Four of the seven county commissioners seats are up for election on the 2010 ballot. Commissioners represent a district, and candidates must live in the district they seek to represent. But the elections are countywide, which means that every voter in Wake has a vote in all four races.
Major issues in Wake County include the future of transit and funding for mental health facilities to replace the state-run Dorothea Dix Hospital when it closes. But the paramount issue is the public schools—specifically, how to deal with a Republican majority on the Wake County school board that is hell-bent on abandoning diversity as a factor in student assignments, thus creating high-poverty schools in low-income neighborhoods.
Because the Republican candidates for commissioner seats—three incumbents and one challenger—refuse to address this critical issue, we cannot support any of them. That includes two incumbents, Joe Bryan and Tony Gurley, whom we endorsed in 2006.
Four years ago, Bryan and Gurley took moderate positions and were part of a bipartisan consensus that worked well for the county. In Gurley's case, it was a calculated move in a year when Democrats were on the rise. In Bryan's, it seemed more genuine. Regardless of their motivations then, however, in 2010 both are in thrall to the right-wing tea-kettle politicians who've hijacked the Republican Party—and the school board.
The Democratic candidates—one incumbent and three challengers—are well-qualified and ready to restore, as one of them says, "sanity and civility" to government in Wake County. WE ENDORSE Commissioner Lindy Brown, Don Mial, Jack Nichols and Steve Rao.
Putting it as clearly as we can, we consider these elections to be a referendum on the policies of the Wake school board and its majority of five Republican members, four of whom were newly elected a year ago. We think the majority is out of control and unless they're reined in, they will wreck what continues to be a good—not great, but good—school system.
Doing so would have terrible economic and social consequences for everyone in Wake County.
We also think the job of reining them in belongs, first and foremost, to the Wake commissioners board. Wake County taxpayers provide one-fourth of the school board's budget. That money is subject to approval by the commissioners—the school board spends it, but the commissioners appropriate it and levy the taxes that pay it. The commissioners are also responsible for bond issues to build new schools and modernize old ones. They are, in every sense, the school board's bankers.
True, the commissioners can't and shouldn't micromanage the school board. However, when five members of the school board are acting recklessly while simultaneously shutting out public debate and input from anyone not a card-carrying member of the Republican right wing—including the four other school board members—the commissioners have a duty to step in.
That duty is even clearer given that, unless they do, the school board majority is certain to force one of two outcomes on Wake taxpayers: Either taxes will have to go up—way up—to pay for what the majority intends; or else the entire school system will deteriorate due to half-filled schools in the center of Raleigh and overcrowded schools across the suburbs.
It's no exaggeration to call this a crisis. Because it is a crisis, we can't endorse Republican incumbent Joe Bryan for this seat as we did when he ran the last time. Four years ago, Bryan led the bipartisan effort that led to voter approval of a record $970 million bond issue for schools—a bond issue that would've failed if only Democrats had supported it. Bryan has shown over the years an ability to reach across the aisle, work with opposing groups, forge consensus—which is exactly the kind of leadership Wake so desperately needs right now.
But in this school board fiasco, Bryan has been AWOL. No, actually, he's been worse than that. Rather than step up, he stepped down to the low road with his fellow Republicans Tony Gurley and Paul Coble when the three of them installed Gurley as chair of the commissioners board using a dirty trick. (For more on this, see District 3.)
This is unworthy of Bryan, and we regret it. As we've said, Wake County works best with bipartisan leadership, and Joe Bryan is the first Republican official we look to for it. He was the popular mayor of Knightdale, he's served two terms as a Wake commissioner, he's the current president of the N.C. Association of County Commissioners—there's no doubt that he knows what he should do. He just isn't doing it. "I support the school board," he says at every campaign forum, looking embarrassed as he adds that "the process" could be better. We're embarrassed for him.
Don Mial was a first-time candidate when he opposed Bryan in 2006. He acquitted himself well enough. This time around, he's sharper and better-prepared on the issues—including the school issues. Mial is a career state government employee and Air Force veteran who served in Vietnam. He recently retired after 30 years with the N.C. National Guard, including a year of combat duty in Iraq. He's a member of the Wake County Board of Adjustment.
