The candidates have squared off in debates so relentlessly civil that one even apologized for their lack of "distinctions on the issues." Before a recent debate, the moderator commiserated with the audience.
"If you're like I am," former Raleigh City Councilor Benson Kirkman said, "you're probably scratching your head" trying to decide between the pair of knowledgeable, progressive candidates for the Democratic nomination in state Senate District 16. It is the West Raleigh-Cary seat that Sen. Janet Cowell, D-Wake, is giving up to run for state treasurer.
The more experienced candidate is Jack Nichols, a lawyer and former Wake County commissioner who at age 56 can fairly claim to have done it all in local politics, including managing the '70s campaigns of insurgent women Isabella Cannon, Raleigh's only woman mayor, and Betty Ann Knudsen, the first female county commissioner.
The up-and-comer is Josh Stein, the 41-year-old scion of a Chapel Hill political family who earned high marks in Raleigh as John Edwards' campaign manager in the 1998 U.S. Senate race and, for the last seven years, as N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper's consumer protection chief.
In this race, however, and unlike the Democratic presidential campaign, it's the more experienced candidate, Nichols, who emphasizes the need for bipartisan alliances to accomplish anything in Wake County—or for the politically divided Wake County legislative delegation to get anything done in the General Assembly.
Stein, in what passes for contrast, says he knows how to compromise, but won't if it means sacrificing his progressive principles.
As Cooper's spear-carrier, Stein has worked the legislative hallways on behalf of such progressive victories as the ban on payday lending and the do-not-call list for telemarketers. His nice-guy personality and a drive suggest he'd be well-suited to legislative duty.
But the same can be said for Nichols, who worked those same halls as an aide to Gov. Jim Hunt in the '80s and was himself the wunderkind of the county commission in the early '90s on issues such as school funding and infrastructure planning. He stepped down in '94 to raise his family, and four years ago, lost to Cowell in the primary for this same seat—vacated then by former state Sen. Eric Reeves.
(There's a third Democratic candidate, retired N.C. State track coach Mike Shea, who's done no active campaigning so far.)
Over the last week, the Stein camp has tried to highlight differences in the candidates' positions on collective bargaining rights for public employees and on the state minimum wage.
On bargaining rights, Nichols says he would concentrate first on securing them for state employees before taking up the issue of local government workers. Stein argues that such rights "should [also] extend to the sanitation workers in Raleigh, for example." North Carolina is one of just two states (Virginia is the other) with a law banning government agencies from bargaining with their employees.
Nichols says Stein's criticism "misconstrues" his position. Repealing the ban on collective bargaining has no chance of success in the General Assembly if the powerful N.C. League of Municipalities and N.C. Association of County Commissioners oppose it, Nichols says. And they will, if state and local employees are rolled together in one bill. "It's battle tactics," Nichols says. "Take them one at a time."
On the minimum wage, Nichols says he wants to gauge the impact of the scheduled increases in the federal wage (to $6.55 an hour this July, and $7.25 in July 2009) before deciding on another state increase. Stein says he would vote to raise the minimum wage in North Carolina another dollar above the scheduled federal increases and tie it to the inflation index. "We must make work pay," he says, and at $7.25 an hour, full-time workers can't support themselves, let alone a family.
Nichols counters that a better way to help low-paid workers is by increasing the state's Earned Income Tax Credit and with subsidies for health-insurance coverage. Minimum wage increases are "falsely held out there" as more help than they really are, Nichols says, since most full-time workers earn more than the minimum anyway.