In one way, Easley's minimalism has suited the times. He took office in 2001 as a national recession started. State revenues declined, and Easley responded with a combination of budget cuts and support for a sales tax increase already moving in the General Assembly. Progressive legislators managed to improve the package by substituting a small income tax hike on upper-income folks for a portion of the sales tax increase; Easley went along. The result: Education spending has been maintained while human services were reduced. It's almost as if Jim Hunt were still in office, only without the political hoopla.
Easley can fairly claim to be a pro-education governor. He's added money to the budget for pre-school programs and to reduce class sizes in the early grades. He got behind a $3 billion bond issue for higher education facilities that also provided--not incidentally, in a recession--a major economic boost for the construction trades. And his administration has been scandal-free. That's a good thing.
It's a bad thing, however, the way our ex-prosecutor and tough-on-crime governor resists all efforts at systematic reform of capital punishment in North Carolina. Without explaining why, he commuted two prisoners' death sentences on the eve of their executions. But he's sent 15 others to die, including at least one about whose guilt there was some doubt, also without explanation. Nor has he shown mercy in cases of the killer's obvious mental illness or incapacity. It's not a pretty sight the way the death penalty is used--or misused--in our state. But on this subject, and others, Easley's been content to look away.
Easley does have a primary opponent, a fellow from Broadway named Rickey Kipfer, the owner of Perfection Subs, Salads & Pasta. He is for eliminating the state income tax and one or two other things that make similarly little sense.
Every four years, we tune in to the GOP gubernatorial primary in hopes of hearing a candidate--any candidate--say: Our party's too right-wing and out-of-touch with regular working folks, which is why I'm campaigning as a moderate.
We're still waiting.
The six Republican candidates are all proudly conservative. They're all pro-death penalty, anti-abortion rights, anti-gay rights, anti-taxes, anti-everything but being anti-something. Still, we discern small degrees of difference in their politics. Three are stridently conservative: Sen. Fern Shubert of Union County, Davie County Commissioner Dan Barrett and former U.S. Rep. Bill Cobey. The remaining three are more quietly so: former Charlotte Mayor Richard Vinroot, businessman George Little of Southern Pines and our choice, by process of elimination, Senate Minority Leader Patrick Ballantine of Wilmington.
We could make a case for Little, a longtime GOP fundraiser who served three decades ago in Gov. Jim Holshouser's cabinet. Little has the sense to say that while he's not in favor of gay rights, he thinks the pro-gay Log Cabin Republicans should have been sold a table at the recent state GOP convention. And while he's for cutting taxes and spending like all the others, he's less inclined to wild oversimplifications, and he has a strong record of support for community colleges, especially their job-training programs.
But Little, like Shubert and Barrett, has a weak campaign and barely registers in the polls.
Of the leading candidates, Cobey has draped himself in the right-wing raiments of former U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms, whose endorsement he cites as proof that he is the true conservative in the field. We take him at his word and look elsewhere. Vinroot, back when he was a moderate, was a decent mayor in Charlotte. But he got his clock cleaned by the right-wing when he first ran for governor in 1996, losing badly to U.S. Rep. Robin Hayes. Since then, through his losing campaign against Easley four years ago and again this year, Vinroot's been at pains--and literally, he always looks like he's in pain--to show that he's now just as right-wing as the other boys, and Fern. Vinroot's newest loopy idea: Now that the state is finally ending a fiscal year with a little money in the bank (about $200 million, as against an annual budget of $15 billion), Vinroot wants it returned to the taxpayers. It's our money, his ads insist.
Ballantine, frankly, isn't a whole lot better on the issues. But at 39, he is younger, and he's not carrying around the cultural hatreds that come when you've worked for Helms (like Cobey) or been beaten up by his ilk (like Vinroot). He's capable of smiling, emphasizes his optimism, and if that sounds a little too ephemeral to hang your vote on, he's also managed to find a few things that he's not anti- about, and even likes. He is in favor of fully funding the Clean Water Management Trust Program, a major source of environmental improvements in our state. He's for raising teachers' salaries to the national average. He's supported increases for community mental health programs, and even spoken up for campaign finance reforms.
