Many people have been calling this the most important election of their lifetime, and they're right. There is so much at stake for every American in ensuring we elect John Kerry the next president of the United States.
There is, of course, the horrible, wretched war in Iraq. Bush seized on the 9/11 attacks and started a war based on lies, deceit and a cynical belief that the American people weren't smart enough to debate the real reasons--oil and empire. The result is a failure that is still hard to grasp--not enough troops, no post-war plan and inadequate preparation. As a result, more than 1,000 American soldiers are dead and 7,800 are injured. Thousands of Iraqis have been killed, injured, tortured or held without cause. Their country is in ruins, and we have done the seemingly impossible--made some long for stability and Saddam Hussein. And we have fueled world hatred against us that is inspiring terrorism, not preventing it. That we have spent $126 billion in the process is almost anti-climactic.
That money pales compared to the sorry state of the American economy. Mostly as a result of tax cuts weighted heavily toward the wealthy, we have gone from a $150 billion budget surplus to a $450 billion deficit. President Bush is the first president since Herbert Hoover to end a term with fewer American jobs than when he started. Yet for all the money spent, homeland security needs and federal mandates on schools are left underfunded.
Those would be enough reasons to oppose the reelection of the president. But he has a much larger, much scarier agenda. At stake in this election is most of the social progress made in the United States over the last 50 years. In the long run, that is the most important reason to elect John Kerry. Racial integration and reconciliation, women's rights, the environmental movement, separation of church and state, gay rights, health care, civil liberties, workers' benefits, corporate oversight, gun control and open government are all areas in which the ideologues of the Bush administration are relentlessly, methodically and ruthlessly turning back the clock. The president and, we fear, some of his supporters want to take us back to the days when "family values" meant women, African Americans and gays and lesbians were second-class citizens, or worse. They want to overturn Roe v. Wade, eliminate affirmative action and rollback environmental protections. They have handed the country over to corporate special interests and want to allow more corporate consolidation, weaken federal rules of corporate oversight, let drug companies write health legislation and energy companies write energy laws. And they want to deceive us about it whenever possible--they call a plan that allows power plants to release double the amount of sulfur dioxide and five times the mercury the Clear Skies Initiative.
Theirs is truly an ultra-right-wing revolution disguised as "compassionate conservatism."
John Kerry stands for everything George W. Bush does not. He is a war hero, not a National Guard no-show. While George W. Bush is the servant of big business, one of Kerry's most powerful proposals is to cut insurance costs for small businesses by up to two-thirds through a program of government reinsurance and tax credits. He proposes to repeal tax breaks for the rich and corporations that send jobs abroad, raise the minimum wage, create a more progressive tax code, and use the money to bring health insurance to 95 percent of Americans.
And in this era of globalization, when George W. Bush has brought the United States of American into disrepute in the eyes of most of the world, John Kerry can restore confidence both at home and abroad. He vows to rebuild American diplomacy, mending fences with NATO and traditional Western allies and focusing attention on North Korea and Iran--real nuclear threats. He will inherit a war he opposed (don't let the flip-flop tag fool you) and it remains to be seen how well he can resolve a horribly difficult situation.
But one thing is certain--he will acknowledge our previous mistakes and set out to fix them. Even something that simple is more than George W. Bush has shown himself capable of doing.
And whatever your feelings about John Kerry, this election is a referendum on the Bush presidency--a regime that has shown itself to be both criminal and incompetent.
The race for the seat Democratic vice-presidential candidate John Edwards is leaving after one term has provided the stage for some of the most unsavory attack ads of the season, and also the most persuasive argument for campaign finance reform. The contest between Democrat Erskine Bowles and Republican Richard Burr has drawn outside influence by the millions, as big-money national PACs have dumped funds on TV and radio ads touting Burr. Some PAC leaders even admitted that they aren't seeking to influence local issues; they just want Burr's support in the powerful 100-member legislative body in Washington.
And that's the rub of this race: Its outcome carries far beyond North Carolina state lines, farther even than Washington, D.C. The balance of the next U.S. Senate is at stake, and along with it, the makeup of the U.S. Supreme Court, key appointments to lower courts, and many other decisions with far-reaching, long-lasting effects for the entire nation--health care, homeland security, environmental protection, a host of others.
Both men have national credentials and a mixed bag of performance reviews. Bowles, a Charlotte investment banker and the White House chief of staff under President Clinton, has endured attacks on his approach to trade but earned bragging rights for pulling together a balanced budget under the Clinton administration. Burr, a former appliance salesman and five-term congressman from the fifth district, has been criticized as the darling of special interests--deservedly so, given his rank as the top recipient of PAC money in the entire U.S. House of Representatives and a long, clear record of supporting his corporate donors in his policymaking. But Burr has also garnered a lot of support for his stance as a loyal foot soldier in the Bush administration, drawing on themes of being tough on terror, among other party lines.
On the hottest issue here at home, the tobacco buyout, both candidates have claimed credit for the final passage of the bill earlier this month, and it would be hard for casual observers--and the average voter--to sort out the effectiveness of each man.
The Independent endorsement goes to Erskine Bowles, though we disagree with his stance on several specific issues--most notably his opposition to gay marriage and his recent revelation that he supports making English the country's "official" language. As we said two years ago when we supported him in his unsuccessful run against Liddy Dole, Bowles is about as conservative on many issues as those across the aisle whose friendship he frequently touts while boasting about his bipartisanship skills. But he's pro-choice, unlike Dole, and when push comes to shove, he'll vote with the Democrats in a closely divided Senate that could possibly wind up 50-50 on Nov. 2. Make no mistake, we believe Bowles when he says, as he did during a debate last month, "You'll not see me out on the extremes of any issues." We're not expecting him to break new ground on the left, but take comfort in the idea that at least he won't be pulling one of our most influential political bodies any further to the right.
House of Representatives
It's a credit to gerrymandering that the Triangle's three members of the U.S. House are all Democrats. District lines are drawn so that just enough Republican voters are packed into adjoining seats, while just enough Democrats are added from other counties near and far--Congressman Brad Miller's Raleigh-based district, for instance, extends up and around the Triangle all the way to Rockingham County.
Nationally, such gerrymandering has given us a House composed of safe Democratic seats and safe Republican seats. Competitive districts are rare; so, therefore, is the political moderate who tries to appeal to voters on a bipartisan basis. The result is furious, partisan warfare, with the party in control--and control is always by a narrow margin--deaf to anything the other party is saying.
Since 1994, it's been the Republicans in control, and of course they now control the Senate and White House, too. The result is that any progressive idea is DOA, with House Majority Leader Tom DeLay doing the dirty work for his party while Republican senators look the other way and even President Bush claims he couldn't get a vote in the House to extend the ban on assault weapons. What bull.
In this context, the last thing we should do is add to the Republican majority. Thus, we endorse our three Democratic incumbents: Bob Etheridge, David Price and Brad Miller.
Etheridge is more conservative than the others, but so is his district. He fought hard for the tobacco buyout. He voted in favor of the constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. But his opponent, state Rep. Billy Creech, is far to the right of Etheridge, so much that he thinks gay marriage is the biggest problem America faces.
Price, a congressional veteran, and Miller, a freshman, are both serious-minded members with progressive views. Their Republican opponents, Todd Batchelor and Virginia Johnson, respectively, are hard-right conservatives in the DeLay mold. Neither is in any way a moderate.
