In the heady days after she became North Carolina’s first female governor and Democrats exalted in Barack Obama’s historic election to the presidency, Bev Perdue may well have dreamed that late December 2012 would find her on the eve of her inauguration and the threshold of her second term.
That dream, like the dreams of so many others, withered in the Great Recession. From the start, Perdue’s options as governor were dictated by the economy. She came to office facing a $4 billion state budget deficit that immediately forced her into cutting budgets and proposing tax increases.
That was a responsible approach, but it won’t make a governor popular, and Perdue wasn’t. That disfavor fed a Republican surge in 2010 that saw the GOP take control of the General Assembly for the first time in more than a century. Perdue, who had served long and well in the legislature as a representative and senator from New Bern, found her knowledge of the legislative process and her knack for compromise often useless in the face of Republican insistence that it was their turn and it would be their way.
A changed role
The GOP’s approach changed Perdue’s role. She was less of a governor and more of a Democrat. At times, she was the only check against Republican excesses. She vetoed 19 bills (11 overridden) during the 2011-2012 legislative session. She battled to hold off laws that would require ultrasound exams before abortions, give a tax break to the wealthy in a time of budget cuts, open North Carolina to fracking, cut public education funding and impose restrictions on casting a ballot through voter ID requirements. Her veto message on that that last bill reflected her view of state government as a force for progress and principle.
“There was a time in North Carolina history when the right to vote was enjoyed only by some citizens rather than by all. That time is past, and we should not revisit it.”
A voter ID bill is likely to be among the first pieces of legislation that will roll through to become law in 2013 now that Republicans control the legislature and the governor’s office. Some Democrats didn’t feel enthusiasm for Perdue, but all Democrats will miss her when she’s gone.
Perdue’s tenure was defined by what she stopped – or tried to stop. And her place in political history will be defined by what she decided not to do. Facing a shortfall in fundraising and concerned about the toll a campaign would take on her family, Perdue announced last January that she would not seek a second term.
That decision left Democrats in the lurch despite Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton’s noble effort to carry the party’s banner. But Perdue, much battered by the economy and Republican legislative leaders, likely would not have won re-election. It was a clear-eyed, if belated, decision.
Beverly Eaves Perdue, a Virginia native who became a loyal daughter of North Carolina, will soon end her long and accomplished political career. It started with her election as a state representative from Craven County in 1986 and extended to 10 years in the state senate, eight years as lieutenant governor and four years as governor.
Perdue’s career was marked by a keen interest in education and the needs of children and senior citizens. Her work affected lives for the better, and she broke the state’s political glass ceilings, including its highest one.
While Perdue will not leave monumental projects or landmark legislation, she will leave an example of inclusive leadership, advocacy for fairness in the face of economic adversity and a summoning of North Carolina to live up to its values. That example will echo through the years as the second inaugural she never gave.