Thursday, October 19, 2006

Jockeying for the 2008 North Carolina elections

As printed in the Chapel Hill Herald on October 14th, 2006:

A crowd of 100 cheering activists gathered in the Pit at UNC two weeks ago to hear a candidate for political office, not particularly surprising during the middle of an unusually intense midterm election.

What was strange about the event though is when the speaker, conservative activist Bill Graham, is widely rumored to be running for office -- he's a 2008 Republican gubernatorial candidate.

Despite the dearth of exciting statewide races this year, there's plenty of political jockeying in advance of the 2008 election when an unusual number of desirable offices will be vacated at the same time.

Plenty of public attention has gone to the Democratic gubernatorial primary, where two heavyweights and one possible local dark horse candidate will face off. Those are Lieutenant Governor Bev Perdue, Treasurer Richard Moore and Representative Bill Faison, from northern Orange County.

There are plenty of folks on the GOP side ready to duke it out as well, al-though they are lesser known. You may get to know Senator Fred Smith from Johnston County during this election cycle, as he's taken the unusual step of running ads on Triangle TV stations. This use of campaign funds seems like it may be geared more toward 2008 than his re-election campaign.

You may have already gotten to know the aforementioned Graham. He's been active in self-funded campaigns on television and radio across the state this year to crack down on illegal immigration and eliminate the gas tax.

Also seemingly in the race is Sen. Robert Pittenger, a strident conservative from Mecklenburg County. All three candidates are terrifyingly to the right, but none seem to be particularly viable candidates either. Republicans may want to coax popular Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory into the race.

I'm pretty sure Richard Vinroot is sitting this one out!

The Democrats also have a packed field already for lieutenant governor. Hampton Dellinger, who has held a variety of top governmental posts, is likely to earn the support of much of the traditional party establishment but is also well respected among the progressive wing of the party.

Another strong contender will be Winston-Salem City Councilman Dan Besse, who is a well-respected environmentalist. The Progressive Democrats of North Carolina have been seeking a candidate to support in this race, and Besse may fit the bill.

Other early candidates with lesser statewide profiles are Senator Walter Dalton of Rutherfordton, Senator A.B. Swindell of Nashville and Canton Mayor Pat Smathers. They each have plenty of time to move into the top tier of contenders.

Another open seat in 2008 will be the state treasurer's. Jim Harrell, a young legislator from Surry County, is the most definite candidate for this post. He passed up a shot at the lieutenant governor's race after the field got too crowded.

Another person who would be a strong candidate for treasurer, or any statewide office for that matter, is Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker. Meeker is as good a public servant as we have anywhere in this state. He is smart, builds bridges and has done a tremendous job in his current role. Many Democratic pundits hope Meeker will make a run against Elizabeth Dole if more prominent candidates defer on the race.

Some activists, not wanting to make the tough choice between Perdue and Moore, would like to see one of them enter the Senate race. That seems un-likely, as does the entry of popular Congressman Bob Etheridge, who would have to give up a safe House seat.

I would not be surprised if Dole chooses not to seek re-election. If that is the case, the face of the Democratic field would be transformed dramatically.

Then there are the incumbents. Secretary of State Elaine Marshall and Insurance Commissioner Jim Long seem sure to cruise to re-election. Likewise, State Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson, although elected under considerable turmoil, seems likely to have less trouble this time around.

The Republican incumbents could face some stronger competition. Former legislator Wayne Goodwin seems primed for a rematch against Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry, whom he fell to in 2004. Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler will also face a strong competitor. One possible candidate is state House Rep. Alice Graham Underhill, the daughter of long-time Commissioner Jim Graham, who has proven to be a successful campaigner.

Former Commissioner Britt Cobb, an honest and decent man who was likely swept out of office because of the Meg Scott Phipps scandal, has been serving admirably in the Easley administration and would be a good return candidate.

In the race for attorney general, former Randolph County manager Bob Crumley is an announced GOP challenger to Roy Cooper. Former Raleigh City Councilman Kieran Shanahan is also a possible candidate, although his interest may have cooled when Cooper announced he would run again.

Needless to say, anyone thinking that this year's election is boring in North Carolina has plenty to look forward to in 2008!

On another note, my column last week about campaign signs referred to my putting them up for Superior Court candidate Adam Stein. I should have made it clearer that I am heavily involved in his campaign and apologize to anyone who wasn't aware of that.

Tom Jensen is a local political activist and a recent graduate of UNC. Readers can contact him at or c/o The Chapel Hill Herald, 106 Mallette St., Chapel Hill, NC 27516.



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