If you had any doubt that money has completely undermined the democratic process, just take a look at North Carolina's race for the United States Senate. There are 16 candidates in the Democratic and Republican primaries. But the overwhelming focus is on two candidates who have never been elected to office: Erskine Bowles, who had raised $5.8 million at last report, and Elizabeth Dole, who'd raised $9.7 million. That money isn't just buying TV time; it's determining whose ideas are to be taken seriously and whose are not. There are several worthwhile candidates running this year whose stands are legitimate challenges to the soft positions of the big money candidates. But, money aside, there is one candidate in the Senate race who stands out on the strength of his leadership, public service, legislative abilities and commitment to improving the lives of North Carolinians: State Rep. Dan Blue.
The big issues this year, even for the big-money candidates, are education, jobs and the economy. But with 22 years in the legislature--four as Speaker of the House--Dan Blue began addressing those issues long before Erskine Bowles set foot in a federal government job or Elizabeth Dole remembered her North Carolina roots. On education, for instance, all the candidates say they'll push for more federal funding for local schools. But Blue, in the legislature, pushed through a salary schedule that began the movement to bring teacher salaries in North Carolina up to the national average. He championed funding programs designed to help schools in poorer school districts. That gives more credence to his campaign pledge to increase federal funding for education than anyone else's promises can muster.
All the candidates say they want to create jobs and improve the economy. But Blue helped lead the state through the recession of 1991, at that time the worst since the Great Depression. He beat back conservative attempts to cut education spending and block higher taxes for the rich. Instead, he worked out a deal that reduced the cuts and raised $600 million in new taxes, most of that from increases in corporate taxes and income taxes paid by families making more than $100,000 a year. As Chris Fitzsimon of the Common Sense Foundation pointed out in The Independent earlier this year, compare that to the current, conservative Democratic leadership in the state that last year trimmed the budget deficit by cutting social services and raising the sales tax, hitting poor and working people the hardest. They're headed in the same direction this year, too.
On other issues, Blue has stands that reflect his stated commitment to people over special interests. While he does not oppose the death penalty in all circumstances, he says he has serious concerns about its disproportionate application based on race and wealth. As a result, he believes there should be a moratorium on executions until those concerns are resolved. As a legislator, he sponsored and helped gain passage for the Innocence Protection Act, which required potentially exculpatory DNA evidence to be made available to all defendants in felony cases. He supports a similar act that recently passed the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, which also would raise the quality of lawyers for indigent defendants in capital cases. On free trade, which has cost North Carolina thousands of jobs, he supports those efforts only when displaced workers receive adequate training, unemployment and health care benefits, and when incentives are offered for companies to locate in hard-hit areas if they're expanding as a result of increased trade. Blue also says he opposes the privatization of Social Security; supports a prescription drug benefit under Medicare; would require corporate executives to report the sale of stock in companies that employ them or prohibit them from selling stock as long as they worked for the company; and would stand up to the Bush administration's efforts to weaken environmental protections.
And there's one other thing that Blue, who managed to raise just $573,000 by the end of July, supports: public financing of political campaigns. Despite the millions of dollars Bowles has raised, the race is still tight and a vote for Blue could make a difference.
In the Republican primary, let's let Elizabeth Dole describe her own position: "I was a conservative when my family first supported Senator Jesse Helms, I was a conservative when I served in Ronald Reagan's cabinet and I'm a conservative today," she told The Herald-Sun. We like Dr. Ada M. Fisher, not necessarily for all the 13 steps to recovery the self-styled "progressive, conservative, committed compassionate Republican constitutionalist" describes in her prescription for what ails America. The 13 steps include a flat tax, a state jobs program, protecting Social Security, a $1,000 limit on campaign contributions, and making English the national language. Instead, we like her for the time she carried a sign that said, "Bush's Dole visits wrong, taxpayers pay," outside the President's appearance at an Elizabeth Dole fundraiser at a Greensboro resort. After 20 minutes, the hotel manager threw her out.
