Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Democrats still split, Republicans keep unified front on New Hanover County Board of Commissioners

The New Hanover County Board of Commissioners will see new faces, but the same political composition. (Port City Daily/File)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — It appears voters opted to replace two outgoing Republicans with two new Republicans on the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners. If the count stands, after uncounted ballots are added to the county vote total by Nov. 13, they will be sworn in this December. 

While the partisan makeup of the board will hold steady, the exit of commissioners Woody White and Patricia Kusek — and the introduction of Deb Hays and Bill Rivenbark — could bring fresh air, some board members said.

Related: With polarization seemingly reaching all-time highs, New Hanover, N.C. still purple

In recent years, divisions between the chief legislators of New Hanover County stemmed largely from interpersonal disputes. Though partisan politics were plenty common, many high-profile decisions made by this board depended on one or more of the group’s Democrats — Rob Zapple, Jonathan Barfield and Chairwoman Julia Olson-Boseman — siding with the often-aligned White and Kusek to create a majority opinion.

Ironing out the sale of New Hanover County’s public hospital, and establishing an investment fund with the proceeds, offered a glimpse into how Democrats on the board operated individually, rather than as a consistent voting bloc. Barfield and Zapple voted against the initial “Intent to Sell” resolution more than a year ago, while Olson-Boseman cast a vote of approval. After bidding and due diligence ended, and it came time to make the final call, Barfield moved into the contingency of pro-sale commissioners, with Zapple isolated in his lone vote of disapproval. 

Related: Deep Dive Series: The multi-billion-dollar hospital vote [Free]

Cross-party alliances and burned bridges were often front and center in recent county governance. Olson-Boseman initiated a surprise motion to cancel contracts with the Cape Fear Public Transportation Authority last year, to which Barfield and Zapple dissented. In that vote, which started a re-evaluation of the area’s public transit system, the two Republicans joined Olson-Boseman to form a majority. In a contested rezoning application for a piece of developable land in Porters Neck, it was Zapple who cast the singular vote of opposition in granting the request.

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Zapple said he was hopeful the recent election would yield the rise of one or both of the two progressive candidates on the ballot, Leslie Cohen and Kyle Horton, who both campaigned on the premise they would have voted against the hospital sale — a decision made just four weeks before the election

“There are so many hard feelings, or whatever, that had stopped the flow of communication over the last year,” Zapple said. “I would have liked a little more fresh air to come in with some new ideas, but that didn’t happen.” 

New Hanover County Commissioner Rob Zapple said the process has lacked transparency, ignored input from the medical community, and risked losing local control "of an enormously valuable asset." (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)
New Hanover County Commissioner Rob Zapple airs grievances during the meeting in which the board formally approved selling the New Hanover Regional Medical Center. (Port City Daily photo/Mark Darrough)

Zapple said he holds high respect for Hays and Rivenbark, as he’s watched both in their previously held roles on public boards and commissions. Hays, too, said partisanship will not be an obstacle in her relationship with Zapple. They worked together in the past on the Airlie Gardens Foundation and on Wilmington Downtown Incorporated. 

Hays and Barfield, additionally, could foreseeably enjoy a strong cross-party bond. They are both career real estate agents, and served in subsequent years as president of a local real estate board in 2006 and 2007. Hays said Olson-Boseman has always been friendly to her. And White, who opted not to run for re-election, called Olson-Boseman a “pragmatist,” and said he enjoyed working with her in recent years. The two previously healed over their contentious political rivalry that stemmed from their 2004 state senate run, which Boseman won. White predicted Hays and Rivenbark will vote with consistency, as he and Kusek have in recent years.

Zapple often sees himself as an ignored but sensible voice in local governance, as do many of his supporters and leaders in the local Democratic Party. White had a different take. 

“I think big things got accomplished, despite Rob Zapple’s intentional falsehoods and personal agenda that he was pursuing,” White said. “The fact that the majority of the board stopped listening to him is because, in my personal view, he lost all credibility when he lied, misled and pitted people against his own agenda.”

New Hanover County Commissioner Woody White speaks with Commissioner Jonathan Barfield at the county's Emergency Operations Center Monday. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna Ferebee)
New Hanover County Commissioner Woody White speaks with Commissioner Jonathan Barfield at the county’s Emergency Operations Center in 2018. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna Ferebee)

Despite Democrats holding a majority on the board, as they will again with the incoming slate of commissioners, apparent ideological differences appear to have prevented a unified front among the three elected Democrats. 

“Sometimes Democrats disagree with each other,” said Richard Poole, the chairman of the New Hanover County Democratic Party. “We’re all Democrats. And in the final analysis, we support them and they’re part of the family.” 