Bottom line: Voting for the person, not the party, is a meaningless concept anymore when it comes to the House, especially with the Republicans in charge. And in the Triangle, there's no reason whatever not to re-elect our Democrats.
Council of State
It's instructive to see how quickly the business interests in our state snapped up all the corporate hospitality tents for next year's U.S. Open golf tournament in Pinehurst--at prices of $100,000 and up, up, up. At the coast, in Charlotte, and all over the Triangle, gated communities and houses costing millions of dollars are proliferating. These things are part and parcel of an economy that's producing bigger incomes for the owners and executives of companies while it sheds (or "outsources") the jobs of middle managers and working folks. North Carolina lost 150,000 manufacturing jobs in the last four years, with the textile and furniture industries only the most obvious examples. Our future is not in mass production.
To replace these lost jobs with new ones that pay as well or better, North Carolina--like every other state--must invest heavily in general education and in advanced, specialized training. This is, obviously, not a new idea. It's been the stock and trade of the Democratic Party in North Carolina at least since the Civil Rights revolution rent the Solid South and forced the Dems to compete for votes with Republicans. In this election, the most heartening development has been the attempt of many Republicans to say, "We get it, we're not against everything anymore--we're pro-education, too."
Nevertheless, two important differences remain between the approach to education taken by mainstream Democrats and the more forward-looking Republicans, and they are the reason we recommend voting to re-elect Gov. Mike Easley, the Democratic candidate, over his Republican challenger Patrick Ballantine. The first is that in seeking to expand educational opportunities, Democrats put heavier emphasis on public education, Republicans on a mix of public and private competitors. The second is that in seeking tax dollars to pay for public schools, the Democrats are a little more willing--not much, but a little--to ask business interests and the wealthy to pay up. Republicans, if they'll vote for taxes at all, inevitably prefer regressive measures like the sales tax and property taxes that hit working families and the poor much harder than the rich.
Confronting a recession when he took office four years ago, Easley slashed away at social services programs to a degree that made progressive people cringe. But he insisted on starting a "More at Four" program to help 4-year olds from disadvantaged families get ready for the schoolwork coming their way. He protected Smart Start programs for older preschoolers. And he managed to add some money to K-12 school budgets, the community college system and--albeit accompanied by substantial tuition hikes--to the UNC system as well. The effect was to broaden the educational offerings of our public school system, meaning the system everybody can use regardless of their means.
To cadge together a budget, Easley went along with Democratic legislators who sent him a modest income-tax surcharge on the well-off (couples making over $200,000 a year) as well as a half-cent sales tax hike. It is not to Easley's credit that he keeps pitching a state lottery as a way to fund education improvements--a lottery, whatever else it is, is mainly a tax on the lower classes--but there's at least a little balance in his approach to revenues, and a belief in using them for a public purpose.
Ballantine, in his first statewide campaign, has been refreshingly upbeat. No bashing, no wedge issues, nothing to remind us of, well, other GOPers we could name. But his main criticism of Easley's education programs is that they're too expansive. He would stick more to K-12, he says. Meantime, Ballantine's pitching a catalogue of tax cuts for, you guessed it, business and the rich. Of the $1.2 billion he's proposing to cut, almost half (43 percent) would go to the top 1 percent of earners, according to the nonprofit number crunchers at the N.C Budget and Tax Center. For the bottom 20 percent? About $28 a year, the center says.
Easley, with 16 executions under his belt, thinks our system of capital punishment works just fine. Unfortunately, so does Ballantine. On equality in the workplace for the gay and lesbian employees of state government, Easley's nowhere to be found. (Come to think of it, he's nowhere to be found a lot, isn't he?) But then Ballantine wants to amend the state constitution to ban gay marriage. Easley's been so stingy with state workers, the State Employees Association endorsed Ballantine. But Ballantine's going to have a hard time coming up with the 5 percent annual raises he promised them, given all the tax cuts he's pitching--and the "No-New-Taxes Pledge" he signed from the right-wing Americans for Tax Reform.
Barbara Howe, the Libertarian Party candidate, is personable and, like Libertarians generally, is pro-gay equality, pro-choice on abortion rights and anti-capital punishment. But if she ever got into office, important public programs would be gutted, starting with the schools.
North Carolina doesn't need a Light Governor, and Democrat Beverly Perdue, who was an inside puncher when she was in the state Senate, has all but disappeared from view since winning this empty office four years ago. Her one accomplishment has been--in her role as chair of the state Health and Wellness Trust Fund, which controls some of the national tobacco settlement money--to finally get teen anti-smoking and anti-obesity programs off the ground in the Tar Heel state.
We'd be open to a Republican alternative, but the GOP candidate is Jim Snyder, who ran far to the right of Elizabeth Dole two years ago in the primary for U.S. Senate. Snyder's got a loopy idea to give every child born in North Carolina $700 and invest it for them in stock market index funds; but only if their parents are legal residents. For other families who move here, they could buy into the fund, but then it gets complicated, and--why are we giving the kids of rich parents $700 again?
Democrat Richard Moore, the incumbent, has been a good steward of the state's $70 billion pension fund in his first term--earning 12 percent and 7.6 percent returns the past two years. More than that, he's used the state's ownership position to join in the post-Enron push for stronger corporate accountability, aligning himself with such progressive voices as New York State Attorney General Elliot Spitzer. Moore and Perdue are said to be future rivals for governor. He's adding to his credentials. Ed Meyer, the Republican candidate, is a Greensboro lawyer whose clients are health-care companies. He helped start the conservative Stanford Review when he was in college, and met his wife when they got jobs in the Reagan White House. In short, he's a true believer.
It would be impossible to expect the Attorney General's office to be devoid of politics, and Roy Cooper has certainly lived up to expectations during his term in office. Whether it be his self-serving TV ads for the do-not-call list or other opportunistic public maneuvers, Cooper has proven himself a consummate pol in line to succeed Gov. Easley in 2008. His risk-averse tenure has generally benefited the citizens on the consumer-protection front, one of the central responsibilities of the office. But in the administration of justice, the area that most clearly defines the office and the officeholder, Cooper has fallen flat. His decision to re-prosecute former death-row inmate Alan Gell in the wake of revelations that his own Criminal Division withheld the evidence that ultimately exonerated Gell was unconscionable, and cost the taxpayers millions. Given numerous opportunities to change both the culture and personnel in an office perceived as upholding the state's position at any cost, Cooper has done neither, instead playing lip service to the problems while conducting business as usual. In our view, this makes Cooper ineligible to continue as the state's top law enforcement officer.
We're confident that Cooper's opponent, Joe Knott, will not suffer from any such ethical lapses. Knott, a former federal prosecutor and partner in a Raleigh law firm since 1985, has a reputation as a fundamentally honest and decent person who would not tolerate basic miscarriages of justice or moral ambiguities. He has sufficient experience for the job, having litigated both criminal and civil cases for the defense and plaintiffs as well. Though his evangelical perspective has caused concern that his religious beliefs will influence his actions in those matters where they intersect, such as parental consent laws or church-state separation, we believe that such concerns are outweighed by the need to re-establish basic justice as the cornerstone of the agency.
