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The Wake County Commissioners race will decide the future of the region

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For Wake County, this is a defining, watershed year. Consider: Wake's population is closing in on 1 million and will hit that mark within eight months. In 1980, it was barely 300,000. Politico says Wake is the most important county to watch on Election Night, 2014. As Wake goes, so goes the U.S. Senate—possibly.

This is because, given expected Republican pickups in other states, control of the Senate may turn on the North Carolina race between incumbent Democrat Kay Hagan and Republican Thom Tillis. And if that race is as close as the polls show, it will hinge on Wake, which in recent elections has voted strongly Democratic (2008), slightly Republican (2010) and strongly Democratic again (2012). Hagan can't win statewide without winning big in Wake.

As important as the Senate race is, though, the critical election for Wake itself is for seats on the Wake Board of County Commissioners. Republicans hold a 4-3 majority; all four seats on the ballot are theirs. Thus, if they lose even one, control will shift to the Democrats.

That would mean:

• More funding for Wake County public schools after the starvation budgets of recent years.

• A referendum on whether to fund public transit with a half-cent sales tax increase—a vote the Republicans haven't allowed even as Durham and Orange counties move their plans forward.

• Raleigh's hopes for a park on the former Dorothea Dix Hospital site would have county backing—perhaps including money—instead of Republican criticism.

• A sea change in political philosophy, from the Republican idea that tax cuts are the solution to the Democratic idea that public investments are vital for economic growth.

The county commissioner elections are by district. But every voter in the county votes in every district, meaning the most likely outcome is a sweep by one party or the other. That happened in 2010, when the four Republican candidates won. It happened in 2012, when three Democrats won.

John Burns. - PHOTO BY BOB GEARY
  • Photo by Bob Geary
  • John Burns.

The difference is, just three commissioner seats are filled in presidential election years, when turnout is high and Democrats dominate the county. Four seats are filled in non-presidential years, when turnout drops and Republican chances improve—a lot.

So the prevailing wisdom is that the Wake commissioners' elections will hinge on whether Hagan's campaign, flush with national Democratic money, can pull enough Democrats out to overcome Tillis and the Republican dark money.

But it should work the other way too: Anger in Wake over Republican policies in the General Assembly and on the county commissioners board could be the spark that drags Hagan across the finish line. Indeed, the Wake commissioner elections should be a referendum on what Republicans are doing to the county and the state.

That's the point John Burns made when we talked about his campaign. Burns, a Democrat, is running against Republican incumbent Paul Coble in District 7—again, in a countywide election. "I don't think there's been a more important local election in 25 years," Burns said. "Important issues are pending that, I think, have been pushed off for too long."

Transit funding is one such issue, he said. Cuts to school aid is another—but instead of pushing back against Republicans in the General Assembly, Coble and his fellow Wake Republicans are their "ideological soul mates." He added, "This election offers a clear choice. The differences between the parties are stark."

Burns, a commercial lawyer and the father of three kids in public schools, is on a first-rate Democratic slate that also includes Sig Hutchinson, Jessica Holmes and Matt Calabria. They're running against Republican incumbents Joe Bryan, Phil Matthews and Rich Gianni, whose credentials are good, too, if being Coble followers is a major criterion.

Without question, the tenor of the Wake board has been partisan since Coble, a hard-right conservative, was elected in 2006. Before that, Republicans worked in reasonable harmony with Democrats, and both benefitted, frankly, from relatively generous state funding of schools which helped keep Wake's taxes down.

After the Great Recession, however, the state cut school aid and Wake, with Coble's Republicans in control, refused to fill the gap. Then in 2010, the GOP swept to power in the General Assembly elections and they won again in 2012. The result is cuts galore, with North Carolina dropping to 48th in per-student funding.

Paul Coble - PHOTO BY BOB GEARY
  • Photo by Bob Geary
  • Paul Coble

The upshot in Wake is that per-student funding has dropped by almost $500 to just $8,601 in 2013-14, according to School Superintendent Jim Merrill. By comparison, Montgomery County, Maryland spends almost $8,000 per student more. The average Wake teacher earns $45,512 a year (compared to the national average of $56,383) and has just a 1.2 percent pay hike to show for the last six years.

With pay raises still in doubt in the General Assembly, Merrill proposed giving all Wake school personnel a 3.5 percent boost next year, at a cost of $29 million. It's a proposal that frames this county election perfectly.

Republican commissioners say no—a brusque, Coble-like no.

Democrats say yes, with Burns' campaign featuring a video, "Four Pizzas," which equates the cost of giving teachers and other school workers respect to having four pizzas delivered. For the homeowner with a $200,000 house, it's a $60 a year tax hike.

On Monday, feeling the political heat, Coble proposed that the Republicans offer, not a 3.5 percent raise, but about one-sixth of that—or $240 a year—and only to teachers, not other workers. And no tax raise, Coble's resolution specified. The money has to come from elsewhere in the school budget.

"All that means is something else gets cut," Burns shot back at a budget hearing Monday night. Teachers will get an extra couple of hundred dollars and end up spending it on school supplies for their students, he said. An audience dominated by teachers erupted in cheers.

"Let's be clear what this is. It's 20 bucks a month," said Broughton High School teacher Laura Lineberger a little later. "It's a bit of an insult."

Wake County Commissioners. Left to (far) right: Caroline Sullivan (D), Betty Lou Ward (D), Joe Bryan (R), Phil Matthews (R), Rich Gianni (R), James West (D), Paul Coble (R). - PHOTO BY BOB GEARY
  • Photo by Bob Geary
  • Wake County Commissioners. Left to (far) right: Caroline Sullivan (D), Betty Lou Ward (D), Joe Bryan (R), Phil Matthews (R), Rich Gianni (R), James West (D), Paul Coble (R).

This article appeared in print with the headline "The Sleeper Election."

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