The likely outcome in this race is a runoff between two of the top three candidates. If it's Cobey versus Vinroot, moderate Republicans might as well stay home. We're hoping Ballantine knocks one of them out of it and then offers runoff voters a choice, not a Helms-ian echo.
A heartbeat away from the state's top office, North Carolina's lieutenant governor has little actual power. Still, the position can be an effective bully pulpit for bringing attention to overlooked issues. The primary contest is on the Republican side, as incumbent Democrat Beverly Perdue now has no primary challenger. Two weeks ago, the state Board of Elections concluded that Democrat Curtis Hert Jr., an Army captain based in Georgia, is not eligible to run because federal law bars military personnel from serving in elected offices. While Hert's name will appear on the ballot, votes for him will not be counted. Libertarian Christopher Cole of Newell is also unopposed in the primary.
The Republicans will chose from among three candidates. Timothy Cook, a 35-year-old textile industry chemist from Brown Summit, has run a low-key and somewhat scattered campaign. He's got some attractive and non-traditional ideas about promoting alternate fuels and other environmental programs. But he doesn't have the political experience or backing necessary to take on a statewide office. Lexington-based lawyer Jim Snyder is the ultraconservative in this race. He's endorsed by the likes of former U.S. Senators Lauch Faircloth and Jesse Helms.
The choice of more moderate Republicans, including former Gov. Jim Martin, is Thomas Stith, who's serving his third term on the Durham City Council. Stith, a pro-business stalwart, has garnered attention as one of the few young African Americans in the state GOP. On the Durham council, he consistently sides with development interests, but he's not a hard-core conservative. Stith is intelligent and accessible and in the primary, he's the best GOP choice for this seat.
Three Republicans face off in the primary for Attorney General; the winner will face incumbent Roy Cooper in the fall. Thom Goolsby, a politically ambitious Wilmington lawyer who is considered an up-and-comer in party circles, has chosen the traditional tough-on-crime theme as the focus of his campaign. Goolsby wants violent criminals to serve more of their terms, etc. His platform seems stuck in the 1990s, given that there's not much room for parole under the state's structured sentencing laws, and the state's violent crime stats have been trending downward. As for his pledge to build lots of new, inexpensive prisons, cheap prisons don't exist, and the state can hardly afford the ones already under construction. The AG's office does much more than prosecute criminals, but you wouldn't know from Goolsby's campaign rhetoric.
Former state senator Wendell Sawyer served one term in the 1980s, when he won the N.C. Right To Life endorsement and voted to limit the state abortion fund. Sawyer also wants to beef up the consumer protection division and is not shy about promising to go after white-collar criminals as well as the blue-collar variety.
Attorney Joe Knott served as a federal prosecutor in North Carolina for the Reagan administration. He is known in legal circles as an honest, decent guy, which might give him an advantage against Cooper, who hasn't been aggressive addressing prosecutorial problems in his own office. Knott talks of administering justice fairly, free from political opportunism, and he has the ethical credentials to pull it off. He is also campaigning on the consumer-protection front, an aspect of the AG's work that more directly affects citizens on a day-to-day basis. Concern about Knott centers on his evangelical religious beliefs, about which he makes no secret--some folks are wary that he might blur the chuch-state line on matters such as religion in the schools.
But we believe Knott's impeccable reputation outweighs concerns that his deep religious convictions might influence his actions in office, and he gets our primary endorsement.
Commissioner of Agriculture
Britt Cobb was an excellent choice to replace disgraced felon Meg Scott Phipps as interim ag commissioner. The morale of the department was in the toilet and needed the hand of an experienced, accomplished insider to steady the helm. And Cobb has done just that, disposing of the State Fair mess in short order and otherwise maintaining the course. A department employee for more than 30 years, Cobb toiled effectively in the international marketing program, where he advanced the interests of North Carolina products in the global market. But the agriculture department needs more than a maintenance man, even one as genuine as Cobb. Small family farmers continue to decline in numbers at an alarming rate, and North Carolina is losing its farmland at a fast clip. Cobb offers little to stem those losses, instead focusing on business as usual. Big agribusiness, to be precise.
