Winston-Salem councilman joins race for lieutenant governor

by Amy Kingsley

Shortly after Dan Besse took office in 2001, Gov. Mike Easley responded to a statewide budget crunch by slashing the amount of state money routed to its urban areas. The Winston-Salem City Council, of which Besse is a member, recouped some of the lost revenues by hiking property taxes, cutting services and suspending hiring.

Six years later, the city has begun to recover from the budget shortfall and is now raising the salaries of law enforcement officers to a level competitive with other municipalities. Winston-Salem’s financial hardships in the early part of the decade stemmed in part from Easley’s failure to understand what he was doing to the cities, Besse said.

“One of the things [Easley] did to get our state through that was to pull the rug out from under our cities financially,” Besse said.

Besse’s desire to give urban areas a larger influence in the state’s executive branch inspired him to announce his campaign for lieutenant governor in 2008. He released a pre-announcement on Jan. 2 and will make a formal announcement later in the month.

Besse joined an already crowded field – becoming the fourth Democratic contender to announce his intention to run for the office. None of the candidates will be official until the filing period opens a year from now.

Schorr Johnson, communications director for the NC Democratic Party, said the office’s high profile makes it an attractive one.

“It’s the second-highest elected position in the state,” Johnson said. “You are presiding over the North Carolina State Senate, so it is a position that is high-profile and statewide.”

North Carolina’s population has become increasingly urban, Besse said, a change that hasn’t been reflected in the executive branch. Both Easley and Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue hail from eastern North Carolina, the state’s most traditionally rural region.

If Besse were elected, he would be the first member of the executive branch from the Piedmont Triad since Rockingham County native Luther Hodges was elected in 1952. He would also be the first with a strong background in environmental quality work, Besse said.

Besse has served on statewide policy boards like the Climate Action Plan Advisory Group, Environmental Management Commission, Sedimentation Control Commission and Coastal Resources Commission. One of his proudest accomplishments from his 12 years of service on the Environmental Management Commission was his role in strengthening the state’s wetlands protection laws.

“The fact that we have a state policy that not only backstops national wetlands conservation policy but is also more detailed and stronger is really what, frankly, has stopped the hemorrhage of wetlands that had been going on for decades,” Besse said.

Having already had impact on water quality, Besse has more recently turned his attention to air quality. Locally he serves on the Piedmont Triad Early Action Compact Committee, a group of regional leaders working to improve the region’s air quality.

As lieutenant governor, Besse said he would focus on decreasing soot and other airborne particulates and increasing enforcement powers for the state’s environmental agencies.

“Like all laws,” Besse said, “environmental laws depend on ninety percent voluntary compliance and ten percent enforcement.”

Making the environment a centerpiece of his campaign will require some savvy politicking, Besse said, because issues like global warming and air pollution often resonate less with voters than economic and social concerns.

“It’s all in the way you explain it to people,” he said. “If people understand that their kids’ health is at stake, they will care.”

Johnson said environmental issues have become increasingly important to North Carolina voters.

“Certainly the environment is a huge issue in our state,” he said, “and it’s one that anyone running for statewide office will have to address. But candidates for statewide office will also have to run on a pretty diverse platform because there are many issues that are confronting our state.”

Although he anticipates that his green message will go over well with next year’s voters, Besse said he is not a single-issue candidate. He advocates expanding access to healthcare for working class families and focusing on economic development. Of the four candidates for lieutenant governor, he was the first to call more a moratorium on the death penalty.

Transportation, particularly spending on public transit and railways is another top priority for the candidate. Besse said he is encouraged by the increase in state funding for alternative transportation, but is also concerned about a backlash from conservative think tanks. Smart growth, an issue some voters greet with skepticism, would be an issue he would attempt to sell to the public and lawmakers.

“Being lieutenant governor is an inside-outside game,” Besse said. “The inside part is negotiating with other leaders and the outside is getting the public involved. It’s a fairly high-profile public position, which gives you a way to dramatize public issues.”

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