Perhaps no one was more surprised by the results of last week's Wake County Democratic primaries than Vickie Adamson.
"I had a concession speech prepared but not a victory speech," she says. "Everybody kept telling me you can't win. But I did."
Indeed she did, though not by much—about two thousand votes out of sixty-one thousand cast. Still, she unseated a popular, charismatic, and better-funded incumbent in Commissioner John Burns and caught most local politicos—Burns included—flat-footed.
That wasn't the only surprise May 8 held. That former school board member Susan Evans defeated Commissioner Erv Portman wasn't a shock, but the margin was jaw-dropping: 62–38. And Commissioner Matt Calabria, a young progressive thought to have a bright political future, had more trouble than he anticipated, holding off challenger Lindy Brown by a scant two thousand votes.
Each contest had its idiosyncrasies. Burns was dinged by Adamson's accusation that he bullied her in a public forum a week before the election—bad optics in what is shaping up to be a Year of the Woman. Calabria was aided by the Brown campaign's ill-advised Facebook post lamenting tax increases to fund schools, which fed into Calabria's line that she was more conservative than voters realized. And then there was Portman, who found himself in the untenable position of warning progressive primary voters against being too progressive.
But these races also had connective tissue. These three incumbents—along with Commissioner Sig Hutchinson, who won his primary easily—are all straight white men who had all backed last year's budget, which critics said underfunded schools. Their challengers—with the exception of Hutchinson's—were all women running on a pro-schools platform, backed by two well-heeled liberal donors.
It's hard to overstate the impact that Dean Debnam and Ann Campbell had on the county commissioner races. Both had supported the incumbents before, felt betrayed by their school-funding vote last year, and had the resources to do something about it. They and their spouses poured more than $100,000 into these contests, and their PACs—Debnam's Wake Citizens for Good Government and Campbell's Women Awake—raised at least $50,000. The Debnams and Campbells alone accounted for more than two-thirds of the money Adamson raised.
In an email, Campbell says the results prove that Wake voters value gender diversity and education. "Looking ahead," she writes, "all candidates on the ballot in Wake County in November ... would be wise to demonstrate their commitment to public education." (Debman could not be reached for comment by press time.)
Hutchinson takes a more pessimistic view. "Wherein I was victorious," he says, "I don't think there were any winners. The big loser was the Wake County Democratic Party. It was an ugly and brutal fight. Large-money donors tried to influence the election, and they were successful."
Both Evans and Adamson face Republican opponents in the fall, though neither is expected to encounter much difficulty. The question is how they'll change the board when they're sworn in six months from now.
"Primaries—and elections in general—tend to exaggerate differences," Calabria says, sounding a conciliatory note. "We are all progressives dealing with common challenges. I think there is likely to be a lot more unity than some of the dialogue in the primary would suggest."
"The colleagues I currently serve with have each brought something unique and different to the table," Holmes adds. "Moving forward, I anticipate that the board will be even better served by having more diversity of opinions."