District 3 Challenger- Democrat Steve Rao, founder of TSG Academies, is a small businessman and entrepreneur in the high-tech industry.
Do you remember having a moment where you wanted to get involved in politics?
Rao: I was on a trip in India and I saw a region that had once been in absolute poverty transformed into a hub of innovation. They were bringing in businesses from all over the world. Kids would ride their bikes 20 miles to go to school in a school half the size of those we have in Wake County, learning at 3 times the rate in math, science, and technology. That was a life-changing moment for me because my parents came from India 42 years ago. Three days later I was on a plane back to America and I asked myself, “Are my kids going to have the same opportunities I had growing up?” How ironic is it that my parents sacrificed to leave their home in India to come here and now look at how much India has transformed?
Do you think that kind of thirst for learning can be replicated here in the US?
Rao: We need a better national strategy for learning. Here we’ve spent the past year arguing about where our kids are going to go to school. In India they know where they are going to school. Let’s get our eye on the game here. At the national level, at the state level, at the local level the most important issue with our competitiveness globally is education, the tools that we’re going to give our children to compete.
You’ve said that you believe we need to move to a more globally based education model. How do you see that playing out?
Rao: We need to start teaching more awareness of current events in other countries. Every school child should know the capitals of foreign countries and what those countries make. This will give them a more global-based understanding so that they’re not just seeing the United States, but that this is a global, interconnected world.
You’ve said that one of the keys to innovation is making sure that “government brings all its cards to the table” or, in other words, owns up to what it can do better. What did you mean?
Rao: We have to have people in government who are willing to look at new solutions. That’s one of the greatest aspects of my candidacy. Tony Gurley and I have a fundamental difference. Every time I bring up impact fees- even though we’re running a positive campaign- he calls me a “tax and spend” liberal Democrat. The question I ask the voters is, “What would you rather have? A 70-cent property tax or impact fees to fund new school construction?” I’m an open-minded guy. I’m not going to go in there and charge developers too much. We’ve got to be fair. Do I have the answer on what the impact fees will be? No. Maybe they will be on a sliding scale. But if there’s a Wal-Mart and Food Lion and two other shopping plazas in a 5-mile radius, why can’t some of that growth fund the local schools.
How do we encourage more growth but at the same time play catch up on our infrastructure and government services?
Rao: We do need a new transit plan with light rail and expanded busing to take congestion off the roads and manage that growth. We’ve got to really think about school construction and where the revenue is going to come from to build these new schools. We’ve got to think about year-round schools and how that factors into full classroom capacity. If we don’t make tough decisions now, this will be a much harder place to live in 10 years. It’s a very crucial time for us. We have to get back to the basics. We need to manage our growth. In order to do that we make investments in our infrastructure. We have to come up with a comprehensive plan for our school system that everybody is comfortable with. We have to be able to foster innovation and entrepreneurship. We may need to look at tax incentive policies at the county level.
How do we balance giving companies incentives to come here and at the same time get them to invest in Wake County so we can have better schools and better infrastructure?
Rao: The best incentives for bringing new businesses here are always going to be a strong education system and a good environment rather than tax incentives. But, it’s unrealistic to assume we can’t have tax incentives. We’re going to need tax incentives to play the game. We also need to look at the way we give incentives to companies that are expanding and also the way that we value software. Right now, we value software the way we value a piece of lumber and it’s not right.
Are you feeling nervous about the campaign?
It would be a game-changing event for me to win this election. I think it would be really good for the county. The Indian community is getting very emotional because I’m the first Indian on the ballot in state history, at least in Wake County. It would be big if that community got mobilized and got more involved in politics.