Commissioner of Agriculture
The best measures of how Britt Cobb has conducted himself since his appointment in the wake of the Meg Scott Phipps fiasco are the testimonials of department employees. Most concerned with the ability to exercise their responsibilities free from political influence, the ag department's professional staff are more than pleased with the job Cobb has done and the consequent dramatic improvement in morale. Cobb's management philosophy is to give good workers the flexibility to achieve the best possible results, a philosophy he honed while managing the international marketing program. And while we wish Cobb had more concrete plans to stem the loss of small family farms in North Carolina, his opponent, Steve Troxler, offers little in that regard to sway our endorsement. A tobacco farmer and member of the state steering committee to re-elect George W. Bush, Troxler isn't likely to alter the status quo favoring Big Agriculture other than to shuffle department personnel for political reasons--at the risk of plunging employee morale back into the toilet.
Superintendent of Public Instruction
School policy in North Carolina is made by the State Board of Education, which is controlled by the governor. Both, today, are in Democratic hands, as is the Department of Public Instruction, which is only nominally run by the elected superintendent. In practice, the SOPI's only power is his or her ideas--and persuasive abilities. The Democratic candidate, June Atkinson, is a career teacher and manager who retired from DPI (as director of instructional services) to run for this office. Her strength is business and technical education; if elected, she'd push for better connections between coursework and the real world in high school. Nothing wrong with that. But our endorsement goes to the Republican, Bill Fletcher. Yes, Fletcher's a conservative in many ways. But in 11 years as a member of the Wake County Board of Education, he proved his worth as a constructive critic who could argue his position but also listen, and even be persuaded by, the other side. Fletcher came to the board convinced that busing for racial integration should end. He came to be one of its strongest, most persuasive proponents. His ideas about school testing and going all-out to help at-risk kids in the early grades are different from current practices and worth listening to. Be aware: Fletcher's thinking about sex education is Stone Age stuff, and he's pretty evangelical when it comes to religion. But we think, on balance, he'll add more to the debate about public education than yet another Democrat.
When the major criticism of current State Auditor Ralph Campbell comes in the form of a partisan Republican attack against his brother (who lives in Atlanta), it's a sure sign that the incumbent is doing a good job. Equally compelling is the fact that Campbell has angered the Democratic establishment with critical audits of such pet programs and agencies as Smart Start, the N.C. Technological Development Association and the N.C. School of the Arts, and held them publicly accountable. The best auditors are equal-opportunity investigators, and Campbell has proven himself worthy of that tag. That's one reason why his peers elected Campbell president of the National State Auditor's Association in June. Republican Les Merritt is running against Campbell for the second time and is giving every indication of wanting to turn the auditor's office into an ideological and political weapon to further his party's interests. This would be more than unfortunate.
It's hard to root for a guy who has been in office as long as Jim Long, who was first elected to the Insurance Commissioner's post 20 years ago. And we've been critical of Long for some of his decisions, including one to cap mold damages at artificially low rates despite no evidence of a litigation problem in North Carolina. But for a guy under relentless industry pressure to raise every rate imaginable, Long has done a pretty good job of watchdogging the interests of the consumer. Many homeowners recently received insurance rebates after Long ruled the Rate Board's rate request was excessive. And North Carolina has one of the lowest auto insurance rates in the country. Long's opponent, Robert Brawley, is an insurance agent unlikely to buck those for whom he works. Indicative of this is his call for tort reform as the way to lower medical malpractice premiums, a position favoring industry that has little basis in fact.
Commissioner of Labor
Wouldn't it be nice to have a Labor Commissioner who was actually an advocate for working people? We believe that state Rep. Wayne Goodwin of Hamlet fits that bill. Goodwin has consistently supported initiatives that are good for labor since his election in 1997, and he chairs the General Assembly's Occupational Safety and Health Committee. He has the endorsement of every significant labor organization in the state, which speaks volumes. Conversely, incumbent Cherie Berry has catered almost exclusively to business interests during her term in office, creating voluntary compliance programs and easing off workplace inspections and enforcement, preferring self-regulation to meaningful sanctions for violations. As history shows, businesses will not act in opposition to their economic interests, and it's the labor commissioner's duty to prevent those interests from adversely affecting workplace safety. That's what Goodwin pledges to do, and that's why he's the clear choice.
Secretary of State
It's possible that an unexpected Republican sweep a la 1994 could propel Jay Rao into the Secretary of State's office, but that's about the only way she'll defeat incumbent Elaine Marshall. With such insights on her Web site as "Is an American the images in Ralph Lauren ads or the kid who dreams of wearing it?" Rao underscores the obvious: She has nothing to offer beyond her qualifications as a fund-raiser for Republican campaigns and causes. Marshall, in sharp contrast, has done an exemplary job discharging the mundane tasks that are the Secretary of State's lot, which consist primarily of maintaining and providing public records. A more lopsided state race has not been seen in some time.
Supreme Court-- Orr Seat
The crowded field of eight candidates for retired Judge Robert Orr's Supreme Court seat offer a full range of choices--for better and worse. The allegedly non-partisan winner-take-all race has become something of a test for the new judicial reforms passed by the legislature in 2002, and so far the verdict doesn't look promising. The Republican Party has issued a full slate of endorsements, and the Democrats are similarly touting their candidates. With only a handful of exceptions, the candidates themselves are running with their party labels attached in neon to their sleeves. The Independent agrees that qualifications, experience and character should be the basis for electing judges, not political affiliation.
That's why we heartily endorse James Wynn for the vacant post. Wynn has a distinguished two-decade career as an appeals court and military judge, and his thoughtful opinions have won the respect of courtroom observers. His service outside the courtroom has been equally impressive, chairing or participating in numerous American Bar Association judicial standards committees. We also believe that the Supreme Court needs at least some minority representation, which it currently lacks, in order to instill a measure of confidence that the system is working for all the state's citizens.
The race has drawn other well-qualified candidates who will deservedly garner a share of the vote. Superior Court Judge Howard Manning has proved his merit in his landmark Leandro ruling on school funding and other tough decisions. Manning is perhaps the candidate with the most bipartisan support, a reflection of his impeccable standards and independent philosophy. Betsy McCrodden served well during her stint as an appeals court judge in the 1990s and has considerable experience as a lawyer on death penalty matters, which consume a third of the Supreme Court docket.
The remaining candidates each have strengths but fall short in key departments. Paul Newby is a veteran assistant U.S. Attorney with considerable courtroom experience, but his unabashed campaigning as a conservative Republican and his willingness to take positions on issues he may later have to consider on the bench raise the very red flags the judicial reforms were intended to limit. Fred Morrison is a senior state administrative law judge and attorney who simply lacks the experience on the appellate bench that others bring to the table. The same goes for Rachel Lea Hunter, a colorful Cary attorney with no bench experience, and Ronnie Ansley, a Raleigh lawyer and ex-high school teacher. Attorney Marvin Schiller, who lost a primary race for an Appeals Court seat, has essentially dropped out of the race due to a family illness, though his name will appear on the ballot.
