Name as it appears on the ballot: Matt Calabria
Campaign website: www.MattCalabria.com
Phone number: 704-214-2316
Years lived in Wake County: 9 in Wake County (16 in the Triangle)
1. In your view, what are the three most pressing issues facing Wake County? If elected, what will you do to address these issues?
First, Wake County must increase its support for our public education system. As the son of a high school principal and the proud product of public schools from kindergarten through college, my top priority has always been serving our teachers and students. In my first three years as a County Commissioner, I voted to increase county support for public education by 27%. We have also raised local teacher pay to become the highest in the state, providing a $2,600 local raise for Wake County teachers in three years. I will work so that the next few years will see additional expansions that will help provide needed teaching supplies, hire more school counselors and social workers, and pass overdue increases in bus driver compensation. Also, for the first time in county history, my colleagues and I voted to provide county money for additional SmartStart seats so that we can expand our early childhood education programs. I will advocate for continuing this work by increasing the number of SmartStart seats available.
Second, the Wake County Commission should continue our march toward expanding affordable housing options. This includes not just increasing our stock of affordable
but also working with municipalities to impose forward-thinking planning and zoning ordinances that create more housing options at prices people can afford. The commission recently added millions of extra dollars to better address our affordable housing needs, and I have a perfect voting record when it comes to approving the affordable housing projects that have come before us. Our unanimous passage of the county’s first comprehensive affordable housing plan will bolster these efforts and help us chart the best course for decades to come. Having been part of its inception, I believe I can make valuable contributions to its implementation.
Third, Wake County should better address economic mobility, which is generally described as the ability of someone to improve their economic status. Our region’s economy has grown rapidly in recent years, but too many Wake residents are still excluded from that prosperity. Moreover, North Carolina’s largest cities rank poorly when it comes to the ability
families to improve their economic outlook. As local leaders, we must work to expand opportunities for upward mobility. I have worked hard to lead by example in this area by authoring a living wage ordinance for county workers, successfully advocating for Wake’s first ban-the-box ordinance, voting to enact our first paid parental leave policy, and helping make Wake County government one of the country’s “healthiest employers.” I even successfully advocated for Wake County to hire our first economic development officer dedicated solely to working with underprivileged communities, which is rare throughout the country. In my second term, I will expand opportunities for upward mobility by continuing my work with Capital Area Workforce Development and other county programs and agencies to improve worker training, expand GED/HISET class offerings, and incentivize businesses to be good employers to their workers. I am also hoping to create an Economic Mobility Commission to bring together stakeholders to work on these issues on a more permanent basis.
2. If you are challenging an incumbent, what decisions has the incumbent made that you most disagree with? If you are an incumbent, what in your voting record and experience do you believe entitles you to another term?
Wake County needs leaders who are not only strong progressive voices but who have also shown that they can lead the charge on innovative, forward-thinking initiatives that serve people from all walks of life. For example, I helped develop and voted to pass the three most comprehensive pro-education budgets in county history, consistently increasing funding for public schools every year I’ve been on the board. I have also been a leading advocate for the passage of
transit referendum that will triple bus service in the next few years and build a commuter rail line across the county. I have authored the county’s living wage ordinance (now paying county workers a minimum of $15.05/hour); co-authored (with Commissioner John Burns) robust protections for LGBTQ county workers; and spearheaded a groundbreaking initiative to provide worker training, case management, GED/HISET prep classes, and other services to our jail inmates. Lastly, I am particularly proud of the work I have done to fight child hunger and have been widely recognized as the county’s leading elected official on this issue.
My record stands in contrast to my primary opponent, who served as a County Commissioner from 2006-2010. She regularly broke with her Democratic colleagues on a closely divided board in order to vote with the Republicans on “important issues like school funding, transit votes, and budget decisions.” My colleagues and I increased the public schools’ budget by nearly $100 million in three years, already doubling the investment made by my opponent in her entire four-year term. My opponent opposed giving citizens a voice and a vote in their transportation future by continually delaying a referendum that I eventually shepherded to passage. Her prior comments also indicate that, while I was working toward marriage equality for all our citizens, she favored civil unions only. In our rapidly developing county, she has also opposed the protection of additional
for future parks.
3. The county is by most accounts prospering and growing. What do you think Wake County has done effectively? What policies would you like to see put in place to ensure growth going forward?
