Capital goods - March 2012

Her story and history
By Scott Mooneyham

On this, there can be no debate: Beverly Perdue made history. She did it when she became the first woman elected governor of North Carolina. She will do it again when she leaves office as the first governor since gubernatorial succession was allowed here, in 1981, to fail to seek and win a second term. On that second score, it is obviously not the kind of legacy that she had envisioned for herself. But is it what she deserves? Did she do this to herself? Or was she simply caught up in historical tides that left her adrift, with no real course to rescue her political fortunes?

Perdue stunned the state’s political establishment in January when she announced that she wouldn’t seek a second term. There had been some whispers back in the fall, but no one really believed them. She explained the decision by saying that she didn’t want to politicize a debate about adequately funding public
schools. “A re-election campaign in this already divisive environment will make it more difficult to find any bipartisan solutions,” her official announcement read.

The more likely truth is that she had accepted the obvious, that she wasn’t going to win. Her polls numbers remained poor. National publications proclaimed her the nation’s most vulnerable incumbent governor. More important, she was increasingly being told no when she dialed for campaign cash. It didn’t matter whether the calls were to wealthy individual donors or to a traditional Democratic ally, labor. The answer wasn’t always a judgment of her policies. Sometimes it was a judgment on her chances.

Those chances were based on her public standing, and that was based on three difficult years in office. At the start of her term, she didn’t seem particularly daunted by her circumstances — taking office just after the financial collapse, during a recession and facing a budget shortfall. Sitting down for an interview with Business North Carolina in December 2008, she talked about helping small business and encouraging entrepreneurship.

“I’m a realist,” she said at the time. “I know it is going to be much slower.” Then she added, “I intend to grow a green economy, a military aerospace economy, an agri-biotech economy. I intend to help manufacturing and small businesses and agriculture.” She wasn’t able to do much of that. Was it her fault? Not really. Did any governor in any state oversee a whole lot of economic growth over the last three years, particularly in Southern states trying to recover from two decades of losses in low-skill manufacturing jobs?

While Perdue’s Republican critics pummeled her over unemployment, North Carolina’s numbers weren’t so different from its neighbors. But it’s too easy to attribute all of her troubles to the economy. In that same interview, she spoke of shared sacrifices and tough decisions. She talked about looking local government officials in the eye and telling them what was coming. “And as I make tough decisions, they’ll at least have a chance to look me in the face and say, ‘Hey, that’s just crummy.’ But at least they’ll know it.” That’s not what happened. Instead, she and a legislature controlled by fellow Democrats raised taxes for two years. Then Republicans gained control of the legislature. Suddenly she had a fight on her hands.

For a while, it looked like that fight might help her. Each time she vetoed Republican-penned legislation, her poll numbers ticked up. Voters always have and always will like politicians who appear strong. Still, maybe showing a bit more discretion with that veto stamp could have benefited her over the long haul. Some more words from that December 2008 interview: “The bottom line is we have to have a taxing structure and a regulation system and an assistance system in place that helps grow and seed small businesses.” But when it came to regulatory reform for business, she vetoed the Republican effort at it, perhaps missing an opportunity to fashion a compromise. The veto didn’t even stick. It was eventually overturned.

As for tax reform — something along the lines of broadening the tax base while lowering overall rates — Perdue showed little interest after some initial talk about Depression-era Gov. O. Max Gardner and his changes to the tax system. Maybe she recognized that it wasn’t feasible in a world that had suddenly turned upside down politically and economically.

No one promises politicians just good times when they run for office. In the bad times especially, people want a steady hand. Blame it on the stars or blame it on her, Perdue wasn’t able to convince enough people — whether the ones answering poll questions or the ones being asked for campaign donations — that she was that steady hand.

Scott Mooneyham is the editor of The Insider, www.ncinsider.com.