RALEIGH — Before most Republicans began advocating teacher pay hikes, Lt. Gov. Dan Forest made a bold declaration: Make North Carolina teachers the highest-paid in the nation. And do it without raising taxes.
With those words in September, the first-term lieutenant governor was momentarily in the spotlight on a major issue that will dominate the coming legislative session.
It was an unusual position for the lieutenant governor. With few prescribed responsibilities, the Raleigh Republican operates largely in the shadows cast by Gov. Pat McCrory and powerful Republican lawmakers.
But now, after a year searching for his place in the conversation, Forest is beginning to emerge on his own.
He is expected to propose a multiyear plan in January to give teachers a huge salary boost. The same month, he will relaunch the eLearning Commission, started by Gov. Bev Perdue but largely dormant in recent years, and lead the newly charged Energy Policy Council.
In a recent interview, Forest made it clear education is at the top of his agenda.
There are so many missed opportunities in education, he said from his office in the renovated Hawkins-Hartness House in Raleigh. I think that lots of times policy-driven issues in education are two years at a time. They kind of come and go with elections and leadership changes and that sort of stuff, and we are here (with) a little bit more longevity.
Forest, 46, agreed with the vast majority of the legislation approved earlier this year in the contentious legislative session. But at times, he has carved his own path, taking conflicting stances with the separately elected governor and Republican legislative leaders.
The statutory limitations of the office are great, said Dee Stewart, a Republican political consultant who doesnt work with Forest. That said, I think hes been creative in sort of carving out a niche for himself, a role for the lieutenant governor that is a little more expansive than has traditionally been in place.
Like the governor, Forest opposed a bill that he warned would weaken immigration rules and wants lawmakers to reinstate bonus pay for teachers pursuing masters degrees. But Forest is also pushing back against the Common Core education standards, which the governor supports.
Outside of his duties presiding in the state Senate and his role on a few boards and commissions, a lieutenant governors role is often outlined by the governor, who can task the states No. 2 official with certain duties. McCrory has not offered Forest a prominent place in his administration. (Though, it should be noted, Forest was acting governor for a week earlier this month when the McCrorys were out of the state celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary.)
I probably had the expectation of the governor coming and saying, Here, heres a project, take this and run with it. That really hasnt happened, Forest said. We meet every other week. Usually its on the phone. ... Well catch up, talk about whats going on. Sometimes we talk politics, sometimes we talk policy and sometimes we talk small talk.
We just dont have a close relationship, but its a good relationship, he said.
A McCrory spokesman said a closer relationship may develop in the next year.
We plan to use the lieutenant governor a lot more as he is a strong communicator who can talk about the challenges we face, and how we will continue to find solutions to overcome those challenges, just as we have done this first year, said Ryan Tronovitch, the governors deputy communications director.
Higher political aspirations
Forests mother, Sue Myrick, held a Charlotte congressional seat for nine terms before she retired in 2012. The same year, Forest, an architect and political newcomer, won his race by 6,858 votes, out of more than 2 million cast, with help from McCrory, who easily won.
Forest drew the most attention his first year for raising questions about the Common Core standards. It endeared him to the same tea party-aligned voters who helped propel him into office.
Forest is reluctant to put himself in any particular political camp but he doesnt hide his strong conservative views.
I think he entered office and everybody knew he was very conservative, said David McLennan, a political science professor at William Peace University. The immigration bill opposition and Common Core skepticism reflected his conservative roots.
The Common Core standards gave Forest his largest megaphone. Adopted by the state in 2010, the math and English standards are designed as a national benchmark. All but five states have adopted them but conservatives like Forest are raising opposition.
In July, he sent a 40-page letter to the state Department of Public Instruction listing hundreds of questions about Common Core. Forest, whose wife home-schools their children, is concerned about the cost, the rigor of the standards and the states ability to revise components it doesnt support.
However, in the interview, he said 95 percent of Common Core is great.
I think we could easily keep a large quantity of Common Core and just change the standards on it, he added. ...Get rid of the copyright so we can do the things we need to do with it.
His political bearing was noticeable in other ways as he appealed to the partys far-right supporters. He called U.S. Rep. Mark Meadows, a Cashiers Republican who played a prominent role in pushing the government shutdown, the smartest man in Washington today a remark that drew rebuke amid the furlough of federal workers. He also raised money with former presidential candidate Rick Santorum in Charlotte.
McLennan sees Forest positioning himself for future higher office.
I dont think national figures like Rick Santorum would come to the state and speak at events for someone who doesnt have other political aspirations, he said.
Democratic critics suggest Forest is a leader of the states tea party movement.
Dan Forest is so out of the mainstream that his views arent in the same room as most North Carolinians, said Micah Beasley, a Democratic Party spokesman who worked for Forests rival in the 2012 election. Hes also easily the most extreme ideologue weve elected in a long time.
Beasley suggests the Common Core questions are a distraction away from the real issues on education, such as classroom funding and teacher salaries. He has been exactly what we said he was going to be in 2012 a rubber stamp for a far-right Republican agenda, he said.
For his campaign, Forest packed his family into an RV and visited all 100 counties. He returned to the road soon after the legislature adjourned at the end of July, holding 10 town halls across the state.
There are really only two positions in North Carolina us and the governor that cover the state holistically, all issues, all topics, every day, he said. We like really being out there.
Forest found himself defending the legislature at most of the events, particularly after a session that saw mass protests, arrests and major policy shifts.
In Louisburg, he was peppered with questions from a critic about rejecting an expansion of Medicaid to more low-income people, cutting unemployment benefits and other controversial issues.
One by one, Forest offered the Republican talking points before he pivoted to an issue on which they struck common ground: the need to pay teachers more money.
We are going to put our money where our mouth is in North Carolina and make it a priority, he told the crowd.
Dee Sams, a local tea party leader in the audience, said Forest hit all the highlights in combating what she called misinformation about the legislative session.
I think they needed to be defended, she said. They ought to explain (their reasoning) over and over again.
Forest calls his plan to make the states teachers the best-paid and best-performing in the nation an aspirational goal. Its likely to cost between $1 billion and $2 billion, a sum that would scramble the $20.6 billion state budget.
North Carolina teacher salaries average $45,947, ranking No. 46 in the nation. But Forest cautions that North Carolinas teacher pay wont reach the $73,400 paid by No. 1 ranking New York because his plan will be indexed to the cost of living.
I think we have to get (the pay) issue off the table so we can deal with other issues. It is the starting point, he says, to improving a morale among teachers that stinks.