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State Sen. Eric Reeves defends a progressive legacy against Paul Coble and the Helms gang

Listening to Eric Reeves talk about his re-election campaign against Paul Coble, what comes to mind is a wrestler--a wrestler not predisposed to anger, who's even a little soft-hearted when he's not in the ring. When Coble, the former Raleigh mayor, announced he'd be the Republican candidate for Reeves' state Senate seat, "I offered him an olive branch," Reeves says. He told the newspaper he was "a decent, hard-working guy," although wrong on the issues.

And how did Coble respond? He said Reeves and the rest of the Senate Democrats "make Tony Soprano look like a choir boy."

Well, Reeves was a wrestler, notwithstanding his slight build and mild manner--undefeated state champion in Texas his senior year in high school. Come to think of it, Coble wrestled, too.

So get ready for The Rumble in Raleigh.

Even as he's saying he likes Coble personally--has "a good joking relationship with him"--it's like Reeves is setting his mind to the job ahead, banging his hands on the headgear as wrestlers do when they step onto the mat. He'll "feather in some comparisons" with Coble, he says. Bang. He won't be as "asinine as Paul," won't call him "the worst polluter on the Neuse River"--referring to the mess Coble left behind at the Raleigh wastewater treatment plant. Bang. Bang. It's like he's remembering all the reasons Coble needs to go d-o-w-n.

He remembers the old wars with Coble when they were on the Raleigh City Council together. Both were elected in '93; Reeves, a pro-neighborhoods member, Coble, pro-developers. They locked horns over, among other things, slumlords. Reeves tried to require that every apartment in Raleigh have at least one heated room. Coble called that over-regulation.

But that's not the half of it.

This is about family, too. And history. And the future of the Triangle.

Bang.

The family feud
Paul Coble, a 49-year-old insurance broker, is Jesse Helms' nephew and cut from the same cloth: Anti-government, anti-taxes, known for his biting tongue. Reeves, a 39-year-old lawyer, is Robert Morgan's son-in-law, and they're kindred spirits: Soft-spoken, rural beginnings, populist Democrats who think government can lift up people in need--and should.

Morgan was in the U.S. Senate with Helms in the '70s. But in the 1980 election, the Helms machine, then at the height of its political powers, ousted Morgan in a mud-slinging campaign and installed in his place an unknown right-winger named John East.

Reeves got a measure of revenge last year when he helped Charles Meeker unseat Coble as mayor after a single term. Meeker announced his candidacy at Reeves' house.

Still, Morgan's heir was denied full redemption: Reeves hoped to take on Helms himself in this year's U.S. Senate election, but ol' Jess' health failed him and--with Helms out of the picture--the logic of Reeves' challenge collapsed. Against Elizabeth Dole, big-time Dems like former Gov. Jim Hunt and the party leadership in Washington wanted a more experienced, more conservative standard-bearer. Enter Erskine Bowles. Exit air from Reeve's "trial balloon," his rueful term for it now.

But events--and the Helms empire--soon intervened to bring us a Helms-Morgan showdown anyway. In a twist of fate worthy of a Leon Uris novel, Republicans on the state Supreme Court seized control of the legislative reapportionment process--the redrawing of legislative districts following the census. The upshot for Reeves: His old Senate district was torn apart, and he wound up in a new one where Coble's better known than he is.

N.C. Chief Justice I. Beverly Lake Jr. wrote the majority opinion for the court--the 5-2 opinion, five Republican justices against two Democratic dissenters--striking down the districts drawn by the Democrats in the General Assembly. That's the same Lake who, in '99, was Coble's choice to swear him in as mayor. The same Lake whose father, I. Beverly Sr., ran for governor as a Democrat in 1960 as a segregationist, losing the primary to Terry Sanford. Who managed Lake's campaign? Robert Morgan.

You can't make this stuff up.

From 1960 on, North Carolina politics forks. Morgan moves left, becomes a Terry Sanford progressive, and now champions the cause of campaign reforms as chair of the N.C. Center for Voter Education. The Lakes and Helms take their hard-right politics to the Republican party, where it remains the dominant force, especially in the person of Wake County GOP legislators like Russell Capps, Rick Eddins and Sam Ellis.

Which is the real reason to care about this race, whether you live in the Reeves-Coble district or not. (And for the record, it's the 16th Senate district, including West Raleigh, the northern parts of Cary and Apex and Morrisville.) This is the only Senate or House election in the Triangle that's a true swing seat, and its outcome will go a long way to determining whether Wake County's Senate delegation--and the Triangle's--speaks with a progressive voice or a conservative one.