Supreme Court--Parker seat
As the Supreme Court's lone female judge, Sarah Parker brings needed diversity to the state's highest court. During her time in office, Parker has hewn a steady, centrist course that has irritated both liberals and conservatives. Her opponent, Court of Appeals Judge John Tyson, has criticized Parker for taking too long to issue opinions and says he'll push them through more quickly. But we prefer careful deliberation to speed in matters of significant import. More than any other candidate with the exception of Newby, Tyson has taken advantage of the rule change allowing judicial candidates to express their personal beliefs, and his read like they were cribbed from an ultra-conservative textbook. Though he says he won't let his personal beliefs interfere with his ability to be impartial, we're not buying it, and his decisions on the Appeals Court do nothing to assuage that concern.
Appeals Court--Thornburg seat
Though one can quibble with Gov. Mike Easley's decision to appoint Alan Thornburg over other prospects with more experience to an Appeals Court vacancy earlier this year (he's only about eight years out of law school), Thornburg has won over skeptics with his hard work, attention to detail and willingness to consider all points of view. Barbara Jackson, his opponent, is currently legal counsel for the Department of Labor under Cherie Berry (she describes Berry as one of her "heroes") and has not inspired confidence in her independence and ability to lead while at the agency. And while her experience as a real estate lawyer and with the Labor Department give her insight into a sliver of the cases considered by the Appeals Court, she lacks even Thornburg's breadth of experience in other civil and criminal matters.
Appeals Court--Bryant seat
This race pits two excellent candidates with similar abilities, qualifications and philosophies. Both Wanda Bryant and Alice Stubbs get high marks for their work, Bryant as a sitting appellate judge, and Stubbs as a Wake District Court judge. Bryant's rulings on the right to cross-examine people who testify against defendants have won particular praise from the defense side of the courthouse. Stubbs has an similarly impressive reputation for fairness and is as willing to hold the state accountable as she is the defense. All things being relatively equal, we apply two standards in endorsing Bryant: That a judge who has done a good job in office should remain on the bench, and that the courts need qualified African-American judges, especially at the highest levels. We also see as a bonus that Stubbs would continue her work as a district judge if she loses the appeals court race.
Appeals Court--McGee seat
Even if we subscribed to Bill Parker's pro-life, "family values" proclamations and unqualified support for the death penalty (we don't), the fact that Parker has taken strident positions on issues that may come before him as a judge should be troubling to those who favor the idea that judges should rule on individual cases based on merit, not personal philosophy. Incumbent Linda McGee has done exactly that during her nine-year stint as an appeals court judge. The third most senior member on that court and the senior woman judge, McGee has shown an ability to compromise to build coalitions among her colleagues, a key attribute when group decisions are the norm. She believes that commenting on her personal views would limit her ability to hear cases with an objective ear, and we agree. Furthermore, Parker has only seven years' experience as a lawyer and none as a judge, giving McGee a significant edge on both counts.
District Court 10--Bailey seat
Kris Bailey has done a serviceable if not extraordinary job as a District Court judge. Though criticized for not yet fully grasping the rules of procedure and evidence, Bailey has tried to apply the law fairly and without bias, showing a willingness to rule against the state or defense when circumstance warrant. He has been unfailingly polite and courteous, an important attribute for a judge. Under ordinary circumstances we might lean in his direction, but his opponent, Debra Sasser, brings his best qualities to her candidacy and a good deal more. As an accomplished attorney, mediator and arbitrator, Sasser has the experience and temperament to forge agreements among disputing litigants and move the docket smoothly. Her reputation as having a sharp legal mind is supported by her responses to questions posed by the Independent, which topped all others in their clarity and thoughtfulness. And though we see the humor in Bailey's now-famous gender-confusion photo (his wife is holding the gavel in a family picture he had posted on his Web site, leading to the misimpression among those who favor women as judges that Kris was indeed female), there's still something a little underhanded about it all.
District Court 10--Bousman seat
By all accounts, Monica Bousman has been an excellent district court judge since her appointment in 2001. Her extensive experience as an attorney prior to that extends to both the criminal and civil sides, and her grasp of the complexities of each is unusual for any judge. Her demeanor is respectful but firm, a combination that has served the interests of justice while furthering the public's perception of the court system. Her opponent, Marilyn Maynard, conducts hearings for the Clerk of Court but has virtually no courtroom experience--few attorneys who regularly practice in District Court can recall ever seeing her there. No contest.
District 10--Lawton seat
Voters get another win-win choice in this race between emergency District Court Judge Don Overby and domestic law attorney Donna Stroud. A district court judge for eight years until his 1996 defeat in a partisan race, Overby compiled an excellent track record as a judge, and he's always been willing to apply the letter of the law in criminal cases even if the decisions are unpopular. A juvenile justice specialist, he also gets kudos for his consistency, fairness, and creative sanctions. Stroud gets points for her knowledge of family law, though her criminal experience is limited. She has shown particular sensitivity to the appearance of conflicts that accepting campaign contributions from lawyers can raise. Still, we narrowly endorsed Overby in the primary based on his experiential edge and see no reason to change that position for the general election.
District 10--Morgan seat
Both candidates for this seat, Jennifer Knox and Doug Brown, lack judicial experience. Both work for the Wake County District Attorney's office as assistant DAs and have more criminal than civil experience. But Knox has the clear edge for several reasons. She has advanced quickly through the ranks, an indication of the high regard the DA's office has for her work. Although she started there after Brown, she has vaulted past him into a felony prosecutor's job, one of the more prestigious positions in that agency. And though it's unusual for criminal defense lawyers to sing the praises of felony prosecutors, that's what they've been doing, crediting her exceptional fairness and high standards. Indeed, her responses to questions submitted by the Independent showed a rare understanding that judges have a special responsibility to ensure that the standard of "beyond a reasonable doubt" means just that when people's lives are on the line. Brown, who handles misdemeanors, is also downgraded by courtroom observers for his perceived hostility toward certain defendants.
There's an old saying in journalism: Consider the source. That's good advice when it comes to analyzing Amendment One, one of three proposed changes to the state Constitution that are on the ballot in November.
Amendment One concerns a new method of raising public funds for private development called tax increment financing. It's being promoted as a job-creation tool that will help revitalize decaying urban areas and distressed towns all over the state.
But while it has drawn the support of organizations like the AFL-CIO and the N.C. Smart Growth Alliance, the push for change is not coming from community reinvestment types. Instead, the measure's major backers are business and development interests. The public relations campaign to garner "yes" votes is being spearheaded by North Carolina Citizens for Business and Industry, the state's leading business lobby.
There's nothing inherently wrong with business-backed ideas or with tools to spur development. But in trying to sell Amendment One to the public, supporters have overstated the measure's potential and underplayed its many risks. It's those risks that lead us to believe citizens should vote no on Amendment I.
Tax increment financing has been on the ballot twice before under different names and voters have defeated it each time. This time, it's being described as "self-financing bonds" with little or no mention of taxes. (Critics have objected to the new moniker, since no bonds are "self-financing" in the strictest sense. "I wish I had a self-financing credit card," said one firm "no" vote. "If money is loaned, it has to be paid back.")
The amendment would give local and county governments the authority to issue bonds to pay for improvements such as streets or water and sewer lines needed for private development. Such development would have to occur within special districts created by those governments, and meet other criteria detailed in Senate Bill 725. The bonds could be issued without voter approval and would be repaid with the additional property tax revenues expected to flow from the development.