Cobb's primary opponent, Tom Gilmore, has run a large Piedmont nursery operation for much of his life and can command the respect of the state's powerful ag business interests. Armed with a wealth of creative, detailed ideas to promote crop diversification and sustainable agriculture--ideas that will go farther to preserve family farms than we've seen in decades--Gilmore has both the technical knowledge and political savvy to convert those ideas to policy. His political experience on the board of agriculture and on other state ag agencies and commissions should help him win legislative approval for his agenda, which includes restoring funding cuts to the extension service that have hurt local and regional growers.
Gilmore is our choice because he's the kind of dynamic, hard-working farmer who can shake the department out of its lengthy slumber and advance the interests of all farmers in the state.
Though the judicial elections are the only (allegedly) non-partisan races at the state level, there's another job that demands an even-handed approach in order to best serve the public--state auditor. Facing incumbent Ralph Campbell in November will be one of two Republicans.
Les Merritt, who almost beat Campbell last election, is a former Wake County Commissioner who runs a Raleigh accounting firm. Embracing party doctrine on fiscal matters, he's called for a special legislative session to reduce taxes and wants to explore the prospect of combining state agencies to save money. The auditor has a lot of discretion in deciding which agencies and programs to target for inspection, and it seems obvious from his rhetoric that Merritt would go after those linked with Democrats or those to which Republican leaders were philosophically opposed.
Jasper Albright has worked for 29 years in the state auditor's office. Generally considered a competent and balanced numbers cruncher, Albright says his top priorities would be to free up personnel to conduct more audits, and to conduct those audits properly and fairly. A simple plan, and on the money. The auditor must be an equal opportunity attack dog, and Albright is the only option in that regard.
The odds of beating entrenched incumbent Insurance Commissioner Jim Long may seem as remote as those facing opponents of Jim Graham back in the day, but that's all the more reason to look seriously at the Republican primary.
Robert Brawley runs an insurance agency in Mooresville and is a former long-standing state House member. Brawley has already staked himself out in support of tort reform as a way to deal with a perceived insurance crisis, which may earn him the support of insurers but not consumers or others engaged in the debate. On the plus side, Brawley wants to conduct a thorough internal review of the commissioner's office, which hasn't been done since the Pleistocene era.
We endorse Cindy Huntsberry, a Smithfield attorney with a history of involvement in local party politics. The first woman ever to file for the job, she refuses to take contributions from insurance agents, companies, or anyone regulated by the Insurance Commissioner. Huntsberry wants to orient the office more toward consumers, consistent with her professional track record as an advocate for those at odds with faceless bureaucracies. Her lack of experience in the insurance industry may be an advantage in changing the culture at the department, one of the more hidebound and unresponsive state bureaucracies, and her priorities seem straight.
Commissioner of Labor
Republican incumbent Cherie Berry faces a rare primary challenge from workplace safety consultant Lloyd Funderburk, who describes himself as a "politically balanced Southern Republican conservative." Berry cites the decrease in workplace fatalities and injuries as proof of her good works, but she fails to note that the drop is most likely attributable to the hemorrhage of manufacturing and other higher-risk jobs in the state. Her chief act to date has been to dismantle the ergonomic standards established by her predecessor, and her idea that business can police itself has little historical backbone.
Funderburk wants to establish a Latino/Hispanic affairs division in the department, which is much needed. But he also speaks of looking for workplace safety laws that need "blunting, sharpening or eliminating," which should make workers cringe.
Neither candidate seems especially oriented toward the needs and concerns of labor, nor do they distinguish themselves enough to inspire enthusiasm, and we have no endorsement.
Secretary of State
Democratic incumbent Elaine Marshall has done an excellent job administering her office, which is responsible for maintaining state records, and we heartily endorse her re-election. She doesn't seem to want to use the position as a springboard, unusual for a statewide officeholder, and has been a competent and well-liked administrator. Marshall's efforts to promote disclosure for lobbyists is a most welcome initiative.
