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Primary 2008

by the YES! staff

For the first time since 1976, the North Carolina primary actually means something, and not just in this horse race for a Democratic presidential nominee, either. Lots of state and local elections are on the slate this time around, and the primary contests will determine not only who goes to the big dance in November, but will dictate the tenor of the whole general election. Plus, there are those pesky Guilford County bond issues to contend with.

Democratic presidential nomination: Barack Obama

It’s a great year for the Democrats, no matter what the chattering right will have you believe: two great candidates – a woman and a man of color, running not exactly neck and neck but close enough to make North Carolina a real player in terms of amassing delegates before the national convention in August. Voter registration going through the roof. Political celebrities barnstorming the Old North State – interesting because NC generally swings left in our state government but right in matters presidential.

After eight miserable years of George Bush, could North Carolina become a swing state in 2008?

Maybe, maybe not. Either way, we’re pulling for Sen. Barack Obama. We’re the media, right? So of course we’re in the tank for this guy. But we like to think it’s not because we’re supposed to; we actually think he’s a great candidate.

Let us count the ways.

Let’s start off with the fact that he was against the Iraq war from the beginning, unlike most of the other lemmings in Congress on both side of the ledger. The fact that, at the time the vote was taken, Obama was a state senator from Illinois and that his opinion, again at the time, was worth absolutely nothing. Some of us here in the YES! Weekly offices, enraged in the days after 9-11, were on the side of the saber rattlers but changed our minds after the fallacy of WMDs was revealed. Obama was not fooled, and we like the idea of someone smarter than we are as president.

And he is a smart one, with all the same Ivy League creds as the rest of the professional ruling class: Columbia, Harvard Law, president of Harvard Law Review, magna cum laude. Obama was no legacy either. After his undergraduate work he spent serious time as a community organizer in some of Chicago’s toughest neighborhoods. And instead of cashing in his Harvard law degree for serious dough, he spent 10 years fighting discrimination and defending voters’ rights.

Planks in his presidential platform include strengthening unions, ending the war, wresting control of the government from lobbyists and special interests, transparency and affordable health care for all.

It should be said that his positions are nearly indistinguishable from Sen. Hillary Clinton’s; the biggest difference is probably in their healthcare plans, which take different roads to the same end. And Clinton’s health care plan is probably the better of the two, considering she’s been thinking about the problem for 15 years.

We are not among those who have a visceral dislike for Clinton, but we feel a great need for new blood in the White House.

Obama is as new as it gets: an inspiring man who has tapped into a groundswell of popularity, one who was raised abroad and is of mixed race, who shows real distaste for politics as usual and has the determination, brains and persuasive powers to get it done.

Fact is, we need Barack Obama in the White House come 2009. The country, while not exactly in shambles, is facing economic, environmental and political disaster after eight years of George Bush, and the ship must be righted. It also bears mentioning that our international reputation has suffered under President Bush, with much of the world seeing us as a bunch of fat, ignorant warmongers who care more about the Super Bowl than conditions in Darfur.

Naming a brown fella with a name like Barack Hussein Obama to out highest elected office would do much to bolster our international image.

Republican gubernatorial nomination: Pat McCrory

Seven-term Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory may be the future of the Republican Party in North Carolina. He’s been a tireless promoter of his city and a persuasive ambassador when it comes to enticing companies to relocate there. He calls for reducing income taxes, and for pursuing aggressive law enforcement initiatives against street gangs and undocumented immigrants – two groups he sees as a threat to the state’s economic advancement.

All good where adherents to the GOP philosophy are concerned.

Where McCrory’s politics go beyond the party’s stock positions of unfettered private enterprise coupled with law and order is his unapologetic advocacy for mass transit. McCrory properly takes credit for “implementing the most aggressive mass transit system in North Carolina history” with the opening of the CATS light-rail system in Charlotte and Mecklenburg County last year. McCrory shows with this project – the largest mass transit system between Washington, DC and Atlanta – that quality planning can attract capital and accelerate commerce – a lesson some stodgy Democrats still stuck in the automobile paradigm could benefit from.

