Wake voters will decide a $970 million bond issue for school construction, easily the biggest in county history. That the money is needed--for new schools and for old-school upgrades--is undeniable. Various groups, however, have proposed holding the bond issue hostage to some other agenda--voting no, that is, unless the school board jumps on the charter-schools bandwagon, or stops assigning students to "mandatory" year-round schools, or gets rid of year-round schools altogether, because they get in the way of vacation Bible schools.
Without getting into the pros and cons of each such cause, we view them as sideshows to the main event: Wake is growing like mad, adding 7,000-8,000 new students a year, and is far, far behind in its supply of school facilities already. Indeed, starving the schools won't advance any of the critics' stated causes, but would advanced the unstated one held by some on the political right, which is to undermine public education and drive children toward a system of vouchers and private (read: Christian) schools. If that's your goal, absolutely, vote no. Otherwise, short-changing our kids' education makes no sense.
We strongly urge a YES vote on the school bond.County Commissioners
The deep deficit in school facilities dates back to the 1994 election, when Republicans took control of the Board of County Commissioners and proceeded to slash Wake's property taxes. A decade of underfunding the schools ensued, with Democrats offering only sporadic resistance to the Republicans' tax-cutting mantra. Social services also suffered. Over the last several years, however, there's been a healthy, if tentative, shift in the direction of fiscal responsibility, led by a coalition comprising the board's two remaining Democrats, Betty Lou Ward and Harold Webb, and three or four of the five Republican commissioners. The only really recalcitrant Republican member, in fact, is conservative Phil Jeffreys--the only one of the county commissioners campaigning against the school bond.
In this year's county elections, all four of the contested seats are held by Republican members, one of whom is Jeffreys. We're not endorsing him, obviously. We are recommending votes for two of the other Republican incumbents, Chairman Tony Gurley and Commissioner Joe Bryan, each of whom has been a leader within that moderate coalition and is campaigning hard for the school bond. (A third pro-bond Republican moderate, Herb Council, is up for re-election but not running.) We're also endorsing two Democrats, Lindy Brown and Rodger Koopman, both of whom are pro-school bond as well. If those four win, control will shift from the current 5-2 Republican majority to 4-3 Democrat.
Our logic is this: Wake County is best served today by a bipartisan coalition of moderate Republicans and Democrats. It's wishful thinking to believe that a progressive Democratic board, if elected, could solve all of Wake's problems. Given the county's political complexion, such a board probably isn't electable (though, as we've seen, a conservative-dominated board is). And even if it were, Wake's growth problems go so deep and are so potentially divisive that Democrats can't begin to address them without Republican help. So when Republicans do help, and have the guts to break with the right wing of their own party in doing so, that's a good thing, and attention should be paid.
Here are the four commissioners' races, district-by-district. Remember, candidates must live in their district, but voting is countywide--all voters get to choose in each of the four districts.District 1 (East Wake)
Republican Joe Bryan has championed open-space preservation in Wake County, a huge need since development in Wake is eating up 27 acres of trees and farms a day. That statistic, and many others, comes to us thanks to the county's Blue Ribbon Committee, which took a long look ahead at the county's growth patterns and went "uh oh"--growth good, but impact on the county's finances very bad unless something is changed. Give Bryan and Tony Gurley credit for creating the committee. (Both, not incidentally, have the Sierra Club's backing.) Give them credit, too, for managing to nod while saying the words "menu of options" when talking about which taxes should go up to pay for growth. (The committee couldn't decide.) Neither Republican can quite say the words "impact fees on developers" yet, but impact fees (and real-estate transfer fees) are on the so-called "menu" that the N.C. Association of County Commissioners wants the General Assembly to enact. Then, with the legislature's OK, it would be up to each county to choose from the menu.
Bryan's got a wealth of good experience in government, including mayor of Knightdale, chair of CAMPO (the eastern Wake transportation planning agency) and leadership on a variety of social services, parks and arts boards. He's almost universally popular. His Democratic opponent, Don Mial (rhymes with file), is also a solid citizen. He's a state employee who manages a youth correction facility at Butner and is a National Guard vet with Vietnam and Iraq theater experience. He's running for office for the first time, however. We trust we'll see him again.District 2 (South Wake)
- Lindy Brown
We keep finding synonyms for curmudgeon to describe Phil Jeffreys. Unlike those who oppose the school bond because the Board of Education's pushing too fast toward year-round schools, Jeffreys is opposed because he wants every school to be year-round, and says if they were, no new money for school construction would be needed. That's just wrong. In fact, if you want to hear the other side of just about anything that you know is true about growth in Wake County, strike up a conversation with Jeffreys--he loves to chat.
