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Candidates for governor offer voters a distinct choice

by Jordan Green

by Jordan Green jordan@yesweekly.com

While North Carolina voters are flirting with the idea of giving Democrat Barack Obama four more years in the White House, for the first time in more than two decades the electorate is on the verge of sending a Republican to the governor’s mansion.

Republican Pat McCrory, a former mayor of Charlotte, holds a double-digit lead in numerous polls over Democrat Walter Dalton, who currently serves as lieutenant governor.

Dalton continues the legacy of pro-education, probusiness Democratic politics perfected by former Gov. Jim Hunt.

“The right policies can lift lives,” he is fond of saying. As a state senator, Dalton promoted early-childhood education and the state’s community college system, and has established an extensive network of allies within the party over the years.

But North Carolina Democrats have stumbled over the past two years. In 2010, the party lost control of both houses of the General Assembly for the first time in more than a century. Then, earlier this year, Democrat Bev Perdue made history again as the first sitting governor to announce she would not seek re-election.

Voters might be more familiar with McCrory, who served as mayor of Charlotte from 1995 to 2009, and benefits from name recognition earned by running for governor, albeit unsuccessfully, four years ago. He is running as a strong executive with the ability to work with both parties at a time when the state’s political system is undergoing a seismic shift.

“We cannot accept the status quo of leadership in North Carolina,” McCrory told a debate audience earlier this month. “It is going to take an outsider to break up this good-old boy, good-old girl system that has been in control for far too long.”

Should McCrory win, he will almost certainly have the luxury of working with a Republican-dominated legislature. Assuming that he wields the veto pen sparingly against lawmakers in his own party. that will be a significant change from the past two years, when Perdue has vetoed a number of controversial Republican bills.

Social divides

One of the bills halted by a Democratic veto this year would have required voters to show photo ID at the polls. Democrats have argued that the measure would disproportionately affect minorities, seniors, college students and poor people. Republicans have vowed to bring it back for a vote next year.

McCrory said during the candidates’ debate that he supports voter ID.

“If we require ID to get Sudafed, if we require ID to get into the governor’s mansion, if we require an ID to get into the Democratic National Convention when it was held in Charlotte, then an ID I think is good enough for the voting box in North Carolina,” he said.

Dalton riposted, “Sudafed is not a constitutional right.” He added that voter ID is “a solution looking for a problem.”

Having failed so far to gain traction, the Dalton campaign made a desperate tack to change the dynamics of the contest through racial appeals in an internet-only video ad.

The ad opens with Guilford County Commission Chairman Skip Alston, a black Democrat, stating, “Pat McCrory just doesn’t understand the African- American experience in North Carolina.” Then Sen. Floyd McKissick Jr. (D-Durham), speaking in front of a backdrop showing a police dog attacking a Birmingham civil-rights protester, denounces McCrory as “a politician who doesn’t understand why I’m upset about voter ID laws.”

Even if the ad has failed to attract much notice from voters, it has inflamed tensions between the two candidates.

McCrory called the ad “a low point of North Carolina politics” and “inexcusable.”

Dalton struggled to justify the ad during the debate, inexplicably faulting McCrory for failing to distance himself from Mitt Romney, his party’s national standard bearer, for the presidential candidate’s comment that 47 percent of the nation’s population is dependent on entitlements.

“Are you talking about me now or someone else?” McCrory asked. “I’m not even sure who he’s referring to. It’s a sad commentary.”

The North Carolina brand

Dalton and McCrory are both are highly regarded for their experience in economic development.

The two candidates spoke to economic developers, consultants and allied government officials at a conference at the Grandover resort in Greensboro last week.

Dalton told the group that he could be their “cheerleader,” illustrating his offer with a story about how he persuaded the chief financial officer of Lufthansa airlines to open a gate at Charlotte Douglas International Airport. He said he told the CFO how Joe Gibbs, the former Washington Redskins coach, decided to buy into a NASCAR racing team in North Carolina.

“When he left coaching, he had the opportunity to be part of an NFL team or a NASCAR team,” Dalton said. “The reason he picked NASCAR — NFL was great, but he thought it was near its ceiling. He thought NASCAR had great upside potential. I said, ‘That’s North Carolina.’ I said, ‘North Carolina has great upside potential.’ “We’ve always had a great brand here because of what you do,” Dalton told the economic developers. “We’ve been branded as a great place to live and do business.”

McCrory, a business consultant and former Duke Energy executive, followed with a speech heavy on corporate motivation analogies after acknowledging his former boss, Antonio Almeda, who was in the audience.

“Anytime you get comfortable, whether it be during good times or during the tough times, you better be careful because the competition will catch up with you and the competition will exceed you,” he said. “And the fact of the matter is, I think during the last decade or so in North Carolina we’ve gotten a little too comfortable with our excellent brand.”

Surrounding states such as Tennessee, Virginia and South Carolina “have updated their brands, taken very aggressive action to streamline government, become more business friendly” while North Carolina has “rested on our laurels,” he added.

JOB CREATION

McCrory lectured a reporter at the debate that the private sector creates jobs, not government. His prescription for reviving the economy focuses on cutting taxes and regulations.

“We’re hearing from small businesses and mid-sized businesses that certain departments in state government treat the businesses as adversaries as opposed to customers,” the Republican candidate told the audience in Greensboro. “Ladies and gentlemen, we need to have a relationship with our businesses, a personal relationship with our businesses where we say, ‘We’re in this together,’ that we both benefit if we’re on the same team.

