Bowles over Dole | News Feature | Indy Week
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Both are emblematic of the role money, not leadership, plays in politics. But Bowles is better on the issues, and his election is critical for Democratic control of the Senate.

Bowles over Dole 

Both are emblematic of the role money, not leadership, plays in politics. But Bowles is better on the issues, and his election is critical for Democratic control of the Senate

It's a little funny to hear Elizabeth Dole say, as she did at a campaign stop in Raleigh this summer: "Heaven knows, we've all been overburdened by taxes." The way she said it--parenthentically, in the course of an attack on estate taxes--it seemed like she was thinking about herself. Dole, who is 66, and her husband, former Kansas Sen. Bob Dole, are together worth between $6.3 million and $20 million, according to the required campaign disclosure. But perhaps she was discouraged about how little that is compared to her opponent, Erskine Bowles, whose family is worth somewhere between $32 million and $67 milllion.

Dole, the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, likes to cite a statistic that the average North Carolina family pays 32 percent of its income in taxes. That this number is too much is, to her, a point so obvious as to require no elaboration. It justifies in her mind cutting everyone's taxes, rich and poor alike, and eliminating taxes on all estates no matter how large.

Is 32 percent too much for schools, universities, roads, railroads, police, prisons, courts, parks, Social Security and everything else our taxes pay for? That includes, of course, the $400-billion-a year military machine that makes a war on Iraq--enthusiastically backed by both Dole and Bowles--possible.

Bowles supports more federal spending in a variety of areas, including Medicare, transportation and education. He complains that the combination of a bad economy, the war on terrorism and Bush administration tax cuts have wiped out projected budget surpluses and replaced them with $2 trillion of projected deficits, undermining our ability to afford Social Security.

But Bowles neither calls for a tax increase nor even repeal of the Bush tax cuts slated to take effect over the rest of the decade for the wealthiest taxpayers. "If forced to choose" between paying for a tax cut for the richest 1 percent, those with incomes over $1 million a year, or paying for a comprehensive prescription drug benefit for senior citizens on Medicare, he'd choose the latter, is all Bowles will say. And, he usually adds, "I'm a fiscal conservative."

Thus, North Carolina's next senator will be a wealthy conservative who either thinks taxes on rich people are clearly too much or else needs to think about that a bit. It will also either be someone who broke bread with Enron CEO Ken Lay in Houston nine days after 9/11--Lay hosted a fundraiser for Dole, who interrrupted a "suspension" in her campaign to be there--or else an investment banker, Bowles, whose work with a Wall Street firm has him on the defensive about his business tactics.

But, it still matters who wins. That's why the Independent endorses Erskine Bowles. With the Senate currently divided 50-49 in favor of the Democrats, who are joined by Independent Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont, every seat counts. If Dole's victory helps the Republicans regain control, it means Sen. Trent Lott, R-Mississippi, will once again be the Senate Majority Leader, and the GOP will chair every Senate committee. Moreover, the House would almost certainly remain Republican, meaning both houses of Congress and the White House would be securely in the GOP's conservative grip.

That's the main reason for progressive voters to get with Bowles. He may be almost as conservative as Dole at heart, but as a Democrat he'll be pulled to the left, while Dole promises to fit right in where Helms was on the Republican right. Over the course of the campaign, this has shown up on eight key issues:

(1) Social Security. Bowles, although he doesn't express it this way, recognizes that this is a social welfare program, in which current tax dollars are used to pay guaranteed benefits to retirees. The Social Security trust fund is in "surplus" on paper, in that current FICA taxes exceed benefit payouts, but the surplus is really a fiction given that the rest of the federal budget is back in deficit. Dole supports partial privatization--that is, letting younger workers stop paying a portion of their FICA taxes and instead invest in accounts of their own. She acknowledges that the "transition cost" to the federal budget would be $1 trillion, yet says she would never cut benefits or raise the FICA rates. Bowles calls that what it is: A bad plan that would undermine Social Security.

(2) Taxes. Dole's for eliminating the estate tax entirely, regardless of how much money's in the dearly beloved's accounts. Bowles says he could support exempting all small businesses and family farms up to a value of $5 million or maybe even more. But he wouldn't let billionaires off the hook. And, as noted above, while he's not exactly a populist on the Bush administration's income tax cuts for the rich, he does say that under current conditions tax rates on incomes over 1 percent should be "frozen," not cut. Dole is for making these cuts--which have yet to go into effect--"permanent." Another bad idea.

(3) Trade. They're both free-traders at the core. But Dole supports letting the president make "fast-track" trade deals--in other words, Congress cannot amend them--despite the absence of economic development and job-training aid that would cushion the blow that deals like NAFTA deliver to working-class communities. Bowles, who backed fast-track under Clinton, has changed his mind for that reason, he says. Better.