Supporters' main argument for the measure is competitiveness. They're quick to point out that North Carolina is one of only two states that don't allow tax increment financing--a situation they say puts us at a disadvantage in attracting jobs and development. But studies show an educated workforce, good schools and livable communities are much more important in decisions about where businesses locate. And with Amendment One, North Carolina municipalities would be competing with each other in what Martin Eakes, founder of the Self-Help Credit Union and a vocal critic of the measure, calls "a race to the bottom to give away as many public resources as possible."
Tax increment financing has been used to do good things in other states, including reviving old waterfronts and downtown commercial centers. But it has also been used for Wal-Marts and other dumb-growth projects. Supporters cite numerous safeguards built into the legislation to prevent such abuses. All projects must be approved by the state's Local Government Commission, for example, and must undergo state environmental reviews. Yet the language defining which projects are eligible for financing and where they may be built is overly broad. Developers need merely declare that "but for" the special financing, they would not be doing the project.
And there are loopholes that could lead to other problems down the road. Wage standards can be waived if the Secretary of Commerce says it's OK. Local governments can implement projects through "redevelopment commissions" or contracts with private agencies--a situation that in some states has led to the appointment of project-friendly boards with clear conflicts of interest.
Amendment supporters--among them some progressive local elected officials--say the measure is fiscally responsible because it requires communities to plan where development will occur and pay for it with increased property tax revenues instead of higher tax rates or mounting debt.
But there's a hidden cost: Property tax rates in the district remain frozen during the life of the district. And added tax revenues generated by the project are not going to public schools or police and fire protection during the time they are going to pay off the bonds. A photograph on one of the anti-amendment Web sites sums up the risks. It shows a condo built with tax-increment financing in Portland, Ore. The asking price is $1.975 million; the assessed tax value is $8,600. Public schools are the big losers in this scenario.
Amendment supporters pooh-pooh concerns about hollowing out the tax base by pointing out that increased property tax revenues wouldn't occur without the development the special financing has made possible. But they don't explain how services will be paid for while those funds are being directed to retire the bonds, nor do they like to talk about what happens if a project flops. The bottom line is that local governments will be liable for repayment.
For all their campaigning, supporters haven't been able to show why Amendment One is so desperately needed. Durham's American Tobacco project is happening without the help of "self-financing bonds," as is the revitalization of Glenwood South in Raleigh. Governments already have the option to issue bonds without voter approval through Certificates of Participation. (Is the lack of voter involvement really a good thing?)
There's no question that parts of the state urgently need help in attracting jobs and could benefit from smart-growth incentives. The question is, who pays? When everything is put on the scale, we believe Amendment One puts too heavy a burden on the public side of the public/private equation. Let's get back to the drawing board and come up with some other ways to be competitive that don't risk public giveaways.
The remaining two amendments are straightforward items that deserve "yes" votes.
Amendment Two requires money from civil penalties, forfeitures and fines collected by state agencies to be placed in a fund to be used for public schools. The amendment would require the money to be distributed equally to counties on a per pupil basis. Public schools need all the support they can get and this amendment has the added attraction of preventing elected officials from siphoning off these funds for other uses (see our endorsement for state Attorney General). So it's yes on Amendment II.
Amendment Three extends the length of terms for magistrates from two years to four. Magistrates are court officers authorized to hear small claims civil disputes, issue search and arrest warrants and set criminal bonds, among other things. Longer terms will create a more stable criminal justice system. So it's also yes on Amendment III.
Senate District 14
Vernon Malone's gerrymandered district is virtually Republican-proof, and he's served it faithfully, bringing home his fair share of the bacon. There's little doubt he'd win with ease even if his challenger was a beacon of wisdom and experience. He's not--John Odoom (not to be confused with former Raleigh City Council member John Odom) is a conservative African-American ideologue in the mold of defeated Greensboro Congressional hopeful Vernon Robinson, the self-styled "Black Jesse Helms." 'Nuff said.
Senate District 15
Republican Raleigh City Councilor Neil Hunt ousted the invisible incumbent, John Carrington, in the primary. His only opposition now is a Libertarian candidate, Lee Griffin, who's run no campaign at all. Hunt's very conservative on social issues, but he knows his way around urban development and he's been a supporter of public transit and public investments in downtown Raleigh. He could surprise.
Senate District 16
Democrat Janet Cowell is also trying to step up, if that's what it is, from the Raleigh City Council, in this Democratic-leaning West Raleigh-Cary district. She's a hard-working blend of progressive ideas and practicality, combining her Sierra Club-honed environmental sensibilities with a longstanding interest in sustainable economic development. They are the product of her University of Pennsylvania MBA, her current work with SJF Ventures in Durham, a venture capital firm for community-based startups (if you can imagine), and a Methodist preacher's kid's belief in all God's children. We like her a lot. Her opponent, Republican Mark Bradrick, is an insurance adjuster and ex-Marine with no political experience but a conviction that taxes and spending are too high.
Senate District 17
In this heavily Republican southwestern Wake district, former county manager Richard Stevens, after one term in the Senate, is solidly entrenched. By being open to compromise, Stevens earned the highest ranking ever for a freshman senator in the minority party from the nonpartisan N.C. Center for Public Policy Research. His Democratic opponent, accountant Norwood Clark of Garner, says he's a conservative, too. OK. Ryan Maas, a Libertarian, is also on the ballot.
Senate District 18
In the three-way contest for this newly drawn district, Democrat Bob Atwater brings the right combination of local government experience and support for public schools, more access to health care and better environmental protection. Atwater, a retired UNC administrator and former Chatham County commissioner, is a convert to slow-growth and smart-growth principles, as his votes against development on Jordan Lake and waivers for zoning rules in Chatham have shown. A Durham native, he also retains ties to the Bull City, which in the newly drawn district is in danger of losing the influence it had when Wib Gulley occupied this seat. (The district now encompasses southwest Durham and Chatham and Lee counties). Given its large proportion of African-American and working-class citizens, Durham's progress is a mirror for how the state treats those groups and it deserves a strong advocate. Atwater's leading opponent, Republican Christine Mumma, looks like the type of GOP moderate that is fast-disappearing from the party's ranks. (Maybe that's why she doesn't list her affiliation on her Web site.) Mumma directs the Center on Actual Innocence and bucks the majority of her party in supporting a moratorium on the death penalty. She also has truly "compassionate" positions on education and the environment. Where she's less strong is tax reform--she wants to weigh the benefits of a cigarette tax increase against the impact on the tobacco industry. And on health care, she follows the party line on limiting jury awards in malpractice cases and allowing small business to pool insurance--ideas that merely nibble around the edges of critically needed reform.
Libertarian John Guze is also on the ballot.
Senate District 20
In this Durham district, Democrat Jeanne Lucas faces Libertarian Ray Ubinger. Lucas is the stronger advocate for such progressive goals as closing the public school achievement gap, raising the cigarette tax and eliminating corporate tax loopholes. A former public school teacher and administrator, Lucas has been a vocal critic of the state's high-stakes testing program in public schools. She has also supported needed safety-net measures such as needle exchange programs to stop the spread of HIV. Ubinger, a former candidate for Durham City Council, was an early member of the Durham Bill of Rights Defense Committee. He opposes both a lottery and a state minimum wage, preferring to "let the market pay people what they're worth."
