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What Walter Dalton needs to do to win



You're Walter Dalton, the Democratic nominee for governor. With one month left in the race, you're trailing the Republican candidate, Pat McCrory, by 10 points in the polls. Tonight, in the first of three debates slated for October, your job is to convince voters that you'd be a better governor than McCrory, yes?

Sorry, it's not that easy.

Instead, you're faced with the more difficult task of persuading us that we need a governor. It's obvious we don't think so. And why should we, given the fact that Bev Perdue quit on us and before her, for eight ridiculous years, we had Mike Easley?

If we thought a governor would do us some good, we certainly wouldn't be fixing to elect McCrory, the man with the skimpy record and shadowy ads that nonetheless convey his very clear message. "We'll get out of your way," McCrory says in a new commercial, "and let you prosper."

That's right, McCrory will do nothing as governor. Because nothing is—in the Republican mind—what will get our economy going.

So there's little to be gained from debating issues with McCrory or proving that he's a slick public relations man for special-interest clients. Of course he is. Rather, ignore McCrory and focus on a different Republican who came to Raleigh in 2010 ready to do a job that eventually proved beyond him: Tony Tata, whose flame-out as superintendent of the Wake County public schools is Exhibit A for what can happen when your state has no executive leadership.

And if Tata is Exhibit A, then Exhibit B is Holden Thorp, the wunderkind UNC-Chapel Hill chancellor who recently resigned effective at the end of the academic year.

Tata and Thorp aren't without blame in their respective departures. Hubris, self-deception: Chalk up some of each to both. But it's tough to be a great captain when the fleet is adrift.

Preparing to write this column, I thought about what's changed in gubernatorial elections since the first one I covered, in 1977, as a daily newspaper reporter in New Jersey.

There was a shared understanding then—across both political parties—that improving the public sector helped the private sector grow; in turn, a growing private sector generated the taxes to build the public sector.

Since Ronald Reagan, however, the Republican Party has been captured by the kooky view that investment is a zero-sum game: Spend more on the public side, the GOP says, and you inevitably weaken private enterprise. Then in 1994, the GOP began to assume the persona of Newt Gingrich, denouncing public spending as not merely inefficient but treasonous.

The consequences of the Gingrich-inspired politics of destruction include record-low taxes on the rich and rising unemployment for the rest of us. The worst, though, is when the public is persuaded that government is what's holding us back, not a force that can—in John Kennedy's famous phrase—lift all boats.

Thursday night in Raleigh, Mr. Dalton, I heard you talk about great moments in North Carolina history, when visionary leaders invested in education even though it was difficult to afford. We created UNC, the first public university, in 1789. We were the only state to keep every school open and not fire any teachers during the Great Depression. Later, we developed Research Triangle Park, community colleges and Smart Start.

But we're living off past glories. The state budget is the lowest in 40 years as a percentage of our economy, according to the N.C. Budget & Tax Center. Funding for the public schools is 11 percent less than five years ago despite enrollment growth. Ditto for the UNC system.

In debates, you can't just spit out budget numbers all night. But you can talk about Holden Thorp, a scholar and potentially great university leader who was brought down because of UNC's corrupt grasping for TV sports money.

Or talk about Tony Tata, a good man who thought he could improve the Wake schools even though per-student funding has dropped below $7,800, down more than $500 in five years. A former Army general, Tata used every trick in his close-contact maneuvers book. But even with larger class sizes, he couldn't pay for teachers, books and extra help for the high-poverty schools created by a Republican school board before they lost control in last November's elections.

Something had to give, and it was buses; Tata didn't budget for nearly enough buses. As a result, the Republicans' choice plan for student assignment collapsed immediately after it launched. Soon, Tata was relieved of his duties.

It's the job of the state's chief executive officer to tell us when new public investments are needed, and why—and what the payback will be for making them.

That's your task tonight, Mr. Dalton: to convince a majority of the voters that growth is possible, and that a visionary governor can help make it happen.

But don't expect to debate Pat McCrory on any of this. He'll have nothing to contribute.

This article appeared in print with the headline "To govern or not to govern?"

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