Not too long ago, Gov. Bev Perdue was a North Carolina afterthought. Though she had served in the state House and Senate and as lieutenant governor, many considered it lucky that the “D” beside her name carried extra weight in 2008, the year Barack Obama became the first Democratic presidential candidate since Jimmy Carter in 1976 to carry the state. (Yes, Obama won by just 14,000 votes, but early, straight party-line ballots carriedvet the day and helped Perdue win a closely contested race.)
With the approach of 2012 when she will be up for re-election, political predictions have not foreseen that her luck would hold. Obama’s popularity in the state dipped as the transition from a manufacturing to a high-tech job base made economic recovery slow. It never helped that her predecessor, Democrat Mike Easley, had at the end of his term become entangled in legal controversies and a federal investigation into campaign finance irregularities that ended with a plea deal.
The first woman elected to the office, the 64-year-old Perdue found her leadership skills questioned. Her poll numbers were dismal, and in the 2010 midterm elections the North Carolina Legislature was returned to Republican control for the first time in more than a century.
All the while, waiting in the wings was her 2008 GOP opponent, longtime Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, itching for a rematch. When I interviewed him after the 2008 loss, McCrory seemed particularly rankled that he lost his home county. (The night before the election, Obama made a last stop at a rally at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, “the campus I supported,” McCrory told me then.) Since then, he has tacked to the right and gone on the attack.
Backed up against the wall, Perdue – in actions that may not fit the stereotype of the “female politician” as mediator — found a voice in opposition, with several vetoes, including key ones of a budget plan, voter ID legislation and a restrictive abortion bill.
On June 12, she vetoed a $19.7 billion budget plan that she said would result in “generational damage,” especially when it came to cuts in education. Republicans said the plan, which lets a 1-cent temporary sales tax expire and cuts more than $100 million from the state education budget, was fiscally responsible and joined with a few Democrats to override Perdue’s veto three days later. But the fight energized teachers who protested in Raleigh, the state capital.
On June 23, Perdue vetoed a bill that would require voters to present a government-issued photo ID, saying in a statement: “This bill, as written, will unnecessarily and unfairly disenfranchise many eligible and legitimate voters.” Such bills have been criticized as an overreaction to a nonexistent problem and an unfair burden to minorities, the poor and the elderly. But North Carolina’s speaker of the House, Thom Tillis, disagreed in a statement: “An overwhelming majority of our citizens have continued to support this bill, knowing that it would provide confidence in voting and protect against potential voter fraud.” He wants voters to encourage Democratic legislators to switch sides for an override.
That veto earned Perdue a place in Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s June 29 statement of support for Democratic governors who have so far vetoed voter ID bills passed by GOP legislatures. (Commended alongside Perdue were Govs. John Lynch of New Hampshire, Jay Nixon of Missouri, Brian Schweitzer of Montana and Mark Dayton of Minnesota.)
On June 27, Perdue vetoed the Woman’s Right to Know Act that would have required women seeking abortions to wait 24 hours after state-mandated counseling and to undergo ultrasounds. Women would be provided information on abortion alternatives and the development of a fetus. Perdue framed her opposition as a medical issue, saying the bill would interfere with doctor-patient relationships, raising the ire of the bill’s supporters and Catholic groups but gaining support from such groups as NARAL Pro Choice North Carolina and Planned Parenthood. A one-vote shift in each chamber of the General Assembly is needed for an override.
On June 30, the deadline for action on legislation, Perdue vetoed a bill limiting environmental regulation and paving the way for offshore drilling. She said the bill, which directed the governor to form an offshore-energy compact with South Carolina and Virginia, would infringe on the office’s constitutional rights. Perdue also vetoed bills that would change the laws on unemployment benefits and require new rules for Medicaid and Health Choice providers.
In all, Perdue vetoed a record 15 bills this year.
While Republicans criticize Perdue’s use of the veto pen, lukewarm Democrats have started to wake up. Though the governor’s poll numbers are still lackluster, they are more positive than they were just a few months ago.
According to Public Policy Polling (PPP), a respected Raleigh-based, Democratic Party-affiliated firm, Perdue’s approval rating rose from 30 percent to 36 percent from March to June. In a hypothetical rematch with McCrory, she is down by just 6 points.
As McCrory has moved to the right, he has shored up his support from the Republican base but lost some Independents, while Perdue still is not up to her 2008 numbers among the Democratic base.
“McCrory has pretty fully embraced the new Republican legislative majority even as independents have turned sharply against it and Democrats have been re-energized by it, and he’s paying a political price for that embrace with declining poll numbers,” a PPP blog said on June 15. “McCrory’s probably still the favorite next year but his election as governor is looking a lot less inevitable than it did at the start of the year.”
Of course, November 2012 is still a long way off, and the president’s fortunes might have as big an impact as they did in 2008 in deciding Perdue’s fate. Will the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte resonate in Raleigh and throughout the state? Will North Carolina voters judge Perdue’s veto pen as due diligence, as she would like, or “overeager,” as state GOP leaders believe.
What’s sure is that in saying “no,” Gov. Bev Perdue has raised her voice.