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Merritt Takes State Auditor Post; Two Still Undecided In Council Of State

Posted November 3, 2004

— When former state agriculture secretary Meg Scott Phipps was led away in handcuffs, it cast a shadow over the entire Department of Agriculture.

"I think the sort of Phipps hangover is still there," said political analyst David McLennan.

Observers say that may be why a Republican could take the helm in the Agriculture Department for the first time in North Carolina history.

"You may not see huge policy changes coming out of the Department of Agriculture, but it may just be time, in the voters' minds, to change personnel there," McLennan said.

The agriculture commissioner is one of four Council of State offices that could end up in Republican hands.

Right now, it's too close to call between Britt Cobb and Steve Troxler. Cobb, a longtime department administrator, took office when Phipps resigned last year after she was charged in a campaign finance scandal.

The race for state superintendent of public instruction, between Bill Fletcher and June Atkinson, is also too close to call.

In the state auditor race, Republican Les Merritt edged out incumbent Ralph Campbell in a rematch from the 2000 election.

Merritt, of Zebulon, lost the 2000 race against Campbell by fewer than 30,000 votes. Campbell was the first black elected to a constitutional office in the state.

After Merritt criticized Campbell for not being tough enough, observers expect Merritt to scrutinize state agencies and programs with a fine tooth comb.

"This will give the Republican auditor a chance to examine every Democratic program and find out what's working and what's not working and offer very critical audits," said Rob Christensen, of the News & Observer.

Working across party lines will be among Governor Mike Easley's challenges, as Merritt joins Republican Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry and possibly two other Republicans on the Council of State.

State Treasurer Richard Moore, who won a second term, preferred to point to the five Democratic incumbents who reclaimed their seats.

"I think the voters are rewarding us for making the right choices," he said. "This has not been the easiest four years for North Carolina. ... But the leaders of North Carolina stayed focused on job creation and education, and I think we're being rewarded for that."

Democrat Beverly Perdue defeated Republican Jim Snyder for a second term as lieutenant governor. Perdue, the first woman to hold the office, said she will continue to focus on her goal of keeping all of the state's military bases operational.

Elaine Marshall heads for another term as secretary of state. The Democratic incumbent withstood a primary challenge from a former employee earlier this year, advancing to defeat Republican Jay Rao of Charlotte.

Jim Long took a sixth term by beating Republican C. Robert Brawley for insurance commissioner. Brawley is an insurance agent from Mooresville and a longtime state lawmaker Democrat Roy Cooper won a second term as attorney general against Republican Joe Knott of Raleigh, who ran on a promise to be a full-time lawyer, not a politician

Of the nine statewide races, only one -- superintendent of public instruction -- featured two new candidates after Mike Ward decided not to seek re-election.

Each member of the council, apart from governor and lieutenant governor, heads a specific state department.

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