Judicial races pose a tough challenge for voters who must choose from among candidates who are constrained from discussing issues they may have to consider on the bench. Yet the judiciary is playing an increasingly important role in public policy--just look at the state Supreme Court's decision earlier this summer on redistricting. Unfortunately, as with other branches of government, special interest money is also playing a bigger part in elections for state courts. The N.C. Center for Voter Education reports that in the 2000 elections, five judicial candidates in North Carolina spent more than $200,000 on races for the Supreme Court and Court of Appeals. Nationwide, the center reports that state Supreme Court candidates raised 61 percent more in contributions in 2000 than in 1998. Elections reform is now a key issue for the courts, and it's one we asked candidates to discuss. Other concerns include underfunding of the courts and the need to make the operation of the criminal justice system both more efficient and more equitable.
Associate Justice N.C. Supreme Court
This is the court that brought us redistricting, and hears all constitutional issues and death-penalty appeals in North Carolina. This year, there are two seats open on the seven-member court, which currently has a 5-2 Republican majority.
In the first race, two Republicans are vying for the chance to run against Democratic incumbent G.K. Butterfield, who has no opposition in the primary. The only African American on the court, Butterfield has been endorsed by the North Carolina Academy of Trial Lawyers and liberal groups like the People's Alliance in Durham. He has a reputation for being intelligent and fair, and is a supporter of judicial elections reform.
Of the two challengers, Ralph Walker of Greensboro is more of a known quantity in the legal community. A longtime Appeals Court judge who also has experience in Superior Court, he is concerned about the effects of state budget cuts on dispute settlement programs that have helped resolve many cases. Some say Walker is partisan---not a desirable quality in a judge for the highest court---and he gives no opinion on the issue of how judges should be selected. But overall, Walker has more of a reputation in legal circles. The Martindale Hubbell directory lists Edward Thomas Brady as a member of Brady and Brady law firm in Fayetteville and a graduate of California Western School of Law. He did not return a campaign survey to the The Independent.
The Democrats have the primary contest for the second open seat now occupied by Republican Robert Orr. A "yes" vote on redistricting, Orr made headlines recently for partisan comments he let slip at a recent fundraiser for U.S. Senate candidate Elizabeth Dole. Yet over the years, he's won support from many Democrats for his thoughtful, evenhanded decisions.
Democrat Bob Hunter is a worthy opponent for Orr, with the needed breadth of experience for the court and a progressive outlook. A former state House member, Hunter's gotten his own share of bad press recently for earning more than $400,000 in outside income as an estate executor after going on the bench in 1998. But many in the legal field--and some in the legislature--say that fact's been overblown by the media and doesn't reflect his overall record of integrity. Hunter has been both a prosecutor and a defense attorney. Currently a state court of appeals judge, he says the biggest problem with the criminal justice system is a perceived "discrepancy between justice for those who have resources and those who don't." Hunter wants the court system to "fight this perception by doing more to ensure that all citizens receive equal justice." He supports specialized family courts and merit selection of judges with election by voters for retention. Hunter is also a backer of public financing of judicial elections.
Bradley Greenway, the other Democrat in the race, is a former U.S. District Court Judge for the Western District of North Carolina and a graduate of Campbell University Law School. He did not return a campaign survey outlining his views.
Court of Appeals
There are five seats open on the 12-member Court of Appeals. These judges sit in panels, ruling on every case that's appealed from trial except death penalty cases, which go to the Supreme Court. Appeals court judges are required to apply the law according to precedents laid down by higher courts--even when they disagree with them. Only when precedent is absent do their own opinions play a role.
Of the five races, one especially offers voters the opportunity to back a standout candidate. In the Democratic contest for the Thomas seat, Martha Geer stands head and shoulders above her opponent Marcus Williams--and almost everyone else running for the court. Geer, a lawyer with experience in employment law, constitutional litigation, workers' compensation appeals and securities fraud, has a reputation for being smart and principled. She knows the law and has a strong work ethic--key qualities for a successful appeals court judge. A graduate of Bryn Mawr College and the UNC School of Law, Geer was named one of the top lawyers in the state by Business North Carolina based on her work in employment law. She's also done a good deal of pro bono work, including a class action suit on behalf of death row inmates in Virginia who wanted the right to counsel in post-conviction appeals. Geer does volunteer work with death row appeals in North Carolina, supports alternative sentencing, efforts to end racial bias in the courts and public financing of judicial elections.
