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The Big Picture

State and Federal Races


Chief Justice N.C. Supreme Court
A year ago, when Burley Mitchell resigned this office, Gov. Hunt made a historic appointment: He elevated Henry Frye, an associate justice on the court for 16 years, to be the first black chief justice ever in North Carolina. Frye's whole career has been path-breaking. He was the first African American elected to the General Assembly in this century. He was the first black justice appointed, and thereafter the first elected. This was a man who was turned away by a white registrar when he went to register to vote the first time. He got mad, and he got ahead, starting a law firm in Greensboro and later, a bank to serve Greensboro's minority community.

It'd be great if Frye, a Democrat, were an activist judge, using the cases before him to articulate great principles of social justice inherent in our state and federal constitutions. But that's dreamland--North Carolina's judges are all "strict constructionists" who leave it to the legislature to write the laws. Frye, too, is pretty conservative, but he's also willing to flag the kind of law-enforcement abuse that kept him from voting in the past.

We know that because his opponent, Associate Justice I. Beverly Lake Jr., tells us so. Lake, the Republican candidate, says he's even more conservative than Frye, who's "a little more inclined to go with the defense" when a suspect's rights are involved.

Lake says he's running because, if it's a Republican year and the GOP sweeps the court races, he wants the chief justice to be someone who's qualified--someone like Frye. Lake himself would be content with serving out the remaining two years of his term as associate justice if he loses. Frye, though, will be off the court unless the voters affirm his appointment by Hunt.

Kudos to Lake for running and for pointing up the best qualities of his opponent. Henry Frye has earned his position with a solid record on the high court and a lifetime of public service. His election is clearly merited.

Associate Justice N.C. Supreme Court
This is a close call. The Republican nominee, Bob Edmunds, is a sitting judge on the state Court of Appeals, elected two years ago with our support. Edmunds was U.S. Attorney in North Carolina for seven years, and he's tried more than 100 cases before juries, including capital cases as a prosecutor and also as a defense lawyer. He's a thoughtful person with a reputation as a legal moderate. Voters looking for a Republican to support in the judicial races should turn to him.

Our support goes to Franklin Freeman, the incumbent Democrat. Freeman was appointed by Gov. Hunt to fill Henry Frye's seat when Frye moved up to chief justice. We think voters should retain Freeman on the high court and let Edmunds stay on the Court of Appeals, where he has six years remaining in his term. The argument against Freeman is that he doesn't have Edmunds' trial experience. The fact is, Freeman has broad experience in public service and a first-rate legal mind. He started his career working for two former chief justices, Susie Sharp and William Bobbitt. After a stint as the district attorney in Surry County, he returned to the state as director of the Administrative Office of the Courts, where he helped get better representation for indigent defendants and backed the work of lawyers who defend death-penalty cases on appeal. In the Hunt Administration, Freeman was a well-regarded secretary of corrections and later Hunt's chief legislative lobbyist. Hunt rewarded his work by appointing him to the court. It was a good choice.

N.C. Court of Appeals
The Court of Appeals is the intermediate level between the trial courts and the state Supreme Court. The 12 judges (soon to be 15) sit in three-judge panels, where they rule on every case that's appealed from a trial court with the exception of death-penalty verdicts, which go straight to the top. So a good appeals judge is a workhorse, ready to tackle every kind of case from manslaughter to tort claims. Complicating the job for voters is the fact that the job of the judges is to apply the law as it stands according to the precedents established by higher courts, even if, in their own opinion, the precedents are wrong. Only where precedent is lacking do they get to be creative.

Five seats on the Court are up for election. In three, the contest is between veteran judges, all Democrats, who have excellent reputations within the bar, and Republican challengers with varying degrees of experience. We endorse the incumbents: Clarence Horton over challenger Doug McCullough; John Martin over challenger Wendy Enochs; and James Wynn over challenger Wendell Schollander.

