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Dems for Lt. Gov. struggle to differentiate themselves

by Amy Kingsley

Hampton Dellinger’s campaign volunteers arrived early at Salem College’s Shirley Recital Hall on Feb. 7 – the night of the debate between Democratic candidates for lieutenant governor – and raced down the rows, balancing single sheets of paper on every armrest.

On the back of each sheet, Dellinger had printed a list of policy differences between himself and NC Sen. Walter Dalton on issues like abortion, death penalty reform, air pollution, taxes and education.

Dellinger and Dalton both raised more than $750,000 for their campaigns last year and are widely considered frontrunners in the race. Dan Besse, a Winston-Salem city councilman, and Pat Smathers, the mayor of Canton, are underdogs with about $100,000 each in their campaign coffers.

Dellinger, the more progressive of the two money leaders, has already targeted Dalton almost exclusively in his attacks, an attempt to turn the four-man scrum into a two-man race. Which might have worked in Winston-Salem – if Dalton had shown up.

The senator was hung up in the eastern part of the state, his spokeswoman said, and skipped the Salem College event. Which left Dellinger, Besse and Smathers to spar about the meaning of experience and the provenance of all that campaign loot. Without Dalton on stage, the candidates didn’t really have much to disagree about.

In his absence, Besse and Smathers turned on Dellinger. Besse landed the first blow in response to a question about public campaign financing.

“It’s very tough to run a statewide campaign,” he said. “I know Hampton wouldn’t want to raise half his money from out of state if he didn’t have to. We need public financing and we need it as soon as possible.”

Dellinger, who received several donations from lawyers in California and New York, got 30 extra seconds from moderator Jerry Meek, chairman of the NC Democratic Party, to respond.

“I’ve raised a lot of money from people in North Carolina,” Dellinger said. “And I also have friends from across the nation and I’m proud to have their support.”

He followed up with an accusation that Besse, who just announced his endorsement by the Conservation Political Action Committee, had used the PAC’s e-mail list to solicit contributions. Meek granted Besse 30 seconds to respond.

“To the best of my knowledge,” Besse said, “I haven’t used any e-mail list. The Conservation Council is one of my most important clients, and I get a lot of support from folks who support the same things I do.”

Smathers got in another dig at Dellinger on a question about experience. Dellinger has never held elective office, although he did serve as legal counsel to Gov. Mike Easley.

“Being on staff doesn’t cut it,” Smathers said. “Sorry Hampton, you’ve never been elected.”

It took almost an hour for the debate to turn combative. Before that, the candidates offered their opinions on mental health privatization, the role of the lieutenant governor and tobacco taxes.

All of them agreed that the state needed to dedicate more money to community-based mental health services. None wanted to decrease the amount of tobacco taxes and all wanted to raise teacher salaries.

In a second round of questions submitted by audience members, the three candidates agreed on the need for some sort of domestic partnership for gays and lesbians. All three support a moratorium on the death penalty.

In response to a question about decreasing the high school drop-out rate for African-American boys, a few policy differences emerged. Dellinger supports raising the legal drop-out age to 18 – an issue the other candidates dismissed as unimportant.

Besse got in a few licks at the absent senator. He criticized him for taking donations from a political action committee affiliated with Duke Energy and for his votes in support of two new coal-powered units at Cliffside. Dellinger also chimed in.

“We have a candidate who’s not here who has taken different positions over the years,” Dellinger said. “I’ve not talked about Mr. Dalton’s donors, I’ve talked about his positions.”

Besse, who said his fundraising improved after he picked up an endorsement from the Progressive Democrats in December, said the presidential race could affect the dynamic of his campaign. If the Democratic presidential nominee is still undecided by the time North Carolina’s May 6 primary happens, turnout would be much higher than normal for the primaries. And the media clamor from campaigns for higher offices like governor, US senator and president would be louder.

“We have to find ways of getting our message out using volunteers,” he said. “The top-of-the-ballot races need multiple millions to penetrate through all the broadcast noise. There are four candidates here and none have even one million in the bank. And one million disappears in that kind of race really quickly.”

To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at amy@yesweekly.com.

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