When Bev Perdue moves out of the governor’s mansion, she will leave behind a historic governorship but a deeply embattled one.
Taking office as North Carolina’s first female governor, Perdue kept brushing up against history. She spent the first two years trying to keep state government afloat during the worst economic trough since the Great Depression of the 1930s. And she spent her final two years battling the first Republican-controlled legislature since the 1800s.
Faced with a difficult if not impossible re-election fight, she became the first governor since North Carolina allowed its chief executives to serve two consecutive terms not to seek re-election.
“Sometimes people say that a leader defines a moment,” said Karl Campbell, an historian at Appalachian State University, who is writing a biography of Gov. Luther Hodges.
“At other times, a moment defines the leader. That is simplistic. My first shot as a biographer would be that she was a governor that was defined by the times.
“The historical context was of realignment, recession, also changing national mores. … I wonder if any governor would have any ability to influence the events to any great extent.”
But political observers say that while Perdue may have been caught in historical forces larger than herself, she often didn’t help her cause. She had difficulty defining what her governorship was about, finding her own voice, and establishing a working relationship with the legislature, particularly with Republicans.
“I think it is genuinely interesting to ask: What was the Perdue administration about?” said John Hood, president of the conservative John Locke Foundation, who is writing a biography of Gov. Jim Martin.
“Even though she got dealt a bad hand, she just didn’t play it very skillfully,” Hood said. “That is surprising to a lot of people because she is not a political neophyte.”
In an interview recently in the executive mansion, where she had already begun packing, Perdue said she would like to be remembered for “moving the state forward” during difficult times, even if it meant taking politically unpopular stands.
“I believe people will say we made the tough, correct decisions for the state,” Perdue said.
To large extent the public perception of Perdue was frozen in place during her first six months in office when she was handling the budget crisis.
Faced with a $4.7 billion budget shortfall, Perdue took actions that managed to anger nearly everyone. She helped push through $1.5 billion in tax increases, which angered conservatives and others. Teachers, state employees and advocates for the poor took the streets to protest budget cuts, furloughs and salary cuts so that her standing among liberals tanked. Meanwhile, unemployment rose above 11 percent.
Perdue said that while her decisions hurt her politically, she believes her decisions will be validated in helping the state get through a difficult period.
“I thank God I was here,” Perdue said.
It would have been even more difficult “if somebody had not known the intricacies of the budget, and the impact of the decisions being made and cut after cut and furloughs of state employees and state teachers – the first time in history. Those were hard decisions. They were not politically popular, but they were the right thing for the state in the long term.”
The first year in office is when governors typically push through the legislature their signature programs. But there were times during 2009 that Perdue was scraping to find enough money to meet the state payroll.
As a result, there are few new big initiatives tied to Perdue. Instead she pushed for less flashy and less costly incremental steps – expansion of early childhood programs or programs that make it easier for high school students to take college or technical courses.
Perdue said her biggest disappointment is that there was not money for new initiatives, such as providing computers for children in secondary and elementary schools.
“Those are the kinds of things I would have loved to have done if I had been governor in the 1990s,” Perdue said. “But you play the cards you are dealt.”
No big initiatives
Even if there had been money, it is hard to define what Perdue’s goals were because she has difficulty articulating a larger overall vision. A veteran of the old-style deal-making environment of the legislature, she was not a natural in selling her programs to the public.
“She never had a big program that was identifiable for her,” said Gary Pearce, a veteran Democratic consultant and author of a biography of former Gov. Jim Hunt. “Part of that is she didn’t have money to spend. To be a successful governor or president, that is what you are remembered for – making big initiatives and overseeing big changes.”
Some supporters have suggested that her legacy will be the deal she made during the last month in office, in arranging for the Dix property, the former state mental hospital located near downtown Raleigh, to be leased to Raleigh for a park.
Hood, however, discounted the Dix park as having much impact outside of Raleigh. Instead, he said, Perdue can point to significant accomplishments such as the first restructuring of state government in decades, merging14 high-level state functions into eight.
After the mid-term elections, the policy initiatives rested with Republican lawmakers, and Perdue’s role evolved into a more defensive one.
She vetoed a record 19 bills passed by the GOP legislature – including bills that would slow the effort for underground natural gas exploration, or fracking, the GOP-passed budget, and efforts to have the state join the legal challenge to the federal health care law. But she became increasingly ineffective as Republicans were able to find supermajorities to override 11 of her vetoes.