The difference will show up most clearly on growth issues. Reeves is a smart-growth advocate and a supporter of public transportation in the Triangle. Coble famously called smart-growth "a baby that should be killed in the crib," and resisted every effort by other Triangle leaders to get Raleigh involved in regional growth-management and transportation planning.

Reeves is an advocate for the mentally ill and physically disabled. Not Coble.

Moreover, with state Sen. Brad Miller, D-Wake, trying for a U.S. House seat and Orange County down to just one progressive senator after the Republican apportionment pitted Sens. Ellie Kinnaird and Howard Lee against one another in a primary (Kinnaird winning), what used to be a strong Triangle delegation of six--with Durham Sens. Wib Gulley and Jeanne Lucas--could soon be a faint memory.

If Coble wins, the Wake Senate delegation will almost certainly consist of three Republicans and Democrat Vernon Malone, now a bland Wake County commissioner. The reason for that is the crafty way the trial judge in the reapportionment case drew up the Wake districts after getting the go-ahead from Lake's Supreme Court.

The judge, Knox Jenkins, packed Democratic voters into a majority-black district based in Southeast Raleigh where Malone, who is black, is running without GOP opposition. By making one district overwhelmingly Democratic, Jenkins was able to carve out two safe Republican districts, one based in North Raleigh where incumbent Sen. John Carrington is running (he now lists his address as Wakefield Plantation, not Cary), and the other in Southwest Wake where Republican Richard Stevens, the former county manager, has no Democratic opponent.

And still--in a county split almost down the middle between Republicans and Democrats--there were enough GOP voters left for Jenkins to make Reeves' new district a tossup. Jenkins, who before he went on the bench was a political crony of, yes, Jesse Helms.

Elsewhere in the Triangle, the Senate and House districts are one-sidedly Democratic or Republican. Barring an unforseen landslide for one party or the other, you can pretty much tell the winners in advance by looking at the voter registration numbers.

Across the state, in fact, the election analysts who follow this kind of thing predict that, with the new apportionment plan, control of both the Senate and the House will turn on a handful of swing districts. Democrats now control the Senate, 35-15, and the House, 62-58. The GOP is out to win both.

So party money is flowing on both sides to the close ones, with the result that Reeves v. Coble is expected to be a $1 million-plus campaign before it's over--at least $500,000 on each side.

For Coble, the money comes on top of the $1.5 million spent on his two mayoral races over the past three years, a big reason he's so much better known than Reeves. Another reason is, he's easy to understand: He believes in free markets and opposes most government spending unless it's for cops or schools. (Coble did not return our phone calls or questionnaire.)

Reeves, on the other hand, isn't well-known at all. Partly that's because he lost so many voters from his old district--fully 70 percent of the new 16th is virgin territory for him. He worked hard to make friends and understand the issues in Southeast Raleigh--the young white guy representing black neighborhoods. That won't help now. Now, he's working the suburbs of Cary and Apex.

But it isn't just the change of scenery that explains Reeves' relative anonymity. It's also his personality and his views, which are not so easily categorized as Coble's. And it's the politics of the Senate. too. The Democratic caucus is tightly controlled by their leader, Senate President Marc Basnight, and a conservative, rural bloc. Reeves isn't one of them. But he doesn't break ranks, either. The result: He isn't quoted as a Senate leader, nor is he quoted as a dissident. He just keeps working, taking the long view, trying to change things--and minds--a little at a time. It's what he believes in: "You can't climb a mountain quickly," he likes to say. But he also says, as he describes his role in the Capitol: "How lonely is that?"

So who is Eric Reeves again?

Not a loud critic
Reeves is a slow, deliberate talker, a Western style straight out of his Texas-Oklahoma childhood. His parents are wealthy, and the fact that he lives on the best street in Hayes-Barton, with his wife, Mary, and their 8-year-old daughter Elizabeth, shows it. But otherwise, he's unassuming in every way. He makes friends easily. He has no apparent enemies. In the Senate, he'll tell you plainly where he disagrees with Basnight and the caucus. But he's not a vociferous critic--he's not Kinnaird, for example--and in fact will jump to the defense of his party's record when it's attacked.

Hearing Coble, Reeves says, reminds him of his high school prom. One group--his group--did all the work, picked the theme, put up the decorations, painted the sets. They'd have been happy to let others help. No one else showed up. So they did the best they could do. But on the big night, when they were dog-tired, in came the critics. "And it's, 'The colors are all wrong, we hate this theme,' which is pretty much what politics are like today."

