Our endorsements for Council of State

November 1, 2012 

When it comes to the concentration of executive branch power, North Carolina has operated from the get-go under the theory that you can’t be too careful. Too careful, that is in guarding against a governor who – egad! – might want to have a direct say over the state’s agricultural programs, for example, or workplace safety, or insurance regulation.

Those are just some of the government responsibilities delegated to a group of top managers who are independently elected by the state’s voters. There are eight such positions. Collectively, they make up the Council of State – a group that also includes the lieutenant governor and that, when it meets, is chaired by the governor.

In our view, the case for letting the governor fill some of these jobs by appointment is clear. But on Tuesday, and earlier for those so inclined, voters from Manteo to Murphy have the privilege. All the terms are for four years.

Only Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper, seeking his fourth term, has no opposition. We present here our editorial endorsements in the seven contested races, with an eye toward experience, effectiveness and policies that advance the public interest.

State Auditor

BETH WOOD The auditor fills a crucial role both in ensuring the integrity of state government’s books and in acting as a sort of inspector general, highlighting inefficiency and waste. Success requires financial savvy and fierce independence. Wood, a Democrat elected to her first term four years ago, has won respect for her leadership of an office that has not shied from criticizing agencies for instances of mismanagement.

Wood, who is a C.P.A, would be a good choice even against an opponent whose judgment and character hadn’t been called into question. But Republican Debra Goldman is embroiled in controversy raised by her conduct as a member of the Wake County school board. What’s more, Goldman lacks professional qualifications for the auditor’s job. Wood is by far the superior candidate.

Commissioner of Agriculture

STEVE TROXLER It might not be obvious in heavily developed places like Charlotte or the Triangle, but agriculture remains North Carolina’s largest industry. Helping growers market their products and overseeing the safety of food supplies are two of the commissioner’s most important jobs. Troxler, a Guilford County Republican first elected in 2004, knows farming and has led his department with a steady hand.

His Democratic challenger, Walter Smith of Robeson County, also has a farming background. He directed the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s office in Yadkin County. Troxler would do well to heed Smith’s call for an even greater emphasis on marketing. But the incumbent has performed well on the whole and Smith offers no compelling reason to replace him.

Commissioner of Insurance

WAYNE GOODWIN Consumers benefit when there is a robust market for insurance products. That doesn’t necessarily mean bargain-basement rates. It means rates that make it worthwhile for companies to do business here – while not exploiting people who will have to buy insurance, one way or the other. Democratic incumbent Goodwin, an attorney and former legislator, during his first term has tilted toward lower rates and consumer protection, but not to the point where insurance – auto and property in particular – has become hard to obtain. He tackled a problem with the availability of coastal homeowners insurance in a way meant to balance the interests of coastal and inland residents.

Republican challenger Mike Causey, who describes himself as a farmer, small business owner and retired insurance executive, argues that less regulation would bring more insurers to the state. Goodwin counters that the number of insurers active here has risen under his watch. Causey seems knowledgeable about the department’s responsibilities, but Goodwin has shown that he’s up to the job.

Commissioner of Labor

JOHN BROOKS As the Democratic challenger, Brooks is in the unusual position of trying to reclaim a post he filled for 16 years – after being out of office since the beginning of 1993. He’s remained active during that period as an attorney with the N.C. Industrial Commission. In that capacity, he says, he’s seen workplace injuries become more severe – a point he uses against three-term Republican incumbent Cherie Berry.

Workplace safety is a primary concern of the state Department of Labor. Berry says occupational injuries and illnesses have declined during her time in office, a fact she uses to extol her approach to regulation, which leans toward education and persuasion rather than fines. Brooks counters that changes in the state’s workforce, away from hazardous occupations, also have contributed to progress in the safety arena. He says that with more vigorous enforcement, the state can do even better. North Carolina workers need a determined champion, and Brooks shapes up as a credible alternative to someone who tends to view workplace regulation from an employer’s perspective.

Secretary of State

ELAINE MARSHALL After 16 years in office, Marshall has shown herself to be a capable public servant. Her department handles corporate filings, a process she has modernized, and stands guard against securities fraud. She also is responsible for the regulation of lobbyists, a task that sometimes chafes powerful special interests. Marshall has been a leader in trying to make the state’s lobbying rules more effective.

She is opposed by Republican Ed Goodwin, a Chowan County commissioner and former criminal investigator for the Navy. Goodwin’s campaign rests on various hard-right themes that resonate especially among the tea partyers, but as to why he’d do better than the Democratic incumbent in the office he’s seeking, he fails to make a case.


of Public Instruction

JUNE ATKINSON A proven, career educator who’s performed respectably in the state’s top K-12 education post for the last eight years seeks another term. This should not be a head-scratcher, and it isn’t. Test scores among the state’s public school students have improved, and Atkinson, a Democrat, is a strong advocate for ample education resources.

Wake County school board member John Tedesco, Atkinson’s Republican challenger, has yard signs with the slogan “Our students deserve better.” Well, yes. Tedesco no doubt is sincere in wanting to see all students succeed, but his policies in Wake would have cut against the interests of students from poor backgrounds. He also has played a role in turning the Wake board into a partisan battleground in an effort to advance GOP fortunes. His missteps should not be rewarded with a promotion.

State Treasurer

JANET COWELL The former Raleigh City Council member and Democratic state senator, running for a second term, points to decent performance, even during a miserable economy, by the huge state pension fund for which she is responsible. The fund’s gains were better than the median during the past fiscal year while slightly trailing the median over three years. The fund is healthy in terms of assets vs. liabilities, and North Carolina retains its AAA bond rating, a sign of smart borrowing practices.

Republican opponent Steve Royal, an Elkin-based C.P.A., gigs Cowell over her fundraising among people in the financial industry. He has a point about appearances; Cowell’s excuse that statewide campaigns cost money is a little tired (and also underscores the desirability of public campaign financing). Still, no ethical issues have surfaced that outweigh Cowell’s superior qualifications in finance and her record of results. She is well-suited to continue as the state’s top money manager.

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