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Graham in crowded GOP field for governor

By Steve Huffman
Salisbury Post
Five candidates are squaring off in Tuesday’s primary for the Republican nomination for governor.
Four of the five ó Salisbury attorney Bill Graham, Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, Johnston County businessman and state Sen. Fred Smith and former Supreme Court Justice Bob Orr ó are well-known across the state and have relatively well-backed campaigns.
The fifth, Elbie Powers, a pecan farmer from Franklin, has run a campaign on a shoestring.
Polls of recent weeks show McCrory with a widening lead.
According to a mid-April poll by Public Policy Polling, among 602 likely Republican voters, McCrory was the favorite of 36 percent, and Smith followed with 29 percent.
Next came Orr with 7 percent and then Graham with 5 percent.
The second-place finisher can call for a runoff if the top vote-getter garners less than 40 percent of the vote.
Though that poll and others show him trailing significantly, he remains confident he can win on Tuesday. The key is reaching undecided voters, a significant number according to polls.
“The polls are all over the place,” Graham said. “People have kicked the tires to some degree, but they still haven’t decided.”
Orr agreed.
He said a low turnout of Republican voters is expected, and only 30 to 40 percent of those planning to vote are committed to a specific candidate.
“There’s going to be a lot of fluidity going into the race,” Orr said.
A breakdown of individual candidates follows:
– Graham, 47, is a partner in the Wallace and Graham law firm. He’s a native of North Carolina and came to Salisbury when attending Catawba College.
He was an assistant district attorney before going into private law practice.
Graham said he got interested in running for governor shortly after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf states and caused a temporary spike in gas prices. He organized a campaign against automatic increases in the state’s gas taxes, the highest in the Southeast.
Graham calls the resulting drive the largest grassroots movement in state history, forcing the General Assembly and governor to cap the gas tax.
He said the movement has saved taxpayers $180 million to $200 million.
From 2001 to 2005, state lawmakers raised taxes five consecutive years, he said. During that same time, they cut education’s share of the budget despite also launching a state lottery.
During a recent town hall-style meeting in Spencer, Graham said problems associated with the lottery are an example of politicking run amok.
“I think we’ve hired more lawyers than teachers with the lottery money,” Graham said. “Isn’t that a shame?”
He laments studies showing a third of students drop out before graduating high school. “We have a moral obligation to fix that,” Graham said.
He suggested raising the age at which students can quit school to 18 to show that finishing high school is expected, not an option. “It certainly sends a strong signal to the public that we expect … our parents to send our children to school and be diligent about it,” he said.
Graham favors adding more early and middle school programs that offer students marketable skills prior to graduating high school.
He’s also concerned that 400,000 to 500,000 illegal immigrants live in North Carolina and favors deporting those who aren’t making efforts to earn their citizenships.
“It is far too easy for illegal aliens to get a North Carolina driver’s license, a job, a college education and other social services,” Graham said. “As a former prosecutor I believe that we are a nation of immigrants, but, first, we are a nation of laws.”
– McCrory, 51, is a native of Jamestown and also graduated from Catawba. He has worked with Duke Energy since graduation and is currently serving as economic development consultant.
McCrory began his political career in 1989 when he was elected to Charlotte City Council. He has since been elected the city’s mayor seven times.
He said there should be more coordination between how much public money is spent on certain fields of study and the demand for those fields in the marketplace.
“We seem to be doing it in reverse,” McCrory said. “It should not be based on the volume of students or the cost of the course.”
He supports a program allowing local law enforcement to detain, identify and prepare illegal immigrants who break laws for deportation. “The federal government must provide the state with the authority to tackle this real and growing crisis,” McCrory said. “Along with this authority, our law enforcement needs the resources to deal with illegal immigration. This includes a detention center and immigration court right here in North Carolina.”
McCrory said he’d work to lower taxes and create services that support job growth. “Putting the roads in areas of future congestion, and not in the areas the powerful politicians live, is paramount.”
– Orr said it’s hard for candidates like him and Graham to compete against McCrory and Smith when there’s such a discrepancy in the amount being spent on campaigns.
Orr said McCrory has out-spent him 10-to-1 margin in the past few months and Smith close to 6-to-1. Most of that money went for television advertising, he said.
But Orr said he’s the only Republican candidate in the race who has won a statewide election. “The voters need to look at who has the best chance to win. I’ve won four statewide elections.”
Orr is an outspoken critic of tax incentives used to lure businesses to the state and said he’d halt such practices in almost all instances. He mentioned by name tax incentives offered Dell, Google and Bruton Smith as deals the state should never have made.
He he’d work to stimulate the economy through short-term temporary tax cuts, then work for a long-range economic stimulus plan.
Orr backs an interesting plan for dealing with the state’s problem with illegal aliens. He said he’d factor all the money that’s being spent for taxpayers to support the illegals ó driver’s licenses, public schooling, prisons and so forth ó and bill the federal government that amount.
If the federal government refused to pay, the state should sue, he said. “Would it work?” Orr asked. “I don’t know. But the bottom line is, North Carolina taxpayers are footing the bill.”
– Smith, 66, has been probably the hardest-working candidate in the Republican race, stumping the state for the past year. He’s held barbecue dinners in every county.
“If you’re going to have a conversation with the people, you’ve got to go where the people are,” Smith said in February when he held a barbecue at Southeast Middle School.
Smith graduated from Wake Forest University, runs a successful business in Johnston County and represents the county in the State Senate. Smith also served four years in the Army, rising to the rank of captain.
“It is the Democrats who are responsible for not educating one-third of our kids,” Smith said. “They are the ones who dropped the cost of Medicaid on the backs of the counties. The people want change and I am the one that can give it to them.”
A year ago, the state had a record-breaking $2.6 billion budget surplus, he said. But the General Assembly passed a budget that topped $20.6 billion ó a spending increase of 8.9 percent on top of a 9.7 percent increase the year before.
“Irresponsible spending is endemic in the General Assembly,” Smith said.
He suggests implementing a safe learning environment, strong family participation and streamlining school system operations to save costs.
“Increased efficiency can allow for investment in launching appropriate remedial, vocational, college prep, honors level and advanced placement classes to address every student’s education needs … ,” Smith said.
He’s upset at the number of illegal immigrants convicted of drunk driving his district. “The bottom line is that securing our borders is important for our economy and vital for our national security,” Smith said.
– Powers, 56, is a pecan farmer who jokes that he’s a candidate from the nut house. The building where he processes pecans is nicknamed “The Nut House Inc.”
“We must run our state like a business ó your business ó investing, earning, making profits,” Powers said. “Billions in corporate profits leave this state. Corporations enjoy taxpayer money, hundreds of millions to set up in North Carolina. So far, this isn’t reducing taxes.”
The Associated Press contributed to this article.
Contact Steve Huffman at 704-797-4222 or shuffman@salisburypost.com.

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