(4) Medicare. Bowles supports a comprehensive prescription-drug benefit for senior citizens along with bulk-buying rules to limit the pricetag. He acknowledges his plan would cost more--a lot more--than the Dole/Republican alternative, which would require high co-payments and deductibles and, thus, favor the well-to-do over the needy.

(5) Family and Medical Leave Act. What Bowles thought of it when it was enacted decade ago, who knows? But Dole opposed it then as a loyal Bush Administration official and continued to fight it even into her own presidential campaign eight years later. She now says it's a proven program--but her visceral opposition to it underscores her belief in free-market forces of the worst kind: If something's right, but your boss won't spring for it, tough.

(6) Abortion rights. Bowles is pro-choice. Dole isn't. She says she will support womens health initiatives in underdeveloped countries even if they involve birth control, but of course her party won't.

(7) Tobacco. Both candidates say they'll fight for a federal buyout of tobacco quota-holders and farmers, which would be a windfall for a lot of armchair farmers. But Bowles has the wit to realize that the likely price for a buyout, if it's possible at all, is a cigarette tax increase. He doesn't rule such a thing out. Dole does--in a no-tax-increase-ever pledge.

(8) Finally, and to repeat, Bowles will vote with the Democrats, Dole with the Republicans. Over the next six years, it's expected that Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Associate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor will retire and perhaps others on the High Court, too. Moreover, the party that controls the Senate Judiciary Commitee controls the flow of appointments to the lower federal courts and can serve as a check on the president. Democrats this year, for example, blocked two unacceptable Bush nominees to appeals courts: Charles Pickering and Patricia Owen. When the Republicans ran the Senate, they blocked a slew of mostly moderate Clinton nominees.

The "war on terrorism," with its threats to civil liberties, is a reminder of how important the federal courts are--and another reason to vote for Bowles.

Ironically, the Republican candidate is the one with a long career of public service, while the Democrat, though he shot to the top in the Clinton White House as chief of staff, was a career banker until this year.

Dole's resume is better-known. Raised by well-off parents in Salisbury, she was an honor student at Duke and Harvard Law School at a time, in the '60s, when women lawyers were still relatively scarce. She caught on in the Johnson Administration as an aide in the then-new Office of Consumer Affairs, stayed there into the Nixon Administration and, at 36, married Bob Dole, who was 49 and soon to be President Ford's '76 vice-presidential nominee. Along the way, Elizabeth Dole changed parties and became a Republican.

After consumer affairs, she was on the Federal Trade Commission, worked in the Reagan White House, and from 1983-87 was President Reagan's transportation secretary. She later served as President George Bush's labor secretary for two years. In 1991, she resigned to become president of the American Red Cross.

For all this time, Dole was considered a moderate Republican, mainly because she led federal agencies that were outside the target range of movement conservatives. Her most noteworthy achievement in government was the requirement that passenger cars have mounted, rear-center lights. As labor secretary, she got "low grades" from the Washington Post, but then what Republican Administration does anything for labor?

At the Red Cross, she was considered a prodigious fundraiser, but was criticized for her handling of blood-bank problems that started before she came and continued through her tenure.

It was as a campaigner for her husband, though, that Dole won fame. At the '96 Republican National Convention, Dole strolled out from behind the podium to tell the TV audience personally, Oprah-style, about the virtues of her husband, the presidential nominee. It was boffo politics, which made her own bomb-out as a presidential candidate in 2000 all the more surprising. The national press was unanimous: Dole was great with a script and lots of rehearsal, but as Roll Call columnist Stuart Rothenberg said, she was "a high-maintenance candidate ... and often seemed uncomfortable answering reporters' questions."

She's continued in that vein in 2002, carefully controlling what she'll talk about and what she won't. When reporters ask about something not on her agenda, she simply leaves, accompanied by a retinue of aides. She's avoided any sort of free-flowing, town-hall discussion, wouldn't debate her primary opponents and was willing to debate Bowles just twice. Why risk it? She started far ahead in the polls and, after the inevitable narrowing of her lead, is still ahead by somewhere between 4 points (Bowles' poll) and 10.

Dole has moved carefully to the right since returning to her home state. As a presidential candidate, she favored some gun-control measures, including a ban on concealed-carry. Back home, she says she's changed her mind and is pro-Second Amendment all the way. As a presidential candidate, she urged Republicans to get off the anti-abortion issue and focus on women's health. Back home, she's for an anti-abortion constitutional amendment.