Wake County is one of the most prosperous communities in the country. Our nationally ranked schools, innovative businesses, and world-renowned universities recruit talent and create thousands of new jobs every year. My colleagues and I have worked hard to expand support for Wake Tech, enabling them to open new campuses and teach more classes to more students. We have also supported a record expansion of flights to and from RDU. One of my platform issues in 2014 was to lower the business-size thresholds through which companies can qualify for economic incentives; we got that done, meaning that we are now helping leading-edge small businesses in the area become homegrown success stories rather than leaving them to move to Silicon Valley or somewhere else that will better support them.
However, not everyone participates equally in that success. I believe that a community is strongest when everyone is able to participate fully in our economy, workforce, and public life. In my first term, I worked to expand job training programs that strengthen our workforce and provide training and case management to jail inmates so that they are more empowered to become contributing members of our economy. I also led the charge on the county’s living wage ordinance and on the fight to pay county contractors fairly, among other things.
I want to build on this work by restructuring Wake County’s incentive policy to provide additional focus on small and midsized local businesses. I also want to provide targeted incentives to businesses for exhibiting socially beneficial behaviors such as engaging in sustainable construction practices, offering paid family leave to their employees, and paying their workers a living wage. Modeled on Charlotte’s work on economic mobility, one of my focuses next term would be researching and addressing what Wake County can do to help underprivileged folks succeed, including by creating a kind of Economic Mobility Commission to work on the issue. Of course, cultivating economic success for folks in need is a complicated and multifaceted question and will require additional focus on education and affordable housing, among other things.
4. With that rapid growth, of course, comes challenges related to suburban sprawl, transportation, and affordable housing, among other things. In your opinion, what
been the county’s successes in managing this growth in recent years? What about its failures? What would you do differently?
By the time I took office in 2014, my predecessors had allowed the county to fall woefully behind when it came to managing growth. Since then, my colleagues and I have worked hard to catch up on school construction, instituting a Joint Facilities Committee between the schools’ and county’s staffs that has improved our relationship and enabled us to begin building schools in a way that will keep pace with growth. We also made great strides in recent years by passing an historic transit referendum, adding more than 100 new affordable housing units every year, increasing job training opportunities as more jobs are created here, and raising wages for teachers, first responders, and other county workers to ensure that we can hire the new folks we need.
Going forward, we must continue to foster manageable growth by redoubling our efforts to build new affordable housing. We must link our public transit buildout with our development ordinances and affordable housing goals so that we can create dense, vibrant centers throughout Wake County. This will allow us to stem needless sprawl and preserve the character of many of our more rural areas. Lastly, less than 20% of the county falls outside municipal control. That means we’ve got to partner more assiduously with our 12 municipalities to help them put in place transportation, planning, and affordable housing policies that will give us the best chance of success as a county.
5. What should be the county’s role in addressing issues of economic inequality, such as gentrification and affordable housing? Do you believe the current board is doing enough to help its municipalities manage Wake County’s growth in order to prevent current residents from being priced out?
The county should play a strong role in addressing issues of economic inequality. I have described above the strides that other county commissioners and I have made in combating economic inequality. These include improving public education and early childhood education, combating food insecurity, building a transportation system that allows folks without their own transportation to get around, and creating economic programs targeted to underprivileged folks as well as vulnerable populations such as inmates being released into the workforce. But I am also very proud that the other commissioners and I opened the county’s first prenatal clinic, increased key services for victims of domestic violence, passed our first ever comprehensive affordable housing plan (spearheaded by now-Chair Jessica Holmes), and are in the process of opening our first ever women’s shelter. In addition, I led an effort to recruit more landlords into a county program to provide housing to homeless veterans.
As a result of the measures above, among others, the commission has been making good on our promises to address issues of economic inequality. But we’re not done, and our work up to this point has been a necessary prerequisite to the work that needs to come. Because those who work in Wake County should be able to live in Wake County, we should work with municipalities to create seamless partnerships on issues of growth and housing affordability, among other things. Building on the county’s living wage ordinance and paid parental leave for county workers, we should encourage other governments and private sector entities to put in place similar policies.
Still, our work will never be enough as long as the NC Legislature enacts harmful measures such as obstructing our ability to guarantee a living wage for all Wake residents. I will continue to work with our legislative delegation to bring back local control over wage protections and
ordinances, among other things.
6. How would your experience―in politics or otherwise in your career―make you an asset to the county’s decision-making process? Be specific about how this experience would relate to your prospective office.