Senate District 23
Redistricted once again, Carrboro progressive Ellie Kinnaird seeks re-election for a third term. Last time around, the newly drawn lines pitted her against ally Howard Lee in a race for Orange and Chatham counties. This time, she's running in Orange and Person counties. The original Republican challenger Kim James dropped out of the race in August, citing family obligations. So the party replaced her with Robert "Whit" Whitfield, a Hillsborough Republican who practices law in Durham. Whitfield came fresh from a defeated attempt to be the Republican challenger to Rep. David Price in the U.S. House; in that race Whitfield ran a negative campaign on a Bush Republican platform of God, guns and gays, in which he boasted of his effort to strategically take out a longtime Democratic incumbent. Whitfield used charges of "liberal bias" at UNC as the focus of his campaign.
Kinnaird has a strong record of fighting to clean up pollution, reform campaign financing, improve the state's health care system by holding insurance companies accountable, and take on tough domestic violence issues. We need her in the Senate.
House District 30
Longtime Democrats face Libertarian challengers in contested races for Durham's state House districts. While the Libertarian Party's anti-war, anti-government surveillance platform looks good in the light of some Bush Administration policies, it doesn't hold up on critical state budget and tax-reform issues. In District 30, we enthusiastically support Paul Luebke, a sociology professor who has long been out in front on progressive tax-reform--including a much-needed cigarette tax hike--and policies that help the working poor. A 14-year veteran of the legislature, Luebke has spent six years as co-chair of the House Finance committee, a vantage point that can make a real difference on key budget issues.
Luebke's opponent, Sean Haugh, is executive director of the state Libertarian Party and a member of the party's national platform committee. His own platform has some interesting elements--he opposes a lottery and backs gay marriage, for example--but it can't match Luebke's inside knowledge or his forward-looking leadership.
House District 31
In this Durham district, we support incumbent H.M. "Mickey" Michaux, a leading member of the state's black legislative caucus and efforts to achieve funding equity for public schools and historically black colleges and universities in North Carolina. Michaux, a longtime smoker, also supports a cigarette tax increase and has been a consistent voice for campaign finance reform. He faces Libertarian Michael Owen.
House District 33
Bernard Allen, the Democratic incumbent in this eastern Wake County district, has only nominal opposition from Libertarian Steven Hilton. Allen, who replaced former House Speaker Dan Blue in this seat, is a retired teacher and teachers association lobbyist who's worked his way up through the ranks of the county's African-American leadership. He's a reliable progressive vote for public schools, environmental legislation and social services.
House District 34
This Central-North Raleigh district is the only one in the Triangle that presents a competitive, even a tossup race. The incumbent, Republican Don Munford, was first elected two years ago by a margin of 567 votes. He ran as a conservative disciple of Jesse Helms, but has proven to be a bit more moderate than that, voting sometimes with the centrist Co-Speakers' coalition of Republican Richard Morgan and Democrat Jim Black--though Munford was never formally aligned with Morgan's renegade Republicans. He refused to sponsor the conservatives' anti-gay marriage amendment to the state constitution, for instance, and came out in favor of a moratorium on the death penalty. Props for that. But his Democratic challenger, Grier Martin, is a political bright light with a deep belief in public service. A lawyer who worked for Preservation North Carolina, the historic protection group, Martin volunteered for active duty in the Army Reserves after 9/11 and did a two-year stint that included service in the rubble of Afghanistan, earning him the rank of major. Having seen what no government looks like, he came back determined to make ours work better. Martin's progressive on the issues, a strong supporter of public education, and he looks good in a helmet. Sold.
House District 35
Democrat Jennifer Weiss is a forceful progressive who, in her five years in the House, has earned a reputation as a straight arrow willing to roll up her sleeves and get legislation passed, not just talked about. She's successfully sponsored measures to limit clear-cutting of trees, protect victims of domestic violence, and extend preventive health-care services to senior citizens. It's not surprising, therefore, that even though her Cary-West Raleigh district isn't that Democratic, no Republican filed to run against her. A Libertarian, Graham Thomas, did file, but there's no sign of his campaign anywhere.
House District 36
We supported the GOP incumbent, David Miner, in the primary, but he was beaten by conservative Nelson Dollar. Dollar is a public relations consultant who's run unsuccessfully in recent years for Cary Town Council and state Labor Commissioner. He did help in the election of faux-Democrat Bunky Morgan of Apex to the Chatham County Commission, helping to let the dogs of development out in that as-yet unspoiled territory. Dollar's platform is pretty standard stuff: cut corporate taxes, don't support the commuter rail in the Triangle, do support road-widenings. He's going to win this seat, but we're not making an endorsement. We'll just cross our fingers that he turns out to be more like Richard Stevens than Russell Capps. His Libertarian opponent, Gary Goodson, is reportedly anti-capital punishment. But there is no Goodson campaign. And there is no Democrat here either.
House District 37
You want the real deal in a right-wing, anti-abortion Republican? Rep. Paul (Skip) Stam has always filled the bill, win or lose. And in this rock-ribbed GOP district, Stam can't lose. If he has his way, the proposed TTA commuter rail line won't happen--he'd pull the plug on the state's share of the cost. He's against corporate welfare (for example, cigarette export tax credits--he's not wrong about that one) and a bear on "wasteful spending." His only opponent is a name on the ballot, Libertarian H. Wade Minter. When they blow off the League of Women Voters, it's a tip-off about how serious they are. No endorsement.
House District 38
Democrat Deborah Ross, seeking her second House term, is an easy choice here over ultra-conservative Phil Jeffreys, who in his first two years on the Wake County commission has managed to vote against just about everything from the downtown convention center to public school funding, breaking repeatedly with his fellow Republicans as he does so. Ross, meanwhile, is a progressive dynamo. She's taken charge on the issue of whether to sell the Dorothea Dix Hospital property, giving us some hope that it won't turn into a developer's boondoggle. She's pitched in for better--if not nearly adequate--funding of the Mental Health Trust Fund and N.C. Health Choice, the insurance plan for low-income kids. Ross used to be executive director of the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. She retains her ideals even as the best that can be done is compromise, compromise, compromise.
House District 39
The Democratic challenger, Linda Coleman, was no great shakes when she was on the Wake County commission for a term. The schools needed money (as the current building shortage crisis demonstrates) and she voted for some of it. Still, she'd be a whole lot better than the incumbent, Republican Sam Ellis. Throughout his time in office, Ellis was always a hard-line conservative, but never more so than in the current term, when a handful of slightly more moderate Republicans joined in a governing coalition under Co-Speakers Richard Morgan and Jim Black; Ellis and fellow right-winger Russell Capps thereupon set out to purge them from the Wake Republican party. Morgan's crew forced the House Democrats to produce a conservative budget. Ellis, Capps & Co. didn't seem to notice, they were so busy advocating a slash-and-burn alternative. Coleman, a retired state employee and protege of Sen. Vernon Malone, has middle-of-the-road views. In this eastern Wake County district, much of which is new to Ellis (following an unfriendly redistricting), centrist is what's electable.