“I hear story after story about businesses that get fined for not having a paper-towel dispenser screwed into their bathroom wall,” he continued. “And they get a fine for it, when a week later we might be offering them incentives to stay here. And they’re getting these mixed signals. ‘Do you want us or not? Treat us as a customer, not as an adversary.’” Dalton advocates a buffet of measures to promote economic investment, including tax breaks for businesses that hire unemployed people, competing with neighboring states for federal contracts to repair military vehicles returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, and incentives.

He noted that Dirty Dancing and Last of the Mohicans were filmed in his native Rutherford County.

“It’s not only the immediate impact of the movie coming in and creating jobs, but it’s the reverberating impact over the years,” Dalton said. “This weekend someone will want to know: Where did Johnny jump off the stage and where did he lift Jennifer Grey out of the water? It’s a great thing for tourism.”

FRACKING

Dalton disparaged his McCrory’s enthusiasm for fracking, a method of extracting natural gas through blasting a mixture of water, sand and chemicals into the ground, during his presentation to the economic developers. But he has said that he disagreed with Gov. Perdue’s recent veto of a bill to create a set of regulatory guidelines to proceed with fracking.

One out of every five students going into our high schools right now are not graduating, and 65 percent of those who are graduating who go into our community colleges right now need remedial reading.”

Pat McCrory

“My opponent’s job plan is very vague, not specific and, if anything, relies almost solely on fracking and offshore oil,” Dalton said. “I said I’d vote for that. Economic reports will cause you to question whether that economy through the free market will ever come, but if it does come, fine. That’s six to eight years out. We need jobs now.”

McCrory riposted, “I have stated many times… that we need to get into the energy business. And the critics for the last 10 years have been saying: ‘If we get into the energy business it’s going to take five to 10 years for any results. We’ve been saying that for 15 years…. Guess what? Had we gotten into the energy business 15 years ago we’d be feeling the positive results.”

McCrory added that he plans to work with Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina and Gov. Bob McDonnell of Virginia to create a regional coalition to initiate offshore oil exploration, with an agreement to share any potential revenues among the three states.

TAXES

McCrory has pledged that reducing the corporate income tax and the personal income tax rates “will be a top priority” in his administration.

“Right now we have a tax rate in North Carolina that’s — today a publication came out that listed us as one of the Top 10 worst tax states in the United States of America, primarily because we rely so much on the income tax and the corporate tax,” McCrory said last week. “This is not competing anymore, not just with our neighbors, but with states throughout the United States.”

Dalton made an argument to the economic developers that echoes President Obama’s charge against Gov. Romney.

“My opponent espouses an approach that by his admission will be regressive,” Dalton said. “When he talks about his approach and what he wants to do, some of those things will sound good to you — totally removing any corporate tax, reducing the personal income tax. That may sound good, but when you say, ‘Well, how do you make up the money?’ he says, ‘Well, I’ll do it with consumption taxes.’ And they said, ‘Well aren’t those regressive?’ And he said, ‘Yes, but we need to do it.’ Those are generally taxes, tax on service. And it will unduly punish the middle class, our senior citizens and working families.”

McCrory had already denied Dalton’s charge a week earlier during the debate.

“There’s only one person up here proposing new taxes,” he said at the time, “and that’s the lieutenant governor and Gov. Perdue, when just three or four months ago they were recommending a 15-percent sales tax increase.”

EDUCATION

Both candidates say they are passionate about education. McCrory earned a teaching certificate from Catawba College, but changed career tracks to become an executive at a major utility before rising in Charlotte municipal politics. Dalton helped create the early-college program as a member of the NC Senate a decade ago, and his wife has served on the Rutherford County School Board.

McCrory highlights a set of negatives to assail the condition of an education system that Democratic governors and lawmakers have largely shaped over the past several decades.

“One out of every five students going into our high schools right now are not graduating,” he said. “And 65 percent of those who are graduating who go into our community colleges right now need remedial reading. This is after they graduate from high school…. This is a broken system.”

Dalton highlighted his role in creating the early-college program in his remarks to the economic developers “The dropout rate is essentially zero,” he said. “It’s a five-year collaboration between a public school and a community college or a four-year school.

They enter in the ninth grade, and in five years they have two years of college or a technical degree, depending on how you structure. It ups the rigor, it accelerates the learning. It saves parents money, it saves the state money and prepares kids for the 21st century jobs.”

Dalton said he wants to expand on the early-college model to make further progress in reducing the dropout rate. McCrory, meanwhile, is promoting vocational education as an alternative that could help match students with jobs.

“I’ve recommended in our high school curriculum that we have a vocational track as much as a fouryear college track,” he said. “I think there’s been a kind of elitism in our education system which says, ‘Oh, if you’re going to be successful you have to follow one track.’ I think there’s several tracks of success with people who can fix things, repair things or build things…. I want to give those people that opportunity, and sell that as a recruitment tool, that if you move a company, whether we have a Boeing or anything else, or GE, we’re going to find an employment force for you immediately.”

Dalton said he favors restoring a 17-percent cut imposed on the state university system two years ago, and also wants to restore a 20-percent cut to Smart Start and More at Four, two early-childhood education programs.

“Smart Start and More at Four is so, so important,” he said. “And [McCrory] supported those 20 percent cuts to that budget. That was held unconstitutional, and the legislature still did not come back and fix it…. My education plan, which we announced today, replenishes Smart Start, and expands early-childhood education. That’s how you get children ready to read as early as possible. And that’s how you build a better economy.”

McCrory declined to make a commitment to restore funding for the programs.

“It’s not a matter of needing new money,” he said. “It’s a matter of using the resources we have to get the results and teach more effectively.”

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