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Wake County politics: It's complicated

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Maybe it's the weather. Is that why the Democratic gatherings I've attended lately have been so dreary, like everybody's got a cold—and a need to share what ails them? But if it's the weather, why are Republicans, like Wake GOP chair Claude Pope, so merry?

No, it's not the weather. It's the fact that the Democrats are forever managing to take a popular subject—health insurance reform, say, or at the local level, a new public safety center for Raleigh (who could be against that?)—and so bollix up the details that when they're finished, all the Republicans have to do is call in the death panels.

So as the 2010 election season begins, all signs in Wake are pointing to a Republican year. Despite being in a 3-4 minority, the Republicans seized control of the Wake Commissioners through a combination of Democratic illness (Harold Webb's stroke) and ineptitude. Republicans swept the recent school board elections. Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker was re-elected last year and heads a 5-1 Democratic majority on City Council (Councilors Nancy McFarlane and Bonner Gaylord are registered as independents); but Meeker's public safety tower is so unpopular that Pope is daring him to put it to a public referendum.

Oh, and there's Mike Easley and John Edwards to ponder. Ugh.

Yet amid the gloom, a Democratic victory in Wake this year is more than just conceivable, it's a 50-50 proposition. Imagine your own scenarios about President Barack Obama, health care and the economy. I'm assuming only that things won't get any worse.

Now consider the three issues that will dominate the race in Wake.

Schools

The 5-4 GOP majority on the Wake school board has wildly overplayed its hand since taking power in December. The latest evidence: their own survey of parents on year-round schools and the year-round or traditional schools their children attend. Belying the new majority's claim that parents are irate about school assignment policies, including diversity, 40,000 parents responded, and 94.5 percent of them said they're "very satisfied" or "satisfied" with their kids' schools.

As Chris Fitzsimon, head of the progressive N.C. Policy Watch, said, "That does not sound like a community clamoring for major changes in the way the school system is run."

Right. But John Tedesco, school board Chairman Ron Margiotta's pick to lead a committee on school assignments, continues to press for "community assignment zones" of the kind we described in a recent cover story ("Rich kid, poor kid," Jan. 20). In that article, I interpreted what Tedesco was saying to mean 14 mini-districts, or zones, within the county—enough to cause serious overcrowding of some schools, underuse of others and highly segregated schools, by income and race, in at least two of the 14.

Since then, Tedesco has upped the ante, telling audiences (and blogs) that he has 20 to 22 zones in mind—which would make the problems even worse. The business-sponsored Wake Education Partnership reacted to his ideas with alarm. Tedesco fired back in an intemperate blog post, accusing the WEP of "spout[ing] off make believe numbers (sic) to create fear and hysteria about potential alternatives."

In short, he's not winning any friends.

Tedesco dismissed the survey results, ironically, because just 28 percent of parents responded—not surprising given the quickie, online approach the board used that seemed designed, if anything, to favor the critics. It was less than a majority, he told The News & Observer. But it was more than the 4 percent turnout that elected the school board.

School board seats aren't on the ballot this year, but four county commission seats are—and three of them are held by Republicans. Joe Bryan, Paul Coble and Tony Gurley, the de jure chair, will have to answer for the bomb-throwing tactics of their school board allies, and it won't be easy—especially since it's clearer every day that what Margiotta and Tedesco want would require major tax increases. Lindy Brown, the one Democrat up for re-election, will have no problem opposing that.

A major test of Democratic resolve comes this weekend in Raleigh. The HK on J march and rally ("Historic Thousands on Jones Street") supports the 14-point agenda for social justice adopted by the NAACP and its allies. The Rev. William Barber, state NAACP president, misses no chance to denounce Margiotta and the school board majority, and he intends to make them the focus on the day's events. He's called for a big turnout on the pro-diversity side. We'll see.

Barber's a powerful voice, and if anyone can wake up the quiescent Obama voters of yesteryear, he can. They're the key to the 2010 outcome. There's more on Barber on the Citizen blog.

The public safety center

The 17-story, $205 million project that Mayor Meeker and City Manager Russell Allen put on the table last month has Raleigh residents up in arms about a possible tax hike. But it's readily divisible into two buildings, as Democratic Councilors Thomas Crowder and Russ Stephenson and independent Bonner Gaylord suggest.

One building for emergency functions (which require an expensively "hardened" structure) could go up first—and doesn't need a location on historic Nash Square. A new headquarters for the police and fire departments, less hardened and open to the public, could follow when the economy improves. The price for the two would almost certainly be lower.

Meeker can defuse this issue and turn it around on the Republicans if he wants—to the point of putting it on the November ballot and calling on Raleigh Democrats to support public safety. Presto: greater Democratic turnout for the Wake Commissioners election.

Top of the ticket

Today, the U.S. Senate race looks like a laugher for Republican incumbent Richard Burr. But what will it look like nine months from now? Campaigning for the Democratic nomination in Raleigh Monday, Durham attorney Ken Lewis said Burr's opponent must "put a stake in the ground" for Obama's policies and against Republican intransigence. Again, the key to the '10 outcome is whether Obama's '08 armies return to the field in Wake. If Lewis, who is African-American, or Cal Cunningham or Elaine Marshall—and Obama—can bring them out, it'll be a Democratic year again.

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