Bowles grew up in Greensboro, the son of Hargrove "Skipper" Bowles, a wealthy businessman who was the losing Democratic nominee for governor in 1972. He graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill and Columbia Business School, where he met his wife, Crandall Close Bowles, heir to and now CEO of Springs Industries, a textile giant.

In Charlotte, Bowles started an investment banking firm that eventually grew to have 80 employees. He left it to join the Clinton adminstration as head of the Small Business Administration, then moved to the White House where, during President Clinton's second term, he was chief of staff. He's credited with holding things together during the Monica Lewinsky nightmare and with negotiating the deal with congressional Republicans that resulted in a balanced budget.

After leaving the White House, Bowles went to work for Forstmann, Little & Co., one of Wall Street's best-known venture capital firms. FLC's specialty is buyouts--taking over companies in trouble and raising the capital to turn them around. During Bowles' time there, however, FLC--using money raised from the Connecticut state pension system, among other sources--invested heavily in telecommunications firms whose values have since dropped like stones. Connecticult is suing, charging that FLC covered itself at the expense of outside investors like the pension system by illegally changing the way liabilities were allocated among the investment partners.

The experience, in short, has not covered Bowles with glory, and while it's not clear that he's guilty of anything other than investing in a sector of the economy that later tanked, it has undercut his ability to present himself as a business guru who knows how to bring jobs to North Carolina.

Still, jobs, jobs, jobs is Bowles' platform. He promises to fight for more economic aid and job training funds for hard-hit rural areas of the state if elected.

Also in the Senate race is Libertarian Sean Haugh.

Stop and think what has been missing from this campaign. Neither candidate has been able to address the scandals arising from Enron, Tyco, WorldCom and collapsing confidence in Wall Street. Neither has attacked the bloated salaries and stock options of the super-rich or the growing gap between them and working-class Americans. Neither has championed political reforms--how could they while spending, so far, a reported $12 million (Dole) and $10 million (Bowles) on their own campaigns?

Nor has either candidate repudiated the man they hope to succeed, Sen. Jesse Helms, though Bowles and Dole both talk about working "across the aisle" in Congress and about "getting results," something that Helms--except in the negative sense--rarely sought.

It says something about politics in North Carolina--something not so good--that neither Dole nor Bowles is in any way the product of grass-roots politics. But one of them will be our next senator. It needs to be Bowles.

Associate Justice N.C. Supreme Court
Partisanship has been an especially noticeable backdrop in races for the Supreme Court. Earlier this year, the court's 5-2 Republican majority upheld a GOP-backed redistricting plan for the legislature.

In the first of two seats open on the high court, incumbent Democrat

G.K. Butterfield is battling what insiders say is a close race against Republican Edward Thomas Brady. If Butterfield loses, the court loses its only African-American member, and a judge who's won widespread praise for intelligence and integrity. It "gains" a conservative Republican activist, whom legal sources say lacks the impartiality and experience needed for the state's highest court.

Butterfield was a dissenting "no" in the Republican redistricting case. He wrote the majority opinion in State v. Ward in 2001, setting aside a death sentence where the prosecutor overstepped his bounds. A supporter of campaign finance reform, Butterfield's taken in a smaller percentage of contributions from attorneys than his opponent (53 percent for Butterfield versus 75 percent for Brady, according to Democracy South).

Brady, a Fayetteville attorney, calls his campaign a "crusade" for conservative Republican values, including banning abortions and easing restrictions on gun ownership. He managed to defeat a qualified primary opponent with an aggressive direct mail drive that touted his membership in the National Rifle Association--among other conservative groups. Although Brady's campaign literature describes him as being "admitted to practice" in courts including the U.S. Supreme Court, U.S. appeals courts, the District of Columbia and the U.S. Court of International Trade, legal insiders have questioned whether he's appeared as an appellate counsel in any of them.

The second Supreme Court contest has many voters in a quandary. The N.C. Academy of Trial Lawyers debated for days and still made no endorsement in the race between Republican incumbent Robert Orr--a longtime veteran of the appellate courts---and Democratic challenger Bob Hunter, an appeals court judge and former state legislator. While both candidates are qualified and have liberal leanings, Orr's eight-year record of sound and thoughtful decision-making on the high court stands as the single best reason to return him to the bench.

Why all the agonizing? The main reason is that Orr, who has a history of strong bipartisan support, stood out in this race by hosting a GOP fundraiser, then losing his temper when he was criticized for doing so. Orr insists he's being punished for the court's majority ruling on redistricting--a decision he backed only part way. But considering that one of the candidates he lauded at the fund-raiser was a party to that suit, the criticism was well-deserved. For many liberal attorneys, failing to admit his mistake was Orr's real ethical breach--one that's hard to ignore in the current partisan climate. So they're going with Hunter.