By happy coincidence, Democrat Lindy Brown is not just better informed about the issues in general, she's also a just-retired social worker (at Dorothea Dix and in other county programs) who will help the county commissioners do their duty for indigent mental-health patients when Dix closes. Brown wants to look at every other option (impact fees, real-estate transfer fees) before raising property taxes to pay for growth. And if they are raised, retirees on fixed-incomes should be protected, she says.District 3 (Cary-West Wake)
This is the toughest choice of the four. Republican Tony Gurley, when he ran the first time in '02, sounded a lot like Jeffreys--like a right-winger, in other words. That's because he didn't know a whole lot then, he says. Four years later, he's learned, he's the board chair, and he's leading the campaign for the school bond. And like Bryan, he's voted to raise school taxes over the objections of his party's conservatives--like Paul Coble and his Wake Taxpayers Association crowd. Gurley, it turns out, is a leader, not a follower.
On the Democratic side, Martha Brock is a smart, thoughtful and courageous woman who shared her struggle with us four years ago ("Divided Minds," Independent, May 22, 2002) about controlling a serious mental illness after it struck her in high school. She is a longtime fighter on mental-health issues and recently went to work on the staff of the Governor's Advocacy Council for Persons with Disabilities. She ran for this office because she thought a Democrat should, and she hoped another candidate would replace her on the ticket after she filed, but none did. She'd be a great addition to the county commissioners if she were elected--and she can say the words "impact fees" when necessary.
- Rodger Koopman
Herb Council isn't running again, and the Republicans nominated former Raleigh Mayor Paul Coble in his stead, which is unfortunate. Council was the first Republican commissioner to resist the right-wing tide against school funding. Coble, as Raleigh mayor and city councilor, was the right-wing tide--reliably in favor of sprawl, against smart-growth planning ("a baby that should be killed in its crib"), and a tax-cutter all the way. Predictably, he's endorsed the school bond, but is against the taxes needed to pay for it if it passes.
Democrat Rodger Koopman is a retired Air Force vet (combat flights and intelligence) who's now a techie in Research Triangle Park (IT with Itron). He's smart, progressive, and has been the most outspoken of the Democratic candidates about the need to start charging developers impact fees on new housing as part of the solution to skyrocketing school costs. Growth is good, Koopman says, "but the cost of growth should not fall just on the shoulders of current property owners."Sheriff
We were proud supporters of former Sheriff John Baker, a Democrat, for all of his 16 years in office, and we endorsed him for re-election to a fifth four-year term in 2002, when he lost. Four years later, he's running again. "Big John" was a great public servant, and it can truly be said that he had his day. We cannot think of a reason, however, why his successor, Republican Donnie Harrison, shouldn't be allowed to have his. Harrison, an ex-Highway Patrol officer with (now) 39 years of law enforcement experience, promised to be a working sheriff, and he's been as good as his word. Crime scenes? He's there. Community meetings? There, too. He started a program where deputies identify, and check up daily on, elderly shut-ins. He started a gang intelligence unit. He helped start the groundbreaking program that trains cops to cope with the mentally ill, which helps get them into treatment and out of jail, and also avoids unnecessary confrontations and injuries on both sides. When three of his deputies beat up a guy for taking up two parking spaces with his car recently, Harrison fired 'em. Immediately.
Harrison's career includes canine training, and we were a little worried he'd be turning dogs loose in the schools looking for drugs, a la some other sheriffs we've seen. Hasn't happened. Instead, he's built on Baker's record. Indeed, Baker has no real criticism of Harrison other than to say Harrison's done nothing new. Sounds like a reason to vote for Harrison.
