Raleigh, N.C. — Republicans and Democrats have a similar choice to make between a former commissioner and a relative newcomer when they vote for their nominee in Wake County's newly created regional District B.
The new district encompasses half the county's roughly 1 million residents and forms a sort of doughnut around the outside or Raleigh and Cary, taking in the county's small towns and rural areas. The winners of the Republican and Democratic nominations will face each other in the November general election.
"One of the things that intrigued me was the opportunity to represent the communities outside of Raleigh," said John Adcock, a Holly Springs lawyer and a Republican who is making his first run for political office. "The people in District B believe that they have not had as much of a voice in government at the county level."
This is the first year the regional districts will be in play. Under the old system, the county was divided into seven regional districts. Commissioners had to live in the district they represented, but all voters in the county had a say in each race.
"There were a lot of people in my district who were not happy with that," said Phil Matthews, a Garner businessman and the other Republican in the race.
Matthews lost his seat as a commissioner in 2014. While he laid claim to the majority of support from voters in his district, votes from other parts of the county cost him his seat.
The new system, imposed by the General Assembly in 2015, will still have seven smaller districts, but it eliminates countywide at-large voting and adds the two new regional districts.
Like Adcock, Matthews says he approves of the new regional super-district, saying it will give small-town voters a voice.
Matthews is running on his experience as a county commissioner and Garner Town Council member. He points out that whoever wins the district will be joining a board dominated by Democrats. If that winner is one of the Republicans, he said, they will need to be savvy to pursue conservative goals.
"You've got to have someone go in there with experience. It's not a situation where it can be a learning experience," he said.
This may be his first run for political office, Adcock said, but he points to a resume that includes work for federal, state and local governments.
"I think in 2014 the voters spoke loudly and clearly that they wanted new leadership," Adcock said, adding that he wanted to be a "new, positive, conservative" voice.
Keeping in touch with towns
A similar dynamic is playing out in the race for the Democratic nomination in the race.
"I won't have to go an learn on the job," said Lindy Brown, who served as a county commissioner from 2006 through 2010, when she was unseated by Matthews. "I'm very proud of my tenure on the county commissioners board."
Brown said publicly last fall that she would seek the Apex-based state House seat being vacated by Rep. Paul "Skip" Stam, R-Wake, but she said a survey she conducted of voters convinced her to run again for the county board. Brown said she has been making the rounds in District B, re-establishing old relationships with town officials throughout the county.
Because she's retired and her children are grown, she said, she will have more time to deal with county issues.
She is facing Vicki Scroggins-Johnson, a Morrisville Town Council member who has served since 2013.
"I'm the only candidate that lives on the western side of Wake County," Scroggins-Johnson said. "I believe we need a stronger voice from the western side of the county on the commission."
She also says her service on the Morrisville council gives her just as much experience as Brown.
"I have more current experience dealing with growth, dealing with schools, dealing with the road networks and transit," she said.
Growth is the big issue
All four candidates say grappling with Wake County's rapid growth is the top issue facing the county board, although each addresses that issue in a slightly different way.
Matthews, a military veteran and a former volunteer firefighter, says adding residents to the rural areas has stretched the budgets of smaller fire departments.
"Fireman pay is now where it needs to be in terms of what those guys do," he said, adding that the county needs to do a better job of helping smaller fire departments keep pace with salary needs.
He also said the county needs to work on a comprehensive transportation plan that takes into account more than just mass transit.
Like Matthews, Adcock said the county "needs to work on a transportation, not transit" plan.
"Southern Wake County is growing dramatically. It's going to degrade our quality of life if we don't address it," Adcock said.
He pointed to his academic and professional background in regional planning as equipping him for dealing with those problems.
Both men also made a point of saying funding for education would be a top priority for them.
Matthews said he would like to grow the county's supplemental pay for public school teachers if it could be done without raising taxes. Adcock said commissioners need to do what they can to make Wake County an attractive place to teach. While pay is part of that puzzle, he said, so is ensuring that schools are kept in good shape. He pointed to aging high schools in rural areas of the county that are in need of renovation.
On the Democratic side of the ballot, Brown said the Wake County Board of Commissioners needs to refocus on transit.
"There's not a corridor that you can go on between 3:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. and not be in bumper-to-bumper traffic," she said.
Brown said added growth will also put pressure on the county to make sure sheriff's deputies' and other public safety officials' pay keeps up.
Scroggin-Johnson said transportation issues are important, but it's only one part of the publicly owned infrastructure stressed by a growing population. Commissioners need to plan for water and sewer systems, parks and schools to serve those new residents, she said.
"Nothing can be done in a bubble," said Scroggins-Johnson. "We need to ensure that we have open communication with our municipalities and with our board of education."
She added that education, for her, means more than K-12.
"When you hear me talk about schools, I'm considering the entire framework," she said. "We have one of the best community colleges in the state."