Williams, an attorney from Lumberton, did not return a campaign survey. The winner in this race will face Republican Bill Constangy, who has no opposition in the primary.
There is also no primary contest in the race for the Biggs seat. Democratic incumbent Loretta Biggs will run against Republican Sanford Steelman Jr. in November. Biggs has been endorsed by the N.C. Academy of Trial Lawyers and the N.C. Association of Women Attorneys. She is one of the few African-American women on the court. Sanford is a Superior Court judge who's received high marks for integrity from groups like Courtwatch.
For the Bryant seat, two Republicans are competing to face incumbent Democrat Wanda Bryant in November. One of three judges appointed by Gov. Mike Easley who are up for election this fall, Bryant is well thought of in legal circles and admired for her standup personality (she was one of the first kids in her Brunswick County neighborhood to attend previously all-white schools). Only one of Bryant's opponents, Ann Marie Calabria deserves a serious look. The other, Nate Pendley, has a reputation so tarnished that state Republican Party Chairman Bill Cobey has called the candidate an "embarrassment" who will "drag our ticket down in November." In 1994, Pendley lost his Superior Court seat when it became known he'd lied about his residency. Two years ago, he recruited a homeless man with the same last name as the incumbent to run for state auditor. Recently, he's filed suit against the Republican-led redistricting plan.
Calabria, who's been a district court judge for the past five years, earned her certification as a juvenile court judge in 1999. The first judge to serve on the state Bar Association's Hispanic/Latino Lawyers Committee, she volunteers as a team leader for the county's Spanish Interpreter Program. Attorneys describe her as a creative problem-solver. One example cited on her Web site: Calabria set up a program that allows non-English-speaking first offenders to take language classes as an alternative sentence.
Democrat Hugh Brown Campbell Jr. faces no primary opposition for re-election to his seat. Of the two Republicans competing to challenge him in November, Eric Levinson, though conservative politically, is the more qualified. A former assistant district attorney in Cabarrus and Rowan counties, Levinson has been a district court judge since 1996 in Charlotte. There, he's worked to streamline child support enforcement and has gained a reputation for being hardworking and fair. His opponent, Lorrie Dollar of Cary, is an administrative law judge and a former staff attorney with the N.C. Department of Human Resources. She's not well-known in the legal community and her experience says little about how she'd operate on the court. Levinson's supporters include some ultra-conservative Republicans such as U.S. Rep. Sue Myrick. But given that Appeals Court judges are required to follow precedents set down by higher courts and keep their opinions to themselves, his legal credentials tip the scales in his favor.
Both Democrats and Republicans have primary races for the Walker seat. Of the two Democrats, Beecher Reynolds Gray is the stronger candidate. A Chapel Hill resident, he's spent 16 years as an administrative law judge hearing hundreds of cases. When asked what legal or policy change he'd urge the General Assembly to make to improve the courts, Gray says, "make it easier for a person who cannot afford a lawyer to access one and move reasonably quickly through the justice system." Legal sources say Gray has written some solid environmental opinions. He's been endorsed by the People's Alliance and the N.C. Association of Women Attorneys. His opponent, George Barrett, did not return a campaign survey.
On the Republican ticket, Fritz Mercer's background as a former public defender in Mecklenburg County makes him an interesting choice for the Court of Appeals. Currently a district court judge, Mercer got the nod from the N.C. Academy of Trial Lawyers. He supports the expansion of drug treatment courts as an alternative to incarceration, and would like to see the merger of the District and Superior courts and the creation of a separate Family Law Court to increase efficiency. Mercer also believes in merit selection of judges. He's running against Rick Elmore of Greensboro who did not return a campaign survey.