In seven weeks, North Carolina voters may have the chance to help choose the next occupant of the White House—for the first time in two decades.
That same day, candidates for statewide offices from the governor on down to the legislature and the council of state will appear on ballots next to the names of hopefuls for local school boards, county commissions and other posts such as sheriff and register of deeds.
Time to tune in.
With presidential politicking making its way toward North Carolina, we're seeing fresh variations on the art of negative campaigning from Hillary Clinton as she tries to overtake Barack Obama for the Democratic nomination. Reporters who dialed in for the Clinton spinners' conference call last week were treated to a perfectly executed, double-twisting lunge at Obama by Howard Wolfson, her chief spokesman, and veteran Clinton supporter Ann Lewis.
Here's how it's done. Clinton's been ridiculing Obama's readiness to be "commander-in-chief and steward of the economy" if elected. She's experienced, he's given a speech, she says. (John McCain, are you taking notes?) So now Obama questions why the Clintons haven't released their income tax returns. Aha! Wolfson and Lewis exclaim. When confronted (they charge) with questions about his "state of preparedness," Obama responds with "personal attacks" right out of the Ken Starr playbook. It's "negative" tactics, Lewis cries—and this from the candidate who purports to be a practitioner of "new politics."
Thus, the double-twist: Your side keeps slashing away, but it's your opponent who's guilty of negative campaigning because he doesn't respond to your attacks.
Interestingly, Wolfson didn't include North Carolina on his list of states that look good for Clinton. Kentucky, West Virginia, Indiana and Pennsylvania made that list, along with Puerto Rico. Florida and Michigan, too, if they can get do-over votes there, he said.
Last week in Raleigh was Round 4 in the series of six debates among the Democratic candidates for lieutenant governor, with no clear winner. Or was there?
You might give the edge to Canton Mayor Pat Smathers for being, as a Wake Democratic candidate for another office said toward the end, the most "down to earth" of the four, and the one with the clearest message. Smathers is a proponent of local empowerment—the idea that the General Assembly shouldn't control local governments. State Sen. Walter Dalton, D-Rutherford, received good marks for sounding "senatorial." A lot of "we did this" and "we did that"—the "we" being the state Senate specifically, and the state Democratic leadership in general, during Dalton's 11 years in the legislature. Dan Besse, the Winston-Salem council member and environmental activist, offered the strongest policy statements, but too often wrapped them in such complexity that they weren't well understood.
The fourth candidate, Durham attorney Hampton Dellinger, a former top aide to Gov. Mike Easley, was a little over the top, as a trio of listeners all concluded, with his sweeping promises designed to—as one said—"effectively pander to every interest group."
Still, Dellinger and Dalton gave the most eloquent responses to questions about education.
"First things first, if you think [education] is the most important state issue," said another Democratic office-seeker in the audience.
Dellinger also seemed to be the only candidate mindful of the fact that, if the Clinton and Obama campaigns do land in North Carolina for the May 6 primary, the presidential race will turn out large numbers of Democratic voters hot to elect the first female or African-American president, but who know next to nothing about the down-ballot candidates for state offices.
Thus, Dellinger spoke out for affirmative action and bridging the health care gaps for women and minorities. He touted his volunteer efforts for the NAACP and mentioned the fact that Branford Marsalis played at one of his fundraisers, and that distinguished African-American historian John Hope Franklin endorsed him at another. He also ripped the Bush administration's "needless war in Iraq" and its anti-choice Supreme Court appointments.
Issues in the lieutenant governor's race? No. Pandering? Sure. Talking to Democratic voters about their issues? That, too.
When state Sen. Kay Hagan, D-Guilford, brought her candidacy for the U.S. Senate Democratic nomination to UNC-Chapel Hill recently, she seemed determined not to say anything that could later be construed as liberal by Republican incumbent Elizabeth Dole.
Hagan has four Democratic primary opponents, the most formidable of whom is Chapel Hill investment banker Jim Neal. One student asked Hagan if she were conceding the progressive vote to Neal. No, Hagan answered, not at all. But none of her answers claimed any of it either.
On subjects from immigration to intelligence-gathering, Hagan hit the conservative notes squarely. "I'm not for amnesty," she declared on immigration; on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, she said the telephone companies were "pretty much promised" immunity, and she wasn't inclined to cross the Bush administration over it.
The only progressive chord she struck was a promise of college education funding. She dodged a question about gay marriage, saying she opposes workplace discrimination. She called Duke Energy's proposed coal-burning plant "almost a moot issue" while saying the state's utility companies are "great." She's a "fiscal conservative" and proud that North Carolina is "the most business-friendly state" for innovative companies.
Hagan also talked up North Carolina as the nation's "most military-friendly state" and ticked off a list of her family's military service. She's against any move by Congress to cut off funding for combat troops in Iraq. She's for "accountability" in Iraq, she said, while avoiding any antiwar language.
