Rocky Mount, N.C. — The leading candidates for North Carolina presented their closing arguments to voters during their final televised debate Wednesday night.
Democrat Walter Dalton and Republican Pat McCrory clarified their positions on economic and education policies they spared over in two prior debates while staking out positions on topics that haven't gotten as much attention.
N.C. Wesleyan College, the Rocky Mount Chamber of Commerce and WRAL-TV hosted the debate.
The pair shared a brief moment of mutual admiration when asked by WRAL's Ken Smith what impressed each about their opponent.
"Anyone who has been in public service should be commended for that," Dalton said of McCrory. "He's been dedicated to his public service."
McCrory says he likes some of Dalton's ideas on using community colleges to prepare students for four year degrees.
Calling Dalton, "a great family man," McCrory went on to say, "I know the people of his town have a great deal of respect for him."
Candidates agree on abortion, immigration
The pair also shared similar views on several questions.
Abortion: WRAL's Laura Leslie asked about the Woman's Right to Know Act, a bill that placed limitations on those seeking abortions and providing them in North Carolina. "If you're elected governor, what further restrictions on abortion would you agree to sign?"
McCrory replied, "None."
Dalton said, "I didn't agree with this restriction. I would put no further restrictions on a woman's right."
McCrory's simple, one-word answer, elicited chuckles from the audience, as it confounded the moderators for a moment. Opponents have pointed out that McCrory checked "no" when asked by the N.C. Family Policy Council if "organizations that provide abortions should be allowed to receive state funds."
Dalton didn't answer that survey.
Immigration: On immigration, the two agreed that it should be up to the federal government to enforce immigration laws.
"Anything you do on illegal immigration at a state level is an unfunded mandate," Dalton said.
McCrory said that he didn't think new anti-illegal immigration action was needed by the state at this point. However, he added that he liked joint local-federal programs that allow sheriffs to find and detain criminals who come to the country illegally.
Unions and new hires: Both men also agreed that the state should not relinquish its "right-to-work" status, which has minimized the impact labor unions can have here. And both said they would consider individuals in the other man's political party for high-ranking posts in their administration.
"I'm not going to give you names right now," Dalton said. "You talk about about creating a frenzy, that would be it."
McCrory said that he didn't promise anybody anything, but said he would seek the advice and assistance of Transportation Secretary Gene Conti, Revenue Secretary David Hoyle and Commerce Secretary Keith Crisco.
Sweepstakes: In one final point of agreement, both men said the state had tried to ban video sweepstakes which mimic gambling. Dalton and McCrory both said that if the state Supreme Court strikes down the current ban, they would look at taxing and regulating the industry. On the Family Policy Council survey, McCrory checked "yes" when asked if North Carolina should keep the current prohibition on video gambling.
On other topics, the two men displayed more differences:
McCrory sees fracking as job creator
Asked how he would create jobs and raise tax revenue in the state, McCrory twice pointed to fracking, the controversial practice of using horizontal drilling and high-pressure injections to drive gas out of the ground.
"I think North Carolina has to get into the energy business," he said. "Other states that have moved quickly (on fracking) have much lower unemployment."
Ohio and Pennsylvania cleared the way relatively recently for fracking. Ohio's unemployment rate was 7 percent in September, down from 7.2 percent in August. Pennsylvania's unemployment rate is 8.2 percent for September, up from 8.1 percent in August. Both rates are lower than North Carolina's 9.6 percent unemployment rate for September, although it's unclear how much credit fracking can take for those lower rates of unemployment.
Dalton is skeptical that fracking will bring jobs and said the state needs to move cautiously.
"Fracking and offshore oil are six years out," Dalton said. "We need jobs now."
McCrory said the state would be that much closer to having revenue from gas exploration if Dalton and his fellow Democrat, Gov. Bev Perdue, had moved more quickly.
"That's exactly what Gov. Perdue said four years ago. Had we started four years ago, we'd be within a year or two of doing it right now."
Tax talk difference: Reform or tweak
Leslie asked both candidates about their tax plans.
Dalton says that he would not raise the state's sales tax and can pay for his policy proposals with a combination of economic growth, closing tax loopholes, collecting sales tax from online retailers and other uncollected income.
Overall, Dalton has proposed tweaks to North Carolina's current tax system, offering plans for new small business tax breaks and the like.
McCrory says he favors a complete overhaul of North Carolina's tax system. When pressed for details of his plans over the past three weeks, he has sometimes been light on specifics. The Republican has said he would like to lower or eliminate state income and corporate taxes. But those taxes make up 60 cents of every dollar that comes into the state treasury.
