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Fighting Words

Democrats eyeing Jesse Helms' Senate seat come out swinging at a local forum



Tough way to start. Troop ships on the move, the nation primed for combat. A Republican president at 90 percent in the polls. Tape over the mouths of congressional Democrats, who are "united behind the president." And now, it's time to hear from the four active Democratic candidates for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Republican Liddy Dole--er, Jesse Helms.

That's right, there are four Democrats running. State Rep. Dan Blue of Raleigh and Secretary of State Elaine Marshall are declared candidates, and Superior Court Judge Ray Warren will be when he leaves the bench on Sept. 30. Former Durham City Council member Cynthia Brown is in the "exploratory" phase (see "A Campaign for Citizen Jane," at right).

And no, Helms did not resign from the Senate when he announced last month that he would not seek re-election. Nor are the state's big TV and newspaper owners authorized to give his seat to Elizabeth Dole, although they're falling all over themselves to welcome her back to her native state.

The four Democrats (but not Republican candidates, Dole and Vinroot) accepted the Common Sense Foundation's invitation to speak Tuesday at a breakfast gathering of progressive folks dubbed "Senate 2002 Preview."

How'd they do? Strictly as a matter of first impressions, quite well. The highest marks go to Blue and Brown, who did the best job of tying what Democrats should be about, to the question of national security that is now uppermost in the public mind. Almost as good, but trying a little too hard to win points for being the only declared candidate before Helms pulled out, was Marshall. Warren, also riffing on Helms, got a laugh when he said that North Carolina "faces the task of going directly from the 19th century to the 21st, with barely a pause in the 20th."

The Democrats' best theme at the breakfast: "Homeland security" isn't just a matter of physical protection, it's also about a shared sense of economic security. As Blue said, "We have to make sure our major effort is to protect our American way of life." With the nation under attack by terrorists, Blue said, major corporations need government bailouts to survive--and so do their employees. Neither can depend on the "free market" economics offered by the Republicans.

Brown added that true economic security means the assurance of decent wages, access to health care, safe working conditions, and the right to organize in the workplace without fear of reprisal.

The Democrats also talked, without being specific, about overhauling the educational system so that poor kids and rich ones are equally ready to work in the 21st century economy, and so that workers displaced from their jobs--whether by globalization or war--have access to retraining through higher education.

Electing Democrats, Warren reminded the audience, is no guarantee of success in these matters, since Democrats shaped the current, industrial-model educational system that reserves elite university seats for the few. But, he said, since all Republican legislators could do during North Carolina's months-long budget crisis was "go around like Stepford wives, saying 'No New Taxes,'" electing a Democrat "is, at the very least, a form of damage control."

Warren can talk like that. A former legislator, he was a Republican until 1998, when he announced that he is gay. Blue also earned his stripes in the legislature. A decade ago, as then-House speaker, and this year as leader of the liberal "Gang of Eight," he helped shape progressive tax increases during recessions, offsetting years of corporate tax cuts in between.

Blue describes himself as a fighter. But then, so is Marshall, the first woman ever elected to the Council of State. So is Brown, a community organizer. And so is Warren.

Interesting group. Good start. And remember, the last wartime Republican president with a 90 percent approval rating was also named George Bush.


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