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The Daily Tar Heel

Politics Divide, Join Orange County

In the southern end, Chapel Hill and Carrboro dominate the landscape with a progressive agenda that caters to an largely affluent and educated population.

The median family income is $73,483 in Chapel Hill and $47,330 in Carrboro, and more than 75 percent of adults have a college degree.

But a 10-minute drive up N.C. 86 quickly shows the topographic and economic disparity of the county, as suburbia shifts to open fields and more rural, blue-collar towns near the county seat of Hillsborough, which has a median family income of $46,793.

The politics of the two directional regions differ as well.

Although Orange County overall is a Democratic stronghold -- with 54 percent of voters registered as Democrats and only 23.5 percent registered as Republicans -- many officials and residents recognize more conservative tendencies in the north.

And it's the responsibility of the Orange County Board of Commissioners to represent both extremes, as well as everyone in between.

Although the board does not catch the eye of Chapel Hill or Carrboro residents like the Town Council or Board of Aldermen often do, it has a wider jurisdiction.

The commissioners and Sheriff Lindy Pendergrass overlook the entire county, representing expanses from the more liberal, developed hub of Chapel Hill-Carrboro to the relatively conservative rural reaches of northern Orange, including unincorporated regions that lack town governments.

Board Chairman Barry Jacobs said it's the board's responsibility to care for the health and well-being of a county that claims almost 120,000 people and 700 government employees.

Jacobs said some of these people live in unincorporated areas where they have no local government other than the board and must rely on the commissioners for representation.

"The people in town have two voices," he said. "They have us and they have the town board."

"When people have no other locally elected representatives, I feel like I need to give them special consideration -- but not any more weight -- than in the town."

Jacobs said it is the job of the commissioners to weave a sense of unity among these wide-ranging interests.

"One of the mistakes you can (make) as a group is not see your interconnectivity," he said. "I try (to) operate in a way to look at the county as a unified entity."

"We're all in this together."

He said that many divisions exist within the county, including income and ethnic splits.

But he said the north versus south debate is a tired discussion.

"I think it's old news," he said. "I don't want to dwell on it."

He said northern Orange's more conservative background traces back to the county's 18th-century origins, when regulators fought the government for what they considered to be high tax rates.

"Their ... philosophical ancestors live in the northern part (of) the county," he said.

"You have people in the northern end that believe that government is best which governs least."

Jacobs said he often attempts to frame various issues from this more conservative viewpoint.

"My job is to represent them, whether they vote for me or not, or whether they show up (at commissioners meetings) or not," he said.

But Jacobs said the board's stances on some issues, such as the conservative smart growth development plan, can be considered more right-leaning.

Board member Alice Gordon echoed Jacobs' idea that certain residents come to the commissioners when they do not have representatives directly advocating for their regions of the county.

She said issues such as affordable housing often cause residents to turn to the board for action.

"We're the only place they come," Gordon said.

"It may be more that the people come to us."

Jamie Daniel, a Hillsborough Republican running for commissioner in the November general election, said that since moving to the county in 1999, he has observed a natural fissure between the north and south.

"You hear people complain all the time 'Chapel Hill people get this,'" Daniel said. "There's always going to be a divide."

He said he would like to see the county take on a nonpartisan nature like that of the school boards and be split into five districts.

Citizens in the more rural reaches of the county often feel disconnected with Orange County government, and this setup would correct that problem, he said.

"(The commissioners) would understand more of what happens in that community by living in it," he said. "I don't care whether they're Democrats or Republicans."

Martha Jenkins, chairwoman of the Orange County branch of the N.C. Republican Party, said the board caters more to the southern suburban realm of the county than the rural reaches in the north.

"I think the commissioners represent the interests of Chapel Hill and Carrboro better than the northern part of the county," Jenkins said.

While some officials say a directional divide exists politically, Pendergrass said this alleged barrier has no effect on his department's service to the entire county, even though he said they respond mostly to calls outside of Chapel Hill and Carrboro, who have their own police services.

"In law enforcement ... I don't see any division in us," Pendergrass said. "In the calls that we answer, people are usually looking for service."

But Gordon said the commissioners are fairly representative of the county as a whole.

Of the five members, three -- Margaret Brown, Moses Carey and Gordon -- live in Chapel Hill, which makes up about 60 percent of the population, she said.

"We're as close to geographically balanced as we can be with five people," she said.

She said a little more than 50 percent of the county is female, while two out of the five members -- or 40 percent -- of those working on the board are women.

As part of their service, commissioners often have to work with the county's two school boards and the individual town governments.

Gordon said the Schools Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance and the Schools and Land Use Council -- two countywide initiatives -- are examples of successful collaboration but that this work can be built on.

"I'm sure (the relationships are) not perfect, and you can always improve on it," she said.

Carrboro Alderman Alex Zaffron, who also is the chairman of the Orange County branch of the N.C. Democratic Party, said tensions often exist between the commissioners themselves and the politically varied county they represent.

"That's the case in any area ... because the interests in some respects tend to be different," Zaffron said.

He said that the towns try to work closely with the commissioners when they can but that they often have different approaches to government because of their varying roles and jurisdictions.

"Of course there's a natural philosophical tension," Zaffron said.

He said the county commissioners often approach land use from a more conservative rural preservation perspective -- which can benefit farmers -- but harm those that want to sell their land off to developers.

Zaffron said it is often easier to examine the county on an issue-oriented basis instead of along partisan lines.

He said this nonpartisan characteristic of the county is one reason why Republicans are not a major factor locally.

But Gordon said ideological differences are present even in individual communities within the county, where she said certain neighborhoods will lean to one end of the political spectrum or the other.

"It turns out there are progressives and conservatives all over."

The City Editor can be reached at

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