Horton, on the court since 1987, is considered a scholar on family-court issues, and his decisions have helped make divorce settlements quicker and fairer. His opponent, McCullough, is a criminal lawyer and former federal prosecutor who seems qualified, but not more than Horton. Martin, similarly, is a one-time Durham City Council member with 10 years' experience on the appeals court and seven years as a trial court judge before that. He's got a distinguished record of judicial, civic and community service, while Enochs, his opponent, is a Guilford County district court judge who's been out of law school less than 10 years. Jim Wynn, nominated by President Clinton to be a federal appeals court judge (but blocked by U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms), has 10 years' experience on the state appeals court and a record of leadership within the bar. He, too, is a serious scholar, with two law degrees, including a masters in legal process that he earned at the University of Virginia in 1995. Schollander, his opponent, specializes in business law and is a former corporate attorney at R. J. Reynolds Industries.

The other two contests will fill openings created because veteran judges chose not to run again. Democrat Jim Fuller, a Raleigh trial attorney, was appointed to the court in September when Judge Joe John retired early. Fuller's one of the good guys whose clients are most often working folks, including people with civil rights cases. He's been named lawyer of the year by the N.C. Association of Black Lawyers and won the Frank Porter Graham Award for advancing civil liberties and racial justice. For the last decade, he's added teaching to his practice at Duke and UNC law schools. We endorse Fuller over John Tyson, his Republican opponent, who is a real-estate attorney in Fayetteville and former corporate lawyer with Revco, Blockbuster Video and others.

For the seat being vacated by Judge John Lewis, Democrat Robin Hudson, a Raleigh lawyer, is an easy choice over Republican Paul Stam of Apex. Stam was an arch-conservative and abortion-rights foe when he served in the legislature for a term a decade ago. Since then he's been an energetic advocate for Christian conservative groups and N.C. Right to Life while practicing municipal and real-estate law. Hudson made a mark early in her career by winning a landmark brown-lung case that expanded workers' rights in North Carolina. Ever since, she's been a leader within the bar on occupational safety and health issues, serving since 1994 as chair of the state OSHA review board, a quasi-judicial panel.

Commissioner of Agriculture
North Carolinians are fortunate to have two compelling candidates vying to replace retiring "Sodfather" Jim Graham as commissioner of agriculture. While urban voters may consider farm issues an afterthought, the financial squeeze many Tar Heel farmers are feeling--especially those who operate small family farms--has an impact on such key issues as the safety of the state's food supply, the preservation of green space and the well-being of rural communities that border many urban areas.

Of the two contenders, Democrat Meg Scott Phipps is the most well-rounded and offers the most creative ideas for bolstering the state's farm economy. As the daughter of former Gov. Bob Scott and granddaughter of former Agriculture Commissioner and Gov. Kerr Scott, she has strong family connections to agriculture. More importantly, Phipps has wide-ranging experience as an attorney representing farmers in bankruptcy cases, manager of a 300-acre cattle farm in Haw River and part-owner of a design center that markets farm-grown products for the furniture and home-building industries.

On the issues, Phipps stands out as a vocal proponent of reforming the state's contract agriculture system to protect family farms. She has promised to launch new economic-development programs in farm communities and establish an 18-month moratorium on farm foreclosures. She has also pledged to put an environmental expert in a top-level position at the Agriculture Department. On the controversial subject of tobacco, Phipps understands that a key weakness of the current system is that many of those who hold tobacco-growing licenses are not farmers. She hopes to convince the federal government to buy out tobacco "allotments" so that small farmers have incentives to remain on the land while making the transition to growing other crops. One issue on which Phipps is weak is the need to improve working conditions for farmworkers. She throws that responsibility back to the Labor Department. But overall, she offers the most specific, forward-looking proposals for agriculture.

On the Republican side, Guilford County tobacco farmer Steve Troxler has strong populist appeal. But while his goals of protecting family farms and preserving open space are worthy, his vision isn't as broad as it needs to be. Troxler's track record and many of his proposals are aimed at the tobacco-growing sector, which represents an ever-smaller portion of the state's farm economy. And on contract farming, he has yet to take a position.

Superintendent of Public Instruction
Although education issues have been given a spotlight under Gov. Jim Hunt, the growing controversy over high-stakes testing and continued concerns about the achievement gap between white and non-white students in North Carolina public schools show much remains to be done.

