RALEIGH — The major Democratic candidates for governor held their first televised debate Monday night, rapping the Republican legislature for education cuts but offering only muted criticisms of one another.
Introducing themselves to what polls suggest is a large number of undecided voters, Lt Gov. Walter Dalton, former Congressman Bob Etheridge and state Rep. Bill Faison spent much of the hour talking about their backgrounds and discussing how they would work to address North Carolinas high unemployment numbers and help the state regain momentum in education.
In this election, we have a stark choice, Dalton said. Pat McCrory and the Republican leadership have a desire to cut teachers, freeze job recruitment money, and focus on divisive social issues that will lead North Carolina backwards. I understand that great jobs grow from great schools.
To a large extent, that was the theme of all the candidates. Etheridge, a former superintendent of public instruction, emphasized schools more than the others. Faison focused on the states high unemployment rate.
The candidates largely avoided criticizing one another or even drawing sharp contrasts, even though early voting begins Thursday and the May 8 primary is three weeks away. There were no intense exchanges in the one-hour debate on WRAL-TV that was broadcast statewide.
Faison on the attack
Faison was the candidate who came closest to playing the aggressor. The feisty medical malpractice attorney, polls suggest, is badly trailing Dalton and Etheridge. He portrayed Dalton and Etheridge as latecomers in criticizing the Republican legislature, while he had been on the front line for the past year fighting what he termed the Republicans radical social agenda.
I dont know where you guys were until the (candidate) filing, Faison said. I havent seen either one of these guys around until lately.
He also said downplayed Daltons accomplishments. He asked whether Dalton could claim credit for the Early College program, which allows high school students to take college courses and finish in five years with a two-year college degree.
He takes credit for so many things he has nothing to do with, Faison said. They are all things that exist. They are not part of his campaign. Those ideas are all good ideas, but they are not ideas of his campaign. They are things he latches onto.
But Dalton later said that it was his 2003 bill that created the framework for the program that has drawn national attention.
At another point, Dalton questioned the economics of Faisons $2.3 billion jobs plan, saying it was dependent on unidentified tax loopholes. The proposal has some holes in it, he said. That is no jobs plan at all.
Etheridge on education
Faison also took a few oblique shots at Etheridge, suggesting that the former congressman seemed to be running more for superintendent of public instruction rather than governor. Dalton said he liked Etheridges focus on education but noted its been 20 years since he was schools superintendent.
But Etheridge said he had a record of accomplishing things in education, not just making promises.
Look at peoples record and not what they say, Etheridge said. You cannot lay off teachers, reduce class size, cap our universities and do away with the future of our state and have jobs. You just cant get there.
But the debate was marked by broad agreement among the Democrats who hope to succeed Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue.
Points of agreement
• They all supported reinstating a sales tax, passed by the last Democratic legislature, in an effort to minimize cuts to education funding.
• They also all opposed a constitutional amendment on the ballot that declares that marriage is between a man and a woman.
• They opposed tolls being imposed on Interstate 95 drivers.
• They opposed the medical use of marijuana.
• They said they would campaign with President Barack Obama.
The three candidates also took a similar position on the controversy regarding the resignation Sunday of Jay Parmley, executive director of the state Democratic Party, who resigned after the disclosure of a secret settlement involving sexual harassment. They condemned such harassment, but said they would withhold judgment on further action until more details become known.
The one issue where they disagreed was on fracking. Faison strongly opposes the method of natural gas exploration using horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, saying it would put the states water supply at risk for only about 100 jobs. Both Dalton and Etheridge said they wanted to see more studies before taking a position.
The jury is still out on that to some degree, Dalton said.
I dont think the jury is out at all, Faison said. Its a terrible idea.