If you really want your vote to count, head out to your polling place on Tuesday, May 2. Turnout is guaranteed to be light, thanks to a lackluster spring campaign and to the fact that the presidential nominations were locked up two months ago. But with fewer people taking the trouble to fill in their choices on the ballot, your vote will count more than usual. And you'll help select many of the people who run local schools, courts and county governments, as well as your party's nominees for governor and the other council of state offices.
To help make sense of your choices, The Independent sent questionnaires, tailored to each race, asking all the candidates for detailed positions on the important issues they would face in office. We also conducted extensive research, along with scores of interviews with candidates, political activists and observers.
The results of our findings are organized into statewide, Wake, Durham and Orange/Chatham sections. We've also assembled handy-dandy voting guides that you can clip out and carry to the polls (with your own choices penciled in, of course). See you there.
Normally, we'd open our endorsements with picks for president and governor. But the presidential nominations are a foregone conclusion, and this year's race for governor does not offer the clear--and critical--choice that voters face in the Democratic contest for lieutenant governor.
State Sen. Beverly Perdue is one for the history books--in several ways. As co-chair of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee and close ally of Senate President Mark Basnight, she's arguably the most powerful female politician in North Carolina history. "I've gotten to be a real player," Perdue likes to boast on the campaign trail. She's gotten there the old-fashioned way: not by presenting fresh ideas or standing up for deeply held principles, but by displaying a machine politician's knack for cutting deals, pushing bills through the Senate and keeping her fellow Democrats loyal to the party line.
In the not-so-old days when backroom Democrats held sway in Raleigh's smoke-filled rooms, honesty sometimes took a backseat to the pursuit of power. And so it is with Perdue, who has misled North Carolina voters in her campaign for lieutenant governor. In public forums, speeches and campaign materials, Perdue presents herself as a "coal miner's daughter" who pulled herself up by the bootstraps with a "hard-earned" college degree. What she doesn't say is that her father, after humble beginnings, had already retired as a multimillionaire mine owner by the time Perdue was 22. Even after The Independent uncovered this deception, and other newspapers reported it, Perdue continued to present this false face to the voters.
Perdue's 14-year record in the legislature has had its high points. She sponsored Smart Start, Gov. Jim Hunt's pre-school initiative, and pushed important clean-water legislation through the General Assembly in 1997. But the latter accomplishment demonstrates something else that's disturbing about Perdue: She came around on environmental issues only after they began to threaten her politically, on the heels of a massive 1995 fish kill on the Neuse River around her hometown of New Bern. Similarly, Perdue became a backer of campaign-finance reform legislation after being forced to pay back tainted money funneled into her campaign by nursing-home magnate Stephen Pierce.
Perdue would almost certainly try to use the lieutenant governor's office as a springboard to the governor's mansion. Fortunately, Democratic voters have a chance to derail her political ambitions--and take a stand for political courage at the same time.
A 34-year-old lawyer from Eden, Ed Wilson is a newcomer to politics, a fact that Perdue has used against him during the campaign. "The lieutenant governor's office is not an entry-level position," she insists. That sounds logical until you look at the actual duties of North Carolina's "light governor": Preside over the state Senate, and serve on the state boards of education and community colleges. It's not a job that demands years of experience. And Jim Hunt, who won the office in his first political race in 1972, is living proof that it can be a training ground for a bright, promising young leader.
That description fits Wilson. He promises to use the lieutenant governor's bully pulpit to crusade across the state for clean elections. He'll bring a progressive voice to the state Board of Education, where he'd support permanent funding for Smart Start but would not toe the official line on the ABCs program to reward school improvement. Wilson will also make public transportation and arts funding a priority.
Best of all, Wilson is the only serious Democratic candidate for the state's top two jobs who has the guts to take unpopular stands on controversial issues. He supports a moratorium on executions, saying it's "clear that capital punishment is not administered in a fair manner." And, unlike Perdue, Wilson opposes a lottery referendum.
Of the two other Democrats, Joel Harbison, a county commissioner from Hickory, has campaigned on his support for a state lottery and little else. Ronnie Ansley, an attorney from Angier, has run an energetic, low-budget campaign in which he's articulated a progressive agenda similar to Wilson's. But Wilson, who has gained support from progressives across the state, stands the best chance of making Beverly Perdue's political career one for the history books in yet another way.
The Republican primary could give North Carolinians a second chance to elect the state's first woman lieutenant governor this year: state Sen. Betsy Cochrane. The Davie County resident, a former public- and private-school teacher, was first elected to the General Assembly 20 years ago. She became the first woman to be House minority leader in 1985, and the first to be Senate minority leader in 1995. She's earned a reputation as a reformer (some of the time) on nursing-home issues, working to make abuse of a senior citizen a felony and expand in-home services for elderly folks.
