RALEIGH — Phil Matthews pulled his car into the garage under the Wake County Courthouse one day a couple of years ago and just sat for a few minutes, staring at the marker on his space.
“Reserved,” it said. “Wake County Commissioner. Vice Chairman. Phil Matthews.”
Fellow board member Joe Bryan drove up and and asked what he was doing.
“Just thinking how far I’ve come,” Matthews said.
Now he has a chance to help determine how far, and in what direction, Wake County will go.
This year, Matthews moved up to the job of board chairman, a position from which he can guide policy and spending discussions in every area of the county’s nearly $1 billion in operations.
It will be a busy year in a highly politicized climate. With all four Republicans on the board of commissioners up for re-election – including Matthews – the new chair must navigate a contentious relationship with the county school board and get started on dozens of school building and renovation projects approved by voters in a bond referendum last fall.
The board must choose a new county manager, someone who can maintain Wake County’s growth without jeopardizing its enviable AAA bond rating. And it must decide if this is the year to push ahead with improvements to public transit, an investment that politically divides rural and urban residents as much as it has the potential to physically connect them.
As chairman, Matthews will need the knowledge of a parliamentarian, the manners of a diplomat, and the mental dexterity of a juggler.
“My first time dropping that gavel, I kind of thought, ‘What have I got myself into?’” Matthews said.
A veteran of local politics, talk
Matthews learned the rules of government while serving eight years on the Garner town board, starting in 1999, and three years as vice chair of the county commissioners. He joined the board in 2010 after defeating a sitting Democrat to represent southern Wake.
He has an easy way with people that comes from his rural roots. And he sharpened his skills at doing a half-dozen things at once by hosting a live call-in show every Monday morning at AM radio station WPYB.
“Good morning to you,” Matthews chirped recently as he answered the phone during a broadcast. “How are you doing this morning?”
“Cold,” came the caller’s answer. It was the kind of day where every conversation begins with the weather, especially in the rural communities within broadcast range of the 6500-watt station.
Launched in the 1950s and still housed in a building outside Benson about the size of a double-wide mobile home, WPYB is best known to those Johnston and Harnett county residents within about 70 miles of its broadcasting antenna.
Moving up in GOP politics
Many of those listeners are regular callers to the “Good Morning, Leon” show. Matthews handles the program one day a week to to give station owner Leon Tart a break, and because Matthews loves it.
“Being a radio personality was just something I always wanted to do,” said Matthews, who was born in Harnett County in 1949 and grew up near Angier. The son of a sharecropper and a school cafeteria cook, Matthews graduated from Angier High School in 1968 before getting drafted into the Army and going to Vietnam.
When he came back in 1970, he settled in Garner. He joined the Army Reserve and began working a series of jobs selling consumer electronics for different companies and doing freelance marketing work. He got interested in politics, and volunteered on the Republican campaigns of former Sen. Jesse Helms and Rep. Bill Cobey, and Wake County Sheriff Donnie Harrison before running for local office himself.
In the early 2000s, he went full-time into his own business, Matthews Sight & Sound, a deejay, lighting and sound service that specializes in wedding receptions and music festivals.
An electronics junkie, Matthews started hanging out at the radio station in the mornings about five years ago to watch Tart do his program. It’s a swap-shop format in which listeners call in to describe items they want to to buy or sell. The host takes notes on the items – a used dishwasher, an old tractor grille, a treadmill, the last of the collard crop – then reads back the list and gives the number to call.
Between callers, he plugs the local flooring store, a doctor’s office, a hair salon. He checks the weather. He gives the traffic report, which he formulates by looking out the studio window toward two-lane U.S. Highway 301. When the buy-sell-trade segment is done, he reads the day’s obituaries.
Tart let Matthews watch for months before asking if he wanted to try doing the broadcast by himself.
“Phil is one of the most determined guys I have ever met,” Tart said.
Matthews is a natural, chatting easily with callers and gently guiding them back toward the center if their remarks get too far afield or too political.