Asked whether she supported or opposed the invasion of Iraq, Hagan said, "I can't answer that ... I was in the state Senate [in 2002]; we don't take a position on that." Told that Obama was in the Illinois state Senate in 2002 when he spoke against the invasion, Hagan seemed puzzled, at first saying Obama was in the U.S. Senate at the time, then shrugging when corrected. Obama was, however, contemplating a run for U.S. Senate—like what Hagan's doing now.
Neal, for the record, calls himself a "Bob Rubin" Democrat, after the fiscally conservative Wall Streeter who was U.S. Treasury Secretary in the Clinton administration. But Neal has said that if he were in the Senate, he would vote against defense spending bills to force Bush to end the Iraq war.
Opponents of the land-transfer tax have mobilized in Orange County, where the May 6 ballot includes a referendum on the measure. Citizens for a Better Orange County, a self-described "group of concerned citizens and business leaders," has formed a "referendum committee," which differs from a political action committee in one key way: A PAC can accept no more than $4,000 from any one contributor; for referendum committees, the sky's the limit.
No word yet on where the money's coming from. As of Feb. 20, when the group registered with the county elections board, it reported it had neither raised nor spent money—despite the subsequent appearance, a couple weeks later, of a glossy mailer (in Orange mailboxes) and large ads (in daily newspapers). The mailer features photos of three families posed in front of homes, with a simulated front-page headline from The News & Observer, "Many Believe U.S. Already in Recession." "Now is DEFINITELY not the time to adopt a Real Estate Transfer Tax," the accompanying text reads.
Three-quarter-page print ads have appeared in The Chapel Hill News and the Orange County-zoned edition of The N&O; the newspaper would not disclose their cost.
The group files its next financial report on April 28, which includes disclosing donors, eight days before the election.
The group's Web site (noorangehometax.org) links to a similar site set up by the N.C. Association of Realtors, which, with the state homebuilders' PAC, led the successful defeat of the tax in 16 jurisdictions in November.
"We hope to raise funds from a fairly broad, grassroots coalition of individuals and organizations who oppose the imposition of another sales tax on property," says spokesman and Chapel Hill real estate agent Mark Zimmerman.
Zimmerman frames the issue as one of affordable housing. He says opposition to the referendum spans not just the Board of Realtors and Chamber of Commerce, but also affordable housing advocates.
"This tax is a flat-fee sales tax," Zimmerman says. "It just happens to be on houses rather than on goods. As such, it's regressive. It hits people who have lower incomes and have more affordable houses harder than it does wealthier people."
County Commissioner Barry Jacobs agrees that affordable housing is a serious concern, "but with the homebuilders and realtors, it's a Trojan horse," he says. "They're not really concerned about affordable housing or they'd build more of it."
Orange County Commissioners put the transfer tax on the ballot after hiring a pollster to gauge public opinion. The poll showed only one-third of voters in support.
Hillsborough resident Michael K. Griffin filed a petition last week asking the county elections board to investigate whether the $10,000 poll amounted to using public funds for political advocacy, an election violation.
While local governments fought last year to persuade the legislature to allow them to put the tax on the ballot to help pay for roads, schools and other expensive infrastructure, those same governments are barred from advocating for it.
In fact, there are no groups organized to fight for the transfer tax referendum—only against.
Six of the 11 candidates in the races for insurance commissioner, state auditor and superintendent of public instruction have pledged to participate in the first year of a program that provides public financing for campaigns for those three Council of State races, according to N.C. Voters for Clean Elections, a nonprofit that advocates for public financing. Eleven of the 16 candidates for the N.C. Court of Appeals and Supreme Court plan to enroll in the judicial public financing program, which is in its third election cycle.
"It's a good sign that candidates view it as a real alternative, whether they are Democrat, Republican, women, men, black, white, challengers, incumbents," says Bob Hall, director of Democracy N.C., a money-in-politics watchdog group. "They're all jumping in and more will likely sign up."
Unlike the judicial program, which draws funding from lawyers' fees and a voluntary check-off on tax returns, the Council of State program gets money from the General Fund.
Supreme Court and Court of Appeals candidates must raise at least $33,000 from at least 350 registered voters during the primary cycle and win the primary to be eligible for at least $137,000 in public money during the general election. Council of State candidates must raise $30,000 from 750 registered voters to be eligible for at least $300,000 in public money.
"I think it's a wonderful way for regular people, such as myself, to be able to compete with multimillionaires, or folks who have access to multimillionaires," says Eddie Davis, a challenger for superintendent of public instruction and president of the N.C. Association of Educators.
"I'm also very interested in this experiment with the three seats—the superintendent, the insurance commissioner and the auditor—and if this goes well, it may lead to other positions in state government being financed the very same way," Davis says. "If that happens, it will be a much more even playing field for the citizens of North Carolina."