Hard times are hard on Perdue

But governor's pallid polls inch up

Staff WriterNovember 29, 2009 

— Having grown up in the coal country of southwest Virginia, Bev Perdue says she knows how to survive difficult times.

That experience of watching people struggle with too little money, Perdue says, has been good training for being governor of North Carolina during a period in which she has overseen deep budget cuts, layoffs and tax increases to cope with the worst economic downturn since the 1930s. She now thinks the worst is probably over.

"We have clawed our way out," Perdue said at a school board convention in Greensboro recently. "We were in the tough times then. We have fought our way out. We've come through the hard rows."

Not everyone thinks that is the case. But that is the message of guarded optimism Perdue is spreading in recent travels across North Carolina.

After being chained to her desk in the Capitol for much of her first year in office dealing with the fiscal crisis and the legislature, Perdue has been spending this fall much as she spent last fall when she was campaigning for governor - crisscrossing the state talking about jobs and education.

"I will go anywhere and do anything, as long as it's legal, for jobs," Perdue said at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine in Winston-Salem.

The state's purse strings are still threadbare, though. So Perdue has been announcing a series of small initiatives that don't require much taxpayer money.

In recent days, Perdue went to Charlotte to announce a new job training partnership with Microsoft, traveled to Greensboro to unveil a new Web site for online courses, and visited Winston-Salem to announce the creation of an innovation council. She attended the first meeting of the Energy Policy Council in Raleigh to encourage the group to come up with ways to create more green jobs.

Perdue's emphasis on jobs and education is a traditional one for governors in North Carolina. But she has struggled to define her image, and in the first shakeup of her administration, has brought in Pearse Edwards to be her new communications and policy director. Edwards, a North Carolina native, previously held a similar post for Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire.

"She's got her priorities right," said Don Johnson, 74, a retired principal and coach from Northampton County and an independent, who heard her speak at the school board event. "But she is having a hard time meeting those priorities because of the financial burden she has been placed under."

Her comeback, Johnson said, won't be quick.

"No matter how hard you try," Johnson said, "it takes a while to dig yourself out of a hole."

The governor's critics acknowledge that Perdue was dealt a bad hand when she took office. But they say she has played it poorly, promising not to raise taxes during her campaign last year and then supporting a tax increase once she got in office.

"She is now engaged in a PR campaign to try to rehabilitate herself," said state Senate Republican leader Phil Berger of Eden. "The problem ultimately is going to be, when it was time to make a decision, she defaulted to the we-are-going-to-raise-taxes answer that we often get from Democrats."

"She is trying to convince people that things are getting better," Berger said. "But I don't think people see that at this point."

State ready to grow

Chrissie Pearson, the governor's spokeswoman, said Perdue is trying to position the state for growth as the economy recovers.

"In a nutshell, education remains her top priority," Pearson said. "Education is the cornerstone for everything, including jobs and positioning North Carolina for a changing workplace."

Most governors across the nation are unpopular right now, having had to make difficult financial decisions in the midst of the recession. But Perdue's poll numbers have been particularly bad.

There are a number of reasons why that might be so.

The recession hit North Carolina's manufacturing economy particularly hard.

Perdue is a rookie governor who squeaked into office in a big Democratic year.

She is not regarded as a particularly skillful communicator, and in a socially conservative state there may still be some gender bias.

Some of the negative publicity surrounding the investigations of her predecessor, Mike Easley, might also have affected her standing.

Perdue has sought to draw a sharp contrast between herself and Easley, without mentioning him by name. She has been highly visible around the state and has emphasized transparency in state government.

"She has tried to generate an image of someone who is working hard and cares about what is going on, even if she does not have the resources at her disposal," said Andy Taylor, a political science professor at N.C. State University. "She is conveying an image that this is a new kind of administration that is clean."

Two recent polls suggest that Perdue's downward slide has bottomed out.

An October survey by the Civitas Institute found that 43 percent of state residents approve of the job Perdue is doing, a 14 percent jump from September.

A survey by Public Policy Polling found that 30 percent of North Carolina voters approved of the job Perdue was doing. That poll, conducted Nov. 9-11, found she was gaining support among Democrats.

The inmate uproar

Perdue's sharp jump in the Civitas poll coincided with her keep-'em-locked-up rhetoric on the potential release of nearly two dozen inmates convicted of murder, rape and robbery more than three decades ago.

The controversy was prompted by a court decision ordering the release of a convicted murderer who was given a life sentence in the 1970s, but is now eligible for release. The Perdue administration initially said the court decision would lead to the release of 20 inmates serving life terms.

The governor then took a hard line, suggesting at one point that she would be willing to go to jail to defy the courts to keep the inmates in prison. But Perdue's position has shifted, and she now says she does not believe it is necessary to release the inmates. Perdue said she is ready to go to court to fight their release.

Critics say the controversy has been ginned up to help Perdue politically.

Staples Hughes, the state appellate defender, whose office has represented some of the inmates, calls the flap "simply an extension of the state's political efforts to buttress the governor's sagging polling ratings by defying the rule of law."

The inmate controversy is just one example of Perdue seeming to be less than sure-footed, despite being a veteran of more than 20 years of state government. Her back-flips on taxes left even her allies confused. She lost a battle for control of the public schools with the superintendent of public instruction.

This week, the governor's plan to speed construction of Interstate 485 in northern Mecklenburg County hit a speed bump when state Treasurer Janet Cowell, a fellow Democrat, raised questions about the financing mechanism being used to finish the $340 million project. Just weeks earlier, with great fanfare, Perdue had announced plans to finish the I-485 link.

Despite the criticisms, Perdue said she planned to forge ahead with the project, saying the financing mechanism - with the contractor borrowing $50 million with the state's backing - had been vetted by the Attorney General's Office.

Among the people

Perdue has her own folksy style, full of quips and personal asides. When she kicked off a health fair for state employees at the State Fairgrounds recently, she not only exhorted state employees to take better care of themselves but talked about her own life.

Declaring that she was reared on confessional Baptist revivals, Perdue said she is only half the woman she was in the early 1990s when her reward for a week in the legislature was a bag of Doritos - a habit that helped her weigh between 180 and 190 pounds at 5 feet, 3-3/4 inches.

She also disclosed that she swore off cigarettes a few years ago when she thought she was having a stroke.

"My head popped open, and I said, 'Dear God, if you let me live, I'll quit.' And I quit. I didn't quit for me. I quit because I thought about my kids not having momma or a daddy," said Perdue, who has since remarried.

But Perdue's future is not tied to comments about Doritos or initiatives withMicrosoft or even controversies surrounding I-485. The economy is another matter.

"As bad as things are economically, people are looking for some place to lay the blame," said Jerry Long, 65, a retired principal from Lumberton and a Robeson County school board member. "If in three years the economy is back on track, she will be in good shape. If not, people will be looking for change."

rob.christensen@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4532

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