Lagging in the polls, mocked by a "Status Quo Bev" button in Republican ads, and pigeon-holed even by a few of her supporters as a cog in the Democratic state government machine, Beverly Perdue was in a combative mood at a recent economic development forum in Raleigh.
"The future under my leadership is not going to look like the past," the Democratic gubernatorial candidate declared stoutly—and not just because she would be the first woman governor.
Perdue reeled off a series of executive orders she said she would issue on Day One of her administration to reform the state's scandal-ridden politics, including a plan for public financing of future gubernatorial campaigns.
Other big shots in the state capital, Perdue said, would know right away "there's a new top dog in town, a new CEO who works for the taxpayers—and the buck stops with me."
When she finished, Perdue took questions from the audience. She seemed to kno w everyone, calling folks by name or referring to a history they shared. It was a reminder that the sitting lieutenant governor, a 21-year veteran of North Carolina politics, is the ultimate insider. She knows how the wheels turn, but it's uncertain whether she would use her knowledge to turn them in a new direction.
The next day, GOP gubernatorial candidate Pat McCrory addressed the forum. The upbeat Charlotte mayor, bidding to be just the third Republican governor in state history, also led with a promise to dismantle a "culture of corruption in Raleigh" that, if left intact, he said, will discourage honest businesses from locating in the state.
McCrory didn't name names, but with former state House Speaker Jim Black, a Democrat, in prison for taking bribes, and former Democratic legislators Thomas Wright and Frank Ballance incarcerated as well, he didn't have to.
The corruption is "insidious," McCrory argued, shutting out fresh ideas and pressuring policymakers to go along because "if you question too much, you will not only not get what you want, you'll lose what you have."
If he's governor, McCrory pledged, he would run an open, accessible and ethical administration, with no decisions made in back rooms. In his 13 years as mayor, he added, "there was never a hint of scandal."
Like Perdue, McCrory fielded audience questions when he finished, but it was apparent that, unlike his opponent, he knew only a few people in the room. Also unlike his opponent, McCrory hung around in the lobby for an extra 20 minutes to banter with reporters, jabbing them with his finger or clasping their shoulders in an effort to bond with them.
It pointed to McCrory's outsider status. If elected, he would arrive in Raleigh as a TV-friendly white knight with a mandate to slay the system, but with little understanding of how that system works.
In the last week, McCrory won the endorsement of many of the state's biggest newspapers, the Winston-Salem Journal, the Greensboro News & Record and his hometown Charlotte Observer. All said, McCrory could shake up politics in Raleigh after 16 years of Democratic rule.
Maybe so, but Perdue is not ceding the reformer's mantle to him. And on the subject of what reform means to each of them, some big differences have emerged in their campaigns.
At 52, McCrory has won 10 straight elections in Charlotte, the first three as an at-large City Council member and seven more as mayor. Elections in Charlotte are partisan, but during McCrory's tenure both major political parties were weak. The Chamber of Commerce, dominated by the city's behemoth banking industry and Duke Energy executives, supplied the power—with a big foot in both political camps.
McCrory, who worked for Duke Energy from college until he entered the governor's race, has been a centrist mayor in the Chamber mold, most often clashing with conservative Republicans while working in alliance with Democrats on City Council and the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners.
McCrory is best known for helping to craft Charlotte's long-range transit plan, which expanded bus service across the city and, in 2007, scored a smashing success when the first of several light-rail commuter lines opened, along with $2 billion of nearby office and residential development. Before the Lynx line launched, conservatives tried to kill it in a referendum on the local 1/2-cent sales tax for transit. McCrory, with the banks and developers, backed the tax—as did 70 percent of the voters. McCrory emerged as the smart-growth mayor ready to apply smart planning to the state's transportation mess as well.
State transportation funding lies at the heart of the politics-as-usual system that McCrory and Perdue have pledged to unravel. For years, the state Board of Transportation has been dominated by developers who also raise money for the governor's and Democratic party's political campaigns. Huge amounts of cash are at stake, hinging on the locations of state roads and interchanges.
Transportation board members have raked in contributions from development interests accordingly. Some members have also steered construction toward their own properties: Board member Louis Sewall Jr. of Jacksonville, who raised funds for Perdue's campaign and earlier for Gov. Mike Easley, was forced to resign a few weeks ago when The News & Observer disclosed that he'd done that very thing.
McCrory pledges that none of his board appointees would raise campaign funds for him, and instead he would appoint members based on their professional expertise. Their job would be to adopt a comprehensive 50-year transportation plan, not to approve individual road projects. Department of Transportation staff will have that responsibility. Funding would be based on safety, congestion and economic impacts, not politics.
McCrory's smart-growth credentials were initially attractive to environmental groups, but he lost ground last year after endorsing Duke Energy's application for state permits to build a pair of coal-fired power plants in Cliffside, near Charlotte. (Ultimately, the N.C. Utilities Commission approved one new plant.)
His environmental credibility slipped further (although his position was popular with voters angry over $4 a gallon gasoline) when he opened his campaign with a ringing call for off-shore oil and natural gas drilling in North Carolina's coastal waters, brushing off any analysis of the environmental damage as a mere formality.
McCrory would bring a "healthy" skepticism about state programs to Raleigh, the Charlotte Observer's endorsement read, combined with an unhealthy consistency. "Sometimes he'll stand up for what he believes," it went on, "but at times he'll pander to the far right and special interests."
He's also thin-skinned, the newspaper said, which won't help him in his dealings with Democratic leaders.
"He does have a thin skin," says John Hood, president of the conservative John Locke Foundation in Raleigh. "I've experienced it. But he recovers well."