This year's "short" session of the General Assembly, which dragged on into October, didn't make the Democrats look too good. Messy theme. Colors all wrong. The budget the Democrats finally adopted is not really balanced--Gov. Easley was told to "find" other cuts after the elections. But given the political fractures in the legislature, it was the best they could do. All the while, Reeves says, the Republicans watched from the sidelines and jeered.

Reeves is sharply critical of the way the Democrats' budget shortchanges social services. He criticized Easley when the governor first sent up a plan slashing funds for programs that serve the mentally ill, the mentally retarded and those with physical disabilities--many of whom are also poor. "We should build a wall around them, along with education," when budget cuts are needed, Reeves says. But his Senate colleagues disagreed, opting to protect education but not the disabled as they struggled to avoid a tax hike.

The House did better, forcing Easley and the Senate to pare back the social services cuts by reaching deeper into the highway trust fund, but Reeves still thinks the state's priorities are out of whack. "Taking care of people who cannot take care of themselves should be the first thing we do," he says.

But if the Democrats looked bad, Reeves says, it's only because they reflected "the consensus that's out there"--and political reality. School funding has public support, he says. The university system is a source of state pride. Over the last two decades, environmental programs have gained popularity as folks in the mountains and on the coast have seen their tourism industries threatened by pollution. Democrats built support for all three, he says, fighting off the Republican tax-cutters who threatened them.

Reeves calls it "spectacular" that the Democrats increased funding for the community colleges this year, allowing thousands more of the unemployed to seek retraining. And even with the budget crunch, they fully funded the Clean Water Management Act, which pays for land acquisitions around threatened water supplies.

But the reality is, rural Democrats have never been committed to progressive taxation, so it's always regressive methods like the sales tax that they look to when revenues are short, he says. And the party has never been committed to the disabled, either, though a few members are--which, in a closely divided House, makes the budget process look especially messy when the Republicans sit it out.

In the Senate, he says, "decisions were made." Not fully to his liking. But decisively. Should he denounce them? Be more aggressive? His answer: No. "I needed 26 votes in the Senate to protect disabled people. I couldn't find 'em. "Now, I could be upset about it, but is it productive for me to be upset? It is, but only if I don't let it get to me and don't quit. And I'm not gonna quit. It just takes time."

Patience is Reeves' watchword. He's "not shrill," he says. He is tenancious. "If you want stability, someone working on meat-and-potatoes issues," he begins--then shifts gears. Voters should look at his base of support. The Sierra Club endorses him. State employees endorse him, despite the lousy treatment they've gotten in the state budget. Republicans like James Goodnight, chairman of SAS Corp., and Jim and Barbara Goodmon of Raleigh (and Capital Broadcasting, which owns WRAL), contribute to his campaigns. "I'm working on the issues, I'm an advocate, and the people who are engaged see that."

Tenacity made him a wrestling champion--at 126 pounds. It's not something he talks a lot about. But in making the point that the Democrats' support for steady, year-by-year increases in school funding are "generational investments" whose payoff won't be evident for some years, and thinking some more about the criticism that he isn't--as he puts it--"flashy," he fixes on his own situation as a kid. He was small. He was picked on. "And I set out to change that," he says.

Four years of losing followed, but by eighth grade he was a top middle-school wrestler, and by his senior year in high school, an undefeated state champ.

His family's wealth, too, didn't come overnight but over many years. His father and mother grew up in poor families in rural Oklahoma. They went to Oklahoma State, after which his dad went into the Army and then took a job with an unknown fellow in Dallas named Ross Perot. His mother, meanwhile, taught kindergarten for 20 years in Dallas. Perot invented the modern start-up, Reeves says. He paid low salaries but lots of "paper"--stock options. When Stuart Reeves joined on, Electronic Data Systems had fewer than 30 employees. When he retired, EDS had 120,000 and Stuart Reeves was No. 3, the chief operating officer.

How rich does that make them? It's the one subject on which Eric Reeves shakes his head. He won't discuss his parents' finances or his own, except to say that he's "obviously very fortunate" but grew up in a very middle-class household.

He traces his own bent for public service to his grandmother, who had a job in one of the first Head Start programs in Guthrie, Okla. Visiting there in the summers, he played with the kids in the room, and he saw just how big the gap was between his Dallas neighborhood and the rural poor of Oklahoma. He also saw how far his own family had come in a single generation helped by public schools, the public university and New Deal programs that pulled Oklahoma and the nation out of the Depression.

A progressive legislator in most ways, Reeves surprised some folks by actively supporting an end-of-the-session package of economic development incentives--or corporate welfare, take your choice--that seemed to spring up overnight out of the Senate Democratic caucus.