As an alternative weekly, we’ll go with a dynamic, urbanist governor. Cities are incubators of talent and fulcrums of commercial and creative energy. Notwithstanding the famous Mecklenburg curse, we’d love to see McCrory bring some of the Charlotte’s mojo to the state as a whole. It’s doesn’t hurt that he’s a native of Jamestown and a graduate of Ragsdale High School, but it’s the sorry state of sprawling land development and piecemeal regional transit in the Triad that makes us welcome McCrory’s leadership.

You won’t see Pat McCrory, a longtime employee of Duke Energy, take any bold positions on alternative energy, but he doesn’t apologize to business leaders for regulations to protect water supply.

McCrory’s positions and his rhetoric on immigration are troubling, but in this respect he almost certainly represents the will of both his party’s base and the independents whose votes will be needed to defeat the Democratic nominee in November.

McCrory opposes the current policy of allowing the children of undocumented immigrants access to our state’s community college system. While his position is wrongheaded, it’s right in line with the two leading candidates for the Democratic nomination. Like all the Republican candidates, he wants to expand the federal 287(g) program, which puts local sheriff’s offices in the business of enforcing the nation’s immigration laws. McCrory would go one step further than his Republican rivals, and lobby the federal government to build special courts and detention centers in North Carolina to hold undocumented immigrants and process them for deportation.

Considering geography, logistics and political climate, Burlington would probably get one. While such a plan would pay some bills around the house, the prospect of profiting from the misery of broken families gives us no great joy. In any case, it’s a great political ploy, and the Democrats shouldn’t relish a fight with McCrory should he become the nominee.

We flirted with the idea of throwing our endorsement to Bob Orr. The former state Supreme Court justice is an impressive jurist, and his tenacious opposition to corporate incentives at the helm of the NC Institute for Constitutional Law helped shift public sentiment against the ludicrous policy of throwing public money at corporations that play states, counties and municipalities against each other to enhance their profits. We also applaud him for his dissent against the court’s 1998 decision to block workers injured in the tragic Hamlet chicken processing plant fire from seeking damages from state inspectors who failed to inspect the premises.

We love a maverick and a contrarian. Our state needs more Burkean conservatives who focus as much on preventing evil as pursuing good, but they’re probably better suited to filing lawsuits from nonprofits than steering the ship of state. The Republican Party deserves a doer like Pat McCrory.

Democratic gubernatorial nomination: Richard Moore

Both Lt. Gov. Bev Perdue or Treasurer Richard Moore are eminently qualified to lead North Carolina as the state’s next governor, and whichever one survives the primary goes into the general election with the contest to lose given that state politics favor the Democratic Party.

At first blush, the two candidates bear almost equal assets and liabilities. Give them credit for supporting the $1 raise in the minimum wage in 2006, and for pledging to reduce carbon emissions. To their shame, both candidates oppose allowing the children of undocumented immigrants to attend community college – a practice that creates minimal cost for the state and that, done away with, has the potential to create an angry and alienated underclass. Both candidates are also tarnished by some unseemly entanglements in the Randy Parton corporate incentives fiasco in Roanoke Rapids.

It’s in his demonstrated leadership, personal initiative and skillful stewardship that Moore clearly sets himself apart.

Perdue, an inoffensive middle-of-the-road Democrat in the mold of Gov. Mike Easley and Senate President Pro Tem Marc Basnight, proposes the mushy Main Street Solutions initiative, a grab bag of economic development ideas that defers power to regional industrial barons. And Perdue’s NC Military Foundation, which promises to make North Carolina “a national leader in defense/aerospace job creation,” appears to be little more than a marketing campaign whose prospects for luring military aircraft production from well-established locations like north-central Texas and southern California amount to wishful thinking.

And while Perdue defends her support of the $1 raise, Moore took a political risk in January 2006 by going before business and banking leaders to make the case that it was good for not just poor people but for the state as a whole. His proposed economic stimulus package would go further by raising the minimum wage to $8.25 per hour. Further, the plan would cut property taxes for seniors, whose fixed incomes make them vulnerable to home foreclosure, and would float a $1.5 billion transportation bond that would renovate our deteriorating infrastructure and put our citizens to work.

