HENDERSONVILLE — Standing on the front porch of an old house that serves as the local Democratic headquarters here last weekend, gubernatorial candidate Walter Dalton invoked the names of famous Democratic governors: Jim Hunt, Terry Sanford and O. Max Gardner.
The Republicans, Dalton said, have been shrinking the institutions that generations of Democratic governors had built up the University of North Carolina, the community college system, and Smart Start, the states early childhood program. And his Republican opponent, Pat McCrory, is part of that crowd, he said.
Pat McCrory and his allies are whittling away at the greatness of the university system and the greatness of our community college system, Dalton said. And Pat McCrory and his allies are whittling away at our early childhood programs. I will not stand by and watch them damage our present and destroy our future.
But as Dalton tries to call up the ghosts of Gardner, Sanford and Hunt, he is shackled by the more recent past. After 20 straight years of Democratic governors, his partys brand has been tarnished by controversies and scandals.
The Republican TV ads pair him not with Sanford or Hunt, but with the unpopular current governor, Bev Perdue. On the campaign stump and in debates, McCrory calls for the end of the good ol boy and good ol girl system.
Dalton, who spent most of his life as a country lawyer in the small former mill town of Rutherfordton, has found it difficult to carve out his own identity pushing the education vision of past Democratic governors while trying to avoid the problems of the last two occupants of the Executive Mansion.
Dalton seems like a candidate right out of the Democrats playbook, a small-town moderate lawyer just like Hunt, Sanford and Gardner who is progressive on education, gets along with business, and tends to tip conservative on social issues. Hes an old home boy, said an appreciative Doyle Enloe, 73, of Etowah, a retired owner of an electrical supply business. Hed be more like Terry Sanford than any governor weve had because he lives education.
If his past 12 years as a state senator and nearly four years as lieutenant governor are any guide, a Governor Dalton would be a team player, a bit of a policy wonk who would put most of his emphasis on education and jobs.
He promises incremental changes more early high schools, tax credits for employers who hire, more transparency in government. Critics, such as John Hood of the Locke Foundation, have described his proposals as small ball.
Born for politics
Dalton has been seen by some in the state Democratic Party as a potential governor since he was recruited in 1996 to run for the state Senate.
He was a lawyer in Rutherfordton, a town in the foothills near the South Carolina border, heading a small firm with six lawyers with a wide-ranging practice anything that came in the door, Dalton said. He and his firm represented the county, the local hospital, the electric co-op, handled real estate transactions, wills, traffic tickets, estate planning, personal injury cases, defense work and trial work.
Dalton, who with his boyish face looks younger than 63, has good blood lines. His great grandfather was Raleigh Rutherford Haynes, a North Carolina textile mill magnate. His father, Charles Dalton, an attorney and one-term state senator, harbored ambitions to run for governor but died of a heart attack at age 57 when Dalton was 8.
Dalton followed his father into law and finally into Democratic politics. He had thought about running for the state House in the early 1990s, but when his son, Brian, was diagnosed with a medical condition that left him legally blind, he postponed the decision. He became active in the community, chairing the community college board, becoming a lay leader in the United Methodist Church and a Cub Scout leader.
The 46th district in the foothills of Western North Carolina is a tough district for a Democrat, a lunch-bucket manufacturing area that borders South Carolina and includes Lake Lure and Chimney Rock Park.
Dalton defeated a Republican freshman in a race so close that it needed a recount. Dalton faced expensive, competitive races in every election. He won, in part, by being a successful fundraiser and also having the backing of the Democratic caucus war chest.
During his years in Raleigh, Dalton earned a reputation as a quick study, someone willing to wade into complicated issues, a bit reserved, and a team player. Colleagues use words like solid to describe him, rather than exciting or charismatic.
Dalton is not a back-slapper and can come across as a little reserved.
Walter is a very straightforward, straight-up guy, said David Hoyle of Dallas, the state secretary of revenue, who served with Dalton in the state Senate. He is very intelligent. He thinks before he speaks. I think he tries to stay focused on the right page when it comes to talking about education or economic development.
To a large degree, his legislative career has been shaped by the plant closings in his district that saw unemployment rise at one point to 17 percent. Dalton readily lists the plants that have closed in his district: Fieldcrest, Burlington, Cone Mills, Collins & Aikman, Dan River, Stonecutter, Miller Tanner, Spring Ford Mills and Broyhill Furniture.
During his six terms in the Senate, Dalton focused on legislation to help laid-off workers from helping people keep their homes to making it easier to attend community college. He has become one of the architects of the early college program, which connects 75 high schools to institutions of higher learning and allows student to earn a high school diploma and a two-year college degree in five years.
I dont think there is another state in the union who is doing as much along these lines as North Carolina is, said Maryland Gov. Martin OMalley, after touring an early high school on the N.C. State University campus last month.
