Three colorful candidates make long-shot bids for N.C. governor

Unknown Democrats seek the nomination for governor

jfrank@newsobserver.com April 11, 2012 

  • Gardenia M. Henley Born: Nov. 18, 1955, in Winston-Salem Education: Shaw University, bachelor’s in accounting, 1986; Southeastern University, master’s in taxation, 1987 Family: single Career: retired, inspector general auditor, U.S. Department of State Elected office: none Community service: member, Winston-Salem Chamber of Commerce; Women’s Fund member
    Henley on the issues Economy: Proposes passing legislation mandating that state government buy goods from in-state businesses and working to encourage economic development. Constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage and civil unions: “My personal view on Amendment 1 should never come into play. Whatever the taxpayers vote on May 8, I would enforce with a strong arm.” Extracting natural gas by fracking: “At this point, I cannot make a firm decision about it because I have to look at how cost effective it is, whether or not it’s going to be environmentally safe, and where the drilling is going to take place.”
  • Bruce B. Blackmon Born: July 13, 1921, in Charlotte Education: Campbell Junior College, 1940; N.C. State University master’s degree in agriculture, 1945; Bowman Gray Medical School at Wake Forest University, 1951 Family: wife, Lelia, died in 2009; five children Career: Campbell University physician; general practice physician Elected office: None Community service: former volunteer firefighter; chairman, Buies Creek Building Committee; deacon, Memorial Baptist Church; recipient, Order of the Long Leaf Pine
    Blackmon on the issues Economy: Develop an endowment by diverting $15 million from the state lottery proceeds each year. Spend half the interest to reduce taxes, and reinvest the rest. Constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage and civil unions: “I’m not worried about that. I may not vote on it.” Extracting natural gas by fracking: “We have plenty of power available in sun and wind power. … We’ll let the legislature get all the facts and then vote for what’s best for the people.”
  • Gary Dunn Born: March 4, 1954, in Philadelphia Education: Central Piedmont Community College, GED; current UNC Charlotte student Family: wife, YunMei; six children Career: former executive, Dunn Manufacturing Elected office: none Community service: none
    Dunn on the issues Economy: “My intent is not to promise great futures and high earnings, but to bring stability to the erratic rise and fall in markets like housing, food and fuel. My aim is to even out the extremes and experience smoother waters.” Constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage and civil unions: “As (governor), my position is to support and maintain the forum that allows the discussion and debate of the issue, not pick a side on this issue. … I am not the flag carrier in the cause, but will defend to the death their right to equality under the law.” Extracting natural gas by fracking: “I support gas extraction using the fracking process.”

Dr. Bruce Blackmon, 90, has a cure for high taxes: create a state endowment. Gardenia Henley says she can find the skeletons in the state budget. And Gary Dunn’s platform includes legalizing marijuana.

Whether you know them or not, all three want the Democratic nomination for governor.

The candidates paid $1,396 each to get their names on the May 8 primary ballot. And while dwarfed by the three major candidates – Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton, former Congressman Bob Etheridge and state Rep. Bill Faison – these challengers all believe they can win.

Their unconventional campaigns and off-script personalities add color to the race, but also reveal questions about whether they are prepared to run a state with a $19.7 billion budget.

The three candidates receive less than 5 percent in early polls, putting their support essentially within the margin of error. So why run?

“People run for office for a variety of reasons,” said Chris Cooper, a Western Carolina University political expert. “Some realistically think they can win, some want to push the policy debate, and some just want to further their political brand. … Of course, an entirely different group of folks may just run because they’ve got nothing better to do.”

Ferreting out waste

Of the three, Henley has the most recent political experience. She lost a 2010 Democratic primary for the N.C. House by a 3-to-1 margin. She alleges voter fraud, but a state investigation dismissed the charge.

In her bid for the governor’s mansion, Henley has pitched herself as the one who can best ferret out waste, fraud and abuse in the state budget because she served for two decades as an inspector general auditor at the U.S. Department of State. She said she traveled in Africa and Europe investigating how the U.S. Agency for International Development spent tax dollars.

Henley is particularly skeptical about state lottery money but won’t identify other areas she would examine because she’s afraid her challengers will steal her ideas.

“I know that I would find areas … where money has not been spent effectively,” she said. “I have never … conducted a review where I did not find cost savings.”

She avoids taking positions on other issues, such as natural gas drilling through fracking and a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage and civil unions.

“If I choose one group over another, that’s discriminating,” she said. “The governor’s position is to execute the law.”

A second bid for governor

For Dunn, a 58-year-old college student at UNC Charlotte, this isn’t his first bid for governor. In 1992, he ran as a Republican solely to call for a “Bring Your Child to Work” Day, but didn’t campaign, he said. He later switched parities.

A married father of six in Matthews, he worked for years in manufacturing, and his father owned a textile business. He said he left the business when his father died and his brother wrestled away control. He takes his bid for governor seriously, issuing frequent emails he calls “virtual press conferences” to inform the public about his views.

When it comes to his top priorities, he sounds like any other candidate: create more jobs, lower taxes, and communicate better with people.

“I feel that the current politicians … might not be completely in touch with what’s going on,” he said.

At the same time, he supports making marijuana use legal. “I want (lawmakers) to … look at decriminalizing it completely. Look at the issue of lowering our gas tax completely,” he said. “These are things that need to be addressed. People are concerned about them.”

A one-plank campaign

Blackmon, a retired Buies Creek physician, gets noticed on the campaign trail for his age. At 90, he’s the oldest candidate by about 20 years. “That just means I have more experience than the rest,” he said.

A four-time recipient of the Order of the Long Leaf Pine, one of the state’s pre-eminent civilian honors, Blackmon said he ran for a state legislative seat years ago, but he doesn’t remember when.

Blackmon’s single-plank platform calls for a tax cut through the creation of an investment fund. He proposes putting $15 million in state lottery proceeds each year into an account that would earn interest, much like an IRA or university endowment, and the state would spend half the interest earned. By his calculation, at a 7 percent interest rate, “in year 400, the total amount to spend is $14 trillion,” he said.

But under his plan, chances of significant tax relief are slim. At 10 years, the spendable interest would offset only a half-penny cut in the state sales tax. And Blackmon doesn’t know what he would do to account for the reduction in lottery money currently earmarked for education.

But if elected, he said, it won’t take long to accomplish his goal. “I think we can do it in two years,” he said. “I want some time left to go fishing.”

Frank: 919-829-4698

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