As state treasurer, Moore has proven himself an able steward of the pensions of almost 750,000 state employees, earning North Carolina the distinction of having the second-best public pension system in the United States for two consecutive years by Standard & Poor’s. Beyond coaxing a strong performance from the state’s savings account, Moore has leveraged those funds to pursue important social aims. Nine months before Gov. Easley signed the Sudan (Darfur) Divestment Act, Moore announced that he would withdraw pension funds from investments with companies that provide monetary or military support for the Sudanese government.

Corporate greed and environmental degradation have also landed in the sights of the state treasurer. Last October, Moore called for a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation of Countrywide CEO Angelo Mozilo for unloading stocks just as his subprime mortgage company, with which North Carolina’s pension was invested, began to implode. Similarly, Moore helped found the Climate Watch list, which identifies 10 companies that have lagged behind their peers in addressing global warning and which uses the combined clout of a consortium of state pensions to prod the corporate actors towards social responsibility.

We also applaud Moore for taking the initiative to help North Carolinians shift to more sustainable, equitable and healthy lifestyles with his proposed Farm to School Program that would enable farmers to ship produce to public schools and hospitals within days of harvesting.

Go-long wins out over get-along-to-go along. We support Moore.

Democratic senatorial nomination: Jim Neal

In 2002, voters elected Republican Elizabeth Dole the state’s first female US senator, awarding her the seat vacated by Jesse Helms, the longest serving senator from North Carolina and a symbol of Southern conservatism.

This year, two Democrats are competing to unseat her in the general election. One of them would be the second woman ever elected to the US Senate from the Old North State. The other would be the first openly gay senator to hail from our corner of the Bible Belt. Either one would continue the leftward tilt of a senatorial seat that staunch righty Helms held for 30 years.

While Greensboro’s Kay Hagan has been making the case that the pantsuit representing North Carolina in Washington should be a blue shade of moderate, Jim Neal of Chapel Hill has been barnstorming the state, arguing that he is more qualified to represent the values of North Carolinians.

But are North Carolinians ready to elect Neal?

The answer at YES! Weekly is yes. And here’s why. Neal is the more progressive of the two candidates, particularly in his opposition to granting immunity to telecommunications companies that cooperated with the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping program.

He has been unequivocal about this. Hagan, on the other hand, said she would vote for immunity.

Neal proposed reviving a Depression-era office that would buy out worthless, bundled home loans and renegotiate terms with borrowers. The first time the government did this some 70 years ago, it turned a pretty tidy profit.

Neal’s been cultivating his netroots alongside his grassroots, blogging regularly as he crosses the state in his Escape Hybrid. It’s helped him keep pace with Hagan in the polls, despite his inability to match her in fundraising.

It’s not our job to pick winners, so we won’t dwell on electability. But it is an issue for some folks. Has the state made enough progress in the last six years to elect Neal to Helms’ old seat?

There are plenty of places where it hasn’t. Neal won’t win conservative voters who’ve stuck with the Democratic Party out of political tradition.

His campaign has not been perfect either. Recently Neal has taken to accusing Hagan of dodging debates and strong-arming donors. He’s also padded his endorsements: the blogger known as Betsy Muse has a long post detailing inaccuracies in his claims on BlueNC.com.

Hagan has been a solid representative of Guilford County in the NC Senate. Among her achievements are extending healthcare to children and bringing down the cost of higher education.

We’d like to get a better idea of who Kay Hagan is, but she’s been maddeningly evasive – not returning phone calls or agreeing to interviews. That’s a problem. We want a senator we can communicate with, and so far Hagan has not shown that she’s ready to do that. Combine that with her positions on telecom immunity and funding for the war in Iraq, and the balance tilts toward Neal.

Either one of the candidates faces an uphill battle against Dole, who has 10 times more money on hand than Hagan. If it’s going to be a Democratic year, then it might just be the year that North Carolinians elect a gay man to fill the seat once held by Congress’s more virulent homophobe.