- Ripley Rand
We recommend a vote for incumbent Ripley Rand, who has done a fine job on the bench by all accounts. A Superior Court judge since 2002, Rand also has experience as an assistant district attorney, prosecuting domestic violence and violent offenders among others. He has a reputation as a judge with a strong work ethic and a commitment to fairness. His opponent, Paul Ridgeway, an attorney who specializes in commercial law, is a formidable challenger whose Independent questionnaire shows a thoughtful understanding of the law. But we see no reason to oust a well performing incumbent.Superior Court Judge District 10C
- Paul G. Gessner
With 10 years of experience as a District Court judge in Wake County, Paul G. Gessner gets our support in this race for an open seat. Gessner served as a Raleigh police officer and a Wake County prosecutor before taking his seat on the bench. Daniel Garner is currently a lawyer with the N.C. Commissioner of Banks. He also served as an appeals referee for seven years on the N.C. Employment Security Commission, which provides employment services, unemployment insurance and labor market information.District Court 10
Vince Rozier worked as an assistant district attorney before Gov. Mike Easley appointed him to this seat in February. Observers agree that Rozier quickly learned the ropes and seems to be doing a fine job on the bench. We see no reason to replace him. Aida Doss Havel is a private practice attorney who has focused on domestic and family law cases for the last several years. She has strong support among family lawyers.Clerk of Superior County
- Nancy (Lorrin) Freeman
Why do we elect this official? Shouldn't the chief judge of the county make this appointment? We do observe that the incumbent, Republican Janet Pueschel, ex-vice chair of the Wake GOP, has little support in the Wake courthouse, which is where her customers are. And we know Nancy (Lorrin) Freeman from her three years as chair of the Wake Democrats, where she was highly regarded as a leader-organizer, and observe that most of the courthouse crowd is with her. She's got a good record as an assistant district attorney and, for the last four years, as assistant attorney general serving as counsel to the N.C. Highway Patrol. Freeman promises to make the clerk's office more "user-friendly," which would seem to be the point. We backed her in the Democratic primary, and do so again.Soil and Water Conservation District Supervisors
Oh, where is Jessica Bellas when we need her? (In Hong Kong, that's where.) She was the environmental activist on the soil and water board, and if she vouched for a candidate, we knew we were on the right track. She served happily with Donnie Woodlief, the Zebulon farmer and current board chair, who's a Democrat and is running for re-election. When Bellas left, she was replaced by F. Carlyle Teague, a Democrat and an association executive (N.C. Cooperative Council, N.C. Specialty Foods Association) who's running to remain on the board.
The board mainly approves the grants recommended by the county's water-quality staff for conserving stream banks and such. But its work is not followed by the local chapter of the Sierra Club, nor any of the other environmentalists we know.
Guy Meilleur, a Republican and New Hill arborist, got our attention with his answers to our questionnaire. He's a conservationist at heart as well as by trade, and having a county official from poor, beleaguered (and unincorporated) New Hill--where bad ol' Cary & Crew want to stick their regional wastewater treatment plant--might be useful. There are eight candidates in all for two seats. We're going with Meilleur and Woodlief.General Assembly
With a strong economy driving up state revenues, the General Assembly's latest biennial session was a happy one in many respects. Social services funding improved, teachers and state employees got more money, and the legislature took a small first step in the direction of fairness to low-wealth counties by capping their Medicaid payments (fair would be no county payments) and increasing compensatory K-12 education funds. The ongoing "pay to play" scandal was an embarrassment, however. This session, it starred House Speaker Jim Black and lobbyists for the "gaming" industry, but they were merely filling the roles played in previous terms by a variety of legislative actors and a cast of special-interest supporters who showered them with perks and campaign dough. Oh, and passage of the lottery was an embarrassment, too--is this any way to raise money for schools?
All this was brought to us by Democratic majorities in both houses and a Democratic governor. We sometimes wonder if the Republicans would do any better. One good thing: They wouldn't have passed the lottery. But otherwise, their answer to everything is tax cuts for business and high-income folk, which would result in reduced services to the needy and disadvantaged. And while they complain a lot about the Democrats' ethics, they shy from the kinds of serious campaign reforms--including spending limits and a public financing option--that would really make a difference.