Democratic incumbent Mike Ward, who is seeking reelection to a second term, supports the current "accountability" system but wants to complement testing with more resources aimed at low-performing schools. Specifically, Ward has promised to seek more money for low-wealth schools, more programs for English-language learners and more collaboration between public schools, historically black colleges, churches and parents. He opposes tuition tax credits, or vouchers, because they have the potential to "stratify schools along socioeconomic lines" and have no record of improving student performance. Ward is also against vouchers for poor children because they would help only a small number of students and would be "the Trojan horse by which the less laudable intents of a voucher system" are allowed through the gate.

His Republican opponent Michael Barrick, a former teacher and journalist who sits on the Caldwell County Board of Education, has been raising good questions about the state's testing program. But the solutions he offers, including more charter schools and a return to education basics, don't make a particularly progressive package. And Barrick backs tuition vouchers and tax credits for parents who send their children to private and religious schools or home-school them.

Attorney General
Democrat Roy Cooper, the Senate Majority Leader from Rocky Mount, is well-regarded by progressives and conservatives alike after his 14 years in the General Assembly and, at 43, he isn't as stodgy as he seems to be in the campaign commercials. Cooper's done a lot of the heavy lifting in the Senate on complex legislation like the overhaul of the juvenile justice statutes, the crackdown on predatory lenders, and the crime victims' rights bill--in which, by fighting successfully to include the victims of domestic violence, he gained a following with women's rights advocates. Environmentalists are on his side, as is Equality PAC, the gay and lesbian rights group. The only sour note is that Cooper is pro-capital punishment.

Dan Boyce, the Republican candidate, is a lawyer with prosecutorial experience in the U.S. Attorney's office who, in private practice, has defended death-penalty cases. In a memorable one, he won his convicted client a life sentence after playing Elvis Presley's "In the Ghetto" for the jury. Boyce won't tell what he thinks of capital punishment or other policy questions, saying the attorney general's job is to enforce the law, not get into politics. We think that's too narrow a take on the office. We elect an attorney general to be an independent officer who will notice--and tell us--when the law should be changed. Boyce helped his dad, Gene, win the landmark Bailey case against the state, forcing the return of $800 million to retired state employees. The Boyces have been tangling with Attorney General Easley over what they should get paid for the case--and it's clear Boyce's argument that law and politics don't mix applies to Easley more than Cooper. In any event, we don't agree with Boyce that, since Cooper is a legislator, we should not elect him attorney general.

Folks seeking to cast an anti-death penalty vote have one available with Reform Party candidate Margaret Palms, who otherwise hasn't offered much of a campaign.

Commissioner of Labor
The race for state labor commissioner has been marked by negative attacks and a lack of attention to issues. That's unfortunate, since voters must choose a replacement for Harry Payne, who's been an effective, progressive leader of a department charged with the critical responsibility of overseeing worker safety.

Democrat Doug Berger offers the best hope for staying the course Payne has set. A former assistant district attorney and workers' compensation judge for the state Industrial Commission, Berger promises to aggressively enforce safety and wage-and-hour laws--including those affecting immigrant workers. He has also proposed ways to prevent violent incidents in the workplace, recognizing that many of them stem from family violence. Berger is weaker on preventing repetitive motion injuries, suggesting that standards be set only after multiple injuries have occurred.

His Republican opponent, Cherie Berry, is no friend to labor. As a member of the state House, she was a leading proponent of North Carolina's punitive welfare reform program and bigger tax credits for businesses. Berry has also been unapologetic about safety violations found at an auto-parts plant she once owned. Instead of addressing the safety issue head-on, Berry has merely pointed out that violations were found after she and her husband sold the plant and became consultants to the business.

Commissioner of Insurance
Consumer-protection issues form the backdrop to the race for state insurance commissioner, the office that oversees regulation of North Carolina's insurance industry. Both candidates support the need for independent reviews when HMOs deny health-care coverage to members, and better safeguards against "predatory" lending policies aimed at vulnerable, low-income consumers.

