Local Politics

Rancor in Wake commissioner races continues after primary

Posted May 9, 2018 8:00 p.m. EDT
Updated May 9, 2018 8:14 p.m. EDT

— The sniping and snapping that marked the Democratic primaries for Wake County Board of Commissioners seats continued Wednesday after the races had been decided and as the board begins considering the county's annual budget.

Some deep-pocketed Democratic donors dissatisfied with the board's funding of area schools in recent years backed a slate of challengers to four commissioners, winning two of the four races.

District 7 Commissioner John Burns lost to political newcomer Vickie Adamson, 48 to 52 percent, while Susan Evans, a former Wake County school board member, easily defeated District 4 Commissioner Erv Portman, 68 percent to 32 percent.

Meanwhile, District 1 Commissioner Sig Hutchinson downed challenger Jeremiah Pierce 62 to 38 percent, and District 2 Commissioner Matt Calabria edged former commissioner Lindy Brown by 52 to 48 percent.

District 5 Commissioner James West also faced a primary and trounced Robert Finch 83 to 17 percent.

The primaries split local Democrats, and the campaign became especially nasty on social media.

Dean Debnam, a Raleigh businessman and pollster who was one of the donors bankrolling the challengers, openly feuded with Burns on Facebook during the campaign.

"What really makes me laugh my a** off," Debnam told Burns on Burns' public Facebook page, "is that you are running against me and nobody can vote for me and I will never go away."

"You are a liar pure and simple," Debnam added. "You are a bully to women and minorities who gets his feelings hurt when someone calls you out."

"I'm happy to run on my record and have you attack it. Happy to defend the great work this Commission has done," Burns responded. "As for my character, I'll let that speak for itself as well. Your opinion of me is fairly irrelevant."

After Burns lost Tuesday, Debnam posted, "Hey John. Still laughing?"

"You're all class, Dean," Burns replied sarcastically.

"Been learning from you John," Debnam shot back before going on to insult Burns and people who came to his defense.

"I’ll let Dean’s words speak for himself," Burns said Wednesday. "I don’t think he has had a very good result or a good impact on politics in Wake County in the last several years. I wish he would turn his considerable financial gifts to doing good work and maybe focusing on the legislature instead of fellow Democrats. But other than that, I’m going to leave it alone."

Debnam insists that he is concerned only with what is best for Wake County, which includes providing more money to area schools.

"I think we’re a wealthy county, and when you look at our tax rate compared to the surrounding counties and you look at the funding, what we’re doing for schools, it’s too low," he said Wednesday. "We can’t just say we’re going to give the children half of what they need. We need to give them all of what they need, and when we do that, that’s going to be great for our county."

Burns said he doesn't regret his votes for recent county budgets that fell short of fully funding the requests made by the school board.

"The decisions I’ve made, I’m comfortable with," he said. "This board has done a tremendous amount of good for this county. I’m very proud of its record."

He said he worries about the division the campaign and comments made by Debnam and others have created among commissioners.

"This is unfortunate that that level of sniping and negativity came into this race, and I hope that we can get past it and move forward," he said.

Debnam said he's confident the Board of Commissioners will move forward and that Democrats will continue to control the board.

"It’s been a hostile environment for the last several years. I think they’ll work together as they need to work together. I don’t think they’re going to like each other, but I think they’ll get the work done," he said.

He also dismissed the idea of running for office himself instead of putting his money behind specific candidates.

"I have no interest in being a politician, but I have a great interest in public policy and seeing that the right people get elected to execute that policy," he said. "I vote for people who I think are ideologically aligned with me, and I generally leave them alone."

Burns said that wasn't the case with the Board of Commissioners.

"Politics is not supposed to be transactional. He assumed that because he did things that we would then do his bidding or do what he thought we should do." he said. "All I promised to do was to listen to everybody’s perspective and do my best. He didn’t like that, so he took the money and ran.

"I think what we were concerned about was this attempt to purchase and his attitude that he had purchased people," Burns continued. "Perhaps that’s what happens when you’re as wealthy as Mr. Debnam is – you think you can purchase people, but not me."

"It was a race that was supposed to be about education, and they didn’t have a good enough record on education, so they decided to make the race about political money," Debnam said. "In the last election cycle, I did everything for them that I just did for their opponents. So, everything that they complained about this time was what they benefited from last time."

Adamson said in a statement that, if she wins the general election in November, her votes on the Board of Commissioners would be her own, regardless of Debnam's support. She echoed Debnam's stance that Wake County can afford to raise taxes and should do so to provide more money for public schools.