House District 40
Here's a tough one. Joe O'Shaughnessy, the 23-year-old Democratic challenger, is an aspiring filmmaker with a degree from UNC-Greensboro. He has no political experience and not much of a campaign, and in this Republican district in northeastern Wake County, he's likely going to lose. What he does have is a desire to make higher education more affordable and a commitment to environmental quality. Never before have we even considered endorsing the conservative Republican incumbent here, Rep. Rick Eddins. But Eddins gets some credit for sticking his neck out to join with the Morgan-Black coalition that saved a 60-60 House from perpetual deadlock. Eddins survived a Capps and Ellis-inspired right-wing challenger in the GOP primary. Perhaps he'll stay in the center? The Libertarian candidate, Andrew Hatchell, is a Raleigh computer consultant who's anti-capital punishment, pro-choice on abortion and will "support the recognition of full marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples." He's alarmed by the USA Patriot Act--so are we--and while he's a tax-cutter, for a Libertarian he seems like kind of a restrained one. We'd vote for him.
House District 41
The godfather of the Republican right wing, Rep. Russell Capps, has no opponent at all. You go, Russell.
House District 55
This is a new district that comprises one third of Durham County and all of Person County. Here, Democrat W. A. "Winkie" Wilkins, is the stronger choice against Libertarian Tom Rose. Wilkins, a former newspaper columnist and editor, is approaching his first run for office with folksy candor. (He does have legislative connections--his brother, Mike, served in the state House from 1993 to 1997 and as an aide to House Speaker Jim Black.) Wilkins' platform includes finding ways to retain public school teachers and bring jobs to rural counties like Person. He supports targeted tax incentives ("as long as they don't ever go for retail development") and a small increase in the cigarette tax ("maybe it will stop these 70-cent tax proponents from wailing about it.") He's against gay marriage on principle but doesn't agree that a constitutional amendment is needed to prevent it. In short, Wilkins is someone who can ably represent his district and work with members of the regional legislative delegation to get things done.
Wake County Commissioners
In a word, schools are the issue in the Wake commissioners election. The number of kids in the public school system is growing faster than the commissioners' willingness to pay for them. Period. This is not a new problem, but it's getting worse every year as the recent crisis of modular schools versus year-round assignments shows. Unfortunately, this year's election is unlikely to result in a fix. But it could help set the stage for one. Here's the situation. Republicans currently control the Board of County Commissioners by 5-2, and both Democrats are up for re-election along with one of the Republicans, Kenn Gardner. Now, electing Democrats doesn't necessarily help--Wake's had some pretty weak ones in the past when it comes to, gulp, taxes. Moreover, the five Republicans are not all the same on school funding. Two of them, Phil Jeffreys and Tony Gurley, are more tight-fisted than the others, but they both have two more years to serve before we can get rid of them.
Nonetheless, we think returning former commissioner Yevonne Brannon, a Democrat, to the board in place of Gardner would make a huge difference in the debate, because Brannon--in her term--was a forceful champion for the schools, and the deeply conflicted Gardner simply is not.
Remember, county commissioners are elected from districts (and must live in them), but the voting is at-large, meaning every voter in the county can vote in every district. No, it doesn't make any sense.
Anyway, eight years ago Brannon was elected in District 4 while Gardner lost the Republican primary to Herb Council and then endorsed Brannon over Council. Two years later, Council--who moved--was elected from another district, and he's proven to be pretty good--not great, but pretty good--on school funding questions. Then, in 2000, Gardner ran against Brannon, and he defeated her with the help of the sprawl lobby--the realtors and homebuilders who didn't appreciate her efforts to curb growth out in the hinterlands.
That year, the other two Democratic candidates were re-elected, mainly because the sprawl gang put all their money into electing Gardner and trashing Brannon. Next thing we knew, Gardner was running for a legislative seat, but once again he lost the Republican primary.
Confused? Us too. Gardner, an architect, wants to be known as a conservative, but not too conservative. He did vote for the Raleigh convention center. He wants to be thought of as pro-schools, but not so pro-schools that he gets crossways with Russell Capps and his right-wing Wake Taxpayers Association. Last year, Gardner joined in a majority vote to raise taxes four cents, which was less than the schools needed but more than Capps could abide, whereupon Capps, in an open letter, basically threatened to get him if he ever did that again.
So this year, with the schools still in need, Gardner didn't do that again.
Maybe it would all be funny if school kids attending classes in trailers weren't the victims of it. Republicans, when they first got control of the county in 1994, slashed taxes and put the school system behind the growth curve in a big way. Brannon, elected in '96, led the fight to catch up, for which she paid a big political price. Now, the GOP is at it again. And Gardner, back on Capps' reservation, still ain't helping. The Wake school board wanted to take an $867 million bond issue to the voters last fall. The GOP-led commission cut that to $450 million (which was easily approved). It wasn't nearly enough.
Who's Brannon? She's director of the Center of Urban Affairs and Community Services at NCSU, but more to the point, she's a 10-time PTA president who's not afraid to vote for a tax if it's needed--and not afraid to explain why it's needed. If elected, she could join 16-year incumbent Betty Lou Ward, who's running for re-election in District 5, and Harold Webb, who was appointed to fill the seat in District 6 two years ago after Vernon Malone won a state Senate seat.
Webb, who's 79, said when he was appointed that he would only serve until this election, and in the meantime would help cultivate new leadership in Southeast Raleigh. He didn't, obviously. But he's preferable to his Republican opponent, perennial candidate Venita Peyton, a realtor. And Ward, who says this will be her last term, has earned it with a long record of progressive service, while the Republican, Wake Forest Town Commissioner Chris Malone, has little going for him other than the fact that some voters may confuse him with Vernon Malone.
Register of Deeds
In her two terms, Wake Register of Deeds Laura Riddick, a Republican, has done a solid job by all accounts. Her opponent, Democrat Nick Sikorski, says she's not moving fast enough to electronic filing. She's effectively refuted that charge.
For the two seats on the county's nonpartisan Soil and Water Conservation District Board, we recommend re-electing incumbent Marcia Lieber, the board's vice chair, and promoting a Knightdale farmer, Bill Simmons, from the county's Open Space Advisory Committee.
Is there any doubt Wake County should be protecting its dwindling supply of open space from the rapacious designs of the sprawl industry? One bond question asks voters to approve $26 million for that purpose--money to be used for matching grants to encourage the efforts of the county's 12 city and local governments. The other bond question is for $40 million to get started on a northern campus--up by Wake Forest--for Wake Tech, the county's community college. We recommend "Yes" votes for both.
The lineup in the competition for five open seats has changed since the primary. Five Democrats and one Republican are now on the ballot. Josh Parker, whom we endorsed in the primary, was edged out in July, as were Joe Bowser and Warren Herndon, whom we did not back.
In the general election, we reaffirm our endorsement of longtime incumbents Ellen Reckhow and Becky Heron, Democrats who have been a force for intelligent planning and robust environmental protection in Durham. Of the other candidates on the Democratic side, Lewis Cheek, an attorney and former city councilman, is thoughtful, and independent-minded (he cast a tie-breaking vote in favor of domestic partner benefits for city employees). Michael Page, a former Durham school board chairman, has promised to put his proven bridge-building skills to work in county government--abilities that are sorely needed now that the county commission has also begun to cast racially divided votes.
