RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK — The Democratic gubernatorial candidates sharpened their criticisms Tuesday night, drawing more pointed contrasts with each other’s records in the second in a series of televised debates.
Former U.S. Rep. Bob Etheridge heard his congressional record on trade and his tenure as superintendent of public instruction come under fire. Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton found himself defending his attendance record and his advocacy of Democratic causes in the legislature.
In Monday’s televised debate, the candidates had leveled most of their criticism at the Republican legislature and by extension at the likely GOP nominee, former Charlotte Pat McCrory
But on Tuesday, with early voting set to begin Thursday, the Democrats more frequently went after one another.
Etheridge, whom several polls have suggested has a lead in the Democratic primary, was a particular target.
Dalton criticized a vote that Etheridge made in 2003 in favor of a trade agreement with Chile and Singapore that was backed by the Bush administration but opposed by many House Democrats.
“I’m from a hometown that saw 17 percent unemployment,” said Dalton, who is from Rutherford County. “I was asked how did it happen. I investigated and found out it was these trade bills. Little did I know that when I got into this race that Bobby (Etheridge) had voted with Bush on that and was the only North Carolina Democrat to do that.”
“It sent our jobs overseas and hurt our farmers,” Dalton said. “Exports have gone down. We are still getting back to our knees because of that vote.”
“Mr. Dalton needs to check his facts,” Etheridge shot back. “On the trade treaty he is talking about, our trade increased by $28 billion in the United States.”
Etheridge said while the trade deals may cost some jobs, it worked for the benefit of many North Carolina industries, including Tar Heel agriculture and many businesses in Research Triangle Park, including telecommunications and technology.
Jabs over experience
But state Rep. Bill Faison of Orange County questioned Etheridge’s claim of job gains.
“Bob, those jobs you are talking about are in some other state,” Faison said. “We are worse off but for three states in this union (in unemployment). Now maybe you got some jobs. But you didn’t bring them home.”
Faison also said that Dalton had not done enough to combat the 15 percent unemployment rate in Rutherford County, saying “you are not doing anything to fix it.” He accused both Etheridge and Dalton of running for schools superintendent, while he was the only candidate running on the issue of jobs.
Etheridge leveled his own criticism at Dalton, questioning his attendance record at the various boards and commissions that he has headed.
“Mr. Dalton is selective in his facts,” Etheridge said. “As lieutenant governor he needs to show up on these boards he is a member of.”
He also questioned how strenuous Dalton had been in fighting the Republican budget cuts that he criticizes.
“It would have been a whole lot more helpful if we heard more out of him in the last couple of years when the General Assembly was making those cuts when he was silent on those issues and everybody else was fighting for them,” Etheridge said. “That is the time you need to speak up, when action is being taken, not after the fact.”
Replied Dalton: “Bob hasn’t been following me around. I have been speaking about the bad things in this budget.”
As in the previous night’s debate, Faison most often played the role of the aggressor.
When Etheridge talked about his ability to work across party lines, Faison countered that when Etheridge was the state’s schools superintendent the Democratic legislature moved to strip him of his power.
“You got so sideways with the legislature, which was a Democratic legislature, that they gutted the superintendent of public instruction office’s power,” Faison said. “So I don’t know how you are going to work with a Republican legislature if you couldn’t even get along with a Democratic one.”
Etheridge said the changes were part of a long-running power dispute, that prompted the current superintendent, June Atkinson, to file a winning lawsuit.