Walter Dalton's edge

October 24, 2012 

Since North Carolina amended its constitution to allow the governor to run for a second term, every chief executive beginning with Jim Hunt in 1980 has taken advantage of that privilege. Except one. That would be Beverly Eaves Perdue, who will turn over her key to the governor’s mansion in early January.

Already, Pat McCrory can see himself fitting that key onto his chain after the Nov. 6 election. The person who could change that outcome is Walter Dalton, the lieutenant governor, veteran legislator and small-town attorney from the foothills of Rutherford County.

Of these two candidates for the governorship, we think Dalton has more of what it takes to lead North Carolina in the right direction, toward more opportunity and prosperity for all of its people.

McCrory, the Republican former mayor of Charlotte, lost narrowly to Perdue in 2008 as Perdue, coming off eight years as lieutenant governor, benefitted from a strong Democratic effort that carried the state for Barack Obama.

McCrory says he assumed the defeat meant curtains for his political career. But Perdue struggled to gain traction. The overriding challenge became one of balancing the state budget, which was under extra stress on the spending side because of the recession while revenues lagged.

And then Perdue faced the same kind of scrutiny over campaign finance irregularities, involving travel on privately owned aircraft, that had tripped up her predecessor, Democrat Mike Easley. Perdue was not charged with any wrongdoing but her campaign was fined.

Even more auspiciously for McCrory, his party captured both houses of the General Assembly in 2010. Perdue put up a brave front, vetoing several bills that were anathema to Democrats. But when it came time to take the plunge for a re-election campaign, she decided the water was just too cold.

Meanwhile a reinvigorated McCrory was running hard – raising money and courting GOP tea party conservatives who had suspected him of having at least a few moderate tendencies.

Perdue’s decision to settle for a single term came late in the going. Walter Dalton, beginning his final year as lieutenant governor after a solid tenure in the state Senate, had to gear up quickly to contend for the Democratic nomination for governor against two rivals, including the well-known former congressman Bob Etheridge.

The primary contest turned into a sprint, and Dalton won. But he entered the general election campaign against McCrory short on money and exposure. McCrory must have figured that the fall campaign was his to lose.

Power switch

The lieutenant governor, however, had been hiding in plain sight. When the campaign got under way in earnest, he soon made it clear that on the merits of experience, knowledge, vision and judgment, he is extraordinarily well equipped to give North Carolina the executive leadership it needs.

McCrory received this newspaper’s editorial endorsement four years ago – our first for a Republican candidate for governor -- because he seemed well-suited to counterbalance a Democratic General Assembly whose leaders had grown presumptuous with their power, in some cases illegally so, and because his call for a fresh approach to governing struck a chord.

He was not cozying up to far-right business interests or making rash tax-cutting pledges.

This year, the 2008 situation has been turned on its head. McCrory as governor would almost certainly be working with a legislature firmly in GOP hands. The odds of a checks-and-balances dynamic would be minimal.

That puts a premium on Dalton as someone who would be well-suited to review Republican plans with a suitable measure of healthy skepticism. As a creature of the legislature himself, he knows the virtues of compromise. But in many areas, especially those involving the grand priority-setting exercise that is budgeting, Dalton has a deeper and better-informed set of views than McCrory as to which choices, for both taxing and spending, best serve the state.

He has campaigned with solid, specific ideas for strengthening the state’s educational systems, shoring up the economy and putting people back to work in a state afflicted with one of the country’s highest rates of joblessness.

Dalton would not be found nodding in agreement while legislators scrimped on early childhood programs, or enacted spending cuts that forced school systems to scale back their teaching ranks, or put the university system on short rations in a self-defeating economy push. He would not go along with vouchers for private school education, undermining public schools.

Tax conundrum

McCrory’s all-purpose solution to the state’s economic woes hinges on lower taxes and less regulation, especially for small businesses, along with job training more targeted on the needs of business.

He proclaims that the state must learn to do more with less. Yet he has been unable to square his proposed cuts in corporate and individual income taxes with his vow that he would not support a higher sales tax. Would he go for dramatic spending cuts? Would he apply the sales tax to services? To that question, he says he doesn’t yet know. Dalton knows – the welcome answer is that he wouldn’t.

Dalton takes a measured approach to energy exploration, which McCrory unrealistically paints as a linchpin to the state’s future prosperity. Natural gas drilling, for all its potential environmental risks, would be unlikely to bring large employment gains. And drilling for oil or gas offshore could put a damper on the state’s beach-oriented tourism trade.

Dalton’s command of policy is impressive, and he is a staunch believer in government as a force for good.

He seems capable both of reaching out to a Republican legislature when there is a chance to find common ground and of standing against moves that would elevate the interests of the privileged over the interests of ordinary folks. We are proud to give Walter Dalton our editorial endorsement and urge North Carolina voters to choose him as the state’s next governor.

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