The package--including a broad waiver of taxes for employers creating new jobs--whipped through the Senate but stalled in the House, where progressive Democrats and conservative Republicans teamed up to block most of it, arguing that it was too costly in light of the ongoing budget shortfall. Out went $45 million for a new biotechnology research program based at N.C. State University, plus another $10 million for the community colleges to train biotech workers, along with $130 million for a new UNC-Chapel Hill Cancer Center--all financed by bonds.

"It was one of the most disappointing things I've ever seen," Reeves says. "I cannot believe that the House could be so close-minded about the future building blocks of this state. I mean, in a tough time, we have to recognize how you get out of the trough. You don't get out by wallowing in it."

And the Senate didn't just spring it on an unsuspecting public, he insists. In "Vision 2030," the N.C. Board of Science and Technology spelled out the needs almost two years ago, and the technology committees of the Senate and House have worked on the legislation with Easley's Commerce Department from the start of the governor's term. Reeves has the report on his shelf. He chairs the Senate committee.

Reeves likens the need for targeted public spending in support of the state's biotech companies--like GlaxoSmithKline--to the state's investment that put the Research Triangle Park in place 50 years ago. Back then, he says, the state was at a crossroads, needing to move from an agricultural to an industrial economy. Spending on RTP and education helped us avoid "being like Mississippi."

Now, we're at another crossroads, Reeves believes. Manufacturing jobs in textiles, furniture and--lately--telecommunications are slipping out of the country. And the state's edge in emerging fields like pharmaceuticals and biotechnology, fueled by small investments in programs like the N.C. Biotechnology Center in RTP over the last two decades, could slip away as states like Pennsylvania, Ohio and, closer to home, South Carolina, step up their public spending.

"It's not good enough just to do what we've always done," he argues. "We need to realize that the best way to get out of the hole is to put people to work ... which means figuring out how we can participate with business to create jobs."

And what about taxes?

Assuming the Coble campaign has read this far, Reeves doesn't say raise them, although during the session he joined other metro legislators in "entertaining" a cigarette tax increase, a notion the rural Democrats rejected. What he says now: Some things are taxed too much, some too little. The state's tax structure is based on an economy that is fast-disappearing, Reeves says, and isn't keeping pace with the needs of the state. Should services--the fastest-growing part of the economy (and least footloose) be taxed? "We need to put everything on the table and update the tax code," Reeves answers. "Otherwise, we're going to continue to be mired in problems and eventually become another Mississippi."

It's a cautious response, in part because of the political moment but also because Reeves isn't given to simple answers. Asked about Easley "stealing" revenues that were supposed to be passed on to county and local governments, Reeves called that "a terrible word," and went on to note that the genesis of revenue-sharing was the Depression, when local governments were bankrupt and the state stepped in. Today, the Raleighs and Carys of the state have bulging reserve funds--they benefit from growth but pay no school costs--and they're contemplating "needs" like a $40 million complex for amateur baseball.

It's another example of how the tax structure needs updating, he says. Reeves and Sen. Dan Clodfelter, a Charlotte Democrat, put forward a plan last year under which the state would have assumed the counties' share of Medicaid costs while dropping some reimbursements. It would have helped urban counties like Mecklenburg, Wake and Durham. It went nowhere in the rural-dominated legislature.

But they'll keep trying, Reeves says. The next General Assembly will better reflect the fact that the state is now more metropolitan that rural, he says. But the fact is, under reapportionment, it's rural Democrats who are the biggest losers, rural Republicans among the winners. So for the metro areas like Charlotte, the Triad and the Triangle to make progress, metro Democrats and Republicans will have to band together to form majorities.

That hasn't happened yet, and won't if the Republicans who represent the metro area come--like Coble does--from the Helms wing of the party. But Reeves hopes for coalitions with Republicans like Richard Stevens, "who know better." He'll be working for that--and if we're patient, he says, it will happen.

Remember the slumlords? Coble was in the council majority then, along with Mayor Tom Fetzer, his close friend. Together, they blocked Reeves' initiative over two terms. When Reeves was elected to the Senate, he introduced a bill to force Raleigh to have heat in apartments. It passed the Senate, but Republicans still had a majority in the House and they defeated it. The first time.

Two years later, Reeves was back again, and by now enough Republicans were embarrassed about fighting for a stupid cause that "the consensus" was out there. So the bill became law. With enough tenacity, it was just a matter of time. Bang. Bang. EndBlock

  • State Sen. Eric Reeves defends a progressive legacy against Paul Coble and the Helms gan

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