The Wake county commission races are shaping up to be very competitive in 2004. The Wake Board is composed of seven members, all elected at-large. But unlike Mecklenburg’s “top three” system, the Wake commissioners reside in and campaign to represent specific districts. In this election cycle three of the seats – districts 4, 5 and 6 – are up for grabs. Currently the Wake board has 5 Republicans and 2 Democrats. There are no primary races in the Wake races this year.
The District 4 incumbent is Republican architect Kenn Gardner, who is also the current chairman of the commission. Democrat and former county commissioner Yevonne Brannon is challenging Gardner, as is Libertarian candidate Susan Hogarth. Brannon is a science editor at UNC-Chapel Hill and a former NC Senate candidate. Gardner is well-liked across much of the county but did anger many GOP loyalists when he challenged but lost to Rep. Skip Stam in a 2002 primary for the NC House. Some Republicans also question Gardner’s commitment to fiscal conservatism based on his budget and tax votes. Brannon’s former service on the board may help her out, but unless something dramatic takes place Gardner’s more recent political experience and campaigning will probably help him retain his seat as Wake County continues its slow drift towards Republicans.
District 5 is one of the more interesting stories in Wake County this year. The race for this seat pits current (though not elected) Democratic commissioner Harold Webb against former Democrat turned Republican Venita Peyton. Webb was appointed to fill the rest of Vernon Malone’s term when Malone won a seat in the NC Senate in 2002. Webb is a WWII veteran, school teacher, and lobbyist with many contacts throughout Wake County. Peyton has been a candidate for Mayor, Raleigh City Council and NC House. Bobby Yates Emory, Libertarian, is also a registered candidate for this seat.
Race should not be a factor as both Webb and Peyton are African-American. Were this strictly a district race, Webb would most likely coast to an easy win. But since neither candidate has great name recognition, and because members are elected at-large, this race may be more difficult to predict than at first glance.
The District 6 race features two experienced local government officials, one of which has become somewhat of an icon. Betty Lou Ward is the Democratic incumbent and former chairman of the Wake County Commission. She has served as president of the NC Association of County Commissioners as well as the National Association of Counties. She is unabashedly left of center and has made education her centerpiece issue since first being elected to the Wake board in 1988. Interestingly, although the job is clearly part time, she lists her occupation as “county commissioner.” Current Wake Forest councilman Chris Malone is her Republican opponent. He currently works with MJM Inc.
This promises to be an exciting race with a true choice between conservative and liberal principles. Ward has high name recognition and a plethora of supporters throughout Wake County. Malone also appears to have a wealth of friends and a wealth of funds to compete with, as well as the ability to campaign hard. This will be fun to watch and voters can be fickle, but Ward is still the slight favorite at this point.
Wake County’s tremendous population growth over the past decade has led to a massive capital outlay for school construction and increases in school budgets. Taxation, education and the environment will be the issues at the table, but one has to wonder if these local concerns will matter as much as will larger trends in partisan voting in the county for state and federal office.
Adams is director of the Center for Local Innovation and a contributing editor at Carolina Journal.