Even the most passionate devotees of civic duty will find themselves sorely tested on Tuesday, May 30. That's when voters are asked to go to the polls and cast their ballots a second time in two statewide Republican primaries, an election for Orange County School Board, and a Democratic primary for Wake County District Court judge. These runoff elections are necessitated by some rather odd local and state elections laws, which allow the nearest challengers to ask for runoffs if the leading vote-getters don't win a certain percentage the first time around.
It's safe to predict that you won't have to stand in line to vote. Turnout will be small. But that also means, of course, that your vote will carry more weight than usual.
To help make sense of your choices, The Independent sent questionnaires tailored to each of these races, 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 before making our recommendations.
For information on where to vote, call your county board of elections: Wake, 856-6240; Durham, 560-0070; Orange, 967-9251, ext. 2350; Chatham, 542-8206.
State Agriculture CommisionerIn the two Republican runoff races for seats on the council of state, the only real choice is in the contest for state agriculture commissioner.
Of the two candidates vying for the chance to replace longtime "Sodfather" Jim Graham, Guilford County tobacco farmer Steve Troxler takes a more populist, pro-farmer approach to the issues. He supports farmland preservation programs and other ways to involve farmers in protecting the environment. Although Troxler is not always forward-thinking on such issues as how to help tobacco growers cultivate other crops, he has a record as an outspoken advocate for family farms. A former director of the N.C. Tobacco Growers Association, Troxler now sits on a commission handling settlement money that major cigarette-makers have promised to Tar Heel tobacco farmers. In that role, he has shown a willingness to speak out for farmers--even those who represent a shrinking portion of the state's agricultural sector.
By contrast, Troxler's opponent, Tom Davidson, has spent his professional career working for agribusiness companies. A Durham resident who is making his second bid for the commissioner's seat, Davidson has spoken out against regulation of the hog industry and environmental cleanup efforts aimed at farmers. Davidson's business-friendly solutions to the state's agricultural problems fail to offer enough protections for either small farmers or consumers--or any substantial change from Graham's leadership of the department.
State Labor CommissionerUnfortunately, the runoff race for the Republican Party candidate for state labor commissioner offers no positive options for voters. Neither state House Rep. Cherie Berry (R-Catawba) nor evangelical church leader John Miller will continue the progressive direction the labor department has moved in under the leadership of outgoing commissioner Harry Payne. In fact, both candidates are running on the idea that less is more when it comes to workplace safety regulations--the chief responsibility of the commissioner's office. The labor department also enforces wage-and-hour laws and oversees employment training programs.
Berry, the best-known and best-funded of the two candidates, is touting her General Assembly vote to raise the state's minimum wage as proof that she will be sympathetic to the needs of North Carolina workers. But her record as a leading champion of reducing welfare benefits and offering bigger tax cuts to businesses shows where her real priorities lie.
On the other hand, Miller's key campaign promise is that he will be a more conservative commissioner than Berry. When asked what programs he would promote, the Rowan County resident talked about the need to outlaw abortion. Although he conceded that many voters would not see that issue as relevant to the office of labor commissioner, Miller insisted that his "pro-family" approach was the right one for the state's workers and businesses.
We repeat our suggestion that Republican voters cast protest ballots for Harry Payne in this race.
Wake District Court, District 10Presiding over district court may seem like a lofty job--and in some respects it is. But it's also a tough job. Judges face huge court dockets daily, and cases tried run the gamut, from traffic violations to domestic disputes to juvenile crime. In addition to solid legal experience, an ideal candidate should be well-organized, calm under pressure, fair-minded and impartial. Steven Bryant fits the bill.
By all accounts, Bryant is a top-notch attorney with more than 20 years' experience practicing criminal, civil and--of special interest to him--juvenile law. Before entering private practice, he spent 12 years working for the state attorney general's office. Though he had stiff competition in the primary from several strong candidates, Bryant was endorsed by the N.C. Association of Women Attorneys who, in part, made their selection based upon Bryant's demonstrated support for women in the legal profession--and for the rights of women under the law. Despite crowded dockets and tense domestic cases, Bryant says he'll run an efficient courtroom that, while strict, will allow for alternative sentencing where appropriate. Instead of placing juvenile offenders in training schools--where youth often become more hardened than rehabilitated--Bryant would like to see more resources dedicated to alternatives like wilderness camps.
Paul Suhr finished second in the Democratic primary in large part because he's run a forceful campaign stressing his commitment to equal justice for all. During his 12 years as a lawyer, Suhr has worked extensively with immigrants and minority populations, having expressed his concern that, without a fair trial, they are too easily and too harshly sentenced. Suhr disagrees with Wake County's practice of having a separate court for domestic matters, because he believes it can prohibit both sexes from being treated equally. A former chair of the City of Raleigh Human Relations Commission, Suhr might make a fine judge, but he lacks the impressive breadth and length of Bryant's legal experience.
Orange School BoardIn the May 2 primary for Orange County Board of Education, Gary Horne finished fifth in a close eight-way race. Horne, a sales manager for General Espresso Equipment in Greensboro, says he requested a runoff election against incumbents Delores Simpson and Keith Cook (the second- and third-place winners, respectively) in order to help a divided board heal. In reality, Horne's presence on the board would only aggravate existing divisions.
If elected, it seems clear that Horne would vote with the board's ineffectual, regressive minority. He's running on a platform of tight spending and "traditional values," which is no doubt music to the ears of conservative board members Bob Bateman and David Kolbinsky, who have backed Horne throughout his campaign.
Bateman and Kolbinsky have done more than their share to keep the board divided. During the recent campaign, Kolbinsky accused Susan Halkiotis, the board's chair, and four candidates of violating the state's Open Meetings Law by holding a party. Bateman, meanwhile, has been a staunch supporter of abstinence-only sex education. He and Kolbinsky's divisive behavior transcends ideology: They frequently form a minority voting bloc against reasonable proposals, like the formation of a committee to facilitate cooperation between the county commissioners and Orange's two school districts.
Orange County doesn't need another board member in the Bateman-Kolbinsky camp. Fortunately, Simpson and Cook have both demonstrated a clear commitment to doing what's right for kids, and both have the experience needed to address the complex problems--high teacher turnover, an influx of students whose native language is Spanish--the county schools face.
Simpson has been on the board for eight years, and was an educator for more than 30. She's established a reputation as a consensus-builder on the board, and as an effective advocate for the county's at-risk and minority students. If elected, she would push to increase funding for teachers specializing in English as a Second Language, and support alternative-school programs for at-risk children.
Cook has been on the board for six years and is currently vice-chair. He wants to increase teacher salaries to make them competitive with Chapel Hill-Carrboro, Wake and Durham, and reduce class sizes in lower grades where children most need one-on-one attention. Cook should also be wary of causing divisiveness; of late, he's developed a reputation for angering too quickly when faced with opposition. Based on his record, we trust he will continue to be a constructive force on the board.