Republican Mike Causey says he's running to protect citizens from "special interests." But the bulk of his proposals revolve around an unfettered "free market" for insurance companies. By contrast, Jim Long, the Democratic incumbent, can point to a 16-year track record of reasonable insurance rates and public safety initiatives. His recent vocal support for patients' rights and expanded health-care coverage for children has won him the backing of statewide health-care and consumer-advocacy groups.

It should be noted that Long has also received numerous campaign donations from insurance companies. When asked, he says he believes the insurance commission's current approach to business is "well-balanced," as opposed to Causey, who calls it "too friendly." Still, Long's campaign platform and his record offer reassurance that he'll make the needs of citizens a top priority.

Secretary of State
The Secretary of State's office handles an odd collection of responsibilities that in the past has led to talk of abolishing the post. Among the department's key duties is acting as a repository for business-incorporation papers and lists of registered lobbyists and sports agents. Incumbent Democrat Elaine Marshall, who is seeking reelection to a second term, has chosen the right focus: increasing public access to those records.

A former member of the state Senate and the first woman elected to the Council of State, Marshall is touting the success of her efforts to update the department's record-keeping so that the system is easier for citizens to use. She notes that the Secretary of State's office now serves more citizens online than by mail, walk-in visits and telephone calls. If reelected, Marshall promises to fight investment scams through better public education and detective work. She will also push for legislation requiring lobbyists to disclose more information about their clients.

Marshall's Republican opponent, Harris Blake, is a developer from Pinehurst and a former candidate for the 8th Congressional district. His key campaign pledge--to make the office more friendly to businesses by improving turnaround time on official documents--doesn't hold out much interest for ordinary citizens.

State Auditor
In the contest for state auditor, Democrat Ralph Campbell Jr. is running for his third four-year term. As head of the office responsible for reviewing state agencies and investigating the misuse of state funds, Campbell's competent leadership has won awards from the U.S. Auditor General and the federal Department of Health and Human Services. A former Raleigh city councilman, Campbell has increased the frequency of state audits and opened a 24-hour hotline. While some may quibble with his decision that Attorney General Mike Easley's use of public funds for public service ads didn't violate any laws, Campbell can point to a 1995 audit of the Secretary of State's office that helped lead to the resignation of Democrat Rufus Edmisten as proof of his political independence.

Campbell's opponent, Republican Leslie Merritt, says he wants a more "pro-active" auditor's office--an idea that has some value. But Merritt's record as a Wake County Commissioner suggests he'd focus the beam of official attention on the wrong things. As a commissioner, Merritt voted against a tax increase for school construction that led to the current overcrowding in the Wake school system. He also intervened in contract negotiations for new police communications equipment, on the side of a company that had hired his former campaign manager as a lobbyist.

State Treasurer
Harlan Boyles, who is retiring after 24 years as state treasurer, was a careful guardian of public funds but less effective when it came to bold strategies for increasing state revenues. It took last year's budget shortfall for Boyles to call attention to tax loopholes that are costing the state billions each year. While neither of the two candidates vying to replace Boyles has a wealth of new ideas, Democrat Richard Moore takes a more progressive approach to fiscal policy. A former state House member who has spent the past four years as head of Crime Control and Public Safety under Gov. Jim Hunt, Moore isn't afraid to increase state borrowing if it means more funds for education or other services. He wants to push for low-interest home loans for public-school teachers and create a "state education bank" where counties could go to borrow money for new school construction. Moore also agrees with the need to examine the tax code to identify unnecessary loopholes.

His Republican challenger, Henry McKoy, has rightly criticized Moore for being politically ambitious. But McKoy, a former state senator and president of a management consulting business, is not a good choice for treasurer. He favors limiting the growth of government to the rate of inflation--a move that could result in service cutbacks. Moore also repeatedly failed to provide timely campaign finance reports to the state--not a good sign in a candidate running for the office of head bean-counter.

What a dreadful campaign. The Democratic and Republican gubernatorial candidates gave us no town meetings, no discussion of important problems in North Carolina and a grand total of two hours of "debate." Neither went near the real issue facing voters, which is whether we're content to see large numbers of people left by the wayside while others repair to their gated communities.