One of the few bills she was able to block was one requiring voters to produce a photo ID at the polls. She drew cheers at Democratic rallies by promising that she had barrels of ink.
Just as Republicans often saw GOP Sen. Jesse Helms as a Horatio at the Bridge, fighting the good fight holding back liberal legislation in a Democratic Congress in the 1970s, even if he was losing, Democrats saw Perdue in a similar role in battling a conservative legislature.
Perdue did a good job of “framing the issues of what is at stake in the schools and in civil rights,” said Chris Fitzsimon, director of N.C. Policy Watch, a liberal advocacy group based in Raleigh.
“Those are the things she stood up for,” Fitzsimon said. “I applaud her for doing that. She might not have been as effective in getting the message out to the rest of the state, but I don’t know how you do that when unemployment is at 10 percent and you have a well-greased Republican machine and no operation on the other side to counter that.”
Perdue said she doesn’t know how she could have had a better relationship with the GOP legislature because they brought fundamentally different views, especially regarding social issues and voting issues. She said “cookies and tea” could not have changed the vast gulf between her and the GOP lawmakers on a bill to require voters to produce photo IDs at the polls.
Her chief nemesis, Senate Republican leader Phil Berger, declined to be interviewed for this article.
‘The dumbest governor’
Some of her supporters wonder how gender played into her battles with the legislature – a largely male Republican leadership.
The GOP criticism of her was often tough and personal. At a GOP rally in Wake County rally earlier this year, a party official – a woman – described her as “the dumbest governor in America.” The insults on the Internet were far worse and sometimes gender specific.
“We can’t forget that she was the first woman governor, and that is new terrain for her, and it’s new terrain for legislative leaders who worked with her,” Campbell said.
But she also seemed to make it easy for her critics by serving up gaffes. There seemed at times to be no filter between what she was thinking and what was coming out of her mouth – whether it was her off-the-cuff comments about suspending congressional elections or her struggles with cigarettes and Doritos.
She hired and fired a series of press aides and speech writers, but none could solve the basic problem – which was Perdue herself.
Perdue downplayed the significance of gender, except as an inspiration to young women.
“She broke the glass ceiling,” said Secretary of State Elaine Marshall, a fellow Democrat. “Forevermore, she will be the one who has done that.” There are many instances, Marshall said, where she has seen parents introduce their daughters to Perdue to show them there are no limitations to their aspirations.
What Marshall said she particularly admired about Perdue is that despite the difficulties, she never heard her complain.
“She never asked for any sympathy for doing what a governor has to do during difficult times,” Marshall said.
Gender may also have played a role in some of issues on which she chose to focus.
Perdue pushed efforts to expand government health insurance for children, she used an executive order to expand a pre-kindergarten program, and she vetoed an effort by the legislature – although her veto was overridden – to make abortions more difficult to obtain.
She was also the driving force for compensating the victims of the state’s eugenics program. An estimated 7,500 women were sterilized between 1929 and 1974.
With a professional background in geriatric care, Perdue was plugged into aging issues, said Ran Coble, executive director of the nonpartisan N.C. Center for Public Policy Research.
She had every agency thinking about the state’s rapidly growing aging population, championed programs that helped people stay in their homes, and re-established a commission on volunteerism to better use baby boomers to do things that government cannot afford to do.
The Republican tide
Perdue came up through the traditional good ol’ boy system of politics, rewarding fundraisers by naming bridges after them, playing favorites in the Highway Patrol, and not being overly fastidious about campaign finance rules.
Three figures from her 2008 campaign were indicted for campaign finance irregularities involving unreported contributions for airplane trips and campaign salaries.
But once in office, she surprised the good government reformer types with her efforts help clean up government – perhaps a reaction to a spate of recent Democratic scandals.
She pushed through a number of ethics reforms such as making public records more transparent, barring her appointees to boards and commissions from accepting gifts, and tightening restrictions on government regulators moving to the private sector. Perhaps most notably she took the rather extraordinary step of taking away road-building decisions from the State Board of Transportation, a body composed of political heavy hitters.
But in the end, none of that helped, as the Republicans promised to take a broom to state government.
Perhaps the Democrats had overstayed their welcome. No state east of the Rockies had 20 years of Democratic governors like North Carolina. This was especially noticeable in the increasingly Republican-leaning South.
“She had a tremendous set of challenges,” Pearce said. “Add it all together – bad economy, conservative state, first woman governor, meaner politics, legislative background – it was a real challenge to her. It was an inevitable end to a Democratic strain that goes back to the 1970s.”