We're always on the lookout, though, for Republicans who break the mold. For example, Sen. Richard Stevens, R-Wake, was one of a handful of Senate Republicans who voted in favor of the Democrat-designed budget this year. Will he get our endorsement? No--because he has no opponent. Ditto Sen. Janet Cowell, D-Wake. Three Wake County House members were unopposed--Democrats Bernard Allen, Jennifer Weiss and Deborah Ross--and with Allen's death this month, his replacement and spot on the ballot will be filled by the county Democratic Party's executive committee. Also unopposed is Republican Marilyn Avila, who defeated incumbent Rick Eddins, R-Wake, in a primary.
In the contested races, here's how we see it:
- Vernon Malone
Democrat Vernon Malone, the incumbent, isn't the most energetic Senate member at age 74, though he showed again in the recent term that he remains a go-to guy for big development interests, just as he was when he was a county commissioner. He was chief sponsor of the new law that permits "public-private partnerships" in school construction--lets developers build the schools for lease, in other words--and tried unsuccessfully to get special funding for a developers' pet road project in North Raleigh. Still, Malone is a solid pro-education vote and has the Sierra Club's endorsement for his environmental record. Meanwhile, his GOP opponent, Richard Doeffinger of Raleigh, is a down-the-line conservative who favors cutting corporate taxes, supporting private schools with tax credits and amending the state constitution to ban gay marriage. We'll take Malone.
- Dorothy (Gerry) Bowles
We hoped that Sen. Neal Hunt, the incumbent Republican, would take a centrist path when he was elected two years ago, based on his pretty good record as a Raleigh City Council member. Unfortunately, he's aligned himself with the Called2Action crowd--the Christian conservatives--and spent his time getting their favorite bill passed, the one that requires every student to say the Pledge of Allegiance every day. He was a "no" vote on the budget and on raising the minimum wage to $6.15 an hour. He signed the conservatives' so-called Taxpayers Protection Pledge, which would bar any tax increase unless approved by a legislative super-majority or in a public referendum. And he co-sponsored the amendment to ban gay marriage.
Hunt's Democratic opponent, Dorothy (Gerry) Bowles, will be familiar to Independent readers as the organizer of Wake Citizens for Effective Government, a nonpartisan forum on public issues in North Raleigh. Bowles, who used to be a high school history teacher, has run an energetic, door-knocking campaign emphasizing her support for mental-health insurance parity and her opposition to corporate tax loopholes and lobbyists raising campaign funds for legislators. She promises, if elected, to hold her own monthly issues forums, a la the now-defunct WCEG. Good idea.House 34 (Central Raleigh)
First-term Rep. Grier Martin, a Democrat, did himself proud by not voting for the lottery, and by not going along with Speaker Black's method of scrubbing the lottery bill of all grace-saving provisions (it was supposed to have no advertising--remember that one?) by sticking an amended version in the House budget. No wonder, then, that Martin was one of the first in the House to distance himself from Black and to call for serious ethics and campaign-finance reforms. As a freshman, he didn't get 'em all, but he tried. Martin was also singled out by the Conservation Council of N.C.'s political action committee for his hard work for the environment.
Martin's Republican opponent is perennial candidate J.H. (Joe) Ross, a retired State Capitol police officer who ran for mayor of Raleigh last year and "held" Charles Meeker to 70 percent of the vote. Ross is best remembered for his comment that no rail transit system is needed around here because "flying buses" will soon be with us. His main theme this year: The Christian majority has a right to be protected from--well, whoever it is majorities need to be protected from.House 36 (Mostly Cary)
- Greer Beaty
Republican Nelson Dollar, a conservative, is the incumbent, and his claim to fame is that in two years he's never missed a vote. Dollar beat former Rep. David Miner, a moderate, in a nasty GOP primary two years ago that featured appeals to the right-wing "base" on issues like taxes (Miner had voted for some) and gay rights (Miner was against the stock anti-gay measures). Since then, Dollar's moved some toward the middle, as when he joined the N.C. Justice Center on a bill that would've helped folks with pre-existing illnesses buy health insurance (via a "high-risk" pool). He claims, in fact, to have co-sponsored at least one bill with every Wake House Democrat. Smart--but then he is a political consultant by trade. On the other hand, he's a Taxpayer Protection Pledge signer, a supporter of the anti-gay marriage amendment, and a faithful proponent of anything the homebuilders and big developers want. And frankly, we still haven't gotten over that '05 primary.
