferrell until after the 2018 primary, said chairwoman Rebecca Llewellyn.

Llewellyn said she sees the candidates’ interest as part of a larger wave of Democrats seeking office after the party’s losses in the 2016 national election.

“It is exciting that we have so many people coming out and wanting to run, because in years past it’s been hard to recruit,” she said.

As for having multiple Democrats running for the same seat, Llewellyn said “it can be a problem, but it’s a good problem to have.”

Robert Howard, spokesman for the North Carolina Democratic Party, said the group was “excited voters will have two great Democrats to send Dollar and his attacks on public education packing.”

Dollar, 56, serves as chief budget writer for the House. He has said that voters appreciate his work on the state budget and tax code to create jobs.

“We’re at-or-near the top of the list for major economic development announcements,” Dollar said, noting that Forbes recently ranked North Carolina as the best state for business.

He faced a primary challenge for the first time in 2016 from Mark Villee, a conservative Republican who accused him of supporting wasteful spending.

Calabria, 34, has been on the Wake County Board of Commissioners since 2014 and works as an attorney. He was the public face of the board’s successful effort to pass a transit referendum last year and has spearheaded a plan to address hunger in the county.

“I know what it takes to win a race and to advocate for people,” Calabria said Thursday. “I’ll be working hard to ensure that the legislature reflects North Carolina values, and I believe I’m the candidate best qualified and best equipped to win this seat.”

Ferrell, 39, is the editor of a neighborhood publication and active in her homeowners association, the Cary Chamber of Commerce and her local elementary school’s PTA.

Both candidates name opposition to state Republicans’ education policies as a core issue of their campaigns.

In announcing her candidacy Monday, Ferrell emphasized her direct ties to the area’s schools. She and her husband are parents to 8-year-old twins who attend Wake County public schools. Ferrell participated in and was arrested as part of the “Moral Monday” movement in 2013 while protesting cuts to the state’s education budget.

“I believe I have better name recognition and have put in the work in the district since 2016,” Ferrell said Thursday. “I will say (Calabria) looks good on paper, he’s a smooth talker, and he’s done some great things on the commission, but his vote to not fund Wake County public schools’ budget request was troubling for many of us. Can voters in our district trust he won’t do that in the legislature?”

Wake commissioners and the school board have been at odds this year after the commissioners declined to fully fund the school system’s requested budget increase.

North Carolina’s state legislative districts are in the process of being redrawn by a Stanford law professor under a federal court order after the legislature couldn’t internally resolve disputes over gerrymandering. District 36 is among those reshaped, but the latest draft doesn’t exclude the homes of either Calabria or Ferrell.

In her statement Monday, Ferrell said she had been prepared to move to remain in District 36 but that after looking at the final draft of new maps, she was confident she wouldn’t have to.

A three-judge panel will hold a hearing on the maps Jan. 5.

Gargan: 919-829-4807; @hgargan