The problem is, Hunter comes with his own ethical baggage. He earned more than $400,000 over nearly four years as an estate executor after being elected to the appeals court in 1988. While Hunter says he cleared things with the state's Judicial Standards Commission, both the length of time he continued to work the case and the amount he earned have raised eyebrows in the legal community.

When it comes to the day-to-day workings of the state's highest court, it's Orr who will have more influence. He's already proven he can be a moderating force on his Republican colleagues. (Orr helped bring about a unanimous opinion in Lovelace v. City of Shelby, for example, limiting the use of the state's "public duty doctrine," which had been used to shield building inspectors from being sued over the Hamlet chicken factory fire.) And in several important rulings during his tenure, he's been a champion of public education and defendants' rights. In the redistricting case, Orr agreed with the majority that current legislative districts didn't pass muster under the state Constitution or the Voting Right Act. But he also said the majority went too far in imposing a remedy that went beyond those standards.

The bar for not returning a sitting judge to the state's top court needs to be high--higher than the yardstick of partisan payback. Orr has been among the most engaged, fair and thoughtful justices on the bench. Our endorsement comes with the hope that he'll leave the recent discord behind and help move the court's majority in a more progressive direction.

N.C. Court of Appeals
There are five races for open seats on the 15-member court, which hears all appeals from trial except death penalty cases. Of those, the sharpest contrast is between Democrat

Martha Geer and Republican Bill Constangy, who are competing for the Thomas seat. Geer, a well-respected private attorney in Raleigh, supports alternative sentencing, does volunteer work with death row appeals and argues for an end to racial bias in the courts. Given her reputation and experience in employment, constitutional and business fraud cases, legal sources say they wish she were running for a seat on the state Supreme Court. Constangy, a Mecklenburg County district court judge, is an ultra-conservative who's been endorsed by U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms and U.S. Rep Sue Myrick. In 1990, the ACLU sued him for the practice of opening his court with a prayer each day (a recent e-mail from the state GOP urging voters to defeat Geer notes that she was chair of the ACLU's legal committee at the time). The previous year, Constangy ruled that six anti-abortion protesters could use the "defense of necessity" to counter charges that they trespassed at a Planned Parenthood clinic. The case marked the first time a North Carolina judge had allowed the defense argument that a crime was committed to prevent a greater harm.

Incumbent Democrat Loretta Biggs is our pick to retain her seat. A former prosecutor and district court judge, she's one of the few African-American women on the appeals court. Biggs supports public financing of judicial campaigns and other needed reforms such as drug courts, alternative sentencing and service programs. Her Republican opponent, Superior Court judge Sanford Steelman, gets good marks for thoughtfulness and integrity. But he offers no compelling reason why he'd be a better judge than Biggs.

Democratic incumbent Wanda Bryant also deserves to be returned to the bench. Her Republican opponent, Anna Marie Calabria, has a solid reputation as a Wake County district court judge. But she lacks Bryant's expansive record of public service and her reputation as a standup force for positive social change. Another of the court's rare African-American women, Bryant helped desegregate the schools in her Brunswick County hometown. When she worked as an administrator for the state Attorney General's Office, she created and ran the Citizens Rights division, which handles child abuse, hate crimes, environmental abuses and consumer protection cases.

For the Campbell seat, incumbent Democrat Hugh Campbell, a former state legislator and attorney for the Charlotte School Board, is the more impressive candidate. A graduate of Harvard Law School, he's a veteran with 30 years of experience in the field. Campbell has a reputation for being fair and insightful. A supporter of judicial elections reform, he's won the endorsement of the state Academy of Trial Lawyers and the liberal People's Alliance. Republican challenger Eric Levinson's politics are too far to the right. Backers of Levinson, now a district court judge in Charlotte, include the same ultra-conservative celebrities who are supporting Constangy.

Sadly, the most qualified choice for the Walker seat, longtime administrative law Judge Beecher Reynolds Gray, was defeated in the primary. So was another trial judge, Fritz Mercer. Instead, the contest is between two little-known attorneys, Democrat George Barrett of Johnston County and Republican Rick Elmore of Greensboro. Of the two, we'll take Barrett because of his Triangle-area ties and an endorsement from the state Academy of Trial Lawyers. Barrett supports merit selection of judges and believes fair sentencing was more effective than the more proscribed structured sentencing system now in place. As for what he can tell us about other public policy issues that might shed light on his candidacy, Barrett's survey response was, "nothing." Elmore ran for a district court seat in Guilford County in 1992 and served four years on the county elections board. He's running on his 20 years of experience as a civil, criminal and real estate lawyer.

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