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Message in a Ballot 

State employees took aim at a senate race in Orange County this election, but their real targets were in Raleigh.

POLITICS Before posing for a picture with Republican state senate hopeful Bill Boyd at a political forum in Chapel Hill last week, Mike Hawkins jokingly took a half-step backwards. "I don't think I've ever had my picture taken with a Republican before," quipped Hawkins, a longtime UNC-Chapel Hill employee and active member of the State Employees Association of North Carolina.

The association, long considered a reliable backer of Democratic candidates, surprised even many political insiders this year by endorsing Boyd over his powerful Democratic rival in the 16th District--veteran incumbent Sen. Howard Lee of Chapel Hill. Among those most taken aback by the endorsement was Boyd. The Randolph County real estate broker, former GOP state House member and member of the Christian Coalition says he neither sought nor expected the employee group's nod--though he welcomed it all the same.

Lee, a former Chapel Hill mayor, was also "flabbergasted" by SEANC's choice not to endorse him in the four-way race, given what he described as his long record of support for state employees. The state workers' association did back Lee's Senate colleague, Ellie Kinnaird (D-Carrboro). Pre-election visitors to SEANC's Web site were treated to the jarring sight of the liberal Orange County lawmaker's picture posted alongside the more conservative Boyd's under the banner of officially endorsed candidates.

At press time, the Senate race in the 16th District covering Orange, Chatham, Moore and parts of Randolph and Lee counties hadn't been decided yet. While state employees were doubtful that their endorsement of Boyd would sway the outcome of the election, they were certain it would send a message to Democratic leaders in the General Assembly about the dangers of taking state workers for granted. The decision to back a GOP nominee may have been unusual, association members say, but it should have come as no surprise to anyone who's been paying attention to the problems facing state workers.

"This [endorsement] isn't something that's just come up this year or is about just one issue," says Hawkins, who is a member of SEANC's political endorsement team. "This is really about a power structure in the Senate led by people like Howard Lee and [Senate President] Marc Basnight that hasn't been responsive to our concerns."

At last week's candidate's forum at UNC, those concerns were barely addressed. But key among them are state employee pay-and-benefits packages that haven't kept pace with national averages and are too often afterthoughts in the legislative budget process. Although the General Assembly passed a plan to grant regular salary increases to state employees back in 1993, it has yet to provide full funding. Turnover rates have climbed to 14 percent in state jobs as more workers are lured to higher-paying positions in the private sector. The N.C. Budget and Tax Center reports that state and local government employees in North Carolina earn almost 14 percent less than their national counterparts. In 16 of the state's 100 counties, state employee salaries are too low to meet the basic needs of a family of three. The wage gap in Chatham County was nearly $9,000 a year.

The decision not to endorse Lee goes back to the closing days of this year's legislative session, when the Senate leadership rejected a House budget proposal giving state employees 6.5 percent salary increases in favor of the 3 percent hike called for in Gov. Jim Hunt's spending plan. Although a final budget agreement granted state workers raises of 4.2 percent, the Senate's negotiating position of sticking to the lower figure--a position publicly criticized by some Republican members --infuriated leaders of the state employees association. In August, SEANC's political action committee voted to target two incumbent senators who failed to back the House budget proposal and whose districts include large numbers of state workers: Lee and Sen. John Kerr (D-Goldsboro).

State employee dissatisfaction with Lee can also be traced to his sponsorship of a 1998 special budget provision that granted UNC Hospitals greater "management flexibility"--including freedom from State Personnel Act protections covering pay and grievance procedures. Lobbying by state employees and faculty members convinced the legislature to bar the hospital from lowering wages for workers with more than two years on the job--a category covering about half of those in the system. Still, SEANC leaders say the new rules have meant hospital employees in some categories received salary increases that were just over half the size of pay hikes given to other state workers this year.

Media coverage of the election endorsements credited Dana Cope, SEANC's outspoken new director, with fostering the group's rising political militancy. But many association members are quick to point out that frustrations with the legislative status quo have been simmering for years.

"One of the criteria used to hire Dana Cope was his willingness to take a more aggressive role, and that includes taking on the Senate leadership," says Kay Hovious, a UNC Law School administrator and a member of the SEANC district that represents hospital and university workers in Chapel Hill. "Our local Democrats would have the electorate believe that what's happened is all a Dana Cope decision. But this isn't the first time we've targeted races or talked about not endorsing Howard [Lee]."

It's also not the first time that many loyal Democratic state employees have cast protest votes for Republicans. "I voted for Teena Little in 1996 because I was so unhappy with Howard Lee," says Steve Hutton, an association member who works at UNC's School of Public Health. Little, a Southern Pines Republican, had won Lee's seat four years earlier, but lost to him by a slim margin of just over 1 percent in 1996.

Years of watching Democratic lawmakers ignore the needs of state employees has meant party loyalty doesn't have the same pull, Hutton says. "I feel like the legislature has turned state employees into one-issue voters," he says. "Our strategy is, we have people who are our friends regardless of which party they belong to. We'll support the people who support us regardless of party."

Boyd is not an ideal champion of state workers. While serving in the state House in 1984, he voted against a pay equity study that would have addressed gender discrimination in state pay scales. His party platform calls for larger tax cuts and smaller government. And on the campaign trail, Boyd didn't make any promises to state employees beyond being willing to listen to their concerns--including at last week's 11th-hour candidates forum in Chapel Hill.

But for many who are fed up with the current decision-making process in the legislature--particularly in the Senate--listening was promise enough. SEANC leaders framed the choices in this year's election as a challenge to a system that has turned its back on working families.

"Right now, we have a crisis situation facing state workers," says association director Cope. "If we stay with the same old guard, we will continue to see our benefits and pay erode."

The willingness to take short-term risks for long-term gain is a strategy that other interest groups can relate to, says Chris Fitzsimon, director of the liberal Common Sense Foundation in Raleigh. "I think a lot of traditional Democratic constituencies are fed up with being taken for granted," he says. "It's something the Democratic Party is going to have to face. It's long overdue."

SEANC member Kay Hovious views the situation this way: For state employees, "Democrats in North Carolina really haven't been that different from the Republicans," she says. "So what is there to be afraid of?" EndBlock

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