Gubernatorial candidates pick on GOP more than each other
Posted April 16, 2012 7:30 p.m. EDT
Updated April 17, 2012 8:25 a.m. EDT
Raleigh, N.C. — Three Democratic gubernatorial candidates did little to differentiate themselves from one another Monday night in a debate televised statewide by WRAL-TV.
Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton, former Congressman Bob Etheridge and Orange County Rep. Bill Faison spent more time in the hour-long debate bashing the Republican-led General Assembly for its budget priorities than each candidate did telling voters why he is the best person to carry the Democratic banner in the November election.
All three men said job creation should be the top priority for the next governor, given that North Carolina's unemployment rate continues to hover around 10 percent. Yet, they said, the legislature lost sight of that last year, and cuts made to balance the state budget put North Carolina at a disadvantage in trying to attract jobs.
"The key is to fund education," said Etheridge, a former state schools superintendent. "You cannot lay off teachers, increase class size, cap our universities and do away with the future of this state if you want to have jobs. You just can't get there."
Dalton said a "mean-spiritedness" in the General Assembly turned public school teachers into targets to attack rather than hard-working professionals to support.
"The most offensive thing about this legislature was they said they were coming to Raleigh to create jobs, and instead, they worked on divisive social issues," he said.
Faison said that his three-part jobs plan calls for a 0.75-cent increase to the state sales tax rate to rehire teachers and teaching assistants who were laid off because of budget cuts.
"Our teachers are phenomenal people, and absolutely, they need to be treated as professionals," he said.
The only time when the three candidates really showed any difference of opinion was when specifically asked why they were the best candidate to face presumptive Republican nominee Pat McCrory.
Etheridge touted his lengthy political experience in both Raleigh and Washington, D.C., and said he has the courage to tackle tough issues, noting he voted with President Obama on the controversial economy recovery and health care overhaul bills.
Dalton said he has worked as lieutenant governor on updating the state's school system and logistics network. He also said he has won tough elections several times before and could take on McCrory.
Faison noted he is the only candidate with a job-creation plan and said he already has gone toe-to-toe with McCrory in a debate.
"I don't know where these guys were until there was a filing to be done," he said.
Faison, who is running a distant third to Etheridge and Dalton in most polls, took the most aggressive position of the debate when he argued that Dalton was wrongly claiming responsibility for education improvements.
"He takes credit for so many programs he had nothing to do with," Faison said. "They're not ideas of his campaign; they're things he latches on to."
Dalton responded by noting that he devised a bipartisan coalition a decade ago to advance science and technology education. He also criticized Faison's jobs plan, saying it counts on savings that he hasn't identified.
All three candidates came out against the proposed constitutional amendment on the primary ballot. The proposal would define marriage in North Carolina as being between one man and one woman and wouldn't recognize any other domestic arrangements.
"Rather than working on divisive wedge issues, we ought to be providing educational opportunities for our children," Etheridge said.
Similarly, all three expressed support for raising the state sales tax for education and capping the state gas tax.
While Dalton and Etheridge said they would like more study on the issue of natural gas drilling in North Carolina, Faison said he was completely opposed to the idea because of environmental concerns.
"It's just an absolutely bad idea," he said. "It puts at risk people's drinking water."
Dalton was the only one of the three who would consider turning Interstate 95 into a toll road, although he said it would be a last resort. Faison was the only one who called for taxing and regulating Internet sweepstakes businesses, which the state has been trying to eliminate for the past few years.
Harnett County physician Dr. Bruce Blackmon, Matthews college student Gary Dunn and retired federal government auditor Gardenia Henley also are running for the Democratic nomination in the May 8 primary but didn't participate in the debate.
The candidates debate again Tuesday on WUNC-TV and Wednesday on WNCN-TV. WRAL.com will carry both of those debates live.