WILMINGTON — The North Carolina GOP celebrated its rising political fortunes Saturday, saying Republicans were delivering on their promises to downsize government and cut taxes while vanquishing their political foes - from Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue to organized teachers groups.
Appearing before 1,600 cheering and whooping delegates and guests to the state Republican Convention, the leaders of the first GOP-controlled legislature since the 1800s said they were remaking the state's political history.
"We could be leading the state for the next generation," House Speaker Thom Tillis of Cornelius said.
The convention elected former Congressman Robin Hayes of Concord to a full two-year term as party chairman to lead during the critical 2012 elections. Attendees also held workshops and heard a broad range of speakers, including author/activist Andrew Breitbart and U.S. Rep. Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina
In some ways, the convention was the kickoff of the 2012 election season, in which North Carolina is expected to be a battleground state with competitive races for president, governor, and legislature, and with reconfigured congressional seats after redistricting.
Republicans vowed not to be caught by surprise as they were in 2008, when Democrat Barack Obama carried the state - the first time a Democratic presidential candidate had done so in 32 years. The national Democratic Party will hold its convention in Charlotte in September 2012.
"While North Carolina Democrats are busying nominating Barack Obama and catering to the needs of thousands of out-of-state visitors, North Carolina Republicans are going to be making phone calls and going door to door," said Jessica Ennis, political director of the Republican National Committee and a North Carolinian.
"Governor Perdue and President Obama will not go away quietly," warned former Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, the likely GOP candidate for governor. "Right now millions of dollars are pouring into our state. Thousands of ACORN-style workers are moving into our state as we speak. They will bring Wisconsin-type political behavior, which they already did this week in our own legislative building. But the only difference is that we threw them out of the building."
He was referring to three gay activists arrested in the House chambers as they protested a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. State law already prohibits such marriages.
Much of the convention was a victory lap for the Republicans who captured control of the legislature in November.
Lawmakers passed their budget early Saturday morning. Republican legislative leaders said it fulfilled their campaign promise, cutting $1.5 billion in taxes and cutting back government. They also said they were moving to restrict medical malpractice lawsuits, freeze new regulations, and curb benefits that injured workers can claim.
Tillis drew cheers when he said the budget cut one-third of the staff of the state Department of Public Instruction. He noted that the building is called "the Pink Palace," a derisive term Republican Lt Gov. Jim Gardner applied to it in the 1980s.
"To be fair, it's a beautiful building," Tillis said. "It's pink granite. We think condo complexes or something else, if you need office space."
Tillis drew applause also when he said the legislature planned next week to adopt both a bill requiring voters to produce a photo identification, and a bill that would bar the state from collecting dues for the N.C. Association of Educators, the group that lobbies for teachers and other groups.
"They don't care about kids. They don't care about classrooms," Tillis said. "They only care about their jobs and their pensions."
The Republicans took pride in passing a veto-proof budget, with the help of five conservative House Democrats.
"The question on everybody's mind is whether the governor signs the budget," state Senate leader Phil Berger of Eden said. "Fortunately, I'm not sure it matters a whole lot whether she signs the budget. Increasingly she is making herself irrelevant to what is happening in North Carolina."
The sharpest criticism against Perdue was made by McCrory, who said she had done little to address the problems of the 300,000 jobs lost during her 2-1/2 years as governor.
"What is our governor doing?" McCrory said. "She is attending Kentucky horse races, and attending fundraisers in New York and Chicago. She is raising money from unions and trial lawyers who are trying to defeat tort reform in the legislature."
He also alluded to an investigation into her failure to report at the time the use of private airplanes during her 2008 campaign.
"Sadly, she has joined the team of Mike Easley and John Edwards, who have used campaign funds to hire high-priced lawyers because of ongoing FBI investigations," McCrory said. "You know, it must be hard to find a good defense lawyer right now in Raleigh."
He was referring to the former governor and the former U.S. senator.
"It's time to call our governor out for an absolute lack of leadership," McCrory said. "Governor, sadly, you have made yourself irrelevant."
Marc Farinella, a Perdue campaign consultant, responded, "Right now Bev Perdue is the only one standing in the way of the Republican legislature's ideological effort to de-fund the public schools and inflict severe and unnecessary cuts on North Carolina's colleges and universities.
"Not only has McCrory not lifted a finger to help stop this terrible budget plan, he has endorsed it," Farinella said.
He said also that McCrory did not try to dissuade his party from stopping efforts to block 47,000 people from getting unemployment benefits.
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