I am the son of a stay-at-home mom and a high school science teacher who ultimately became a high school principal. My parents gave me a deep admiration for public service at a very young age and taught me to rely on evidence and reason in my decision-making. These lessons served me well during my undergraduate work at UNC-Chapel Hill, where I served as student body president. I also attended the Duke University School of Law, where I graduated in the top 10% of my class and where I gained the tools to help all kinds of people make sense of their government and legal system. As an attorney, I have worked in both business and public interest law, helping my clients overcome some their most difficult obstacles.
My experience as a county commissioner has shown me how to use the levers of government for the benefit of everyday people. Only 34 years old, my experience in law, in volunteering for organizations like Big Brothers Big Sisters, and on the county commission
me the energy and knowledge to continue moving the ball forward for all of our citizens.
Lastly, my wife and I just welcomed our first child into our lives. As a result, I am more invested than ever in our public schools and in the future of Wake County as a whole.
7. Last year saw some tension between the county commission and the school board over school system funding. Ultimately, the county gave the school system less than half of the new funding it asked for. But from the county’s perspective, it has raised property several times in recent years to benefit the school system. Do you believe Wake County needs to commit more funds to its schools? If so, would you be willing to ask taxpayers for more money?
Yes and yes. I am proud of the collaborative progress the Wake County School Board and County Commission
made in recent years. We have developed the first-ever rolling 7-year plan to fund school construction, a huge milestone in
between the two boards. On the operating budget, Wake County is the only county in the state to spend more than 50% of our local budget on education. Despite that, in three years, my colleagues and I have increased county funding to the schools by 27%, raised local teacher supplements by 44% (a $2,600 raise), and expanded food security programs to cover 100% of low-income schools.
The two boards’ most recent budget discussions have been some of the most productive and collegial in memory, but the system created by the North Carolina General Assembly creates structural barriers to success. North Carolina is one of only a few states that gives school boards the ability to run the schools but reserves fiscal authority for state and county governments. Nonetheless, we should continue on our path of marked improvement. Last year, I spent nearly a full week using my voice and my vote to find and add several million more dollars to the school system’s budget over and above what the county manager recommended.
All of these have been tremendous undertakings and major successes. But I want to continue our upward trajectory. We are competing nationally for jobs, teachers, and resources. Our work with the school system should augment our already-strong public education system. Budget negotiations are always hard, but I look forward to continued cooperation between the School Board and County Commission. Together, we will continue to invest in our public schools and pay our educators like the professionals they are.
8. Wake County has raised property taxes four times in the last four years.
the county is considering three potential bond referenda in November: one for school construction, another for parks and greenways, and a third for Wake Tech. Together, these, too, would likely require a property tax increase. Do you believe the citizens of Wake County are paying too much in taxes?
Recent smart investments in our people, our schools, and our infrastructure have created rapid growth in our local economy, which has in turn allowed Wake County to make more significant investments in our schools, infrastructure, and first responders while keeping taxes relatively low. Our tax rate is lower than about ⅔ of NC counties and is one of the lowest in the region. Thoughtful budgeting gives us lots of room for thoughtful growth. As a County Commissioner and a Wake County taxpayer, I will continue to vote to expand support for our schools, our parks, and the best community college in the country—and for the fiscal policies that make that a reality.
Still, we must be mindful of three things: First, Wake’s property taxes are a flat tax that disproportionately burdens low-income homeowners. Second, sharp changes to our tax rate over a short period of time affect folks with low or fixed incomes (including seniors) the most and contribute to gentrification, so steady-but-meaningful changes over time will help accommodate those circumstances. Third, the state legislature has abdicated its duties by underfunding our most critical programs and issuing one unfunded mandate after another. While the county commissioners have rightfully chosen to step into the breach, that shouldn’t distract from the root cause of so many of our state’s severe policy deficits.
9. The embezzlement scandal at the Register of Deeds office highlighted the fact that the county does not scrutinize the offices of elected officials, such as the Register of Deeds and the Sheriff’s Office, in the way it does other county agencies. Do you believe there are steps the county could have taken—or could implement now—that could catch theft or fraud earlier?
The embezzlement of funds from the Register of Deeds Office occurred for many, many years, eluding numerous County Commissions with Democratic and Republican majorities alike. This is perhaps because the Register of Deeds is an independently elected official who does not report to the County Commission. Nonetheless, the current Commission (of which I am a part) and its staff finally caught this corruption and worked to prevent it from ever happening again.
The county historically could have—and should have—done more by putting in place more robust cash-handling policies as well as additional training and anti-fraud protections. The internal auditor’s office was also too leanly staffed, meaning that they often wouldn’t take a thorough look at every department each year or even every other year. The County Commission has now taken steps to overcome these deficiencies. Among other things, we have more employee training, expanded the scope of our staff’s reviews, and worked with the Register of Deeds’ Office to more thoroughly monitor their activity.
