Pundits be damned. Endorsements, pshaw. Orange County voters--the 21 percent who voted in last week's primary, that is--chose a surprising lineup of candidates to head its Board of County Commissioners and county school board. Their choices--incumbent Moses Carey and challenger Valerie Foushee--didn't match up with those of the many political action committees, prompting a new round of post-election speculation on what the character of those boards will be.
Incumbent Margaret Brown was defeated after serving as a commissioner since 1996. Brown has been a strong advocate for environmental protections, land preservation and long-range planning. She has also absorbed much of the wrath from angry parents who oppose the proposed merger of Chapel Hill-Carrboro and Orange County school districts. Anti-merger activists say Brown has been dismissive of their concerns and has not made her own positions on merger clear. One rival in the race, Pam Hemminger, a fellow Sierra Club endorsee who vocally opposed the merger, criticized Brown throughout the campaign for being uncommunicative with citizens concerned about the merger issue. Brown came in third with 23 percent of the vote; Hemminger came in fourth with almost 22 percent.
If this election was a referendum on merger, it's unclear what voters decided. But all the talk about merger apparently confused some voters: Complaints flooded the Orange County elections office from people who thought the question would be on the ballot, according to a report in The Chapel Hill News.
In fact, the vote was split along merger lines. Carey has been the only candidate to publicly support merger, while Foushee, who currently sits on the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school board, has vocally opposed merger and enjoyed support from the newly formed NoMerger.org political action committee. Foushee won the most votes, approximately 25 percent.
Foushee and Carey are both African Americans, and their simultaneous election marks a political milestone in Orange. But in a county as progressive and diverse as this one, their shared ethnicity seems less significant than another quality they have in common: Both have reputations for being congenial, diffusing heated debate with a calm, collegial approach.
That Barry Jacobs will remain on the BOCC is another surprise dealt by this election. Jacobs was considered the favorite to win the N.C. House 50 primary, but while Jacobs clearly won Orange voters' support, his opponent Bill Faison rallied voters in Caswell County for a close victory. So pre-election talk of who would replace Jacobs is now moot.
"I've always liked being county commissioner," Jacobs says. "We have a lot of things to work on, and as much as anything I want to make sure that the transition in adding a new member, which hasn't happened since I came on the board six years ago, goes smoothly." Jacobs says he hopes Brown will continue to be involved in the board's work, particularly in efforts she has spearheaded. "Margaret has a broad interest in human services and has been our point person on mental health reform--I don't know who's going to replace her in that role," Jacobs says.
Foushee has not been elected a county commissioner yet--she faces a challenge in November from one Republican and one Libertarian candidate, though history suggests their victories are unlikely. Presuming her departure from the school board, the superintendent's office will take applications from the public and school board members will vote on who will fill her position.
Gloria Faley, who lost re-election to the board last year by a mere 27 votes, is an obvious candidate. Faley has remained active in the school system this year. "I am considering it. I haven't made a decision," Faley said.
Faley supported Foushee and says supporting the educational opportunities of disadvantaged and minority children remains her central concern. "In one way or another, I will remain very active in politics in the educational side because my great love is education," Faley says.
The Orange County school board, meanwhile, will have two new faces. While Keith Cook's defeat was no big surprise after a summer of controversy over his plagiarized graduation speech, the two top vote getters represent another mixed message from voters. Liz Brown, a controversial figure in the merger discussion, won nearly 25 percent in the five-way race for three seats. Brown ran on a promise to fight for more funding for county schools to pay for more academic programs, which she said would even out opportunities available to students across the county. Right behind her, with 21 percent of the vote, conservative Al Hartkopf won on his platform to limit spending and oppose tax increases.
What those changes mean for students and their parents won't be evident until summer's over and school is back in session.