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 term as a County Commissioner, I voted to increase county support for public education by nearly a third. My colleagues and I have also raised local teacher pay to become the highest in the state, providing a $2,600 local raise for Wake County teachers in the first 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, and I want to develop a plan to move Wake County toward universal pre-K as other counties have done.
Second, the Wake County Commission should continue our march toward expanding affordable housing options. This includes not just increasing our stock of affordable housing, 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 opportunity for all our residents. Our region’s economy has grown rapidly in recent years, but too many Wake residents are still excluded from that prosperity. North Carolina’s largest cities rank poorly when it comes to the ability of working-class 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, authoring new incentives for businesses to pay a living wage, 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 economic equity, 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 and incentivize businesses to be good employers to their workers.
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 vo ng record and experience do you believe merits another term? In races with no incumbent, please tell us in what ways your presence on the board will be an improvement over your predecessor.
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 four 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 an historic 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 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.
3. The county is by most accounts prospering and growing. What do you think Wake County has done effectively in recent years? 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 who exhibit socially beneficial behaviors such as engaging in sustainable construction practices and offering paid family leave to their employees. I have already authored and successfully worked to pass an ordinance incentivizing businesses to pay 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. Of course, cultivating economic success 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 have 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, operating through 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, authorizing a new women’s shelter, increasing job training opportunities, 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? Shortly after the May primary, the county released an affordable housing plan that, among other things, called for municipalities to take a more aggressive approach toward missing-middle housing. What about this plan do you support? In what areas do you think it goes too far or doesn’t go far enough? Please be specific.
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 we opened the county’s first prenatal clinic, increased key services for victims of domestic violence, passed our first ever comprehensive affordable housing plan, 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 has yet 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 nondiscrimination ordinances, among other things.
I support the comprehensive affordable housing plan that we passed earlier this year. I am glad to have advocated for the quintupling of the county’s support for new affordable housing, and I am especially glad about our plan to effectively eliminate veteran homelessness in the next 3 years. I do not have any major reservations as it currently stands and would have voiced those reservations in commission discussions if I did. However, every expert on affordable housing will say that a local government can’t simply build itself out of an affordable housing crisis. It will therefore be important to place greater emphasis on the difficult task of working with our municipal partners to develop better planning and zoning ordinances to encourage more naturally occurring affordable housing.
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 35 years old, my experience in law, in volunteering for various nonprofits, and on the county commission gives 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. The replacement bill for HB 2 that passed last year prohibits local governments from passing living-wage or nondiscrimination ordinances un l 2020. Since the winner of this race will be 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 Charlo e 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 were when I authored the county’s living wage ordinance (currently requiring $15.05/hour) and co-authored the county’s LGBTQ nondiscrimination 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.
8. In recent years, the county and the school board have argued over school funding—an argument that directly led to two commissioners losing their primaries in May. How would you approach these funding decisions differently? Do you believe, as some commissioners have suggested, that the Board of Educa on should be given taxing authority? Why or why not?
I am proud of the collaborative progress the Wake County School Board and County Commission have made in recent years. We have developed the first-ever rolling 7-year plan to fund school construction, a huge milestone. 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 four years, my colleagues and I have increased county funding to the schools by almost a third, raised local teacher pay supplements by more than 40%, and expanded food security programs to cover 100% of low-income schools. The dialogue has not been perfect, however. There has been some unnecessary consternation among the boards, and disagreements among elected officials have sometimes been needlessly inflamed by outside individuals and organizations. For my part, I have worked hard to engage in a positive dialogue, and I doubt one could find aspersions from me anywhere in the media or the record.
My hope going forward is that the boards will engage in more robust dialogue year-round to share information and to develop joint priorities. This means more joint meetings, and more structured interactions throughout the year. Once priorities are developed, the boards can create a multi-year plan for how to reach their goals and craft fiscal policy accordingly. Having more dialogue will also prevent budget discussions from being the sole formal interaction between the boards. I believe these steps are essential if we hope to create a better, more reasonable, more predictable process.
Ultimately, 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 prohibits them from having taxing authority. I think that giving school boards taxing authority is an idea worth exploring. The NC School Boards Association has advocated for it, and doing so could eliminate a needless source of tension and opacity in local government. Of course, in exploring the idea, we should engage our school board partners to get their thoughts before deciding whether to advocate for any particular measure.
9. The argument over school funding this year was often tied to the county’s decision to acquire parkland near Fuquay-Varina called Crooked Creek. Critics asked how, if the county couldn’t afford the give schools everything they wanted, it could afford this new park. How do you view the debate over Crooked Creek? If elected, would you want the county to proceed with the park plan?
Although I was skeptical of the South Wake Park project at first, a number of unusual factors coaligned and led me to appreciate the value it would provide. For one, it was an opportunity to preserve land that has significant natural beauty in one of the county’s most rapidly developing areas. The land was purchased for less than appraised value and turns out to be located on the path of a future greenway. Moreover, the school system intends to build a brand new elementary school in the middle of the property, making the land a tremendous amenity for future schoolchildren and educators. Wake County is growing at a rate of 63 people a day. Preserving scarce land in such a rapidly developing county is an example of forward-thinking planning.
Some attempted to gain political advantage by linking the preservation of this open space to school funding. Putting aside the fact that government can “walk and chew gum at the same time,” and putting aside the fact that similar open space projects have been approved without consternation, county staff have repeatedly explained that, for any number of financial and accounting reasons, decisions about one simply have nothing to do with decisions about the other. The monies applied to purchase parkland would never be used to pay for school operating expenditures. Ultimately, commissioners have been free each year to allocate whatever they wish to the schools. At no time has any commissioner said that they did not want to increase school funding in order to reserve funds for the South Wake Park project (perhaps partly because one does not affect the other). Had the park presented a threat to school funding, I would not have supported it.
Now that county has preserved the land, it is free to open it up to the public as quickly or slowly as it wishes. The county should therefore proceed with parks and greenways projects in whatever order it deems to be most appropriate. Ultimately, though, in such a rapidly growing county, no one is going to wake up 10 years from now and lament that we have preserved too much open space.
10. 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 also work to make something better than it was. These lessons have served me well throughout my time as a commissioner.
11. 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 price; they also look at value.