Statewide candidates discuss MH/DD/SA…sort of

By: - February 26, 2008 9:24 am

If this week's series in Raleigh's News & Observer isn't making it clear that North Carolina has a long way to go in finding solutions for persons with mental health problems, developmental disabilities and substance abuse issues, yesterday's forum for candidates seeking the offices of Governor and Lieutenant Governor did the trick.

The event was sponsored by The Coalition — a group of state advocacy organizations that fights for reform in these important areas. It attracted eight out of the 10 major candidates for the state's top two offices. Thanks to the Association for Retarded Citizen's (ARC-NC) high energy lobbyist/blogger, Julia Leggett, you can read summary descriptions of each of the candidates' presentations at the ARC of North Carolina Policy Blog.

Between my colleague, Chris Fitzsimon and I, we were able to attend most of the presentations — with Chris taking the morning shift and me the afternoon. In general, one would have to say that the candidates were somewhat less than inspiring.

As Chris notes in today's edition of the Fitzsimon File,

[E]arly presentations were less than reassuring, filled more with clichés and slogans than  displays of meaningful understanding of the system’s problems, much less solutions to them.

Little changed during my p.m. shift in which I caught the presentations of gubernatorial candidates Beverly Perdue, Richard Moore and Dennis Nielsen, as well as Lite Guv wannabe, Walter Dalton.

While all four did their utmost to show how sincere they were and how much they cared about the issues, one couldn't help but get the distinct impression that none of them really has any kind of specific blueprint for fixing the current mess — much less the courage to talk about spending more money or, God forbid, calling upon North Carolinians to make some actual sacrifices in the interest of caring for some of our most vulnerable citizens.           

On the Perdue vs. Moore front, there was little in the way of big news or new ideas. Both candidates talked about the specific solutions they'd like to bring about — better, more comprehensive services, more honesty, better use of existing resources, etc…, but neither seemed interested in linking their ideas to any kind broader societal view or philosophy. Both opted instead for what might be described as a technocratic approach. 

Perdue's high point probably came when she talked about integrating mental and physical health systems into what she called a "medical, mental health home." The low point occurred when absolved herself of any responsibility for the current mess even though she's presided over the Senate for the past seven years and headed the appropriations process for years before that. When asked about her involvement in the current system, she said she wished folks in attendance would "call the Governor and tell him I'm a part of it." As someone who claims to have written "her own job description," Perdue would have been more convincing here if she'd just accepted her share of the blame for, if nothing else, not speaking out against the current system.  

Moore was at his best when talking about his past experience as an administrator and strategies for fixing broken public systems and when he spoke forcefully about the state's need for affordable housing and in favor of a dedicated revenue stream for the N.C. Housing Trust Fund. At other times, however, he evidenced a distressing (if undisguised) lack of familiarity with some specific topics. At one point, he completely punted on a question about what we need to do about our systems for folks with developmental disabilities. The next time he speaks at such a forum, he'd probably do well to spend a little more time prepping on the substance of the issues that concern his audience. 

The bottom line: Those who care about these issues (and it ought to be all of us) need to raise a lot more heck before state policymakers are going to take them as seriously as they need to. Let's hope yesterday's forum was the start of such an effort.  

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Rob Schofield
Rob Schofield

NC Newsline Editor Rob Schofield oversees day-to-day newsroom operations, authors and voices regular commentaries, and hosts the 'News & Views' weekly radio show/podcast.