Democratic lieutenant gubernatorial nomination: Dan Besse

Let’s start with the good news: The four Democrats running for lieutenant governor are among the most experienced, accomplished and visionary politicians on this year’s ballot. They are Pat Smathers, the mayor of Canton, who rebuilt a town nearly destroyed by floodwaters; Dan Besse, a public interest attorney and accomplished environmental activist; Hampton Dellinger, a lawyer with a formidable political pedigree; and NC Sen. Walter Dalton, who serves on the state appropriations committee.

Now the bad: The lieutenant governor doesn’t do much; mostly he waits in the wings for the governor to pull an Eliot Spitzer.

That doesn’t mean you should ignore this race. The winner occupies the state’s second highest office, which is often a launching pad for governor.

With that in mind, we extend our endorsement to Winston-Salem City Councilman Dan Besse, a champion of environmental conservation and corporate responsibility with a strong record of regulatory acheivement. During his tenure on the state’s environmental advisory boards, Besse promoted rules that protected wetlands, waterways and clean air. In addition, he pushed for measures that would hold companies accountable for environmental damage inflicted during the course of construction.

Besse is a tree hugger, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t care about the green in your wallet. He fought against a funding mechanism called Construction Work-in-Progress (CWIP) that allowed energy companies to fund new construction by raising utility rates, which can lead to expensive power and an excess of nuclear and coal-fired plants.

During Besse’s tenure on the Winston-Salem City Council, he’s extended greenways and protected stream buffers to keep water safe. His record speaks for itself, and to the organizations that have already endorsed him – the Sierra Club, Conservation Council and Progressive Democrats of North Carolina.

Because the field of Democratic candidates is so strong, we’re not going to spend much time pointing out their weaknesses. Dellinger, whose father served as solicitor general in the Clinton White House, has impressed us with his energy on the campaign trail and interest in issues like senior care that aren’t high on the popular agenda. Like Besse, Dellinger leans toward the liberal end of the Democratic spectrum and earned kind words – but not the endorsement – from the Progressive Dems.

Dellinger is running neck and neck with Dalton in the money race, a contest in which Besse is lagging behind. It’s hard to say how that’s going to affect the campaign. None of the candidates have enough money to launch a full-scale advertising campaign, and television commercials would likely get drowned out by the din of the presidential race. This is a contest that’ll be won in direct mailers and local party meetings.

A word about Dalton, the money leader and putative frontrunner. Of the four candidates, his environmental record is, on balance, the weakest. He touts successes raising teacher salaries, but has taken knocks for his coziness with big energy and conservative statements he’s made about gay marriage and abortion.

Smathers has done a lot for his community and his presence in the race has illuminated power inequities among the different levels of government. Perhaps his run has primed him for a position in the state’s emergency response commission. We’d hate to see him – or any of the other Democratic candidates – fade from the statewide political scene.

Republican lieutenant gubernatorial nomination: Nobody

Forget what we just said about the Democratic candidates for lieutenant governor; the right side of the lieutenant governor’s ledger looks more like a parody of a political race than an actual one. This primary pits one wealthy global warming denier against a man who said he invented biodiesel, and a shady security consultant against a conservative in the Helms mold.

There are four declared candidates, and only one of them has a legitimate political resume. Robert Pittenger, a state senator from Charlotte, leads all comers with a whopping $1.8 million in campaign donations. Pittenger earned his money shilling for the energy companies. He doesn’t believe in global warming but sits on the state’s Climate Change Advisory Panel – where, we’re told, he distributed copies of novelist Michael Crichton’s anti-global-warming screed State of Fear.

Pittenger is going to walk away with this one. He has the backing of several doctors, Duke Energy and fellow real estate tycoons.

Just for kicks, let’s say you want to go against the grain and vote against Pittenger. Maybe you’re drawn to Timothy Cook, a chemist from Browns Summit who said he helped develop biodiesel two decades ago. It’s natural for a politician to inflate his record. But one record Cook doesn’t want inflated is his criminal one, which shows a charge for assaulting a female in 2000.

So what about Jim Snyder? He completed his father’s term in the NC House after his death in 1971. Since then his political ventures have been unsuccessful. He lost to US Sen. Elizabeth Dole in the 2002 primary when he campaigned on the same ultra-conservative agenda he’s trotting out this time around.

