Wake Commission Candidates Hope for Bipartisanship

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The Obama-Romney race might be the biggest race that draws Wake County residents to the polls, but voters will also be filling three Wake County Commissioner seats.

All three seats are currently held by the only Democrats on the board. Regardless of how the race plays out, the board will remain in Republican control.

Board Chair Paul Coble, Tony Gurly, Phil Mathews and Joe Bryan are all up for reelection in 2014. Coble and Gurly ran and lost in the Republican primaries for a U.S. Congressional seat and for lieutenant governor, respectively.

Commissioners serve a four-year term on the seven-member board. While commissioners have to live in the district that they represent, they are elected by Wake County as a whole.

Representing District 6, Commissioner Betty Lou Ward has been on the board for 24 years and is vying for her seventh term. While Ward said the future of the school system and the state of the environment were big factors in her reasons to run again, she said that the major factor the lack of any public conversation about Wake’s future in transportation.

Ward is running against Republican Paul Fitts. Fitts made a run for one of the open at-large Raleigh City Council seats during lat year’s election, but lost to incumbents Russ Stephenson and Mary-Ann Baldwin

Fitts said he entered the race because it would be an opportunity to more closely examine the budget and try to find ways to raise money without raising taxes. Echoing his city council platform, Fitts said the county could do a better job at recruiting and attracting new businesses to the area.

Democrat Erv Portman, a one-term commissioner for District 4, has decided not to run for re-election in Wake, but instead is runing for Republican Richard Stevens’ empty State Senate seat.

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Raleigh Public Record

Wake County Commissioners during a meeting in 2011.

Democrat Caroline Sullivan is challenging Republican Dale Cooke for the vacant chair.

Sullivan has never held a political office, but said she wants to have a voice when it comes to decisions about the school system. She said the county’s rapid growth is crushing the schools and how the county manages that increase in capacity is one of her biggest issues.

If elected, Sullivan would be the only member of the board with children currently in public schools.

Cooke, Sullivan’s challenger, is also a first-time politician. He said he believes many voters in Wake County are concerned with how the government is managing taxpayer money, but thinks that Wake is headed in the right direction.

He credits the current board, specifically the Republican majority, for keeping the county on a good track despite the economic downturn. If elected, he said he would continue working with the board to keep the county moving forward toward fiscal responsibility.

Commissioner James West is running unopposed. West was appointed to his current term from the Raleigh City Council when Commissioner Harold Webb resigned due to health problems.

The Great Divide
The current board’s most notable quality is the great divide down party lines.

This year the board has taken up a number of resolutions and issues that, though were out of the county’s control, caused heated debates among the commissioners and the public.

Many of the resolutions, like a call to support Amendment 1 and voter I.D. Laws, and oppose environmental efforts that would infringe of personal property rights, were written, and voted on, by Republican members of the board.

A decision not to move forward with the county’s transit plan was also a split vote along party lines. Republicans refused to allow a half-cent sales tax increase on November’s ballot or to consider moving forward with the plan.

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A packed house turns out for a Wake County Commission meeting in February 2012.

Portman, a Democrat, said the frustration that he felt working on the board was not the reason he decided not to run for re-election. But, he said his time in the county was a stark difference from his term on the Cary Town Board.

The commission is, “taking issues that should be non-partisan and making them partisan,” he said.

Portman often got into ideological debates with Coble and other Republican members.

“We’re pretty divided right now,” Ward said. “I hope we don’t have another four years of this partisanship.”

Ward said the way that the transit issue has been dealt with is the worst thing that she’s seen in the 24 years that she’s served on the board.

“Hopefully the one thing that we can do,” Fitts said, “is take some animosity off the board so we can get things done.”

Fitts said he would work together with the Democrats on the board to discuss issues in a non-partisan way.

Sullivan hopes she would be able to bring some bipartisanship and civility to the board.

“I think there’s no reason why it needs to be partisan,” she said.

Most of the issues that the county tackles, Sullivan said, aren’t partisan issues.

Regardless of how the race turns out, West will remain and could be the only Democrat left standing. He said he has also believes that the board is very divided.

“We have to work toward more civility,” he said.

No matter what the situation is, he hopes that the board can come together to solve the problems that are relevant to the residents.

But not all candidates think that there is a political chasm between parties.

“I think that the board’s gotten along fairly well,” Cooke said. “I don’t know that there are major contentious issues between the various members of the board along partisan lines.”

Cooke also said the board has to come up with sound reasonable solutions to problems while staying away from partisan politics, which he said don’t belong on the local level.

“I think most people just want local government to work,” Sullivan said.

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