The bottom line is that we must take all reasonable steps to eliminate waste, fraud, and corruption. Stolen or mismanaged dollars mean fewer meals for hungry children or fewer new books at our libraries. We can and must do more to ensure that every tax dollar is used to make Wake county smarter, stronger, and healthier.
10. North Carolina is a “Dillon Rule” state, meaning that the only powers municipal and county governments have are the ones granted to them by the legislature. Would you like to see this changed? How would you work with state legislators from Wake County, as well as mayors and council members from the city’s municipalities, to ensure that Wake County, its municipalities, and the state are on the same page regarding policies that affect residents of Wake?
The NC General Assembly has always limited the authority of local governments, but in recent years, legislative leaders have gone too far. The legislature’s efforts to bar the county from making rules that preserve our drinking water supply in Jordan Lake—as well as the now-infamous House Bill 2—are emblematic of a legislature that believes in local government only when it suits their ideological interests. Most recently, our legislature hurled our school systems into chaos with an unfunded class-size mandate that was only delayed after thousands of families pushed for action.
Removing North Carolina’s Dillon Rule scheme would enable local officials to tackle issues of pressing need in their community. To get this done, I will work with the
Carolina Association of County Commissioners to build broad-based coalitions that can advocate for returning local authority. Regardless, the current legislature’s overreach on certain specific items must be stopped and reversed. During the next legislative session, I will encourage legislators to take several concrete steps,
1) allowing nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ residents, 2) allowing local governments to institute their own living wage policies, 3) actually taking action to preserve our natural resources or allow local governments to do it, and 4) providing local funding for schools instead of issuing unfunded mandates.
11. The replacement bill for HB 2 that passed last year prohibits local governments from passing living-wage or nondiscrimination ordinances until 2020. If you are in office in 2020 when the moratorium expires, what sort of nondiscrimination and/or living-wage policies will you push the county to adopt, if any? Do you favor, for instance, a nondiscrimination ordinance that would apply to public accommodations, like the one
passed in 2016 that led the legislature to pass HB 2? Would you consider raising the county’s minimum wage?
Two of my proudest moments as a County Commissioner
when I authored the county’s living wage ordinance (currently requiring $15.05/hour) and co-authored the county’s LGBTQ
ordinance—both for county workers. I would look forward to exploring similar measures that may apply to all Wake County residents. I am currently leading efforts to investigate ways that we might be able to incentivize the private sector to enact such measures for their employees. I will continue to advocate for statewide protections in my second term and will eagerly explore additional measures when HB 142 sunsets. Protections for LGBTQ people in public accommodations are needed as well.
If the economic disaster caused by HB 2 has taught us anything, it’s that discrimination is bad for individuals and businesses alike. Wake County continues to outpace the nation in economic recovery and job creation. But this prosperity is not sustainable unless everyone is welcome at the table.
12. Give an example of a time, during your political career, when you have changed your position as a result of a discussion with someone who held an opposing view.
In my first year on the County Commission, county staff recommended closing Athens Drive Library. They and the schools’ staff were not enthused about the library’s colocation with a school because of security concerns, and by the numbers, the library was underperforming. The commissioners initially consented to the closing of the library. When the decision was announced, though, we heard from a great number of residents who valued and used the library. We also attended forums at the library to discuss its future and hear thoughts from various folks who overwhelmingly were in favor of keeping the library open. As a result, we decided to keep the library open but to do a better job with signage, programming, and other factors to make sure the library provided more attractive options to the community. This experience taught me the importance of community input. It is also a reminder that, when you are faced with something that isn’t going as well as you’d like, discontinuing it is not your only option. You can instead work to make something better than it was. These lessons have served me well throughout my time as a commissioner.
13. Identify and explain one principled stand you would be willing to take if elected that you suspect might cost you some points with voters.
Decisions about whether to raise taxes are always controversial, carry the risk of alienating voters, and generate significant voter feedback. I have encountered this already while in office and expect to do so again. My policy is that I am willing to adjust revenues one way or another based on what I believe is the right thing for the community. It’s important that people know what they are getting for their money, and they have to know it’s being efficiently and effectively spent. As a result, when I look at potential tax adjustments for education and other important endeavors, I will do my best to ensure that every dollar raised is necessary, but I will ultimately do what I think is appropriate to provide the kind of services county residents want and expect. Voters, like shoppers, don’t just look at
; they also look at value.