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The Democratic shake-up for governor

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Try to remember, if you can, when Gov. Bev Perdue was running for re-election, Brad Miller and David Price were going toe-to-toe for the same U.S. House seat, and Newt Gingrich was surging in the presidential race.

That was last week.

This week, the establishment in both political parties is reasserting control.

Newt? Nyet. On the Republican side the front-runner is again Mitt Romney, the guy with the 13.9 percent federal tax rate on $20 million-plus he garners annually on investment returns. (To call them earnings would imply some work was involved.) It's hard to imagine a weaker candidate than Mitt. Except, of course, for Newt.

But if Mitt epitomizes for Republicans the insouciant 1% fingered by the Occupy movement as the source of our economic woes, what should we make of the many North Carolina Democrats drooling at the prospect that wealthy Erskine Bowles might replace Perdue on the gubernatorial ticket?

Bowles' family fortune—thanks to his marriage to Crandall Close, the Springs Industries heiress and a board member at JPMorgan Chase—elevates him to the top of the 1%. Just like Mitt, Bowles, the former president of the UNC system, once worked on Wall Street orchestrating leveraged buyouts, albeit with a good deal less financial success.

I'm told Perdue was discouraged by her inability to raise a big campaign stake. The usual donors—Democrats in the 1%—weren't enthusiastic. No doubt she was a little too liberal for their tastes. Plus her poll numbers were lousy.

Miller, too, ran into a Democratic establishment forced to choose between competing liberals for a congressional district that, due to Republican packing (putting all the Democrats from Miller's and Price's districts into one), will be among the nation's most progressive. Not surprisingly, well-heeled Democrats preferred Price's cautious incrementalism to Miller's outspoken populism.

Six days ago, Miller announced that he wouldn't run against Price for the newly formed Fourth District, despite what Miller said were "important differences" in their records "over what we now understand to be defining issues in American politics." He added: "We need debates over those issues in the Democratic Party, including in primaries."

Those issues boil down to whether the 1%, the bankers and buyouts crowd who've prospered since the 1970s at everyone else's expense, should be left in charge of the nation's fortunes. They should instead be yanked and saddled, which is what Miller was trying to do as a rising member of the House Financial Services Committee—until the Republicans' redistricting and the Democratic establishment combined to pull him up short.

No sooner had Miller withdrawn on Thursday than Perdue announced her decision to step aside. Miller, who, like most Democrats, had no inkling that Perdue wouldn't run, was asked if he might try to replace her. He didn't say no. On Monday, still undecided, he said he's "encouraged" at how many people think he should go for it.

There's no question that, with Perdue out of the race, attention can now be focused on the real issues in state government rather than on her style or alleged shortcomings as a leader. That said, however, her withdrawal should also remind us how little power a governor has—how little power a state has—when the economy tanks.

Perdue won't be a one-term governor because she failed to create jobs. She'll be a one-term governor because of federal government failures dating to the Clinton years—when the Glass-Steagall Act was repealed, the worst of a series of mistakes in banking deregulation—and capped by the Wall Street meltdown of the Bush II years.

She'll be a one-term governor, too, because President Obama lost the country's confidence during the health care debate, leading to the 2010 election landslide that put Republicans in charge of both houses of the N.C. General Assembly for the first time since 1898.

In good times, a governor can add to school budgets, build college and university facilities and frame them as a critical component of the economic growth that a better-educated populace will enjoy. All this and, as tax revenues pour in, she can even propose to cut tax rates.

But in bad times, when she most needs to protect teaching jobs and add construction jobs, a governor's hands are tied. Twenty years ago, Perdue might've proposed a big bond issue for UNC or public schools construction. But today, with the nation wallowing in federal debt due to tax cuts for Mitt Romney and his fellow 1%-ers (along with the unfunded wars and subsidies to Big Oil and the health care industry), more state borrowing wasn't an option even when Democrats were running the General Assembly.

After 2010 when the Republicans took over in Raleigh, forget it.

Perdue was also unfairly stigmatized by a not very subtle sexism she faced as the state's first woman governor and by the never subtle racism that every Democratic governor confronts. Republican legislators, exclusively white and overwhelmingly male, hit her with the old wedge issues, including an attempted repeal of the Racial Justice Act and a demeaning piece of anti-choice legislation they called the "Women's Right to Know Act"—which Democratic women called the "Women Are Stupid Act."

Perdue's veto of the RJA repeal was upheld, though at some cost to her support among white voters. Her attempt to veto the anti-choice bill was overridden, thanks to several conservative Democratic men; however, a federal judge has blocked it on constitutional grounds.

Five white male Democratic House members also joined the Republicans to override Perdue's budget veto last year, in the process slashing state aid to education and eliminating a temporary 1-cent sales tax she had convinced the Legislature to pass in 2009.

Perdue's constant battles with the boys—a record 16 vetoes, of which a record seven were overridden—cut into her public stature. So did the Republicans' penchant for belittling her in disrespectful terms. The fact that Perdue was a career legislator more accustomed to making deals than executive pronouncements just made it easier for them to dismiss her.

In the end, Perdue did what almost no male politician ever does: She stepped aside to give someone not as battle-scarred and better able to raise money (or pay for his own campaign), the chance to take over where she'd been stopped.

Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton, who immediately announced his candidacy for governor, could be that man. Like Perdue, he's an advocate for good public schools and universities. And he looks like a governor, if your idea of what a governor looks like is a wholesome white male. Since he'd planned on running again for the No. 2 spot, Dalton already has raised $700,000 or so—not nearly enough, but a start.

Certainly Bowles would fill the bill too. A two-time loser in races for the U.S. Senate, Bowles has said himself that he's terrible at politics—and he is. That 1% mark is written all over him. But he's fiscally conservative, with a record of calling for federal budget cuts that will make it hard for the Republicans to label him a big spender. And he's really rich, so he can pay for his own campaign.

As for Miller, his election would be a symbolic victory for the progressive wing of the Democratic Party—what Howard Dean used to call the Democratic wing. And Miller would be a more forceful advocate of women's rights, civil rights and gay rights than Bowles or Dalton, the other leading contenders at this point. How much difference Miller would make substantively on the issues of taxing the rich, paying for schools and creating jobs is harder to say.

What's clear is that Miller's brand of progressive populism was far more needed—its potential impact would've been far greater—in Washington than in Raleigh.

The reason jobs in North Carolina are scarce is the same reason jobs in the U.S. are scarce: The federal government isn't doing its job. It's a job state governments, if they ever could do it, can't do anymore.

In an era of global capitalism, only a federal government can regulate trade, defend the environment and protect jobs. Only a federal government can require that if a multinational corporation or bank wants to do business in the U.S., it must employ its fair share of American citizens and pay a fair share of federal and state taxes.

Since the '70s, Congress has allowed corporations to do the opposite, to exploit American markets while outsourcing American jobs and capital to countries with slack environmental standards, no labor protections and very low wages.

Brad Miller understands this. He was one of the leading Democrats in Washington trying to do something about it. That's why the Democratic establishment preferred David Price.

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