We're supporting Democratic challenger Greer Beaty, a longtime state employee who's recently gone to work as an account supervisor with an advertising and public relations firm in Raleigh. Beaty's running on a traditional, pro-education Democratic platform. She, too, is for the high-risk health insurance pool idea. She's also for letting counties charge impact fees to developers ("policies that will have growth pay for itself"). But mainly, she distinguishes herself from Dollar this way: "While my opponent was running political campaigns for conservatives, I was working across party lines on Hurricane Floyd housing recovery. I was promoting high-quality child care through Smart Start and promoting the state's tourism industry following 9-11." Beaty does indeed have a long record of public service to recommend her. Dollar doesn't.House 37 (Southwest Wake)
- Ed Ridpath
At 56, Republican incumbent Paul Stam is a little less fiery than the young conservative who showed up in the House in 1989 full of anti-abortion brimstone. But he's no less committed. Unseated after a single term, Stam was nonetheless a stalwart of the Republican right in Wake County throughout the '90s before returning to the House in '03 in this Republican-tilting district. As a lawyer, he's known for representing pro-life groups in First Amendment cases--he's good on "free speech" issues--and lately, his firm won notoriety (and $700,000) for helping Durham County developers avoid paying impact fees for school costs. Thanks a lot.
Democrat Ed Ridpath, by contrast, is a thoroughly progressive candidate who, if he wins an upset victory, can credit it to hard work and shoe leather. More than a year ago, Ridpath, a computer consultant with IBM, decided it was no longer OK for the Democrats to run nobody in Southwest Wake. Since then, he's been pounding the pavement evenings and weekends in Apex, Holly Springs and Fuquay-Varina, telling voters what real legislative ethics reforms would be ("severe limits on [campaign] contributions or public financing") and talking up progressive tax reforms like a state Earned Income Tax Credit and extending the sales tax to services while cutting the overall rate. "I will fight against cesspools, dumps and toll roads in our communities instead of being the champion of wealthy lobbyists and developers," Ridpath says. In District 37, that statement needs no great elaboration.House 39 (East Wake)
In her first House term, former Wake County Commissioner Linda Coleman made a good name for herself championing state employee raises (she's a retired state employee herself) and helping fix Speaker Jim Black's mess with a bill undoing his infamous budget giveaway to his fellow optometrists (the required eye tests for every kindergartener boondoggle). She also takes credit for making it harder for illegal immigrants to get drivers' licenses.
Her Republican opponent, John Blackwell, is a retired corporate manager turned hardware-store owner (John's Hardware in Rolesville), who brags that he's the "only candidate in N.C. 39 who doesn't take campaign contributions from Speaker Black." That's good, but otherwise, Blackwell's platform is uninspired conservative dogma, including making it much harder for illegal immigrants to get licenses. He thinks every tax measure should go to the voters. Uh, no.House 41 (Northwest Wake & Raleigh)
- Ty Harrell
In Wake County, this is the main legislative event. In this corner, Republican incumbent Russell Capps, six-term champion of all things right-wing, from bills banning the teaching of evolution to his declaration that Hurricane Katrina was a godly message to the sinful people of New Orleans. We'll give him this--he was anti-lottery. (And his manners are always impeccable.) Capps heads the Wake Taxpayers Association, that small band of anti-taxers that helped defeat a $650 million school bond issue in 1999, one of the big reasons Wake's so far behind today in school construction. At 75, Capps reportedly considered retiring in '06. But he didn't. So the voters will have to retire him.
Fortunately, Ty Harrell, the Democratic challenger, has proven to be a dynamic candidate. A former campaign consultant turned fundraiser for Duke University, Harrell's running on an orthodox party platform: Better schools, expand health-insurance coverage, offer tax incentives to small businesses that create jobs. The point is, he's running--hard. He's got a string of endorsements from environmental, labor and teachers groups. He's backed by Equality N.C., the gay and lesbian rights group, by NARAL, Planned Parenthood and NOW, the women's' rights groups, and by the State Police Benevolent Association. And he got the mayor of Morrisville, independent Jan Faulkner, on his side--important in this part of Wake. Unlike Capps, who never saw a progressive thing he liked, Harrell promises to represent the mainstream of Wake County thinking. That would be a refreshing change.