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Bev Perdue takes the helm

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The first thing we learned about Gov. Bev Perdue during her pre-inaugural week is that she doesn't like surprises. She made quite a point of this, in three news conferences announcing her cabinet choices. Whatever's happening, she said, especially if it's bad, she wants to know it as soon as anyone who works for her knows it. Or else, she went on, they won't be working for her. "Bad things happen, we all know that," Perdue said. "But we've at least got to be honest with ourselves."

This "early disclosure" principle, together with her promise to be a "hands-on" leader, comprised the middle pair of four maxims Perdue listed for her administration, the first being, "high expectations" and the last, "accountability to the public." When she knows it, she said, the public will know it too.

No surprises also characterized Perdue's personnel selections. There are no new faces among her top aides; quite the opposite, she picked people she knows and trusts from 22 years in state government—no outside "experts" or unorthodox (read: non-North Carolina establishment) thinkers needed. For example, Gene Conti and Lanier Cansler, her picks to run the state's vast transportation and human services departments, are former top officials of those same departments. Perdue's commerce secretary, Keith Crisco, is a textile company owner in Asheboro and a much-traveled veteran of the state's business leadership circles. Her environmental chief, Dee Freeman, comes out of the city manager ranks (Brevard and Shelby) and for the last eight years was executive director of the Triangle J Council of Governments, a regional advisory group.

"No political hacks," as one of Perdue's former political rivals said. Solid choices.

Introducing them, Perdue was as confident and relaxed as she was, for much of the '08 campaign, tentative and nervous. When "change" was the imperative and Barack Obama's emergence embodied it, Perdue's understanding of what North Carolina needed from its governor—a steady building-upon the pro-business, pro-education policies of past Democratic governors—seemed often to clang in the public ear, a fact that did not escape her.

Remember how Pat McCrory, her Republican opponent, rattled her with his position (channeling John McCain) that North Carolina should abandon settled coastal protection policies and "drill, baby, drill" for offshore oil?

After eight years of biding her time as lieutenant governor, preparing for the top job while having almost no part of it, Perdue appeared to be irritated at the thought of losing to the younger, glibber McCrory.

A few months later, however, incremental progress sounds like a sane, even hard-to-achieve goal for a state and nation shaken by the results of radical Republican conservatism. And incrementalism is what Perdue promised: From agriculture, a move toward biotechnology and life sciences; from manufacturing, more defense-related contracts and "green" technology; from health care, more rural services; and so on. In fact, she used her pre-inaugural week to withdraw, until the economy and state revenues recover, two of her more ambitious proposals to make community colleges tuition-free and to raise the state's minimum wage.

"There are no overnight solutions" to the state's economic woes, Perdue said, and "no money tree" growing at the governor's mansion that will close a deficit looming for the 2009-10 budget year of $3 billion or more. There was talk in Raleigh about raising money from high cigarette and alcohol taxes, but it didn't come from Perdue, who announced no new policy initiatives in either her press conferences nor her brief (eight-minute), upbeat inaugural address on Jan. 10.

Until it's clear how much money state governments can expect from the Obama administration's economic stimulus plan, Perdue was remaining mum on her own budget plans beyond promising to think big, revamp as well as cut, and to "not eat the seed corn" of public education to balance the budget.

Perdue said she'll go to Washington herself "very quickly" to tell the new president what North Carolina needs.

Meanwhile, she gave her cabinet heads 60 days to provide her with lists of the top five priorities for their agencies—but nothing about money, she added, smiling.

Four other things we learned about Gov. Perdue:

  • She enjoys the spotlight, unlike her predecessor, Gov. Mike Easley.

  • She didn't think too much of Easley's hands-off approach to governing; when asked, for example, about the recent scandal surrounding a patient's death at the state psychiatric hospital in Goldsboro, Perdue said she'd have gone there the day she learned about it and "fired somebody"—whoever it was who took six weeks to tell her about the problem.

  • She's a light-green environmentalist. Introducing Freeman as her secretary of Environment and Natural Resources, Perdue said he understands the "balance" needed between economic growth and protecting the environment. Environmental groups who lined up last year for Perdue during a hard-fought Democratic primary were hoping for one of their own to get the post. Didn't happen.

  • Cansler, her choice for secretary of Health and Human Services, is a Republican. Political party "isn't a litmus test for me," Perdue joked, or otherwise, she wouldn't be married to Bob Eaves, the state's first "first gentleman" who was at her side throughout the week.

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