While Cochrane, like Perdue, accepted (and later returned) Stephen Pierce's tainted money while serving on the N.C. Study Commission on Aging, she has earned a reputation for forthrightness. She's also, unfortunately, earned near-perfect marks from big-business groups and brags that she has voted for "every major tax cut" to come down the pike. But Cochrane helped lead the Senate fight against a lottery referendum in 1995, and we trust that as lieutenant governor, she'd continue to speak out forcefully against this destructive idea.
Cochrane has worthy opposition. Andy Nilsson, a 33-year-old small-business owner from Winston-Salem, would bring fresh energy to state government. He's brave enough to say that he'd support a repeal of the state's medieval sodomy law, and he's run on a "tax menu" idea that certainly earns points for originality: Nilsson would give taxpayers the chance to send 10 percent of what they owe to the state-government function of their choice.
As founder of the Republican Leadership Council, a group that's attempting to keep moderate politics alive in North Carolina's GOP, Nilsson has a lot to offer. Unfortunately, he's running against someone who has a long track record of moderate Republican leadership.
If we lived in a Southern version of Utopia--the sort of place where politicians would pass a Clean Elections Act, for instance--we'd be choosing between visionary leaders to replace Gov. Jim Hunt. We'd be comparing the candidates' innovative plans for top-notch public schools, weighing their forward-thinking proposals for protecting open space and keeping our air and water clean, scrutinizing their bright ideas for public-transit systems in our traffic-choked cities. We'd be debating which candidate had the strongest commitment to bringing prosperity to struggling farm communities, and to lifting up the thousands of folks who've been left out of the New South boom.
Welcome to Dystopia.
The Democratic and Republican primaries for governor feature a large number of candidates--11 total, five of them actual contenders. But they all advocate small ideas. It's no wonder that members of both parties, all across the ideological spectrum, are struggling to decipher the shades of difference.
The single worst example of small thinking comes from the two leading Democrats, Attorney Gen. Mike Easley and Lt. Gov. Dennis Wicker. Rather than saying they'd raise taxes or cut off corporate welfare to pay for excellent schools, both men hinge their proposals for improving public education on the passage of a state lottery.
You don't have to believe that gambling is immoral on religious grounds to know that a state lottery is a rotten idea. By supporting a lottery--no matter how they'd use the ill-gotten gains--both Easley and Wicker are saying it's OK for the state to profit off people's addictions. They're saying it's OK that lotteries attract a disproportionate amount of money from low-income folks. They're saying it's OK to invite the notoriously corrupt lottery industry into North Carolina.
Wicker's proposal for spending lottery money only makes matters worse--as does the fact that he's flip-flopped on the issue, having strongly opposed it when he ran against a pro-lottery opponent in 1992. While Easley would use lottery funds to pay for smaller elementary-school classes, Wicker wants to follow in the footsteps of Georgia, which spends them on pre-school programs for 4-year-olds and college scholarships for students with a B average or better. Inevitable result of the scholarship program: While it comes disproportionately from low-income folks, the lottery money flows mostly to middle- and upper-class families, whose kids are more likely to make As and Bs.
On other issues, the Democrats sound similar notes--but, again, with subtle differences of pitch. Both candidates are pro-choice, with Wicker taking a stronger stand on restoring the state fund to give poor women equal access to abortions. But Wicker's past views cast some doubt on the strength of his support for women's issues: He opposed the Equal Rights Amendment, and spoke out against a bill that overturned husbands' exemption from prosecution for raping their wives. And while Easley can boast that he's never been endorsed by the National Rifle Association, Wicker's voting record on gun control was not stellar.
Both candidates say they'll push to implement Hunt's initiative to save 1 million acres of open space, and both promise to shut down hog lagoons and bolster environmental regulation. While Easley has been criticized for not pursuing environmental law-breakers with enough gusto as attorney general, he has presented a thorough proposal for clean water.
As attorney general, Easley has done precious little to right the wrongs of the state's capital-punishment system. When he should have stood up for equitable sentencing, and quelled the conviction-happy prosecutors in his office, he came up short. Unfortunately, Wicker promises little more: He's also a death-penalty supporter who opposes a moratorium on executions while the state studies the fairness of the system. Neither man will be a strong voice for criminal justice.
