The Republican campaign in Wake County was summed up nicely last week by Phil Matthews, the former Garner Town Council member now presenting himself as a Tea Party type of guy. Matthews is the Republican challenger for the Wake Board of County Commissioners District 2 seat (South Wake). “This is the most important election in the last 100 years,” Matthews told a Cary Chamber of Commerce audience. “There is a lot of fear out there,” and the antidote to it, he said, is the “great conservative voice” offered by the slate of three GOP incumbentsJoe Bryan, Tony Gurley and Paul Cobleand himself.

It is a slate, by the way. Each candidate must live in a specified district, but they run countywide. Thus every voter in Wake can cast four votesone in each of the district races.

Even adjusting for hyperbole, 100 years covers a lot of ground and elections back to the time of William Howard Taft, whose one unsuccessful term as president brought down the curtain on an era of conservative government and corporate corruption. After Taft, the Progressive Era and the Great Depression combined to usher in reforms aimed at putting government on the side of the public interest, not just special interests.

The reforms didn’t always succeed, it must be said. Nor did the corporate interests ever go away. Today, arguably, they are more powerful than ever. And in the wake of yet another business meltdown, conservative politicians argue that the solution is more freedom for the private sector and a weaker public sector, including cuts to Social Security and unemployment compensation.

And they’ll cut the public schools down too, if they get the chance.

That was the veiled but apparent message the Republicans offered at three candidate forums last week. They intend to ride the national wave of fear to victory in the commissioner elections, if they can. So they’d rather not talk about school issues. Why should they? But if forced to say what they think about the current Wake school board majority and its policies, they’ll change the subject to how we should build cheaper schools or charter schools and avoid paying the tab for Wake’s rapid growth.

Indeed, Matthews and Paul Coble, the incumbent in District 7 (Raleigh-North Wake) nearly avoided talking about the school board completely by skipping two of the three forums, attending only the truncated breakfast in Cary. In answer to the only question on schools, Matthews said the board majority is doing fine despite “all the havoc stirred up by outsiders.” Coble agreed.

Gurley, the current commission chair and the incumbent in District 3 (West Wake), made two of the three forums. He, too, supports the school board majority, he said. He’s the one who thinks new schools should be built more cheaply. At the League of Women Voters-WakeUP Wake County forum, he was asked what data he’s seen to indicate that the board majority’s move to a new student assignment policycreating high-poverty schools in Southeast Raleighwill improve student achievement. He had a one-word answer: “None.”

But he supports it.

Among the Republicans, only Bryan, the incumbent in District 1 (East Wake), showed up at all three forums, the last of which was sponsored by the Southeast Raleigh-based Coalition of Concerned Citizens for African American Children (CCCAAC). Bryan reminded the group that, unlike his hard-edged running mates, he’s worked across party lines in the past, including voting with the Democrats for extra school funding “to the point that I’ve been called on the carpet for it by my own party.”

Given numerous chances to take issue with the new school board majority’s direction, however, Bryan never did. “I support the school board,” he began his answer to a question about dropping diversity from the assignment policy. His biggest concern, he added, is over the way the majority is operating, not where it’s going. “It’s not an open and participatory process to this point,” Bryan said.

From the first forum to the third, meanwhile, the Democratic candidates sharpened their critique of the Republican school board, accusing its members of “bull-headedness” (incumbent Commissioner Lindy Brown’s term) that will likely end up costing the taxpayers tens of millions of dollars a year.

As clear as it was that the Republicans didn’t want to talk about schools, the Democratic slate seemed to realize as the week went on that their best chance of surfing away from the national GOP wave is to make the county elections a referendum on the board majority.

Thus, Don Mial, Bryan’s challenger in District 1, told the CCCAAC that he’ll oppose any assignment plan that would take the county back to segregated schools. To date, he said, there is no planthe Republicans are making it up as they go along. “We’re talking about a situation where we’re messing with our children’s liveswithout a plan,” Mial charged.

The Democrats were not of one mind, though, when it came to what to do about it.

Brown, the District 2 incumbent, said it’s not her job as county commissioner to “micro-manage” the schools.

On the other hand, Steve Rao, Gurley’s challenger in District 3, likened the commissioners’ role to a venture capitalist investing in a company. Rao, a lawyer turned entrepreneurial businessman, said that, like his own enterprises, Wake’s schools must be globally competitive. And the commissioners, who supply one-fourth of the school system’s $1.2 billion annual budget, have a responsibility to see that their money is well spent.

Rao warned that Wake is heading down the same costly path that the Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools took eight years ago when they dropped diversity and went to a neighborhood schools model. The upshot: Charlotte’s system is riddled with empty inner-city schools and overcrowded suburban schools. Meanwhile, graduation rates have plummeted, and the tax rate in Mecklenburg County is now almost 30 percent more (70 cents vs. 53 cents) than Wake’s tax rate.

“It would’ve been better to keep the system we had and make it better,” Rao said, “than to dismantle a system that was working.”

Jack Nichols, Coble’s Democratic challenger in District 7 (Raleigh-North Wake), agreed that the commissioners shouldn’t be “an ATM machine” for all of the school board’s bad ideas. The main point that Nichols, a former county commissioner from 1990–94, was making, however, was that the schools improved steadily for three decades because of bipartisan support from the county. That consensus, he argued, is now under attack by partisan Republicans like Coble and school board chair Ron Margiotta.

“I’ll bring folks together,” Nichols told the CCCAAC, addressing Coble’s empty chair. “Paul’s style is to divide” and, like his uncle Jesse Helms, to oppose public spending of all kinds. “Helms was Senator No,” Nichols said. “And he is Commissioner No.”