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Inside or Out

The Democratic race for lieutenant governor offers a choice between youth and experience.

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What are you looking for in the next lieutenant governor? Perhaps a seasoned legislator who's taken some lumps while shouldering a leadership role in the General Assembly? How about a new kid on the block whose tastes run to Romantic poetry and idealistic notions like campaign-finance reform and getting rid of the death penalty?

Probably, you aren't looking. The main duties of the "light governor," after all, are banging the gavel down at the state Senate and checking in daily on the health and well-being of the actual governor, just in case he (it's always been a he) needs replacing. But it's worth your time to look, for two reasons. One, lieutenant governors often become governors later on (Jim Hunt, Bob Scott, Max Gardner, and maybe Dennis Wicker this year). Second, while there are no sharp differences on the issues in either the Democratic or Republican primaries for governor, the Democratic primary for lieutenant governor offers a clear choice--two candidates with wholly different backgrounds, positions and visions of what a lieutenant governor should be.

Start with the obvious. State Sen. Beverly Perdue, D-Craven, is a woman. She'd be the first woman lieutenant governor, and no one should imagine that she doesn't have in mind being the first woman governor. (So, perhaps, does Sen. Betsy Cochrane, R-Davie, the leading contender for the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor.) In her 14 years in the General Assembly, the last 10 in the Senate, Perdue has worked her way into the big-boys club as co-chair of the powerful Appropriations Committee and one of Senate President Marc Basnight's closest allies. The Democrats' legislative record over that period of time, the good and the bad, is also her record. "I've gotten to be a real player in deciding what the priorities are," she recently told a luncheon audience of Democratic women in Raleigh.

Perdue, 52, also told them her rags-to-power story of a girl born in the little mountain town of Grundy, Va., an authentic coal miner's daughter who grew up "real poor" but succeeded with the help of a "hard-earned college degree." (She later earned a Ph.D in educational administration, focusing on issues related to aging.)

The same evening, appearing before the Wake County Young Democrats, Perdue showed her five-minute campaign video, Coal Miner's Daughter. At no point was it mentioned that her family was worth millions by the time she finished college. (See "Mine Owner's Daughter.")

Ed Wilson, 34, grew up on the campus of Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, where his father, now in the administration, taught poetry while his mother, author Emily Herring Wilson, wrote it. Maya Angelou was a frequent guest when Wilson was young, and he remembers hearing her singing downstairs after he'd gone to bed. Now Angelou is among his supporters.

Wilson started college intending to be a teacher himself. But after an internship in Terry Sanford's U.S. Senate office, he was hooked on public service. He took a job with Sanford after graduation, went to Wake Forest law school, and worked three years for the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation in Winston-Salem, which supports nonprofit groups all over North Carolina. He's now a lawyer practicing in Eden and has served as Rockingham County's Democratic chair.

In contrast to Perdue, Wilson has never run for office--not for public office, not even for student government, unless you count the time in fifth grade when he was out sick and his friend, Ben Folds (yes, that Ben Folds, the musician) nominated him for school president. He lost--to Folds' future wife. Wilson is presenting himself in this campaign as the young, progressive alternative to Perdue's insider candidacy.

Three issues define the difference. Wilson's against the death penalty. Perdue supports it. Wilson opposes a state lottery, and says the General Assembly should make the call, not hand it over to a public referendum. Perdue supports a referendum, which all the polls say will result in a lottery, but says she doesn't know how she'd vote in the referendum. And on campaign-finance reform, Wilson says his top priority is to build support for the proposed Clean Elections Act, which would establish public financing for state election campaigns. Perdue last year added her name to the growing list of co-sponsors of that legislation, but she doesn't mention it as a priority issue, and the Senate leadership team she's part of has left it floundering in committee for more than three years.

If the Clean Elections bill were law, it would make public funds available to candidates who agreed to limit their private fundraising. Under the formula contained in the bill, candidates for lieutenant governor could receive about $630,000 by refusing private donations bigger than $75. Wilson says that, in this campaign, he'll limit his spending to that amount voluntarily, and he's challenged Perdue to do likewise.