Her opponent, Doris Saunders, is an information processing technician with little experience who says she wants to "root out corruption" in the office, though no evidence of malfeasance seems to exist.
Superintendent of Public Instruction
Two candidates for schools superintendent vie in the Republican primary: Former Wake school superintendent Bill Fletcher and Jeanne Smoot, an N.C. State English professor who served in the Reagan and Bush I administrations.
Fletcher showed considerable leadership skills in Wake, navigating the board through such particularly divisive issues as reassignment, and bridged the gap between factions to arrive at results that almost everyone can live with. He's conversant on the most minute details of the department's business (and education policy in general) and has innovative plans to match; whether or not you agree, he seems willing to listen and accommodate opposing views.
Smoot seems fixated on associating herself with Reagan, for whom she managed the federal Office of Academic Programs. She wants to lift the charter school cap, claiming that sufficient safeguards exist to ensure that only top-notch charters are approved. That seems overly simplistic, as does much of her platform.
Fletcher and his ideas may not appeal to the state's more liberal elements, but the depth of his knowledge and proven ability to move forward in the face of adversity earn him an unqualified thumbs-up.
The Democratic primary for schools superintendent is a tough call, as three solid candidates with different strengths but similar values are running to replace incumbent Mike Ward. Each has garnered support from education circles, and each has plans to improve North Carolina's educational infrastructure (though some are more developed than others).
June Atkinson is the inside candidate, a Department of Public Instruction employee for 30 years, most recently as the director of instructional services. Atkinson's top priorities are increasing teacher pay, reducing the dropout rate and revamping high schools to better prepare students for the workplace.
Marshall Stewart has been the state agricultural education coordinator since 1996 and has numerous national and regional education-related board memberships to his credit. Stewart believes that a successful education system balances the interests and needs of teachers and school staff as well as parents and students, though his plans for achieving this balance are vague.
J.B. Buxton served as Gov. Mike Easley's senior education advisor before stepping down to run for superintendent. Buxton has a comprehensive grasp of the issues and has articulated strategies to deal with such critical problem areas as infrastructure needs, revenue generation and the achievement gap. His proposal for "earned flexibility" that gives successful school systems more discretion in spending state funds and allows for a greater focus on underachieving schools makes a lot of sense. Perhaps most importantly, his success in convincing legislators, the state board of education and others to adopt Easley's policies will be invaluable in making the department more of a player.
Buxton has emerged as the Democratic establishment candidate, and while this may normally be cause for unease, his proactive vision and experience in navigating the decision-making process give him the nod
U.S. House of Representatives
The three Triangle House seats are held by Democrats Bob Etheridge, David Price and Brad Miller, all of whom are unopposed for renomination. There are Republican primaries in all three districts.
In District 2 (Etheridge), which contains part of southern Wake County including a smidgen of Raleigh, and otherwise swings around in an arc from Chatham County through Lee, Harnett, Johnston and Nash all the way to Franklin County, we recommend eight-term state House Rep. Billy Creech of Clayton. He's a nice guy, albeit conservative to his NASCAR-loving bones. Bob Rogan, his opponent, was a candidate last year for Raleigh City Council, just after moving to town, and put no effort into it. He's repeating his performance here.
In District 4 (Price), we can't recommend anybody. Todd Batchelor, a Navy vet who sells to the correctional industry for former Fuquay-Varina Mayor Bob Barker's company, has a nice smile and lots of signs. He thinks invading Iraq was a great idea (the good news in Iraq is under-reported, he says), wants to make the Bush tax cuts permanent, and would stop TTA commuter rail if he could. He's the leading contender. Bob Whitfield of Hillsborough, a lawyer, talks up his work for the conservative students who are so put upon by campus liberals. Landscape contractor James Powers of Cary has no political experience and thinks too many criminals are getting off on technicalities. Howard Mason, a Cary retail business owner, once ran for Congress in Ohio. He wants to abolish the IRS and the income tax (but replace it with a national sales tax) and all other taxes on investments and savings.
