Local Politics

GOP Gubernatorial Candidates Debate Schools, Immigration

Posted January 17, 2008 8:47 p.m. EST
Updated January 18, 2008 10:39 a.m. EST

— The four men seeking the Republican nomination for governor criticized public schools, the Department of Transportation and federal inaction on illegal immigration during an hour-long debate Thursday.

In a debate sponsored by WRAL, Salisbury attorney Bill Graham, Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, former state Supreme Court Justice Robert Orr and state Sen. Fred Smith found a common enemy in the status quo of state government. The four disagreed very little in putting forth plans to improve education and state infrastructure.

"This shouldn't be about the left, the middle and the right. It should be about right and wrong," Graham said. "We need to listen to people and address their concerns."

The candidates sounded traditional GOP themes of lower government spending and a tougher criminal justice system.

Smith pushed his Taxpayer Protection Act to limit spending increases to inflation and population growth and said his experience in the Senate has shown him where cuts could be made. But neither he nor any of the other candidates would pinpoint where they would make cuts in state government.

Instead, Graham discussed "realigning priorities," Smith called for departmental audits, Orr said more efficiency is needed and McCrory said good workers in high-demand areas should be rewarded.

McCrory and Orr agreed that the state superintendent of education position shouldn't be an elected position. They said the governor should appoint a superintendent to increase accountability for education.

"The Republican Party has not been a strong advocate of public education," Orr said. "We need to send the message that the future success of North Carolina depends on an educated population."

All of the candidates said they would welcome the label "education governor," but they said Govs. Jim Hunt and Mike Easley, who have worn the moniker with pride, haven't produced enough gains in North Carolina's public schools to deserve it.

"A lot of money has been spent in the last 16 years, but very little progress has been made," Smith said, calling for more vocational education and dropout prevention efforts. "The students are our customers. The people are the customer, and we need to serve them."

Graham said the governor needs to work more with local school boards and county commissioners, while Orr said the whole educational structure needs to be revised.

The DOT also needs to be restructured, the candidates agreed.

McCrory called it "insane" that the state doesn't consider traffic congestion in doling out money for road building. Smith said the state needs to consider a multibillion-dollar bond to pay for road and bridge improvements. All but Graham said the state should consider building toll roads in some areas.

The hot-button topic of illegal immigration elicited frustrated responses from the candidates, who noted the federal government hasn't fulfilled its obligation to protect the U.S. borders.

Smith and McCrory called for expanding a program statewide that allows local law enforcement agencies to check the names of people arrested against a national immigration database so illegal immigrants can be identified for deportation. Both also called for state benefits and state contracts to be denied to illegal immigrants and the companies that employ them.

McCrory said about 20 percent of the inmates in the Mecklenburg County Jail are illegal immigrants, and he called for the government to build an immigration court and detention center in the state.

Smith also pushed for issuing voter ID cards to legal state residents and denying driver's licenses to illegal immigrants. All candidates said they were opposed to allowing illegal immigrants to take classes in North Carolina community colleges.

"You take an oath as governor to uphold the law," Orr said. "If it's illegal, it's illegal."

"You cannot be for a thing that starts with the word 'illegal,'" Graham said, calling seats in community college classrooms "precious resources" that need to be reserved for state residents.

The only sparks that flew during the evening were between Smith and McCrory as Smith tried to establish himself as the more experienced leader. He contrasted McCrory's 13 years as Charlotte mayor with his experience as a veteran, lawyer, real estate developer, county commissioner and state senator.

But McCrory noted that he has built local and statewide coalitions across party lines. He promised to continue bipartisan work and to use the "bully pulpit" of the governor's office to enact change.

"The culture of state government has turned inward, with its backside to the public," he said. "If you use the bully pulpit like I did as mayor, you can make a difference. You can build something great."