Perhaps the most telling difference between these candidates is what they've accomplished in office. Both Wicker and Easley have served at the state level for seven years. Granted, Wicker's duties as lieutenant governor have given him little real power. But the job does give him a platform for statewide leadership--a platform he's used to promote only one big initiative, toughening the state's drunk-driving laws.
As attorney general, Easley has failed to be a powerful voice for criminal and environmental justice. But he has pushed hard on consumer-protection issues. He showed some guts, and some leadership, by taking on the state's big banks as he fought predatory lending and by playing a key role in saving taxpayers $1 billion that Blue Cross/Blue Shield attempted to "privatize."
Easley is the only candidate for governor who talks about lifting up the North Carolinians who've been left behind, who says he'll stand with working people against those who try to exploit them. While he doesn't have a perfect record of standing up for the little guy--who's lower on the totem pole, after all, than a death row inmate or the next-door neighbor of a waste-spewing plant?--Easley's record offers hope that he can be a strong leader on behalf of regular folks. Wicker's record offers little such hope.
None of the other Democratic candidates has run a strong enough campaign to give voters a reasonable alternative to Easley. Roger Maines, a mental-health worker from the small town of Lewisville, deserves mention for saying he'd work to reduce the state's bulging prison population and asserting that "There would be no executions while I am in office" because of inequities in capital sentencing. We can only wish his party's front-runners had the wherewithal to be similarly principled.
Same goes for the Republican front-runners, who have conducted a primary campaign as empty of substance as any in North Carolina history. State Rep. Leo Daughtry of Smithfield, former state Rep. Chuck Neely of Raleigh, and former Charlotte Mayor Richard Vinroot have spent the last several months slinging mud at one another while crawling on hand and knee in search of votes from the Christian Right. While Neely was wagging an accusing finger at Daughtry for representing a video-poker group, Daughtry was pointing a finger at Vinroot for having once supported Planned Parenthood--and Vinroot was aiming the finger back at Daughtry by reminding voters that the senator co-owns a (gasp!) wine distributorship.
So much for the issues, and for good Christian behavior. But at least all three candidates oppose a state lottery.
Daughtry, a major tobacco-allotment holder, has been an outspoken defender of Big Tobacco during his six terms in the General Assembly. As part of the Republican leadership in the House, he has also carried water for the National Rifle Association, opposed stronger restrictions on lobbyists (one of whom he married), opposed campaign-finance reform, voted against requiring gender equity on state boards and commissions, and was instrumental in engineering the huge mid-'90s tax cuts that have put the state in a financial bind.
Neely earned a reputation for fairness and effectiveness after being elected to the state House in 1994. Too bad he was mostly effective at pushing so-called "tort reform" legislation that made it practically impossible for average North Carolinians to sue big businesses when they've been harmed or ripped off. (Perhaps not coincidentally, Neely's law firm has represented companies like McDonald's, Dow Corning and the Ford Motor Co. in civil cases.) Neely has spent this campaign positioning himself as the candidate of the Christian Right with his "families first" agenda, advocating "neighborhood schools" and tax-paid school vouchers, limited government and a repeal of the property tax on cars and trucks. By one estimate, Neely's proposed tax cuts could add up to $700 million--in a time when important state programs are already endangered by the reckless tax-cutting of the '90s.
The Republican alternative to all this right-wing pandering, Art Manning, is an undercover law-enforcement officer from Vanceboro. Unfortunately, Manning appears to love the sound of his voice more than studying the issues and articulating full-blown positions.
Which leaves Republican voters one reasonable choice: Vinroot. After running as a traditional conservative and losing the Republican primary in '96, Vinroot has conducted a reprehensible campaign this time around as he scrambles farther rightward. But his record as mayor of Charlotte suggests that he would be no disaster in the governor's office. Vinroot honed his conservative credentials by pressing to privatize city services, being tough on crime and keeping Queen City taxes low. He also earned the support of Republicans and Democrats alike by pushing forward-thinking initiatives such as a light-rail system and city-county merger. In this year's race, he's offered one positive proposal: Vinroot vows to eliminate those big, and unnecessary, incentives the state has been handing out to big corporations to lure them to North Carolina or keep them here.
For the first time, Libertarians also have a reason to vote in the primary: a race between Jonathan Littlejohn of Cherokee and Barbara Howe, a homemaker from Oxford who's been at the top of the party's state ticket before. Littlejohn has made the Libertarians' choice easy by doing little beyond getting his name on the ballot. Howe, meanwhile, is a bright, honest spokeswoman for the Libertarian doctrine of expanding civil liberties and minimalizing government. She will be a welcome option for disgruntled voters in the fall.