Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bob Etheridge said Friday this was "a defining moment" in North Carolina's history, and that he could provide the leadership that would keep the state in its preeminent position in the South.
In his first day as a candidate, Etheridge said that as a son of a Harnett County tenant farmer he understood North Carolina's journey from rural poverty to success.
Etheridge, who served 14 years in Congress and was superintendent of public instruction for eight years, said he would champion public education, from public schools to universities, which he said faced erosion under constant budget constraints.
"This is a defining moment in the history of the state," he said at a news conference outside state Democratic headquarters. "North Carolina has always been that Southern state that has stood out. We stood out in the South as a leader. We can't go back now."
Etheridge skirted two difficult issues on his first day as a gubernatorial candidate.
He declined to take a position on the constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages and civil unions that will appear on the ballot in May, saying it is an issue that he will have to deal with later.
"The nice thing is it is before the people and they will make the decision," Etheridge said. "I always believe the people in the state make the right decision."
Republican Rep. Renee Ellmers, who defeated Etheridge in 2010, has said she plans to vote against the amendment - even though she opposed gay marriages - because she thinks it is worded too broadly and would preclude civil unions.
Representing the conservative-leaning second district, Etheridge voted twice for a federal constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriages in 2004 and 2006. But he also voted for a law in 2007 banning job discrimination based on a person's sexual orientation.
He also declined to endorse a proposal by Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue to raise the sales tax 3/4ths of a cent, although he admonished the Republican legislature for repealing a temporary sales tax increase last year.
"They shouldn't have done away with it," Etheridge said.
"They (the schools) are going to need resources," Etheridge said. "That is going to be the thing that the legislature is going to have to deal with when it comes to town."
The other two Democrats in the race, Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton and state Rep. Bill Faison of Orange County, both support the increased sales tax. And Dalton has said he does not support the marriage amendment.
Etheridge lost his House seat in 2010 after an incident in which he grabbed a young man posing as a student who was videotaping him on a Washington, D.C., street. The video went viral and was used in the campaign against Etheridge. After the election, the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee acknowledged that the two young men had been operating on their behalf.
Asked whether that incident might come back to haunt him in a governor's campaign, Etheridge said: "I think people know what happened. They know it was a setup. It was a lot of outside money that flowed in. I accepted my responsibility for that part. ... This is really about the future, what kind of leadership we are going to provide."
If elected, Etheridge, at age 70, would be among North Carolina's oldest governors.
But Etheridge said his vision for the state, not his age, should be the issue.
"I guess y'all ought to ask the question of Warren Buffett," he said, referring to the 81-year-old financial wizard from Omaha. "He has done a good job of providing leadership in the financial sector."