Hood, a Charlotte native, says McCrory could forge an alliance on his reform agenda between minority Republicans and some moderate Democrats in the General Assembly. He also could bring the sides together on growth issues between urban and suburban legislators from both parties—as he did in Charlotte. "He does have skills, and there's a likability factor too—even though lots of conservatives disagree with him, they don't dislike him."
But McCrory's task won't be easy, Hood adds. Republican legislators are fractious—most conservatives backed Sen. Fred Smith, a Johnston County Republican, in the gubernatorial primary. And after 16 years of Democratic domination in Raleigh, the GOP doesn't have a deep talent pool from which to draw cabinet-level and other executive-branch managers. "He'll have to look far and scour for talent," Hood says.
Bev Perdue inherited her father's ambition. Alfred Moore was a coal miner with a grade-school education who became a mine owner and later a utility company chief executive worth millions. His daughter earned a doctoral degree before plunging into politics, winning seven terms in the state House and Senate from her New Bern district. She won the lieutenant governor race in 2000 and 2004—the first woman to hold that post.
In the legislature, Perdue was a trusted ally of powerful Senate President Marc Basnight, serving as his appropriations committee chair and as chief sponsor for such important initiatives as the Clean Water Management Trust Fund and the state's first children's health insurance program.
Perdue was known as someone who got her way—or Basnight's way. In an unguarded interview that's become a staple of Republican attack ads, she once explained her methods as a combination of "manipulation and charm."
In Basnight's Senate, the Democratic caucus majority controls the votes on most issues, and all Democrats are expected to publicly stick to the party line once the caucus has voted privately. Thus, Perdue's legislative record was that of the caucus: pro-business, pro-education and pro-environment when it didn't impede business.
As lieutenant governor, Perdue continued in that vein. She has never taken on the hog industry and its pollution in eastern North Carolina. Nor has she spoken up about labor rights or working conditions in poultry- and hog-slaughtering factories.
From an essentially powerless post with—as Perdue herself says—"little job description," her most significant act in seven-plus years was to cast the tie-breaking vote, from her otherwise ceremonial position as presiding officer of the Senate, that gave North Carolina a state lottery.
Easley pushed for the lottery, as did Basnight. Progressive groups like the N.C. Justice Center, as well as most Republicans, denounced it as a tax on poor people.
Otherwise, Perdue's main claim is that when Easley tasked her with protecting the state's military bases against possible closure by the U.S. Department of Defense, North Carolina emerged with more military employment, not less.
(While Perdue led the state's efforts, the line of politicians taking credit for that outcome begins in Washington with Sen. Elizabeth Dole, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.)
Since winning the Democratic nomination in May, Perdue has struggled to articulate a message of change while promising to maintain Democratic policies on education and business.
As a member of the Board of Community Colleges, Perdue voted to bar illegal immigrants from enrolling, even if they were in-state high school graduates. That vote undercut her prior "change" plan to admit every high school graduate to community college tuition-free.
While McCrory also insisted that illegal immigrants be barred, Perdue's me-too reaction hurt her with progressive voters. She's struggled to win them back.
Then, when Perdue, in a debate called herself "the state's health-care leader" because she heads the Health and Wellness Trust Fund, McCrory shot back that she must be responsible for the failure of the state's mental-health programs.
"Physical health, not mental health" was her lame reply.
But lately, Perdue's shored up her progressive credentials with a series of policy statements that do suggest she would be—or try to be—a different governor than McCrory.
Perdue's platform includes a far-reaching green energy initiative, extending health insurance coverage to every child in the state, and gay rights protections for state employees. She has also spelled out a reform agenda that includes public campaign financing, a citizens advisory panel, and Board of Transportation reforms similar to McCrory's, including barring members from voting on individual road projects.
Her agenda has won the support of the state's major education, environmental, health and social justice groups, though privately some leaders wonder if she can deliver on her promises.
"I don't expect her to be the most progressive governor North Carolina's ever had," says Chris Fitzsimon, head of N.C. Policy Watch, a liberal advocacy group in Raleigh. "But she has taken some strong positions, and you have to hope that she'll be an advocate for the things she's saying in her campaign.
"The other thing is," Fitzsimon adds, "it'll be up to advocacy groups to hold her feet to the fire if she's elected."
After losing ground to McCrory over illegal immigration and off-shore drilling, recent polls have shown Perdue either retaking the lead from McCrory or running even with him.
Their race has been overshadowed by the Obama-McCain showdown and the U.S. Senate contest, Perdue campaign adviser Mac McCorckle says. But lately, Perdue's taken advantage of the Obama surge by tying McCrory to President George W. Bush, who's campaigned with him. It's a tactic that, judging by the polls, seems to be working.
Whoever wins, he or she must confront a state budget deficit estimated at $1.5 billion and perhaps much more, given the tanking economy. So it's unclear how much spending leeway either will have. Both have been circumspect. Perdue "hasn't taken any stupid pledges" against raising taxes, her adviser, McCorckle notes, nor has McCrory.
McCrory says he would like to cut state personal and corporate income taxes, but the worsening economy makes it unlikely within his first two years.
If and when the state's budget position improves, it seems clear that Perdue would invest more money in health care and education, including community colleges, than McCrory. McCrory would try to cut progressive taxes.
And on reform, McCrory would bring, in John Hood's memorable term, "a political enema" to Raleigh, looking to unclog state government after 16 years of Democratic legislators and governors.
Chris Fitzsimon agrees that reform is necessary. But Perdue, not McCrory, is offering a substantive agenda for change, he says. So a Perdue victory offers progressives their best chances for positive change—if they can help her keep her promises.