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In February, a handful of local party insiders launched a PAC called Women Awake. Its goal, as explained on its website, is to get progressive women elected to office at the local level in communities across North Carolina, starting with Wake County. Though its financial disclosures weren’t available before press time (and the PAC’s board chair did not respond to questions from Raleigh Magazine), political observers anticipate the PAC launching a significant spending effort on behalf of candidates in three of the five races leading up to the primary.
Women Awake endorsed the lone woman commissioner, chair Jessica Holmes (whose seat is uncontested this election cycle), plus three women challenging incumbent commissioners for their seats: Susan Evans, who is challenging Erv Portman in District 4; Lindy Brown, who is challenging Matt Calabria in District 2; and Vickie Adamson, challenging John Burns in District 7.
These primary contests have been cast along gender lines—the PAC’s website bluntly states “frankly, our male-dominated Board of Commissioners is holding up progress”—but the issue of school funding is at the heart of the contests. In June, the commissioners voted 5-2 to approve a $1.26 billion county budget that gave the Wake County Public School System $21 million in new funding, less than half of the $45 million the school board had requested, for a total of more than $430 million.
Holmes, an attorney for the N.C. Association of Educators, and Commissioner Greg Ford, a former Wake elementary and middle school principal and teacher, voted against the budget. They are the only two commissioners who don’t have primary challengers, though Ford faces two challengers in the fall. Commissioners James West and Sig Hutchinson face primaries against Robert Finch Sr. and Jeremiah Pierce, respectively; none have been endorsed by the Women Awake PAC.
Critics of Calabria, Burns and Portman, including the PAC, say that in voting for a budget that didn’t meet the school board’s request, the candidates didn’t fund adequate levels of guidance counselors, social workers and psychologists, living wages for bus drivers and cafeteria workers, extra duty pay for teachers and coaches and programs for both high and low achieving students.
Four-year incumbents Burns and Calabria, and Portman who has served for two years, emphasize their records of increasing the schools budget by nearly $100 million per year, raising teacher pay, passing a seven-year, $2.1 billion construction plan for schools, as well as launching the Wake transit plan and initiatives around living wages, equity, food access and affordable housing.
Here, we asked the commissioners to tell us why they should be re-elected, and we spoke to their challengers about their reasons for running.
The Wake Democratic primary takes place May 8. Democrats and unaffiliated voters can vote for a single candidate in all five races.
District 2: Lindy Brown vs. Matt Calabria
“First, the current District 2 County Commissioner was pursuing a General Assembly run, when he and I agreed to support one another. He went back on his word. I announced my candidacy in December and filed for an open seat on February 12, 2018. I’m pursuing this seat because I served this district as County Commissioner in 2006 – 2010. The current District 2 Commissioner didn’t fully fund the WCPSS’2017/18 budget. I know how important it is to invest in our WCPSS. My top three priorities are funding 1). WCPSS/Wake Tech, 2). First Responders, and 3). Workforce Affordable Housing.
Editor’s Note: Calabria was recruited to run for the state House but was gerrymandered out of his district this winter. We gave him an opportunity to respond to Brown’s statement, since she addressed him directly: “I never endorsed my opponent, and in fact I let her know I was running to retain my seat well before the candidate filing period even opened.”
“I am an attorney, a husband, and a brand new father who believes that Wake County needs forward-thinking leadership. The son of a high school principal, I’ve worked to increase school funding by 27% and raise local teacher pay by 44%–both in just 3 years. I was the author of Wake’s first living wage ordinance, championed the county’s efforts to fight childhood hunger, and led efforts to pass a landmark transportation plan. We have more to do, and I’m running to build on this work. I ask for your support on May 8.”
District 4: Susan Evans vs. Erv Portman
“As a finance professional who recently served our community as a Wake County School Board member for five years, I’m confident that bringing that experience to the Board of Commissioners will enable a more cooperative and informed collaboration between the two Boards. Supporting a well-funded, high-quality public school system is my highest priority.
Additionally, there is a pressing need for affordable housing and county-provided health and human services and our growing traffic congestion demands the expansion of transit options. I am eager to work with my Commissioner colleagues and other community partners to expand solutions for these and other issues.”
“I am pleased to serve the citizens of Wake county on the board and seek a second term to continue our support for public education, support for those most in need and planning for our future. As a father of 4 daughters, three which teach school, I know how key education is to our future. We have a great county board today and now is no time to train up a new team.
As one of the fastest growing large counties in the nation we need an experienced board with a caring heart and a clear focus to protect the natural beauty of this great place. My goal is simple, leave this county better than I found it. With your vote I will.”
District 7: Vickie Adamson vs. John Burns
“I am running for public office in a county of one million people, and it feels so daunting—but I’m doing it anyway, because I want to stand up for Democratic values:
• Well-funded public schools
• Affordable workforce housing
• Human Services for the vulnerable citizens from our newborns to our senior citizens.
Too many Wake County residents are not sharing in the prosperity of our County, and there are many things Wake County government can do better to listen to the needs of all its residents. I will work to increase school funding and expand affordable housing and human services for the aged.”
“I am running for re-election to continue the tremendous progress we have made in Wake County since 2015. My wife and I have three children in the Wake County Public Schools, and education remains my top priority. We have improved school funding by nearly 30% in three years and raised local teacher pay by 44%. But we have also made great strides in fighting food insecurity, for clean water and open space, and public transit. All of those projects need further work, and I want to be there to see them to completion. Thank you.”
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