Wake commissioners primary takes a toll on Democrats

Wake commissioners District 4 seat challenger Susan Evans celebrates as she enters an election results watch party at Sawmill Tap Room in Raleigh Tuesday, May 8, 2018.
Wake commissioners District 4 seat challenger Susan Evans celebrates as she enters an election results watch party at Sawmill Tap Room in Raleigh Tuesday, May 8, 2018. tlong@newsobserver.com

They call what Wake County Democrats did with their county commissioner candidates Tuesday a primary.

It looked more like a circular firing squad.

By the end, two progressive Democratic incumbents lost, three incumbents won and a Democratic consensus on how to run the county looked damaged and in danger of being broken in the general election.

Commissioner Sig Hutchinson held off a challenge from Jeremiah Pierce, but he was disappointed by the defeat of John Burns and Erv Portman, two of his fellow incumbents on the seven-member, all-Democratic board.

“I think the Wake County Democratic Party lost in a big way,” said Hutchinson, who was part of a Democratic wave that wrested control of the board from Republicans in 2014. “We lost two of the most productive Democratic leaders in Wake County who were doing amazing work.”

For primary voters, that work was not amazing enough when it comes to approving the funding requests for Wake’s public schools. Political newcomer Vickie Adamson edged Burns, while former Wake school board member Susan Evans defeated Portman.

Portman put himself at risk by questioning the school system’s last budget request and wondering at what point school leaders will say they have sufficient funding. Nonetheless, Portman, Burns and other commissioners ran on supporting schools and have granted almost all of the school system’s overall budget requests. This year, the system is seeking a $58 million increase. Commissioners are inclined to approve about half of that amount. County taxes have been raised the past four years to meet higher school costs and a fifth tax increase is expected this year.

Portman said Wednesday that giving in to school requests that are presented as absolutely necessary every year will hurt the long-term funding of Wake schools, he said.

“If we keep doing that, voters will say enough and we will elect Republicans again,” he said.

Portman said he thinks most Wake County voters agree with him on the need to better explain and justify school funding, but “primaries are notorious for driving us off the road to the left and the right.”

Evans said it’s unfair to describe her primary contest as a fight over giving the schools a blank check. “I don’t disagree that we have to be thoughtful in those (budget) decisions. I have never campaigned on ‘fully funding the schools.’ Those words have never come out of my mouth,” she said Wednesday.

She said the issue was whether commissioners were respecting the legitimacy of school funding requests. As a former school board member and an accountant who has focused on the complexities of the school system’s budget, Evans said she will be better able to explain the schools’ request to commissioners. She said her qualifications “resonated” with voters who saw Portman’s questioning of the schools’ budget as being skeptical and patronizing.

If all politics are local, this exercise in local politics was also personal. The debate really wasn’t about school funding — all involved essentially agree on the need for more — it was about challengers and donors who felt patronized or ignored.

Now they’ve settled that score with a Democratic primary without winners.

Barnett: 919-829-4512, nbarnett@newsobserver.com