Campaign Follies

By: - January 18, 2008 4:33 pm

(The Fitzsimon File will be observing the King Holiday Monday and will resume on Tuesday, January 22. Also, the N.C. Policy Watch site will be down for the weekend while some updates and improvements are made. Look for the new version of the site Tuesday morning. The Progressive Pulse, the Policy Watch blog, will remain up through the weekend.)

The hits just keep on coming from the folks who want to spend the next four years in the governor’s mansion. The Republican candidates squared off in a WRAL-TV debate Thursday and it marked the first appearance of newly announced candidate Pat McCrory, the mayor of Charlotte.

The format was different than in last week’s debate on North Carolina Public Television. There were no podiums or timed answers and responses. Instead, the four candidates sat in chairs around WRAL-TV anchor David Crabtree, who asked the questions.

The vast majority of voters don’t watch political debates and in most cases candidates gain or lose from the news coverage of the event, not their actual performance.  The stories about Thursday’s debate focused on McCrory’s debate debut, the general agreement among most candidates on major issues and the exchanges about whose background best prepares them to be governor.

Like most debates, there were some questionable numbers thrown around and dubious claims made by the candidates.  Bill Graham said in a response to a question about reducing the size of government that there are “hundreds of thousands of state employees.”

Figures from the state personnel office show there are roughly 94,000 state employees subject to the state personnel act, meaning they are not political appointments. Even adding the political positions, you are a long way from hundreds of thousands.

Maybe Graham meant to include teachers and school personnel. More than 180,000 people worked in public schools a year ago, but most of them are teachers and teacher’s assistants. Maybe he wants to fire teachers, but he said later in the debate that he wants to be an education governor, so maybe not.

The candidates all said they wanted to end the transfer of $170 million from the Highway Trust Fund to the state’s General Fund and use the money instead for highways. McCrory said that former Governor Jim Martin started the Trust Fund and it was “not supposed to be stolen from.”

Martin and the General Assembly both supported creation of the Highway Trust Fund in 1989 and the $170 million transfer was part of the law that created it. Martin did support the transfer. Whether or not it should continue is a legitimate debate, but describing the transfer as stealing is absurd.

Fred Smith mentioned the misnamed Taxpayer’s Protection Act several times, which would limit the annual increase in the size of the state budget based on inflation and population growth.

The idea is a catchy soundbite and terrible policy, tying lawmakers’ hands and ignoring the fact that the costs of many state government services, like health care, increase much faster than the overall inflation rate.

Colorado was forced to weaken its version of Smith’s plan after the state plummeted in key quality of life indicators. A Republican state senator from Colorado passionately urged North Carolina lawmakers not to adopt the program when she appeared at the Emerging Issues forum a couple of years ago. But in a debate, nuances and details don’t get much attention, and Smith knows it, and continues to hammer the slogan home at every opportunity.

Finally, Graham continues to paint a dreadful picture of life in North Carolina, at one point saying that he always asks audiences to raise their hands if there are things the state does well and nobody ever raises their hand. All is lost apparently.

Bob Orr responded by saying that the state has challenges, but that there are a lot of good things going on in North Carolina. Apparently he talked Graham into it. Towards the end of the debate, Graham said there were some good things happening, citing schools in Caldwell County.

Despite Orr’s statement, the debate made it clear again that the Republican candidates are running a campaign based on the assumption that the state is struggling mightily and the current leaders have failed.  The problem with that strategy can be found in a poll from the right-wing Pope Civitas Institute, a poll that Republicans like to cite about immigration and taxes and other issues.

The last poll released by Civitas in November found that more people in the state believe the state is headed in the right direction than say things have gotten off track. They maybe not be raising their hands at Bill Graham rallies, but most folks don’t seem to think we need to radically change where the state is going. That doesn’t bode well for this week’s debate participate.


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Chris Fitzsimon

Chris Fitzsimon, Founder and Executive Director of N.C. Policy Watch, writes the Fitzsimon File, delivers a radio commentary broadcast on WRAL-FM and hosts "News and Views," a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina. [email protected] 919-861-2066