Republican Richard Vinroot is a huge disappointment. You'd think, given the iron grip of Democrats on every leadership position in Raleigh, that the former Charlotte mayor would've found some way to make this election about reform. But no, Vinroot got stuck in the conservative mud of attacking government waste, and was mired there by his inability to specify any wasteful spending that he'd cut. (He'd do an efficiency study.) Would he, perhaps, reform the way development interests control transportation policies and perpetuate sprawl? Crack down on polluters, starting with the hog industry? How about opening up the health care system to poor folks and overhauling the state's scandalous mental-health facilities?

On every question, Vinroot's answer is no. He thinks we have too much environmental regulation, not too little. He has no interest in using government to "narrow gaps" between the haves and have-nots. He is against a state lottery because it would prey on the poor, but he never made the Democrats' support for it an issue, nor did he confront them over corporate welfare, which they like and he doesn't. Instead, he's made "taxpayer protection" the centerpiece of his campaign--he'd limit state spending increases to the inflation rate plus population growth, if any. The idea is inane, since in the same breath Vinroot says he's for more spending on education, is tough on crime and has no thoughts about health care--and it's school costs, bulging prisons and Medicaid that are driving state spending up.

The low point for Vinroot was his appearance with U.S. Sen. John McCain, the Republican champion of campaign finance reform. Vinroot took him to a McMansion in North Raleigh, where Vinroot declared that--unlike McCain--he has no problem with rich people controlling politics.

All of which makes our choice of Democrat Mike Easley unavoidable. Easley, who started as a district attorney in Southport, is straight out of the Eastern North Carolina Democratic mold that produced Jim Hunt, Lauch Faircloth and other Raleigh potentates. They are pro-business. So is Easley. They're for the children. So is Easley. And if they are less than ardent environmentalists, and more inclined to offer rhetoric than help to low-income communities, they aren't stupid, either, and neither is Easley. In eight years as attorney general, Easley's managed to do just enough about hog polluters, for instance, to dodge a pro-industry label. He jumped on predatory lenders--the gang that makes mortgage loans on bad terms to low-income borrowers--and made his mark as a consumer advocate, then used state money to advertise his good works in black neighborhoods. He failed to mention his avid support for the death penalty, or his view that in North Carolina it's not racially biased. But then, Vinroot's position on the death penalty is no better.To be preferable to Vinroot, all Easley's had to say is that he'll continue Hunt's policies, including more money for schools and maybe a modest program of prescription-drug subsidies for low-income senior citizens. Easley would address the problem of school kids failing end-of-grade tests by trying to lower class sizes in grades K-3 and offering preschool programs to all at-risk 4-year olds. To pay for these programs, he'd use lottery money. Easley's not proposing the all-out effort to help kids succeed that we'd like to see, but he beats Vinroot's Band-Aid approach of more charter schools and private-school vouchers for a few kids in the very worst public schools.

Easley's been ahead in this campaign from the start, and it's bothered us to watch him coast, doing almost no public campaigning, avoiding debates and hiding behind a barrage of dubious TV ads. That strategy could backfire: Vinroot's been gaining in the polls with his mudslinging, and Easley's failure to make the case for himself--and for progressive policies--could cost him the election. We hear in Easley's few public forays an understanding of the issues, but also a fear of saying clearly what must be done about them. Whether he could conquer his fear if elected is anybody's guess.

As attorney general, Easley's gotten a reputation for being lazy. He's no slouch, however, at raising campaign cash. We think he isn't indolent so much as self-protective, loathe to do what's right unless others have cleared the way and made it safe. Perhaps, then, he'll rise to the occasion. Vinroot, notwithstanding Dean Smith's cheerleading, looks like he'd never get off the ground.

As for Libertarian Party candidate Barbara Howe, we admire her search for principles that would make for a more just society. And for voters whose moral opposition to the death penalty impels them to vote on that issue alone, Howe is the choice. But she's a libertarian purist who thinks government should be eliminated, root and branch, except for law enforcement. Reform Party candidate Douglas Schell is a Pat Buchanan conservative.

