by Bob Geary
For all the turmoil in North Carolina politics, Raleigh and Wake County were an oasis of calm tonight. The full results are on Wake County's website.
* Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane stamped herself the undisputed leader of city government, winning re-election with 73 percent of the vote against a pair of lightweight Republican opponents. McFarlane is a political independent with strong support among progressive and moderate voters. She wasn't especially well-known when she succeeded Charles Meeker as mayor two years ago. But that was then. Today, she's popular and respected as a hard worker who gets results without being contentious or flashy.
* Order's been restored on the Wake school board, whose nine members now include zero — as in none at all — right-wing Republicans. Remember 2009, when a quartet of tea-party devotees won school board seats, giving the Wake GOP a 5-4 majority and a chance to wreck havoc — which they did? Tonight, the last Republican survivor from among the four, Deborah Prickett, was routed in her bid for a second term by Zora Felton, a retired teacher. And the $810 million school bond issue, which the Wake Republican Party opposed? Voters approved it easily by a 58-42 percent margin, rejecting the Republican brand once more.
The Wake schools are still under assault, but from without now, not from within.
From the outside, the Republican-controlled General Assembly and Gov. Pat McCrory are doing everything they can to diminish public education in the state and Wake County — the biggest district in the state — is right in their crosshairs. But at least within Wake County, tonight's election results are a vote of confidence in the school system and a board now controlled 9-0 by a moderate coalition of seven Democrats, one independent (Kevin Hill) and one moderate Republican (Bill Fletcher).
The calm tonight was in sharp contrast to 2009 and 2011, when Democrats turned the tables on the Republicans in a showdown school board election, sweeping all five seats on the ballot to take their own 5-4 majority. I chanced on my blog post from 2011 earlier tonight — here's what I wrote.
It's an oddity of the election system that four essentially suburban districts are contested at one time and then, two years later, the five remaining districts are elected, four of which represent the urban parts of Raleigh and the county.
The four on the ballot this year were the suburban districts, the ones swept by the Republicans four years ago. This time, all of the candidates backed by the Republican Party lost, including Prickett. In District 9 (Cary), two Republicans ran against each other. Bill Fletcher, the winner, comes from the moderate wing of the party and is a former school board member selected by the Democrats as a replacement for the departed Debra Goldman, who resigned nine months ago. Fletcher defeated Nancy Caggia, who ran with the Wake GOP endorsement.
If drama's your thing, you'll miss Goldman, John Tedesco, Chris Malone and "Papa Ron" Margiotta, the four swashbuckling Republicans who, with Prickett, comprised the "Margiotta Majority" in 2009-11. If you think the school board is a place for serious people interested in good schools, not their own fame or getting ahead as party apparatchiks, the new 9-0 majority will strike you as a little dull — as they should be.
Look for Christine Kushner, a smart and not very flashy member elected in 2011, to be the next school board chair. She's the current vice chair.
McFarlane is riding high in Raleigh, not just because of her election win but also because she has a new city manager to her liking in the person of Ruffin Hall, who starts Nov. 18. "He's awesome," McFarlane told cheering supporters tonight at Tir na Nog. Russell Allen, ousted as manager by a 6-2 vote of City Council this spring, was considered competent, even skilled, by many. But I don't recall anyone calling him awesome. And his prickly independence eventually lost him his job.
As Raleigh's leader, McFarlane has two big hills to climb in her second term. One is Dix Hill, the 325-acre former state hospital tract that the city wants to turn into a destination park. McFarlane said tonight that she talked with Gov. McCrory last week and remains hopeful that a deal can be reached on Dix over the next six months.
The second is passage, hopefully next year, of a half-cent sales tax for transit by Wake County voters. I'll have a column in the Indy tomorrow about the McFarlane-Ruffin Hall team as they tackle that challenge. Suffice it to say here that it won't be easy.
In City Council elections, six incumbents were returned for another term. Bonner Gaylord ran unopposed in District E. At-large members Mary-Ann Baldwin and Russ Stephenson won easily, as did John Odom in District B, Eugene Weeks in District C and Thomas Crowder in District D.
In District A, however, first-term incumbent Randy Stagner lost by a 51-49 percent margin to challenger Wayne Maiorano. Stagner, an independent, was a friend and ally of McFarlane's, the District A representative before she ran for mayor. Maiorano is a Republican and a land-use lawyer whose business is representing developers. How that won't be a conflict of interest, as he sits in judgment of developers' applications, is an excellent question even if Maiorano never has a client with a case in Raleigh — because Maiorano's law partner, Lacy Reaves, certainly will.
Maiorano can thank The News & Observer for his narrow victory. Somehow, the newspaper decided that firing Russell Allen was a terrible thing to do and that Stagner was responsible. The firing was debatable, perhaps. What wasn't debatable was that Stagner, a council rookie, had little to do with it. Five other members, including McFarlane, made the call to get rid of Allen. Stagner's vote made six.
Nonetheless, the N&O pinned the blame on Stagner in story after story, after which the paper endorsed Maiorano.