There's more than a little gamesmanship in that challenge, since Perdue raised $668,000 for this race last year, according to her Jan. 1 report to the state elections board, the most recent one available. By contrast, Wilson raised $266,000 last year. He says his total now is more than $400,000. She's talked about raising $2 million. Nothing in the Clean Elections Act, after all, would require candidates to use public financing.

There are, by the way, two other candidates in the Democratic primary. Ronnie Ansley, a lawyer who lives in Angier, is an energetic fellow who's calling for belt-tightening and running government "more like a business." Other than $20,000 he loaned his campaign, he'd raised just $7,300 by Jan. 1, and seems not to be a serious contender. Joel Harbison, a lawyer from Hickory, had just three contributors other than himself and had raised a total of $3,200.

This ranking of candidates by money is ugly. But without public financing, the reality is that you're never gonna be elected to a statewide office without raising the funds necessary to mount an effective campaign. Of course, the way you raise it tells a lot about the kind of candidate you are and the kind of officeholder you'd be.

From Perdue's contributor list, it's clear she's the choice of the centrist Democratic establishment. Big fundraisers like Sam Hunt, the former state transportation secretary, and oilman Walter Davis are on her side. She's strong with the party leaders in Eastern North Carolina, where the bulk of the primary votes are. She's also getting a lot of help from women, both Democrats and a few Republicans, all over the state. Contributions of $1,000 to $4,000 (the legal limit) are common, and a long list of political action committees--with banking and health-care interests most often represented--have helped. Basnight's own committee sent $4,000, and numerous other senators have kicked in, too.

Wilson contributors include a lot of trial lawyers and people with ties to Wake Forest, and they've tended to give $100, not $1,000. The recognizable names include progressives like the Rev. W.W. Finlator of Raleigh, author John Ehle, and former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Jim Exum. But Wilson's also getting help from Bert Bennett, the Winston-Salem businessman who's been a top fundraiser for Gov. Hunt (Bennett's son was a friend of Wilson's), and names like Hanes and Belk show up on his list with four-figure donations.

The prevailing wisdom is that Perdue is a shoo-in, thanks to her money and her network of powerful supporters across the state. But being an insider means you have a record to scrutinize, a problem that Wilson doesn't have. And Perdue's fundraising prowess could be her Achilles' heel.

In the '96 campaign, a nursing-home baron named A. Stephen Pierce got caught funneling money to favored candidates (more than the allowable $4,000) through straw donors--his employees and relatives. One of these candidates was Perdue, whose legislative achievements include backing a series of increases in state funding for the care of indigent patients in nursing homes.

Perdue denied knowing the money was dirty, and no charges were brought against her. If she winds up running against Sen. Cochrane in November, it won't be an issue, since Cochrane was another Pierce favorite.

After Pierce was charged (he pleaded guilty and paid a fine), Perdue signed on to the Clean Elections bill, saying the cost of political campaigns was getting out of hand. But Perdue readily acknowledges her role in persuading her fellow Senate Democrats to get serious about polling and fundraising after the 1994 election resulted in big Republican gains. "I was the one who should be blamed, or credited, with bringing in the [campaign] professionals," she says.

Since then, most Senate Democrats have kept their differences to themselves outside of closed caucus meetings. So it isn't always clear when their leaders, like Perdue, are speaking for the caucus and when they're also speaking for themselves. She has been the point person on some good bills. She's also been out front on some stinkers. "There is a price to be paid for leadership," she says. "I'm proud of the caucus record."

Perdue led the charge for Smart Start, Gov. Hunt's major initiative in the '90s to improve pre-school education and health services, and also pushed through major clean-water legislation, winning an award from the N.C. Wildlife Federation. The clean-water package came after a big fish kill in 1995 on the Neuse River around New Bern, where she lives. It helped focus the public's wrath on the hog industry, and also on the tremendous sway it had in the General Assembly.

Perdue said afterward that the episode had given her "a religious type of purpose" about environmental issues. She admits that the hog industry had its way in the '80s. "The minute that we and the general public began to understand how critical the hog issue was to North Carolina's future," she says, "we fixed that. We changed it."