In District 13 (Miller), the choice is between Graham Boyd of Raleigh, the executive vice president of the N.C. Tobacco Growers Association who lost the primary for this seat two years ago, and Virginia Johnson, a Duke-Wake Law grad from Reidsville who's worked as a Republican congressional staffer for the last eight years. Their views are similarly conservative. Both claim endorsements from Jesse Helms. Johnson has the additional burden of Rep. Russell Capps' support, but then Boyd is the one who wants to abolish the federal Department of Education. We can't recommend anyone in this race, either.
Court of Appeals
The argument against a merit selection system for judges, which works well in other states and would be vastly preferable to the current election system in North Carolina, is that politics can interfere with the process. Unfortunately, Mike Easley bolstered that argument when he appointed Asheville attorney Alan Thornburg to fill a vacant Court of Appeals seat last February. Thornburg, fewer than eight years out of law school and with almost no appellate experience, was given the seat over a passel of more qualified lawyers and judges. We can only assume that the appointment was a political favor based on Thornburg's familial connection--his dad is former Supreme Court Judge Lacy Thornburg, a Democratic Party stalwart. That said, the younger Thornburg has done a decent job since his appointment, and those who have conversed with him find him philosophically balanced and appropriately moderate in his views.
One of his opponents, Marvin Schiller, appears to be a far stronger candidate on paper. As an attorney he has shown great skill and knowledge of the law in winning several high-profile cases against the state, and he has extensive experience in the appeals court, having litigated more than 90 cases there. Not afraid to go against the grain on matters of principle, Schiller believes that judges should have more flexibility in sentencing than current law allows. Even his advocates, however, worry about a trait Schiller has consistently shown in the courtroom and other public appearances, what they generally describe as an arrogance that tends toward the extreme. This might prove problematic on the appeals court, where winning others over to one's side is a far better result than having numerous dissents that resolve nothing.
Two other candidates for the appeals court seat are not as strong. Marcus Williams is a Robeson County public defender who ran a lackluster campaign in a previous district court race and, while the most liberal in his thinking, is not considered an especially accomplished legal scholar by his peers. Barbara Jackson is currently legal counsel for the Department of Labor under Cherie Berry and has not inspired confidence in her independence and ability to lead while at the agency.
While Schiller's weakness might prove a deciding negative if all else were equal, all else is not equal. He's easily the most accomplished of the candidates, and if merit is to have any meaning, whether in an appointed or elected framework, Marvin Schiller is the clear choice. It's quite possible that Thornburg and he will meet again in November, so it will be worth monitoring Schiller's demeanor to gauge how seriously he takes the concerns others have expressed about him.
Statewide voting guide
On July 20, North Carolina voters will go to the polls to select candidates for governor, council of state offices, state courts and candidates for U.S. Senate and Congress. (For information on state House and Senate races, go to the county voting boxes on the following pages). For information on where to vote, call the state Board of Elections at 733-7173 or visit www.sboe.state.nc.us. Below are The Independents endorsements in contested races. Not listed are candidates without opposition in the primary. In judicial races where there are only two candidates on the ballot, both proceed to the general election and we do not make primary endorsements.
Governor: Mike Easley, D; Patrick J. Ballantine, R
Lieutenant Governor: Thomas Stith, R
Secretary of State: Elaine F. Marshall, D
Attorney General: Joe Knott, R
State Auditor: Jasper N. Albright, R
Commissioner of Agriculture: Tom Gilmore, D
Commissioner of Insurance: Cindy C. Huntsberry, R
Commissioner of Labor: No endorsement
Superintendent of Public Instruction: Bill Fletcher, R; J.B. Buxton, D
U.S. Senate: No endorsement
U.S. Congress 2: Billy J. Creech, R
U.S. Congress 4: No endorsement
U.S. Congress 13: No endorsement
Court of Appeals Judge (Thornburg): Marvin Schiller