Lieutenant Governor
The office of lieutenant governor is powerless except as a bully pulpit to advocate causes that the governor and legislative leaders won't touch. Or else, its occupant can use it as a safe place--where no votes must be cast, nor positions taken--from which to launch a bid for governor. We are pleased to see that the next lieutenant governor will be a woman, a first. Unfortunately, we can't recommend any of the three candidates.

State Sen. Beverly Perdue, a New Bern Democrat, would be the likeliest pick. She's got a mixed record: pro-choice on abortion rights, pro-death penalty, pro-lottery, pro-Smart Start. She's been in the General Assembly for 14 years, rising to be a cog in the establishment Democrats' machine as co-chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee. Perdue rubbed us the wrong way in the primary, when we heard her telling audiences she'd grown up "real poor," an authentic coal-miner's daughter. Truth was, her dad started as a miner but was a wealthy coal-mine owner by the time she got to high school. Oh, well. Politicians exaggerate, don't they?

What puts us off Perdue, finally, is that in the wake of our "Mine Owner's Daughter" story, an impressive variety of folks in Raleigh told us they don't trust her--that in her desire to get in with the political big boys in town, she's adopted their worst traits, bullying people from her perch atop appropriations. Moreover, we're not sure what use she'd make of the bully pulpit. We've heard her say she'd use it to get pay raises for state employees, an area in which her legislative record is feeble. We've heard her say she'd fight to improve nursing homes and seniors' health care; in that area, her record shows some progressive legislation, but also the receipt of illegal campaign contributions from the owner of a chain of nursing homes, money she was forced to return when he was indicted and convicted.

Her Republican opponent, Senate Minority Leader Betsy Cochrane, who's from Advance, has also made a record for herself on seniors' health-care issues, and she too received--and returned--illegal campaign contributions from the same fellow as Perdue. We looked hard at Cochrane's record for a reason to support her. We concluded that she is a hidebound conservative.

The Reform Party candidate, Catherine Carter, would get the best mileage out of the bully pulpit. A recent transplant to Blowing Rock, she ran for the California legislature four years ago on the Natural Law Party slate. She's pro-campaign-finance reform, anti-death penalty, a proponent of solar energy and alternatives to fossil-fuel sources, and she's writing a book on how "nature's blueprint and the unity of all life" should guide our public and private lives. She's against taxes.

It's tempting, but Carter's a little too much of a wild card for us to suggest putting her a heartbeat from the governor's chair, even if we don't like giving Perdue or Cochrane a head start on it either.

North Carolina Higher Education Improvement Bond
To listen to administrators at the state's universities and community colleges tell it, the North Carolina Higher Education Bond referendum is a cut-and-dried issue. The $3.1 billion package would fund desperately needed renovation and construction projects at North Carolina's universities and community colleges. These repairs and expansions are crucial if the state's institutions of higher learning hope to meet the demands of a mushrooming student population--the baby-boomers' kids. With the additional funding, these colleges and universities could turn these students into a well-educated workforce ready to put its collective brain power to use building the state's economy. How could anyone argue with that?

We can't. After all, it's tough to go wrong making education a priority, and many state universities and colleges are in serious need of expansion and improvements to keep up with the needs of a growing student population. At UNC-Chapel Hill, which would receive a whopping $499 million from the bond package, roughly $88 million would be used to build a new science complex with additional space for undergraduate classrooms, teaching and research labs, and faculty and staff offices. Another $32 million would be spent to improve the heating and cooling systems on campus. Durham Tech would use $4 million of its $15.4 million share to build a satellite campus in Orange County, which currently has no community college.

Of the total $3.1 billion package, $2.5 billion would go to universities within the UNC system and $600 million would go to the state's 59 community colleges. Of the money allocated to UNC campuses, about half would go toward new construction, one-third would be used for renovation and repairs of current facilities, and the rest would be used primarily for land purchases. Similarly, the bulk of the community-college funds would go toward new construction ($500 million), with $100 million allocated for repairs.