Dueling boards cause controversy
In some ways, running the county commissioners’ twice-monthly meetings is a similar exercise. At a recent meeting, the board had an agenda more than two inches thick, which Matthews plowed through in three hours, 16 minutes – “without so much as a break,” outgoing chairman Joe Bryan observed.
While not every meeting is such a marathon, it does sometimes require a task-oriented leader to keep the sessions on track when a member of the public shows up to complain about the board’s actions — or inaction — or commissioners themselves enter into a protracted debate.
For more than a year, the biggest arguments have centered on the board’s interactions with the Wake County School Board. The three Democratic commissioners favor allowing the school board to decide where schools are needed and to oversee their construction, maintenance and ownership. The four Republicans have sought ways to wrest that authority away from the school board, criticizing its spending choices and saying its time would be better focused on academics.
The Republicans chose to hire a lobbyist last year to try to persuade the state legislature to allow the county commission to take over school construction.
The school board, which has a Democratic majority, hired its own lobbyist to fight the measure.
While they waited for the legislature to consider a legal change, the two boards suspended their public sniping long enough to come together on the bond referendum, developing a plan for 16 news schools, six major renovations, smaller repairs at 79 schools, technology upgrades and other projects.
Through a series of joint board meetings last summer where the work was discussed, the newest commissioner, Caroline Sullivan, bonded with Matthews over plates of homemade baked goods she brought in hopes of lightening the mood.
Sullivan is a longtime Democrat and was a fund-raiser for former Sen. Marc Basnight in the early 2000s. Her campaign for county government raised money from Democratic stalwarts and operatives as far away as Washington. She’s the mother of two middle-schoolers who has worked as a tutor, and campaigned on reforming and investing in the county’s public schools.
Matthews, who says he isn’t a Tea Party member, has many Tea Party supporters. He says he supported the $810 school bond package because, at the time, he believed commissioners would gain control of the work the bonds would pay for. Now, he is open to the possibility of delaying some of the projects if doing so would save the county money and stave off a property-tax increase.
Politically, he and Sullivan have little in common.
“But I find Phil to be a kind man with a pleasant demeanor,” Sullivan said. ‘We don’t always get along on policy issues, but we get along very well personally.”
They have discovered a shared interest in increasing the number of nurses on duty in the schools, something Sullivan says she hopes they can work on together.
Matthews: more buses, not rail
Schools are but one function of county government. Commissioners also will decide in the next two months whom to hire as the next county manager, which Joe Bryan sees as one of the most important choices they will make all year, because leaders here like the stability provided by long-serving managers. David Cooke, who retired from the post in November, had held it for 13 years. Before him, Richard Stevens served 17 years in the job.
The board also is expected to finally talk about transportation, including whether it wants to commit tax funds to developing a transit system, something Matthews believes should be based on demonstrated need, not hopeful projections of where people will live and where they will want to travel in the future. At the moment, he said, he’s more interested in exploring expanded and expedited bus routes, which can be changed, rather than rail lines, which are more permanent and costly.
Matthews describes himself as both a fiscal conservative and a visionary; he wants to replace the county’s outdated emergency operations center and consider resuming library constrcution and renovation projects that were put off during the recession, but he cautions, “Everybody wants something, and we can’t do everything.”
Commissioners will develop a list of priorities next month during their annual retreat.
Matthews will be a good board chairman, said Bryan, who has served in the position three times.
“He’s a good communicator,” Bryan said, and able to engage with people, whether it’s at a prayer breakfast or in a public hearing.
With the meetings, public speaking requests and invitations to appear at community events, Matthews says the work of a county commissioner is “the most full-time part-time job” he’s ever had. He and other commissioners often invest more than 30 hours a week in the work, for which they’re paid about $20,000 a year, with a $3,500 addition for the chair. The job cuts into the time Matthews has to devote to NASCAR, playing electric bass and guitar in the praise band at First Church of the Nazarene in Garner, fishing on Lake Benson and spending time near salt water.
“I’m not looking for gratitude,” Matthews said. “but at the end of the day, I know I’ve done good when I can say, ‘I helped make somebody’s life better.’”