Poole would not comment whether his relationship with Olson-Boseman and Barfield differs from his bond with Cohen and Horton, whose campaigns he heavily supported. 

In an interview before Election Day, Barfield said he would not feel pressured to alter his style of governance if a progressive Democrat were elected to serve on the board. 

“I’m the senior member of the board of county commissioners,” Barfield said. “So my thought is, I would set the pace, and not others set the pace for me. I don’t know how I’m supposed to line up with someone else who’s never held the office.”

In a post-Election Day interview, Barfield added he focused his energy on his campaign and winning, more so than on making a collective push for other Democrats elsewhere on the ballot: “It’s almost like a horse running with blinders on.”

Poole and other Democrats urged patience as mail-in absentee ballots remain uncounted. Like all races in the state that are still within a reversible margin, the board of commissioners contest will not be finalized until at least Nov. 13. 

Of six candidates running for spots on the board, three will be elected. Barfield, in third place, leads Cohen, in fifth place, by 2,516 votes. An absolute maximum of around 4,400 ballots are yet to be tallied, though the number of outstanding votes will be less, because the approximation includes voters who may have opted instead to vote in-person, or who did not vote at all.

The vote count for the 2020 board of commissioners election. This tally does not include a number of mail-in ballots and provisional ballots. (Courtesy N.C. Board of Elections)

“People act like it was over on the third,” Poole said. “We still have voters that have voted, who had ballots with defects they can cure.”

Dr. Aaron King, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, said while it can be difficult for grassroots political organizations to heavily influence big-ticket races — like the presidential and gubernatorial contests — shaping local opinions in races closer to home is markedly easier.

“Someone who’s entrenched in the community and has a big network, those things can make a big difference at the local level,” King said. 

Rivenbark, currently a freshman member of the New Hanover County Board of Education, earned the highest number of ballots cast on Election Day (9,009). Cohen previously said she attributed his success in part to the ubiquity of the Rivenbark name in the local consciousness. Many members of the family have held prominent roles in the community for generations, most notably his brother, sitting five-term city councilman Charlie Rivenbark 

Cohen declined to comment for this article, and Rivenbark did not respond to an email seeking an interview. Olson-Boseman did not respond to a voicemail.

All board members interviewed for this article — Barfield, Zapple and White, as well as Hays, who is almost certain to be inaugurated in the incoming class — said in ideal world county governance would be absent of partisanship. 

“County government is zero-altitude government,” White said. “You’re right on the ground. You cannot approach governance with a partisan view, and there are some commissioners who choose to do that.” 

“You quickly learn once you get elected, all the things you thought you could do that you can’t do, once reality hits, and you realize that you’re governed by a set of rules,” Barfield said. “We’ve lost consistently when developers sue us in court over turning down certain projects. To realize you don’t have autonomy in what you do, but you have rules that are set by the state in what you go by,” he added.

Described by the more liberal wing of his party as a crucial stopgap to rushed decision-making, and by his political opposition as an obstructionist, Zapple said he believes the new faces on the board, regardless of party, will lead to more discussion among the politicians. The lines of communication, he said, were chilled during the previous term. 

“I hope it becomes a five-person conversation, and not three-person, or two-person,” Zapple said. 

Cohen and Horton ran campaigns aligned largely with Zapple’s brand of local politics: They expressed apprehension over widely green-lighting development projects in the northern, still mostly undeveloped parts of New Hanover County, and indicated serious reservations about the hospital sale. 

Though county voters chose Democrats for nearly all higher-profile offices — Joe Biden, Roy Cooper and Cal Cunningham all led their Republican opponents in county tallies — a blue push seemed to stop short of trickling down to the board of commissioners race.

“With some of the higher-up races, you’re going to have a tough time at the local level, overshadowing all the political communication that’s flying around about the presidency or about the senate race,” King said. “That’s a very difficult message to crack.”

White said the election showed a repudiation of progressive candidacies from New Hanover County voters, but Democrats are holding out on a postmortem until all the votes have been counted. 

According to Zapple, the first indication of how board members will ally with each other will come next month, when the incoming board members formally replace White and Kusek. Once that happens, an internal process kicks off to determine who will be the next chairperson of the board . The decision is made in-house by the group of five, with three votes needed to name the leader. 

The board will elect a vice chair, and the chairperson will then assign each board member with a physical spot where they will be seated in future meetings. Kusek, the current vice chair, was seated to Olson-Boseman’s right hand side and White sat to her left. Olson-Boseman seated Zapple and Barfield, the Democrats, on the far sides of the row. 

The internal jockeying to garner the three votes needed to become the next chairperson of the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners, Zapple said, has already begun. 

Update: This article has been updated to correct the process of electing a vice chair, which is elected by the full board, not appointed by the chair.

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