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Commentary: A training ground for governors

Don’t ignore race for second spot RALEIGH ó North Carolina’s lieutenant governor is officially considered the second-highest office in the state. In practice, it probably ranks no higher than 10th in true power ó below the governor, the four majority-party leaders in the General Assembly, the attorney general, the state treasurer, the state auditor, and possibly the chief justice of the state supreme court.
Still, being lieutenant governor isn’t an irrelevancy. In addition to the largely ceremonial role of presiding over the N.C. Senate (the senate president pro tem holds the legislative reins), you serve on the state school board, the state community-colleges board, and other panels. The ability to break ties in the Senate must have sounded purely theoretical until Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue ended up casting the deciding vote to create North Carolina’s state lottery. And if you form and maintain alliances with legislative leaders and the governor, you can wrangle some additional authority to influence state policy as Perdue did in such areas as military bases and anti-smoking policies.
Perhaps most importantly, lieutenant governors get paid for four to eight years by taxpayers to run for governor. Unfair to say that? Not according to history. At least since 1964, every lieutenant governor has subsequently run for governor. Of the eight who ran, two succeeded: Bob Scott in 1968 and Jim Hunt in 1976. Two others, Democrat Bob Jordan in 1988 and Republican Jim Gardner in 1992, won their party nomination but lost the general.
My point is that North Carolina voters should pay attention to elections for lieutenant governor in part because they tend to determine the shape of future elections for governor. Certainly politicians pay attention. This year’s open seat has drawn a spirited, competitive field of Democratic candidates and at least two prominent Republicans.
The Democratic candidates are Winston-Salem City Councilman Dan Besse, State Sen. Walter Dalton of Rutherford County, attorney Hampton Dellinger, and Canton Mayor Pat Smathers.
Although both Besse and Smathers have run web-savvy campaigns and garnered vocal support in environmental and local-government circles (respectively), I guess the most likely scenario is for Dalton and Dellinger to garner enough votes May 6 to head to a June runoff. The match-up is an interesting clash of generations and political constituencies. Dalton is a key member of Marc Basnight’s longtime leadership team in the N.C. Senate but also hails from the west, where voters long to flex more political muscle in Raleigh. Durham’s Dellinger is a former counsel to Gov. Mike Easley and Attorney General Roy Cooper who comes from a politically prominent family (his father Walter Dellinger was President Clinton’s solicitor general and his mother was a longtime faculty member at the N.C. Institute of Government). Ideologically, Dellinger is running a bit to Dalton’s left n criticizing Dalton at a debate earlier this month for not raising state taxes more to fund education and Medicaid.
On the Republican side, State Sen. Robert Pittenger of Charlotte and former Rep. Jim Snyder of Lexington are the most familiar faces in a field that also includes Greg Dority and Tim Cook. Pittenger, a businessman and prodigious fundraiser, is on the air with spots touting his conservative credentials, including his support for tax cuts, tort reform, and charter schools and opposition to wasteful spending and climate-change alarmism in the General Assembly. Snyder, a successful lawyer and author who won the GOP nomination for lieutenant governor in 2004, emphasizes a similar slate of issues but has yet to begin as aggressive an advertising campaign. In a year when every race below president and governor is going to be hard to glimpse through all the political smoke and fog, Snyder will probably have to do much more to secure a second chance at a general election.
The polling in these races is sparse and unreliable as a guide to the outcome, with most voters undecided. If the nominations aren’t settled in May, the run-up to a June primary might well give candidates more time to introduce themselves to North Carolina voters no longer distracted by the Obama-Clinton slugfest.
But, of course, the first month of summer offers other distractions.
– – –
Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.

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