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If you listened closely last week in Raleigh, you could hear them pounding the last nails into the coffin of the conservative movement that controlled and confused Wake County politics for the last 12 years.

Wake County's conservatives out, centrists in; $970 million school bond passes easily 

If you listened closely last week in Raleigh, you could hear them pounding the last nails into the coffin of the conservative movement that controlled and confused Wake County politics for the last 12 years. Not only did voters approve a record $970 million bond to build and renovate schools, they also dismissed the last two conservative diehards who opposed it: Wake Commissioner Phil Jeffreys, a Republican; and state Rep. Russell Capps, also a Republican and the longtime president of the Wake Taxpayers Association.

In countywide voting, Jeffreys lost his seat to Democrat Lindy Brown. Capps was beaten in House District 41 (northern Wake) by Democrat Ty Harrell.

The two losers thus joined the list of conservative ex-officeholders, all Republicans, who used to run things in Wake but don't any longer. Men (they're all men) like former commissioners Gary Pendleton, John Converse and Leo Tew, who ran the county board for much of the '90s. Like state Reps. Sam Ellis and Art Pope and state Sen. John Carrington, who along with Capps gave the Wake legislative delegation its anti-tax, anti-government caste going back to when Capps was first elected in 1995. And like ex-Raleigh Mayor Tom Fetzer and his ex-Councilors cohort of John Odom, Kieran Shanahan and Paul Coble, also an ex-mayor.

All of them shared a Ronald Reagan-inspired "supply-side" belief that Wake's go-go growth would more than pay for itself tax-wise, so that the faster Wake grew, the more they could cut tax rates. The bills from their excellent adventure are now coming due, starting with the school bond and a huge backlog of unfunded transportation projects.

Indeed, Coble is the lone survivor on the conservative side. While Jeffreys was losing to Brown, Coble won his race for a commissioners seat against Democrat Rodger Koopman, but only by changing—or hiding—his right-wing stripes. Coble supported the school bond issue, though he insisted that he wouldn't be voting for any property tax increase to pay for it.

Bond supporters acknowledged that it will require a property tax increase of 4 to 5 cents, or $80-$100 a year on a $200,000 house.

While the conservatives were dying, moderate Republicans like Tony Gurley and Joe Bryan were holding onto their county commission seats and putting Wake on a centrist, bipartisan path going forward.

Gurley, the current commission chair, and Bryan, his immediate predecessor, both backed the school bond full tilt, and each defeated his Democratic opponent—Martha Brock and Don Mial, respectively—in close races.

They thus allowed the Republicans to maintain control of the commission by a 4-3 margin. But on Monday, Bryan said he's told Democrat Harold Webb, currently the commission's vice chair, that he'll support him as chair for 2007.

Webb hasn't declared himself a candidate, Bryan said, "but I'd say he has the inside track if he wants it." The important point, Bryan added, is that the voters want the commission to "govern from the middle, not way left or way right," and Webb would be in that mode.

Throughout the campaign, Bryan and Gurley made it clear to voters that the era of low taxes and unfunded growth was over, and the bills were coming due. The $970 million school bond, they said, was only the first of about four that will be needed over the next decade to catch up with a $4 billion-plus school construction backlog.

Bryan also promised, if re-elected, to propose a $50 million open-space bond issue, noting that development in Wake is eating up its farms and forests at a rate of 27 acres a day.

Starting in 1993, when Pendleton led a conservative GOP sweep of the county commission races and started a tax-cutting spree, the Wake commissioners slashed the school board's building programs by a total of some $1.2 billion through 2004—a figure made worse by the failure of a $650 million bond issue in 1999. That defeat was credited, or blamed, on the vocal opposition of the Wake Taxpayers led by Capps.

Capps famously attributed Hurricane Katrina to God's wrath over gambling on the Gulf Coast, and opposed teaching evolution in the public schools. Like Jeffreys, he opposed the school board's policy of maintaining racial (and later, economic) balance in all of Wake's schools, preferring "neighborhood schools" regardless of their makeup.

Jeffreys, in his campaign, said every Wake school should be put on a year-round calendar to maximize use of existing capacity, arguing that doing so would let Wake get away without another school bond for at least three years. He's sure the voters will come around to his way of thinking in time for him to be returned to office in 2010. "Unless I'm dead," he quipped Monday, "I'll be back in four years."

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