Perdue made history but term beset by bad economy

Published 12:00 am Saturday, December 29, 2012

RALEIGH (AP) — Beverly Perdue rose through the ranks of North Carolina’s good ol’ boy political network and made history when she was elected the state’s first female governor four years ago. She also had been the first female lieutenant governor and a top state Senate budget writer.
“I’m all about breaking down glass ceilings,” Perdue said during her winning 2008 campaign.
It turns out the only political ceiling the Craven County Democrat didn’t break — the one for a second term — was weighed down with the Great Recession. It was reinforced by multibillion-dollar budget gaps, stubbornly high unemployment, politically damaging decisions to raise taxes and an investigation of her 2008 campaign committee.
Faced with low approval numbers, the first Republican-controlled Legislature since 1870 and pressures to perform well in a presidential battleground state, Perdue announced in early 2012 she wouldn’t seek re-election. Republican Pat McCrory, whom Perdue beat in 2008, won easily in November over Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton. McCrory gets sworn in Jan. 5.
Perdue said she’s still content with how she governed and her choice to stand aside.
“I made tough decisions knowing there’d be consequences, but knowing at the end of the day the results were the right ones for the people of this state,” Perdue told The Associated Press in an interview this week.
Republicans who opposed her policies give generally poor reviews on her performance as governor, but at least one acknowledged Perdue was dealt bad circumstances.
“I don’t think her administration even ever found its footing. And that’s not all on her,” said Tom Fetzer, the state Republican Party chairman during Perdue’s first two years in office. “I don’t think any governor in my memory came into office with the challenges she faced — the bad economy coupled (later) with the first time in 140 years her party didn’t have control of the Legislature.”
She became governor in January 2009 with a fiscal crisis unseen in decades. The budget shortfall that year soared to $3 billion, forcing her to slash spending, set aside her own education initiatives and ultimately furlough state workers and teachers. Perdue and the Democratic-led Legislature at the time closed a larger projected budget gap for the next year in part through $1 billion in new revenues generated largely by a penny increase in the sales tax and higher income taxes.
Perdue recalls looking at herself in the mirror and vowing not to make budget decisions on political expediency. Her signature on the 2009 budget law, however, proved to be a turning point. GOP legislators and activists used the higher taxes inside the law in the 2010 campaign to target Democrats who voted for them, flipping the state House and Senate to Republican majorities.
Partisan fighting reached a fever pitch in 2011 as Perdue vetoed a record 16 bills, including the GOP-penned state budget that allowed higher taxes to expire and reduced education spending by hundreds of millions of dollars. But her veto was overridden as five House Democrats voted with Republicans. A similar budget bill override occurred this past summer as Perdue sought to raise sales taxes again to restore education cuts.
Rep. Joe Hackney, D-Orange, who was House speaker in 2009, said Perdue did the right thing to limit the Great Recession’s damage upon the public schools and higher education. “I hope she’ll be viewed as someone who fought to protect public education in one of the worst depressions in modern times,” Hackney said.
But Rep. Paul Stam, R-Wake, the House majority leader for the past two years, said Perdue campaigned as a moderate while “on almost every issue, she aligned with the classic liberal positions.”
“She wanted bigger government, higher taxes and no death penalty for murderers,” Stam said Friday. Perdue signed in 2009 the Racial Justice Act, which gave death-row inmates the chance to get their sentences commuted to life in prison on the basis of racial discrimination. Republicans overrode Perdue’s veto in 2012 of a law to scale back the Racial Justice Act.
While empathetic to individual voters and children, the former schoolteacher struggled at times to relate to the broader general public and didn’t build widespread support for higher taxes for education.
“She had her rough spots. She was prone to making gaffes and she wasn’t a particularly strong communicator,” said Gary Pearce, a longtime political consultant who used to work for Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt. While a good governor, Pearce added, Perdue “wasn’t a dominant political personality.”
Perdue followed through on a 2008 campaign pledge to eliminate the political considerations of Board of Transportation members and use hard data from Department of Transportation staff when determining which road projects would be built.
“That is a real success,” said Jane Pinsky with the nonpartisan North Carolina Coalition for Lobbying & Government Reform.
Perdue was wounded politically by an investigation into dozens of unreported campaign flights during her gubernatorial campaign.
The State Board of Elections fined Perdue’s campaign committee $30,000 in 2010. Four former campaign aides or donors ultimately were indicted and two have been convicted. The prosecutor that led the investigation said there was no evidence Perdue knew illegal acts were committed.
Perdue said she did a good job recruiting new companies to North Carolina and straightened out the Highway Patrol after embarrassing episodes involving troopers. Other areas of state government, however, still struggled to stabilize during her tenure, such as Medicaid and mental health services.
Perdue, who turns 66 next month, hopes the public will recall her commitment to public education and job creation. She said she never aimed to make history by her gender but is still proud of the example she set for young women.
“I never spent any time wanting to be first,” she added.