Critics of the proposal point to the discrepancy in funding allocation between UNC and the community colleges. The average income of families sending their kids to the various UNC campuses is higher than that of families with kids in community colleges, so why does more than 80 percent of the funding go to UNC? Also, they say, if the state's academic institutions are in such serious need of repair--officials have cited leaky roofs, unsafe labs and other problems--why is the majority of the money being allocated for new construction instead of bringing current facilities up to speed?

Others say such a large borrowing package is fiscally irresponsible no matter what the reason, and will lead to higher taxes. The bond would roughly double the state's current $2.8 million debt in five years, and debt payments would rise from 1.9 percent of the state's revenue currently to 2.9 percent in five years.

Indications are, however, that the state could handle such a debt, thanks largely to its tradition of fiscal conservatism. Standard & Poor recently reaffirmed the state's Triple-A credit rating and said the bonds wouldn't have a "substantial effect on North Carolina's debt profile."

Clearly, the bond proposal is far from perfect. It's not clear that existing inequities in the UNC system--between "flagship" and historically black schools--will ease under the proposed scheme. But the fact remains that the state's student population will surge by as many as 100,000 during the next decade. The bond package could make a huge difference in whether or not public universities and colleges are able to meet this challenge. Considering what's at stake, an imperfect funding proposal is better than no proposal at all. We recommend voting for the state higher education improvement bonds.

U.S. Congress, 2nd District
During two terms in Congress, Rep. Bob Etheridge has consistently straddled the political middle. Along the way, this businesslike Democrat has swayed toward both sides of the aisle--and on occasion backed legislation that makes his party's leadership wince. For example, he bucked the Clinton administration earlier this year, voting with the Republicans on the bitterly contested estate-tax bill. And on tobacco matters, Etheridge--himself a tobacco farmer--has sided with those who seek to protect the industry from stronger regulations.

If Etheridge can be said to carry one strong progressive credential, it's his sturdy track record of backing public education. A former state superintendent of public instruction, Etheridge is an informed advocate of bigger paychecks for teachers and better facilities for students.

Early in this race, state Republicans considered Etheridge's seat their best shot at ousting a Democratic incumbent from Congress, but GOP challenger Doug Haynes has lagged in fundraising and public exposure. Haynes, a marketing and strategic planning consultant, is a party liner and self-proclaimed George W. Bush devotee. He too has an abiding interest in education, witnessed most recently by his stint as an education policy researcher for Raleigh's conservative John Locke Foundation. But Haynes' prescription for ailing schools--to dismantle federal education programs--should be less welcome here than even a lukewarm Democratic incumbent like Etheridge.

The run-of-the-mill Libertarian campaign of candidate Mark Jackson, a Campbell University economics professor, hasn't heated this race up any. He advocates drastic cuts in the size and role of government, and favors eliminating the income tax and the IRS altogether.

U.S. Congress, 4th District
The choices for many of the offices that are up for grabs next week might seem very limited. But in one race of national consequence, the choice is clear enough to seem like, well, an actual choice. North Carolinians in the 4th District will send to Congress one of three candidates who offer starkly different plans for representing our state.

Rep. David Price, a former Duke University political science professor who served the 4th District from 1986-94 and 1996 to the present, has racked up a moderate-to-liberal record thus far. He's a solid supporter of public education and environmental protections, a steady pro-choice legislator and a fairly liberal voter on foreign policy matters. He has secured federal funding for projects praised as some of the smartest pork-barrel provisions doled out by Congress. At the same time, his continued support for capital punishment is running against the grain of some key supporters who are calling for a death penalty moratorium.

During three years on the Cary Town Council, Jess Ward, Price's Republican opponent, has earned commendations for his support of volunteer projects. But in his zeal for private-sector solutions, he favors slashing already anemic social services. The Libertarian candidate, C. Brian Towey, stakes out firm and admirable positions against the drug war and the death penalty, but pledges he would abolish many of the sort of helpful government programs that Price would maintain and Ward would scale back.

U.S. President
If anyone had told us, back in April when we made our primary endorsements, that by November, this year's presidential race would become one of the closest and most compelling in decades, we'd have laughed them out of the newsroom. How could it, with such boring, predictable and unworthy major-party candidates? How could it, when the same old factors--big money and negative campaigning--would again be determining the outcome?

