Local officials leave Republican Party

Majority of school board, former county commissioner recently switched affiliations
Dec. 19, 2013 @ 05:34 PM

Before a Republican-backed law was enacted this summer making the Lee County Board of Education and the Sanford City Council into politically partisan groups, the school board had five Republican members.

It now has two.

For the school board's vice chairman, a former Lee County Republican Party officer, that law was the tipping point. Mark Akinosho switched to the Democratic Party soon after the bill became law and said that in addition to disagreeing with the law itself, he was also disappointed at the way local Republican leaders designed the bill without consulting anyone who would actually be affected by it.

"The party left me behind," the local businessman and pastor said. "I didn't leave my party. They left me when they made the school board partisan. ... Nobody talked to me about it. As a Republican, nobody talked to me. I learned about it when I read it in the paper."

Akinosho wasn't the only school board Republican switch to the Democratic Party in the past few months. Tamara Brogan, who has often represented the board of education in meetings at the General Assembly, also said she felt left behind by the party she joined at age 18.

"I changed because the Republican Party that I joined and believed in when I was younger is not the same as it is now," Brogan said.

She said she thinks politicians should always work for the greatest good, using facts and data to make decisions, "and I feel that the Republican Party did not have that same mindset — and I was very disappointed and disheartened by that."

Charles Staley, the chairman of the Lee County Republican Party, said no one who has left the party recently ever contacted him about their decisions, but he has no hard feelings.

"It was entirely appropriate for them to switch parties when they find they are more closely aligned with big government liberalism than with small government conservatism," he said. "They are good people, and I wish them well."

Staley also said he thinks Rep. Mike Stone's move to change the school board and city council from non-partisan to partisan was a good move because it forces people to show their true colors.

"That's making people examine their hearts to determine, 'Well, do I need to be a Democrat or do I need to be a Republican?'" Staley said.

One school board member considered that question and decided to go with a third option.

John Bonardi switched his voter registration from Republican to Unaffiliated about two weeks ago. He said he doesn't believe the school board — or any part of local government — should be partisan, so he didn't want to be part of the Democratic Party either. Plus he's simply fed up with both sides.

"I've lost all confidence in either political party to do what's best for the people," Bonardi said. "I feel like [for] the leadership in both the Republican and Democratic parties, their only concern is retaining power, and their interests are not necessarily what's best for the people."

More specifically, he put the blame on "primarily the fanaticism of the local party leadership and the mean-spiritedness and win-at-all-costs attitude."

He's part of a trend identified in a report released this week by the non-partisan group Democracy North Carolina, which found that since 2008, the GOP lost 12,400 voters, the Democratic Party lost 103,000 voters, and the ranks of the Unaffiliated swelled by 306,000 voters.

Dr. Lynn Smith, chairman of the school board, switched from Republican to Unaffiliated several years ago. He explained Wednesday, "You have to go where you feel comfortable."

He didn't have the same criticisms of the local parties Bonardi had; rather, Smith said his decision to change was largely due to the statewide Republican Party and its strategies since taking control of the legislature in 2010: "In terms of their funding for public education, I cannot support those actions because I think it is not in the best interest of the students of our county."

Unlike at the state level, the two major parties in Lee County have gained voters since 2008, according to data from the Lee County Board of Elections — yet both have lost market share to Unaffiliated voters. The Republican Party's presence has only declined slightly in the past five years, going from just above 29 percent to just below, while the amount of Democratic voters has dropped from 50 to 47 percent and Unaffiliated voters have risen from 21 to 24 percent. There are also a handful of Libertarians.

Another local politician who switched from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party earlier this year is Larry "Doc" Oldham. The former vice chairman of the Lee County Board of Commissioners, Oldham was defeated in the 2012 Republican primary and said that experience ultimately helped him make his decision.

"I don't want to say a lot about that," Oldham said. "I became uncomfortable in the Republican Party, some of the things that were going on."

He would not, however, confirm rumors that he plans to run for the board of commissioners soon against his old party.

"I've had a lot of folks to ask me and express support to run," Oldham said. "I haven't made up my mind, but there have been a lot of folks asking, and I am listening to them."