Perhaps most significant, Mial remembers attending "black schools" as a youngster, and he vows to do whatever he can to stop resegregation in its tracks. "I will not work with anyone who wants to take us back," he declares.
Pros: Mial is ready and working hard on the campaign trail.
Cons: Bryan is considered the Republican most likely to get behind a county referendum for a half-cent sales tax for transit. But would he really if his tea-kettle party told him not to?
Other endorsements: Mial and Bryan: Wake NCAE (N.C. Association of Educators), joint endorsement. Mial: N.C. State AFL-CIO, NARAL Pro-Choice NC PAC.
Campaign finance: Mial has raised $10,160. Contributors include Knightdale Mayor Jeanne Bonds ($600), former Raleigh Mayor Smedes York ($250). Bryan has raised twice as much money—$21,000—including contributions from John Kane ($500) and the N.C. Build PAC ($2,000).
Lindy Brown, a Democrat, is as adamant about not raising taxes in a bad economy as any Republican. In fact, she says she won't be for a tax increase unless her constituents tell her to be—and she does have her ear to the ground. In his first term, Brown's gone to bat against library closings at Athens Drive (a joint community library with the high school) and Garner, stopping both. She pushed to get a new fire station built on the outskirts of Garner—her district. She also voted with the three Republican commissioners to approve the school board's controversial relocation of a new high school (H6) from Northeast Raleigh to rural Rolesville.
We think her H6 vote was the wrong call and was aimed at shoring up her support with Republicans in Garner and Knightdale. (The Rolesville site is near the Knightdale line and was backed by Bryan.) She says it's evidence that she thinks for herself and doesn't always toe the Democratic line.
In other words, Brown's been watching her back in a campaign where the Republicans think they can take her out, and she's got a point. Phil Matthews, the Republican nominee, is a former two-term Garner Council member and a potentially stronger opponent than Phil Jeffreys, the ex-commissioner Brown ousted in '06. Back then, Jeffreys was the one breaking with his party to oppose the school bond and back more year-round schools instead. This time, Matthews is happy to say he backs the Republican school board majority and is a Tea Party guy all the way.
Pros: Brown is getting more outspoken about the missteps of the school board majority as the campaign goes on.
Cons: She also says the commissioners' powers are limited when it comes to schools. It's a way of not saying what can be done.
Other endorsements: Brown: Wake NCAE, N.C. State AFL-CIO, NARAL Pro-choice NC PAC.
Campaign finance: Brown has raised $7,700. Wake Forest Commissioner Margaret Stinnett ($100), Kristi Bellamy, attorney for the N.C. Industrial Commission ($200) and environmentalist Sig Hutchinson ($200). Matthews' $2,100 includes contributions from State Rep. Paul Stam ($500).
Time to discuss the dirty trick that put Tony Gurley in the commissioners chair this year. Democrats hold a 4-3 majority on the county board, so by rights Gurley wasn't entitled. But one Democrat, Harold Webb, was absent from the meeting when the chair was elected. Webb had suffered a stroke. So a 3-3 deadlock ensued. Could Webb vote by phone? By a 3-3 vote, he couldn't. Finally, Democrat Betty Lou Ward got up to go to the bathroom, and she neglected to ask permission. Quickly, the Republicans voted 3-2 to install Gurley.
It wasn't cheating, exactly. But it did stink. And it kept on stinking as Gurley misused his power as chair to interrupt, deride and otherwise blow off the Democrats when they were raising issues—like the school mess—that he didn't want discussed. Instead, Gurley wanted to discuss the health insurance plan for county employees—no, not anything with any financial consequences, but rather whether the plan should cover elective abortions. In fact, at Gurley's instigation the county manager had them dropped, saving exactly no money, and it wasn't until Webb returned that the Democrats could undo the damage by a 4-3 vote.