It might seem, then, that the most progressive choice in this year's race is Ralph Nader, the Green Party candidate who changed everything. He is, after all, the only presidential contender with a consistent progressive platform: He wants to protect the environment, end the influence of corporate money on American politics and give real people a voice in the federal government. Nader has also galvanized young, progressive voters across the country--when's the last time a Democrat did that?

Nader's objective is not to win the race, necessarily, but to receive 5 percent of the national popular vote. This would qualify the Green Party to receive federal matching funds for a 2004 presidential bid, and provide progressives with an alternative third-party option on the ballot. But a vote for Nader in North Carolina this year won't help his cause. Despite extensive efforts, the Green Party was unable to procure the 51,000 signatures required by state law to get Nader's name on the November ballot. The party also failed to collect enough signatures to qualify Nader as a write-in candidate. The upshot? In this state, a write-in vote for Nader won't be counted.

A lot of folks are planning to write Nader in anyway--as a protest vote. But given the close race, any protest vote cast by a progressive would amount to a vote against Democrat Al Gore--and for Republican George W. Bush. Nader says that's OK, that it's more important to let the Democratic Party know we're unhappy with its leadership than to vote for an undesirable candidate. (The only difference between the two candidates, Nader recently said, seems to be "the velocity with which their knees hit the floor when the corporations knock.")

As fed up as we are with mediocre Democratic candidates, we can't agree with that strategy this year. Nor can we endorse the other third-party contenders: perennial candidate Pat Buchanan, who brings his conservative agenda to the ballot via the Reform Party, or Libertarian Harry Brown, who's running on a strict small-government platform. We endorse Vice President Al Gore.It may not seem that Gore vs. Bush is much of a choice, but the consequences of electing one over the other are dramatic.

First, and most important, there's the Supreme Court. The next president could appoint as many as three justices, who serve for life, to the nation's highest judicial body. Bush would likely keep his word about nominating "strict constructionists" (read: Constitutional fundamentalists, judicial conservatives like Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas). With conservatives currently holding a slim 5-4 majority, that's bad news for anyone who supports a woman's right to choose, a homosexual's right to equal employment access, or protection against discrimination for racial minorities. If Gore is elected, it's a good bet that he would appoint moderate to liberal justices who would offset the anti-civil rights voting of Thomas and Scalia. And keep in mind that the judicial influence of the next president doesn't stop at the Supreme Court. The chief executive is responsible for filling all the federal judges' seats nationwide. Thus, under Gore, we could expect at least moderate progressive gains nationally, while a Bush victory would practically guarantee a regressive social climate for a generation.

If Bush wins, it's also likely that Republicans would control both houses of Congress. There would be little resistance to Bush's "compassionate conservative" reforms: Public-school funds would dwindle; Social Security would become privatized; our ability to effectively address significant national problems--the environment, poverty, health care--would be undermined by massive tax cuts.

Nor would a Bush administration have much tolerance for policies aimed at protecting minorities: He's opposed to hate-crimes legislation, thinks that the Justice Department has been "overaggressive" in its pursuit of police-brutality investigations and is adamantly opposed to same-sex partnership rights.

Gore, on the other hand, is middle-of-the-road. Epitomizing the centrist philosophy of the Democratic Leadership Council, he advocates for middle-income families and supports the death penalty. His environmental and labor records are lukewarm at best, and the notion of Gore as the spokesperson for campaign finance reform is laughable. But he will, in the right context, talk about social-justice issues like gay rights and hate-crimes legislation. And he supports some policies--the patients' bill of rights, insuring poor children and their working parents--that have a vaguely leftist ring. It's even possible that Gore could be swayed--by a Democratically controlled House, for instance--to come out more strongly on progressive issues.

The fact remains that voting for Gore is a compromise. But it's also a vote for the big picture--for an administration under which a national progressive agenda has the best chance of surviving. This is not, unfortunately, an election that will allow for significant progressive advancement. But the stakes are high, Ralph Nader will not win, and a protest vote is a luxury we can't afford.

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