Then there’s Greg Dority, a security consultant who doesn’t like to say much about the nature of his business. That’s a minus in the race for an office in the executive branch, which is already plagued by transparency issues.

The only thing we can endorse in this primary is the North Carolina Republican Party’s efforts to groom viable candidates for the future.

And finally, Guilford County bond issues

$667 million is a lot of clams, but that’s how much the county wants to borrow next year in the largest bundle of municipal bonds ever put forth in Guilford.

There are five of them that will be up for vote locally in the state’s May 6 primary, and we should say at the outset that there’s no way we can approve them all. County bonds are basically promissory notes, loans that leverage future tax dollars that sometimes don’t get repaid until after those who initially proposed them are out of office. In general we believe that bonds are necessary for certain types of projects, but that they should not be used to cover budget shortfalls or make up for poor financial planning.

Our opinion on the five Guilford County bond issues this year are as follows:

Rebuild Eastern High School: $45 million – YES

This is a classic example of proper use of municipal bonds. When Eastern High burned down in November 2006, it left more than 1,000 Guilford County students without classrooms, athletic facilities and other resources. We take education seriously at YES! Weekly, and we think that the school should have been rebuilt before now. But there is no way we can say no to these funds. But we should not forget that Guilford County Schools already received $17.8 million in insurance settlements after the fire. And we will definitely be tracking the progress in the construction of the new school.

GTCC aviation campus: $79.5 million – YES

We have long held that GTCC is a magnificent resource for the county, and we acknowledge that the school must keep up with the demands of the changing job market in the region. Most of the new money goes to fund an aviation campus near the airport to train students to work for FedEx, HondaJet and TIMCO. These are good jobs, some paying as much as $70,000 a year, and we need to train our own people to handle them. The college exists in symbiosis with the community, and has shown a great capacity for responding to its needs. We, the citizens should do likewise.

Guilford County Schools: $412.3 million – YES, but with a caveat

Four hundred million dollars? Four hundred million dollars? You have got to be kidding us. This is a textbook example of misuse of bond issues – an easy handout to plug holes created by an underfunded school system. Guilford County Schools is not to blame – it is the county commissioners who oversee the school budget, and the fact that our schools need a half-million-dollar handout should fill them with shame. We disagree with this bond on principle, but principle will not contribute to the education of our children, and they should not have to be sacrificed on the altar of bad government. It should be said that some of us have children in the school system – though, we note, one such school which is in a predominantly African-American section of town will not be a beneficiary of these funds. Which is too bad: As far as we are concerned, there will be no “next time” when it comes to bonds for our schools. That’s what taxes are for.

Parks & Recreation: $20.2 million – NO

We like our green spaces just as much as the next guy, and we know that public parks add significantly to the quality of life in Guilford County. That’s why we supported the Greensboro parks and rec bond in 2006 for $5 million. But we’re going to have to take a pass at this $20.2 million referendum for two reasons: For one, we are satisfied with the status quo concerning public parks in the county. For another, bonds of this type have been on the ballot not only in 2006, but also in 2004 ($20 million) and 2000 ($10 million). We can’t just keep green lighting these things in every election cycle, so this time the parks should make do with what they’ve got.

Guilford County Detention Center: $114.6 million – NO

Perhaps it’s true that the Guilford County jail is overcrowded, and we understand the desire of Sheriff BJ Barnes to build a new monument to law and order in the Triad. But we’re voting against the House that Barnes Built on philosophical grounds. We feel that this is a nation of laws, and we are anything but soft on crime. But the problem here goes way beyond simple supply and demand. There are too many people in jail in this country, more than in any other civilized nation in the world. A lot of this has to do with the drug epidemic and the way law enforcement handles those who are caught up in the cycle of addiction. And though most of Guilford County’s prisoners are doing time for drug-related charges, we believe that jail is no place for an addict if the goal is not merely punitive but also to rehabilitate. Sorry, BJ, but we’re with Commissioner Skip Alston on this one. We feel that a drug treatment center would serve the citizens of the county much better than a big jail.

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