But the issue continued to be hard-fought, and hog interests influential in the Democratic caucus. A legislative panel Perdue headed in 1995-96 to investigate the problems was at one point dubbed the "the kill-more-fish committee" by Rick Dove, the Neuse River Foundation's riverkeeper, before the Democratic caucus realized it had to get out front on the hog issue or be buried by it. Perdue says that's part of "the give-and-take" of lawmaking, and she praises Dove's contributions.

Also in '96, Perdue was criticized by environmentalists for proposing to leave hog-farm inspections to the state's agricultural regulators, rather than empower the Department of Environmental and Natural Resources (DENR) to get tough. When Gov. Hunt knocked that idea down, she withdrew it. But it's the kind of black mark on a legislative record that an opponent like Wilson can point to, and has, as evidence that Perdue won't stand up to the hog industry if elected.

Similarly, Perdue's record shows controversial positions on issues like gun safety in 1993 and tuition increases at UNC campuses last year. On the first issue, the Senate Democrats sided with the National Rifle Association and tried to gut a House-passed bill requiring that guns stored at home be locked up and parents held responsible if their children showed up at school with them. On the latter issue, the Democrats allowed individual campuses to raise tuition $250 a year for two years without going through the university's board of governors.

Perdue's also stood with the majority on cutting taxes by some $1.4 billion a year since the '94 elections, which has put the forthcoming 2000-2001 state budget in a deep hole. And on campaign-finance reform, the Senate Democrats have kept Sen. Wib Gulley's Clean Elections Act bottled up in committee--including, for most of the 1997-98 session, Perdue's Appropriations Committee--without giving it so much as a hearing. Perdue, though, insists she's for it, even more now that she sees how much time she has to spend raising money. "If Wib can get his bill out of committee, I'll support it," she says.

When Perdue talks about serving as lieutenant governor, it's clear she has in mind continuing to be a part of the in-crowd in the legislature. As a likely governor-in-waiting, she might just be. But Wilson argues that the last thing the office needs is someone who shares the "status-quo view." Perdue disagrees, saying she'll be able to raise important issues--her priorities will be the rural economy, education and senior citizens' health issues--and shepherd them through the legislative process. "You've got to have somebody who can play with the players, is respected, and knows how to get the job done," she says. "The lieutenant governor's office is not an entry-level position."

What Raleigh needs, says Ed Wilson, "is some more progressive voices--and one voice on the Council of State under the age of 40." Jim Hunt himself won the office at 35--it was his first elected position--and Wilson can point to the state's long tradition of youthful lieutenant governors. "People say we need to get younger people involved in politics," Wilson says with a laugh. "But then when you run, they don't want you to get that involved." Of folks who helped Hunt win in 1972, he says, "now they've got power, they don't want to give it up."

Wilson describes himself as "a bit of an introvert," but he comes across as a clean-cut, polite, self-assured fellow who knows that what he's doing is audacious, but who loves to talk about the audacious leaders he's admired in history. Given a little encouragement, he'll quote Churchill, Truman, Teddy Roosevelt and FDR; most of all, he'll quote Terry Sanford, whose courage he takes as a model for public service. Elected governor in 1960, Sanford defended civil rights and left office with just 30 percent approval four years later, but his record is now recognized as one of greatness, Wilson says.

Even though polls show most Democrats favor the lottery and the death penalty, Wilson says he'd rather tell people what he believes than what the polls say. "It may be just a loser, the side of the lottery issue I'm on," he says. "But I think people, when they are their best selves, know that the lottery is wrong." He opposes the death penalty because of the chance that an innocent person will be executed. (Perdue, too, says that concerns her, and she supported the current legislative study of the issue.)

Campaign-finance reform is another issue that requires courage today, Wilson says. "It's at the root of a lot of our problems, and if I'm elected, I'll be out front on that." He'll also point to the connections between campaign contributions and problems like environmental pollution and tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy. That won't make him an insider like Perdue, he agrees, and might even send him home after four years. "But I'd rather go down there for four years and get something done than stay and not get anything done.

"I'll use the bully pulpit, and I'll work with like-minded legislators--like Wib Gulley," Wilson says. "I can go in and lead in a different way. I don't owe anybody anything." EndBlock

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