To repeat, four years ago we endorsed Gurley, who is a very smart fellow and knew to roll with the changing moderate times. He backed the '06 school bond. We backed him. The bond passed. All was well in Wake.
Four years later, though, the times are shifting in favor of the know-nothings, and Gurley's cheering them on—School Board Chair Ron Margiotta and his henchman John Tedesco in particular.
Fortunately, the Democratic challenger in this district, Steve Rao, brings a fresh set of eyes to the issues and a new way of expressing how wrong the Republicans are. Rao is the son of immigrants from India. A lawyer turned business entrepreneur, he understands how important it is for American firms to operate in diverse cultures around the world. Step one is to educate our students in diverse schools, he says. Step two: Bring investment capital to Wake County from other nations, something that won't happen if the headlines about our school system say diversity's not welcome here.
Wake's growth spurt began when the county and Raleigh integrated their schools, Rao says accurately. The Research Triangle Park's success followed. Wake's challenge now is to strengthen all its schools, Rao argues, but not by splitting into "good" schools and "bad" schools depending on what neighborhood you live in.
Pros: Rao would be the first Indian-American elected to office in Wake County and, as far as he knows, anywhere in North Carolina.
Cons: He aspires to higher office. But he does well in this one, why not?
Other endorsements: Rao: Wake NCAE, N.C. State AFL-CIO.
Campaign finance: Rao has raised $38,000 THROUGH JULY. Notable contributors include Bill Holman, director of state policy at the Nicholas Institute at Duke University ($100), State Sen. Dan Blue ($250), State Treasurer Janet Cowell ($50).
The majority of Gurley's $25,000 in campaign contributions come from a $20,000 personal loan to himself.
Democrat Jack Nichols is correct when he says there's a clear choice between his style of politics and incumbent Republican Paul Coble's. Nichols, who resigned as Wake Democratic chair to make this race, is a centrist who served one term on the Wake Commissioners board in the early '90s. He recalls it fondly as a time when bipartisan leadership produced the smart public investments—in schools, the community college, parks and water-sewer systems—that led to economic growth and low taxes. Twice in recent years, Nichols lost Democratic primary elections for state Senate to opponents with stronger progressive support. Meanwhile, Nichols stayed resolutely in the political middle.
Coble, a conservative, is an uncompromising partisan who likes the low taxes but misses the point about public investments. When he was a Raleigh Council member and mayor in the '90s, Coble fought the RBC Center, the Raleigh Convention Center and all efforts to revitalize downtown Raleigh. In his one term as a Wake commissioner, he's worked to short-change the school system and to elect the Republican school board majority, which he heartily supports. He's also pro-sprawl, anti-transit and just as opposed to land-use planning now as he was in 2001, when Raleigh voters ousted him after a single term as mayor and he famously said that smart growth was a baby that should be strangled in its crib.
We agree with Nichols that the Wake Commissioners must not be an ATM machine for the school board's bad ideas. A Democratic board of commissioners can, as Nichols says, sort out the school board's good moves from those that would result in economically segregated schools and, ultimately, lower quality or higher taxes.
Pros: There's a rumor that Coble will run for mayor of Raleigh again if he wins.
Cons: Some worry that Coble will run for mayor of Raleigh again if he loses.
Other endorsements: Nichols: N.C. Police Benevolent Association; N.C. Sierra Club, N.C. State AFL-CIO.
Campaign finance: Nichols: Ron McFarlane, Raleigh, $4,000; Frank Daniels Jr., Raleigh, $1,000; Gale Adcock, Cary, $500. Coble: N.C. Build PAC, $2,000, Richard Rowe, Raleigh, $2,000; Dorothy Coble Helms, Raleigh, $500.
Campaign finance: Paul Coble has raised $32,000, including $2,000 from Richard Rowe of Wakefield Development, plus money from numerous real estate interests. Jack Nichols' $34,000 included $250 contributions from City Councilor Mary-Ann Baldwin and state Sen. Dan Blue, $750 from the Bratton family, which owns Wake Stone Corporation, and $100 from Wake County Clerk of Court Nancy Lorrin Freeman.
Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison is seeking his third term and has what appears to be only symbolic opposition from the Democratic party in challenger Jay Sills Jr.
Harrison, a Republican, is a former N.C. Highway Trooper. Since becoming sheriff in 2002, he has sent more deputies to patrol, improved training with a new facility and bolstered the office's K-9 unit. But his focus goes beyond crime, to the needs of the community. Harrison has instituted and supported programs that check on the elderly and those with Alzheimer's disease and autism.
Sills, who did not respond to the Indy's questionnaire, is a former police officer from Fuquay-Varina with 20 years experience. According to a website for his campaign, he wants to increase the number of deputies on patrol and eliminate favoritism.
WE ENDORSE Donnie Harrison, who has a strong reputation and widespread support from business owners and small farmers, who have contributed more than $75,000 to his campaign despite the fact that he will coast to re-election.
Pros: Harrison is outspoken against crime; he has shown a commitment to public safety. He's a hands-on sheriff who's often spotted out in the field with his deputies and other staff in major incidents. He handled recent publicity of his daughter's alleged drug problems with tact.
Cons: Harrison has committed the Wake County Sheriff's Office to participate in Section 287(g) of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which studies show can dissuade immigrants in reporting crimes, for fear of facing deportation once their undocumented status is discovered.
Others endorsements: N.C. Police Benevolent Association
Campaign finance: Harrison has a hefty war chest with $78,000 raised. Major contributors include Steve Grissom, an executive with Waste Industries ($800), Michael Watson of MCW, a grading company ($500) and Barry Perry of Perry's Gun Shop ($600) and state education leader Phil Kirk ($400)
Sills is self-funding his campaign, spending about $2,200.
This is a rematch of the 2006 election in which Democrat Nancy (Lorrin) Freeman ousted the former clerk, Republican Jan Pueschel, after a single term. When Pueschel had this job she seemed to rub a lot of her staff the wrong way, as well as many of the courthouse lawyers who are the clerk's main clients. Since she took over, Freeman has concentrated on improving staff training and retention, resulting in reduced turnaround times to obtain court files. She also instituted a convenience court to let people take care of traffic tickets on their own schedule.
Freeman's office recently received a good report from the state auditor, with just one minor recommendation for improvement. We continue to wonder why this is an elected office. That said, WE ENDORSE Nancy (Lorrin) Freeman—she is well thought of at the courthouse and there's no reason to think she should be replaced.
Pros: Freeman, a former assistant district attorney, is a competent person in a job that calls for competency.
Cons: There is no reason this office should be partisan.
Campaign finance: Freeman: Franklin Freeman, Jr., Raleigh, $2,275; Betsy Fox, Greensboro, $2,500; Richard (Gus) Gusler, Raleigh, $569. Pueschel: Harold Williams, Raleigh, $500; Nicholas Stratas Jr., Raleigh, $100; Tom Roberg, Raleigh, $100.
Voters can pick two of three hopefuls running for the more-important-than-you-probably-think Wake Soil and Water Board of Supervisors.
WE ENDORSE Jenna Wadsworth, the only candidate running an active online campaign. She grew up on a family farm and wants to foster better environmental education and development that protects natural resources.
WE ALSO ENDORSE Marshall Harvey, the head of the Wake County African-American Caucus, who could use the position to help address flooding and erosion problems in Southeast Raleigh.
David Adams has not distinguished himself this campaign season.
Pros: While we haven't supported 20-something candidates for the General Assembly, we think Wadsworth's youth is a plus for this local office. The 21-year-old could offer some new zeal and enthusiasm to the group. Harvey, a longtime participant in local politics, provides a nice balance.
Cons: Frankly, none of the three candidates answered our questionnaire, so we can't fully support anyone's campaign with certainty. (Editor's Note: Jenna Wadsworth has now sent in her questionnaire.) Still, based on interactions with the candidates on the campaign trail, we're comfortable recommending Wadsworth and Harvey.