"Let's have comprehensive reform supported by Republicans and Democrats alike," McCrory said, again eschewing details. He explained that he wanted to lead the discussion about how to remake the tax system, rather than lay down his own preferences which may or may not be well received by lawmakers.
McCrory did say he believed revenue from fracking could offset some revenue loss and that simplifying the tax code would allow the economy to grow more rapidly.
Employment goal: Beat South Carolina
Asked about his plans to create jobs, Dalton said he believed that his plans could reduce state unemployment by 2.5 to 3 percent.
McCrory refused to provide a specific number.
"I think think the best way to measure things is to benchmark against your competitors. And within a year, I hope we're at least beating South Carolina. My gosh, we ought to at least be beating South Carolina, shouldn't we," he asked.
South Carolina's September unemployment rate was half a percentage point lower than North Carolina's, at 9.1 percent.
And lest McCrory's remark sound like a dig on our neighbors to the south, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley did campaign with McCrory in September.
Dalton shot back that North Carolina was already besting South Carolina in business climate rankings such as those put out by Forbes and Site Selection Magazine.
McCrory adds iPad to education plan
McCrory and Dalton have differed on education policy. Those who watched the prior two debates should not have been surprised when McCrory said he believed high schools should provide a more defined non-college track for students.
"Another pathway is a vocation degree curriculum," McCrory said. "We're forcing way too many people to go into a college curriculum when many of these people have skills to build things, repair things, to fix things."
Dalton, who strongly backs high schools that provide exposure to community college course work, disagreed.
"His (McCrory's) tracking system defines a 15-year-old's career before that 15-year-old defines him or herself," Dalton said.
One new policy note from McCrory: He held up an iPad, saying that it would revolutionize education and help replace text books.
"It's also going to help provide education to urban and rural areas alike," he said.
Using tablet computers to replace textbooks and give students access to other materials seems to be a new idea from McCrory, one that didn't show up in his written education plan and has not been discussed in most news reports.
He didn't give details of how the state might use them or pay for them. The Apple tablet computers retail for around $300 before any extra software is loaded. There are roughly 1.4 million students in North Carolina public schools in kindergarten through 12th grades.
Dalton defends record as lieutenant governor
Dalton recycled an old charge to closely link McCrory to the Republican leadership at the General Assembly.
"Speaker (Thom) Tillis says he talks to Pat every day," Dalton said. "That was his quote. I don't know what they're talking about but I assume he is weighing in on these issues."
McCrory, Dalton said, didn't object to the school funding cuts pursued by the legislature.
But the Republican pointed out he hasn't held a government position for the past four years.
"It's almost like I had more power not being governor than my opponent had when he was lieutenant governor," McCrory said.
McCrory piled on with a charge that Dalton had shirked his duties.
"One of the main responsibilities of lieutenant governor is to attend community college board meetings and the board of education meetings. His attendance rate was less than 40 percent."
Dalton said the law allows the lieutenant governor to appoint a sworn designee.
"That's an acknowledgment we do have other duties," Dalton said, calling McCrory's jibe "a bogus hit." He pointed to his attendance record as a state senator, saying that he had a "99 percent" attendance record.
In fact, the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research said Dalton was present 105 of 113 days during the 2007 session, a 93 percent attendance rate putting him in the middle of the pack. In the 2005 Senate session, Dalton was present 96 percent of the time.
Odds and ends
- McCrory said he opposed a deal struck by Perdue with the federal government that will remove mental patients from assisted living homes. "Come January, we could have a major catastrophe," McCrory said, saying he would like to rescind that agreement.
- McCrory also said he opposed getting rid of the Dorothea Dix campus, something that has been a topic of conversation in Raleigh.
- Dalton said the state should fully opt into the provisions of the federal Affordable Care Act to make sure tax dollars paid by North Carolinians come back to the state. The Democrat said the law would be good for both the public health and the state's economic health.
- Asked about growing questions about Debra Goldman, the Republican candidate for state auditor, McCrory said he was concerned for her family and troubled by news reports. He then went on to deliver a glowing review of Beth Wood, the Democratic incumbent who is running for re-election. "I think she's done a good job. She at least had the courage to stand up to the Perdue administration on some broken government issues that someone needed to stand up to," McCrory said.
- As he did in the second debate, Dalton charged that McCrory voted to condemn property for a project that would have helped his employer at the time, Duke Energy. McCrory has responded that he didn't know Duke was involved in the vote. Although emails from six months before the meeting show McCrory got a heads up about the plan, minutes from the meeting suggest neither McCrory nor the rest of the council knew Duke was involved.