The lieutenant governor’s job doesn’t have much of an official description other than that of guiding the flow of debate in the state Senate. The office-holder’s own interests largely define the job. This year, voters have distinct choices.
Democrat Linda Coleman is a former state personnel director and legislator from Knightdale, who says she would stand up to the Republican-led legislature when it proposes ideas that hurt the middle class. Coleman is championed by the State Employees Association of North Carolina, which is running television ads on her behalf.
Forest, who lives in Raleigh, is making his first run for office and is a tea party favorite who had former presidential candidate and Fox television show host Mike Huckabee appear for him at a fundraiser.
Both candidates talk about improving state employment, though they take different approaches. And they have divergent views on social issues. Forest has weighed in on topics as varied as gun ownership rights, illegal immigration, school choice and competition in education.
“I think that the government has been moved to the left for decades in North Carolina, and certainly, I want to see it moved to the right,” Forest said. “That’s why I’m doing what I’m doing. At the same time, I’ve spent a career being a consensus-builder.”
Coleman, 63, was a vocal opponent of the constitutional amendment approved in May that bans same-sex marriage and civil unions. She criticized a Republican legislator this summer who called Planned Parenthood a “murderous organization” that should be outlawed.
Forest, 45, sits on the board of Faith Driven Consumer, which has a website discouraging purchases from companies that support “the homosexual lifestyle” or give to charities that in turn give money to Planned Parenthood for cancer screening.
But in a state with one of the highest unemployment rates in the country, most conversations center on the economy and jobs.
In a speech to campaign volunteers one recent morning, Forest hit on tax cuts as a spur to economic growth. The state’s high corporate and personal income tax rates hurt small business, Forest said.
“They can’t innovate,” he said. “They can’t create jobs.”
He wants to end state incentives used to recruit businesses and replace them with lower taxes for all.
In an interview, Coleman said she would use the office to promote industry-based recruitment by using existing businesses and state assets to attract new industries centered on energy, tourism, agriculture and banking.
For example, Coleman said, the merger of Duke Energy and Progress Energy has the potential to attract and grow smaller energy companies, sustainable energy firms for example, that want to be near the country’s largest power company.
“All kinds of job opportunities are going to be created,” she said.
Unlike many states, the governor and lieutenant governor run separately, so there’s a chance that members of the top executive offices could come from different parties. Other than being the person to replace a deceased or incapacitated governor, the office-holder has modest powers: presiding over the state Senate, serving as a voting member of the state education and community college boards and taking other assignments.
Republicans are likely to retain control of the state Senate, and GOP candidate for governor Pat McCrory is maintaining a double-digit lead in his race. If Coleman wins, it’s unlikely that McCrory will assign her high-profile industry recruitment duties or that the legislature would help create a platform to help her expand her influence.
Coleman said her idea of bringing together community colleges, industries and financial institutions would be as effective in a Republican government as it would be in a Democratic one.
“Jobs and the economy should be a nonpartisan issue,” she said.
Forest said he wants to take the lead on developing a plan for the state’s future as the traditional manufacturing and tobacco economies recede. Forest shares this interest with McCrory and said he would talk to McCrory about being a spokesman for that effort.
“I would be in the position to make the governor look good – work alongside the governor as well as the General Assembly,” he said.
A steady rise to the top
Coleman, who grew up in Greenville in a family of 10 children, became interested in politics while a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh.
She won a seat on the Wake County Board of Commissioners in 1998, rising to the chairmanship. She served one term before losing a re-election bid.
In 2004, she won a seat in the state House representing eastern Wake County.
It was in 2005 that Coleman cemented a strong relationship with the state employees association when she stalled a budget vote in an unsuccessful attempt to secure a bonus for state workers. The state employees PAC and the related Service Employees International Union are supporting Coleman with considerable independent expenditures. The employee PACs spent more than $230,000 to help her in the primary and SEANC said earlier this month it had purchased $200,000 in television time to run an ad supporting her.
That dwarfs the $66,000 Coleman reported raising on her own through June 30.
It was unusual for a first-term legislator to take such a public stand against the governor and legislative leaders of her own party.
“I just thought this was the way it was supposed to happen,” Coleman said at the time. “If no one challenges anything, it just doesn’t get done.”
Coleman, a state retiree, worked in various agency personnel offices, was elected to three House terms. She resigned her seat when Gov. Bev Perdue asked her to run the Office of State Personnel.
She opposes school privatization and wants to restore money cut from public education in the last two years.
A political family
Forest grew up in a political household. His mother, Sue Myrick, made her first run for the Charlotte City Council when he was a teenager. She later won elections as Charlotte mayor and is retiring this year as a veteran member of the U.S. House.
It was only recently, Forest said, that he decided to seek public office himself.
Forest is an architect, who left his job as senior partner at Little Diversified Architectural Consulting to run for lieutenant governor. He had raised more than $528,000 though June 30, figures that don’t include the totals from the fundraiser with Huckabee.
“There is a leadership crisis,” he said, adding that the state needs businesspeople to step into public roles. “We should run the government like a business is run.”
Forest spoke during the primary about cracking down on illegal immigration and requiring public schools and hospitals to ask for proof of citizenship, suggesting it would deter undocumented immigrants from settling in the state.
In a recent interview, he wouldn’t expand on his ideas for state action on immigration, saying existing laws should be enforced.
Forest and his wife home-school their children, and he believes that parents who forgo traditional schools to teach their children at home should be able to claim tax credits. He wants vouchers or tax credits for parents who send their children to private schools, saying parent choice would improve public schools that would have to compete with private schools.
“The rising tide of innovation raises all levels of education,” he said.
Modern-era lieutenant governors have approached the job differently, but all have used the job as a launching pad for governor’s races.
Every lieutenant governor since the early 1960s has tried to move up to the state’s highest office.
Coleman demurs on the question of top-office ambitions, saying she’s concentrating on the race she’s in. Forest, however, said he wants to run for governor when the opportunity opens, which he figures will be in eight years.