Such a vote occurred just last month when the commission decided 3-2 to fire County Manager Mike Ruffin. The surprise move was engineered by outgoing board member Bowser, who had supported Ruffin's hiring but has lately clashed with the manager over a controversial audit of the county's Human Resources Department. Insiders say the root of the conflict is Bowser's frustration at not being able to promote his own friends in county government--a charge Bowser has denied, though not always convincingly.
The other two votes for firing Ruffin came from Mary Jacobs, who is not seeking reelection, and Phil Cousin Jr. who is on the Nov. 2 ballot.
The audit issue is complex. Ethics complaints have been filed against both Bowser and county Auditor Charlie Hobgood for their conduct in the matter. At the same time, the bottom-line question of whether county employees are being treated fairly has yet to be resolved.
Given all the unanswered questions, the move against Ruffin is disturbing and smacks of personal payback. It is also costly: Ruffin will receive his salary for up to a year or until he finds a new job for being fired without cause.
The manager was up for review in November. The audit process is still underway. So why should Ruffin be ousted and why now? Bowser's explanation, that he needed a county manager he could work with, is irresponsible, given his lame-duck status. The same goes for Jacobs, who even tried to run out on a meeting at which citizens were protesting the vote.
But it's Cousin who really matters, since he is in the running for another term on the board. Sadly, he has failed to share his reasons for voting to fire Ruffin with either voters or the Independent. Cousin held a "press conference" Oct. 5 at which he took no questions and said only that "a majority of the board has lost confidence" in the manager. The reasons for that are "confidential," Cousin said, having "to do with personnel policy"--a claim commissioners on the other side of the firing decision deny.
Cousin has stood for some positive things during his tenure on the board, including a living wage for county employees. But on the audit issue, he has not been accountable and the only principle he appears to be standing for is the need to keep personnel matters private (a questionable one to hold out if you're backing a surprise vote to fire the county's top administrator).
The flap over the audit has obscured needed discussion of working conditions for county employees and has hurt public confidence in county government. Cousin has added insult to that injury by declining to let voters know why he made an important decision. Accountability is the foundation of good government; candidates who fail that basic test don't deserve voter support. So we are withdrawing our primary endorsement of Cousin. You get to vote for up to five candidates but don't have to vote for five, and the top-five vote-getters win. Cousin is all but certain to win reelection, but if his vote total is significantly lower than the others, maybe he'll get the message.
On the Republican side, Carolina James Rivera may have good intentions in seeking a commissioner's seat (she had originally filed for Lt. Governor). But she lacks the record of public service and the breadth of knowledge needed for this post.
For all intents and purposes, this race was decided in the July primary when longtime incumbent Moses Carey stood his ground and Chapel Hill-Carrboro school board member Valerie Foushee made the leap to the Democratic nomination for this board. Both are experienced African-American leaders who express concern over economic issues such as housing and health care, though the proposed merger of city and county school systems is a looming issue that sharply divides them. Carey has staked his political career on exploring merger, while Foushee ran on an anti-merger platform. That contentious issue aside, we believe both will be effective commissioners.
Also running are Hillsborough Republican Jamie Daniel, who is CEO of a software company, and Chapel Hill Libertarian Artie Franklin, a technical writer for a financial company. Neither has held elected office before. Daniel argues that low-income residents are being priced out of the county and has lately made an issue of public school fund-raising drives that promise name recognition to donors. Franklin has indicated that he would reconsider existing environmental protections in order to offset housing costs.
Soil & Water Conservation District
There has been some confusion over whether this race is contested; it is. Two district supervisor seats are open on the Soil & Water board, one appointed and one elected. The choice is between sitting supervisor Roger Tate of Efland and the challenger, a Libertarian named Will Shooter who lives in Durham. Shooter made a failed run in 2002 against Verla Insko for the N.C. House District 56 seat; he ran on a promise never to increase taxes. We don't know much about his plans for soil and water, but we see no reason to unseat Tate.
Of the two seats on the five-member Chatham Commissioners up for grabs this fall, only one is left to be decided. Citizen activist Patrick Barnes soundly defeated both his opponents in the Democratic primary to become commissioner-elect in District 1; he does not face opposition on Nov. 2. The second seat also was a hotly contested Democratic primary, where another newcomer and citizen activist, Mike Cross, emerged victorious with 51 percent of the vote in a three-way race. Cross now faces Republican Andy Wilkie in the general election. The winner will represent District 2 in the southeastern portion of the county; voters countywide cast ballots.
As in the July primary, our endorsement goes to Mike Cross, a retired Navy officer and small-business owner from Corinth who co-founded one of the county's first citizen-action groups, the Southeast Chatham Citizens Advisory Council. That group, under Cross' leadership, has been very effective at mitigating the effects of industrial pollution on residents, among many other worthy projects. Cross came into the race by way of the grassroots organizing that has recently put the public back into Chatham's public policy-making, particularly on land-use and growth issues. Cross has shown himself to be a thoughtful leader who does his homework, and the citizen's perspective he brings to the table is crucial for countering the powerful corporate influences that currently hold sway with the three-person majority led by Bunkey Morgan.
Wilkie, a Goldston resident making his third bid for a commissioners' seat, helped found the watchdog group Financial Accountability for Chatham Taxpayers (FACT). His candidacy has centered on that same narrow theme of cutting government spending, including his suggestion that every county department could take a "10-percent cut across the board and no one would notice the difference." That's an unrealistic and overly simplistic approach to a complex problem that is guaranteed to become even thornier as the county copes with the costs of roads, schools, social services and other infrastructure required by the tsunami of new subdivisions being rubber-stamped by the current commission.
Register of Deeds
For Register of Deeds in Chatham County, we endorse Democratic incumbent Reba Thomas. After working in the office for 12 years, Thomas was elected to the chief position in 1988. She has proven a faithful and efficient steward of Chatham's land records, such as deeds of trust and leases, and vital documents such as birth and death certificates and marriage licenses--the latter dating back all the way to 1851. Thomas' office is well-organized and helpful to the many members of the public who use it and just this month moved into the new millennium with all records back to 1987 now available online. Thomas faces Republican challenger Verna Ellis, a paralegal from Goldston who retired from a 20-year career as a law enforcement officer in the Navy and worked for Thomas for four years, up until 2003.
Voting a straight ticket? You still have to mark your selections for U.S. president, judges and constitutional amendments or your vote on those items won't be counted.
A quick guide to voting
Remember your picture ID. If you have recently registered or re-registered, you might be asked for a picture ID. It's a good idea to take it with you, anyway.
Vote early to avoid the Election Day rush. You can even do it on the weekend! Early voting is available statewide now through Oct. 30 at these locations. Check with your county Board of Election office for more details.
Early Voting Sites
Board of Elections: 542-8206
Hours: Monday, Wednesday, Friday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday and Thursday 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday 9a.m. to 1 p.m.
Board of Elections: 560-0700
Hours: Monday through Friday 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday 1-5 p.m.
Board of Elections: 245-2350
Board of Elections: 856-6240
Additional Wake locations beginning Oct. 23:
Local web resources
For information about voting procedures and polling locations in your county, check out these sites: Wake: www.wakegov.com/general/elections
Voting is your central right and responsibility as a citizen. You'll feel good about it. Plus, you get a sticker. If you encounter any problems trying to vote, call 1-866-OUR-VOTE. This toll-free number connects you with volunteers from the Institute for Southern Studies who can help make sure your rights are enforced.