All for business
The legislature has rarely been a good launching pad for governor. Much of the work is both collaborative and incremental in nature. There are hundreds and maybe even thousands of votes that can be targeted by opponents. Dalton rose rapidly in the Democratic-controlled Senate, which was headed by Marc Basnight and Tony Rand, becoming budget co-chairman.
The Senate leadership tended to be both pro-business and pro-education, and Dalton fit right in.
He supported Duke Energys $2 billion plan to build two coal-fired generating plants at Cliffside on the Cleveland-Rutherford county line in his district, a move opposed by environmental groups. In 2004, he helped the billboard industry win after a 20-year fight to require local governments to compensate them when billboards are banned.
The pro-business positions also kept Dalton in good standing with the Senate leadership and enabled him to be one of the top recipients of contributions from business political action committees money that was helpful in winning re-election in such a tough district.
I dont ever remember going to Walter with a business issue that he didnt support, said Hoyle, the Senates leading voice for business during Daltons tenure.
But while Dalton built a legislative record, other Democrats were having some high-profile problems.
House Speaker Jim Black went to federal prison, as did Agriculture Commissioner Meg Scott Phipps. Shortly after Gov. Mike Easley left office, newspaper reports linked him to free airplane flights, a free car and his wifes job at N.C. State. More recently, Perdue endured an investigation into her campaign that led to guilty pleas from two former aides.
In ordinary times, a broad knowledge of state government would be an advantage, having pushed bills through the legislature, knowing all the key players in Raleigh, understanding the budget, and having a deep knowledge of dozens of state programs.
But there is a downside to being part of the majority. McCrory has tied Dalton to both past tax increases and to the scandals involving Democrats.
Dalton is a card-carrying member of the good-old boy and good-old girl system of our broken state government that has produced scandal after scandal while Dalton sat idly by and said and did nothing, McCrorys campaign said in one written statement.
Dalton said he should be measured on his own merits. Im not Jim Black, he said. Im not Mike Easley. Im not Beverly Perdue. Im not Meg Scott Phipps. All I can say is I have lived my life clean and proper, and people need to look at my record.
Dalton has sought to inoculate himself on the issue by releasing his tax returns and urging McCrory to do likewise. He has pushed ethics legislation that would restrict legislators to eight years in office, create an independent redistricting panel, and expand campaign-finance and ethics disclosure.
Dalton says not all the ethical problems have involved Democrats, noting Republican scandals involving Rep. Steve LaRoque and the staff of House Speaker Thom Tillis.
But Daltons actions at times have raised eyebrows. He accepted a trip in 2004 along with another prominent lawmaker to play a round of golf at the Augusta National Golf Club as a guest of the billboard industry, for which he had sponsored legislation. Dalton said there was nothing improper about the trip, and he has since voted to make such trips more transparent in the future.
His wife and his son have both served on his legislative staff, a common practice in the legislature. His wife filled in for six weeks at $493 per week in 2005, when his regular legislative assistant left. His son worked as a temporary research assistant from September 2004 through 2008 with a starting salary of $29,796.
Four years too soon?
In North Carolina, governors and lieutenant governors do not run together on a ticket. And Perdue and Dalton, while longtime colleagues in the Senate, have never been that close.
Perdue did give Dalton assignments to lead a transportation task force and a commission looking at online education. He said he routinely met with her about twice a month, mostly in public meetings.
They did not coordinate on Perdues abrupt announcement that she would not seek a second term.
Jeffery Israel of Canton, an official with Local 507 of United Steelworkers, said Perdue did not do Dalton any favors by announcing so late in January that she would not run again, giving him little time to prepare for the race. Israel said Dalton probably is running four years before he was ready.
At the Western Gala held at Ashevilles Grove Park Inn earlier this month, Dalton brought the crowd of 500 to its feet with a fiery speech a sign of how far he has come since he announced his candidacy this year. He was regarded as so bland and unknown that an editorial cartoonist with The Charlotte Observer drew him as faceless.
He has transformed himself from a policy wonk whose speeches were so filled with the names of programs he helped create, bills he sponsored and government task forces that he chaired that it was often only a matter of seconds before the eyes of the audiences glazed over. He has become an accomplished stump speaker, making his points in a fast-clipped mountain twang.
Dalton said he entered the race knowing it would be difficult, noting that McCrory had run in 2008, and had been campaigning for four years. But Dalton said he had been running difficult races all his life, and that the cuts in education were getting so bad that he felt that he needed to step forward.
But as far as Dalton has come, the polls suggest he still has a lot of ground to make up, and not much time left to do it. As he echoes the themes of his Democratic heroes, he also feels the drag of his partys contemporary leaders.
Researcher David Raynor contributed to this report.