The most important election in Wake County that most people haven't heard about is the race for District 3 county commissioner between Democratic challenger Steve Rao and Republican incumbent Tony Gurley.
As the Rao-Gurley contest turns out, so may the verdict on the 2010 elections, which could serve as a referendum on Republican policies in Wake County, in particular the anti-diversity decisions of the five-member Republican majority on the school board.
The Rao-Gurley race, moreover, offers a sharp contrast between an ambitious first-time Democratic candidate who would also be the first Indian-American elected to office in North Carolina and a longtime Republican standard-bearer who wasn't above using dirty tricks to get himself elected as chairman of the current commission.
But Rao-Gurley isn't the popular headliner, not yet anyway. That distinction goes to the District 7 race between two candidates who are far better known: Democratic challenger Jack Nichols, a former county commissioner and, until recently, the chair of the Wake Democratic Party, and Republican incumbent Paul Coble, the former Raleigh mayor and city councilor.
Nichols versus Coble is like an old grudge match. It pits a moderate Democrat, who proudly cites his "Young Turk" days as an aide to Gov. Jim Hunt three decades ago, against a conservative Republican who learned his politics from his uncle, U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms, and later served as right-hand man to former Raleigh mayor and current state GOP Chairman Tom Fetzer.
In these elections, however, what matters isn't so much whether Nichols ousts Coble as whether the slate of four Democratic candidates maintains control of the Board of County Commissioners against the four Republicans.
Going in, Democrats hold a 4-3 majority on the commission; all three of the Republicans—Coble, Gurley and Joe Bryan—are fighting for re-election. The fourth seat is held by Democrat Lindy Brown, also a candidate in District 2.
Thus, only a clean sweep by the Republicans would mean GOP control by 4-3; an even split would push the Democratic majority to 5-2.
But it isn't that simple. On the first of what promises to be a series of showdown votes over whether to support the Republican school board, Brown recently voted with the three Republicans, not her three fellow Democratic commissioners. The vote was on whether to support or veto the school board majority's decision to buy land for a new high school in Rolesville, where few students live, rather than build on a previously acquired site in fast-growing Northeast Raleigh.
At a recent Wake Democratic Men's Club meeting, Brown defended her vote as cheaper for taxpayers in the long run. Her fellow Democratic commissioners, especially Stan Norwalk, argued that her vote allowed the Republican school board to abandon a long-established process of putting schools where they're needed—regardless of politics—based on the analysis of a planning unit at N.C. State University.
Aside from defending her vote, Brown said nothing about school board issues in a rambling 20-minute speech that she said would be about education but which consisted mainly of her reading the county budget.
Nichols-Coble is probably a bellwether race. Democrats are counting on Nichols, a good campaigner, to lead their ticket, and Raleigh's pro-diversity business leaders, many of them Republicans, are supporting him. But Coble was the leading Republican vote getter in 2006, running ahead of both Bryan and Gurley. (The fourth Republican candidate, then-incumbent Phil Jeffreys, fell out of favor with his own party over school issues and lost to Brown.)
So figure that Nichols and Coble will mirror the results in the county. If it's a Republican year, Coble will probably win. Nichols could poll slightly ahead of the rest of his party's ticket, but he's not going to run away with this election.
This leaves Rao-Gurley as the only race in which the Democratic candidate might win in an otherwise close or Republican year.
Whether Rao will win is far from clear eight weeks before Election Day. But Gurley left the door open by making himself a target to a Wake Republican Party that's swerved to the right over the last four years.
In 2006, when Gurley was running for re-election, he (and Bryan) campaigned hard for the $970 million school board issue on the ballot that year, and Gurley ran as a convert to moderation.
Since then, however, Gurley's recast himself in his old conservative mold. Taking advantage of then-Democratic Commissioner Harold Webb's absence following a stroke and the fact that a second Democrat, Betty Lou Ward, was in the bathroom, Gurley finagled his way into the commissioner's chair by a 3-2 vote, despite his party being in the minority.
As chairman, Gurley forced votes on whether to drop abortion coverage from the standard health insurance benefits package extended to female county employees. (Webb's vote by phone broke a 3-3 deadlock and reversed Gurley's stance in favor of dropping it.) With Brown's acquiescence, Gurley and his fellow Republicans have stood with the school board's GOP majority so far.
Rao, meanwhile, is a hard-charging newcomer who's courting the thousands of Indian-Americans who live in Wake County, many of them in his Cary-based district.
Most Indian-Americans, he observes, are Republicans, a vestige of Nixon-era policies that favored immigration by Indian professionals. His father, a doctor, was a Republican until recently. Rao might have been one, too, given his background in business. Rao recalls telling a GOP official who tried to recruit him, "But your party made that impossible" by being so right-wing.
His support for strong public schools helped make him a Democrat, he says. And while he thinks student assignment policies in the Wake schools needed some changes, he believes the GOP majority is making a big mistake in ignoring diversity in the schools.
Like Gurley, Rao is a lawyer who gravitated to business and entrepreneurship. Gurley owns pharmacies. Rao's business is specialized software: He helped start a small firm and has raised capital and sold systems for other firms.
Once a tennis player at Emory University, he also owns part of a company that operates tennis camps in the Triangle.
Rao is running on an economic development platform, including a promise to seek out Indian investors for Wake County if he's elected. He can be cocky. "I've already asked Tony Gurley if he'd come with me to India when I'm sworn in," he joked at the Wake Dems meeting.
Rao is extremely serious, however, about his ability to connect audiences with Indian business leaders who, he says, have invested billions in the U.S. A couple of years ago, he traveled to the Indian state of Gujarat, where his wife's family lives. The governor there thought Duke University was in California. "We have a lot of work to do," Rao says.
But leaders in India, like business leaders everywhere, Rao maintains, invest money in places with good schools that aren't segregated by race or income. Especially when jobs are scarce, he says. "This isn't the time to dismantle a school system that was working, which is going to hurt our image and hurt our ability to recruit businesses."
Correction (Sept. 16, 2010): Election Day is, of course, Nov. 2. See comments below.