Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Bev out! Erskine in? Did Obama Influence?

Skipper Bowles Family circa 1971-72

Sometimes, often during election years, I enjoy putting to use my NC State University BA degree in Political Science (’77). While politics is not always pleasurable to the masses, I do enjoy a good political discussion and campaign. If you do not want to be bored by the details, fast forward a few paragraphs while I detail my history in politics.

In 1960, before my 8th birthday, I recall my father being asked by Terry Sanford to lead his gubernatorial bid in Lee County (Sanford NC) but Dad declined because he had already committed to the campaign of Malcolm B. Sewall, who lost the primary to Sanford, and then my Dad—and the family, especially my mother who was also a political junkie—worked on behalf of Sanford who defeated Sanford (NC) attorney Robert Gavin in the general election.

Four years later, our family worked on behalf of Richardson Preyer, a former federal judge who had presided over a civil trial between my father’s business and an insurance company that didn’t want to pay a claim on a fire that destroyed the business’s main plant and offices. Preyer, who came in first in the primary but was short of the 50% plus one vote needed to win outright, lost in the Democratic Party’s run-off election against Dan Moore who was supported by third-place Beverly Lake. To get Lake’s support, Moore who eventually defeated Gavin, the Republican nominee again, in the general election, promised to appoint some of Lake’s aides if he won. Preyer would not make the agreement with Lake who went to Preyer with the request before he went to Moore.

In 1968, we picked a winner with Democrat Bob Scott whose campaign was managed by Roy Sowers a former assistant to my Dad in his textile machinery business. My dad, a world-wide successful businessman, was well-known by statewide politicians, and, in 1972, when Hargrove “Skipper” Bowles, a state senator from Greensboro came a calling, my parents, getting older and wiser, leaned a little more to the right, wanting Nixon over George McGovern—they also supported Nixon in 1968 against Humphrey because of his close ties to unions—but were okay with supporting Skipper Bowles whose son Erskine was married to the former Crandall Close, daughter of William “Bill” Close who had married Anne Springs, daughter of the Elliott White Springs who was president of Springs Cotton Mills. Bill Close eventually became President of Springs. He and my dad were friends; Springs Mills was a customer of my dad’s business, Roberts Company, purchasing spinning frames. It was “Colonel” Elliott Springs that helped move my Dad’s Roberts Company from a spinning frame spare parts supplier to being the world’s largest manufacturer and supplier of spinning frames.

In 1972, I was in college and, after a rugged start majoring in Mechanical Engineering (I couldn’t grasp the concepts of the “right hand rule of thumb”), was beginning my search and studies for a degree in political science. (That’s right. I started college in 1970, and finished in 1977: seven years.) Anyway, I was for Skipper Bowles, despite his close connection to UNC-Chapel Hill (forgive me NC State faithful but I didn’t know any better then), but he was caught up in a tough situation with Republican Richard Nixon seeking re-election as President and Jesse Helms, a popular television commentator, seeking the United States Senate seat against US Congressman Nick Galifianakis who had defeated incumbent Senator B. Everett Jordan in the Democratic primary. Skipper Bowles was defeated that fall by Jim Holshouser.

But looking back, it wasn’t just that Holshouser was elected on the coattails of Nixon and to some degree Helms. There was more to it—from what I remember—and that’s where this year’s race for the North Carolina Governorship and that photo at the top of the page come in. The photo is of Skipper Bowles and his family. It was a Christmas card in either 1971 or 1972. It remains in my archives and memorabilia retained from my parents collection of important things.

Last week, NC Governor Beverly Perdue, a Democrat, announced she would not seek re-election. According to everything I’ve read on the internet and in newspapers and heard on radio and television, Perdue wants us to think she was sitting around Wednesday night, February 25 and came to her own conclusion to limit her time as Governor to one four-year term. This was the “new sheriff in town” when she took office in January of 2009, but as she worked her way through three years in office, especially in the last year, her power as sheriff was waning. She knew it but was reluctant to admit it. I remember talking recently to a high-ranking Democratic legislator who is out of power right now. He told me that not being in power made serving in the General Assembly not as much fun. He was considering not seeking re-election. Maybe Governor Perdue, though not directly controlled by the Republicans at the General Assembly, felt the same way: not as much fun. It’s not supposed to be about having fun.

What we know is this: Her battles with the Republican controlled General Assembly were too much for this tough leader; her battles over campaign finance disclosures and irregularities continue and would have been detrimental, no matter the outcome even if it all stopped right now, to her effort to get re-elected. She didn’t want to go out in defeat, so she decided to step aside. She says she made the decision so she could fight for her causes without making it political—as in her re-election campaign. Duh! Anything a sitting elected official does is political no matter how she spins it.

What we do not know but we may surmise is that the Democratic Party on the national level and probably through the President’s office asked her not to run for re-election because she would be a drag on President Obama’s effort to win North Carolina. The President has visited North Carolina several times since being elected in 2008. He’ll be here more in the coming months. He chose Charlotte to host the Democratic National Convention. His Vice President and Cabinet members travel regularly to North Carolina for several reasons, all of which are about his political effort to win the Tar Heel State and the electoral votes which come with it even if the speeches and talks are policy in nature. There is no doubt that North Carolina will be instrumental in the Presidential election in November.

But, and this is big, while Nixon helped to elect Holshouser in 1972, Perdue’s lack of support and the rise of Republican Pat McCrory would bring down Obama in North Carolina more than Obama’s effort would elevate Perdue. Without a race for a United States Senate seat and with new Republican leaning Congressional districts and strong candidates at hand, Obama faces an up-hill battle in North Carolina. With Perdue on the ballot, Obama would struggle here. Even if Obama were stronger in North Carolina, he could not have pulled Perdue along to victory. So, why take the chance? This is just the opinion of this amateur political scientist who, after very early in the evening of the day of the 1980 election after United Press International “called” incumbent Robert Morgan the winner in his re-election bid, told UPI officials they were wrong, that a mistake had been made, that the un-counted votes when tabulated would give the seat to John East. I was correct in my knowledge of the North Carolina voting precinct maps. Patting myself on the back, I had then and have now a good grasp of the political landscape of North Carolina.

So, with Perdue on the sidelines, but still willing to fight the General Assembly Republicans over a sales tax increase of less than one penny so she can look like a hero to the North Carolina Association of Educators, the Democratic Party, of which I remain a registrant thereof, is seeking a candidate that can do two things: Win against McCrory, and help Obama take the state. While Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton—didn’t you find humor in his commercials in 2008? And, by the way, who is Walter Dalton and what has he been doing the last three years except campaigning for re-election?—and State Representative Bill Faison (D-Orange County) have tossed their hats into the race, many of the long-time and old-time Democratic leaders are asking Erskine Bowles to seek the nomination and the post. They, and there are a lot of them, want him to run for Governor.

Erskine Bowles has a storied background, especially as a Chief of Staff to President Clinton and as a President of the University of North Carolina. He’s no doubt a great leader. He knew how to run Clinton’s office and keep Clinton’s trouble in check; he knew how to work with Congress to put the United States on better financial footing; he had a good plan for his work with the UNC System and put into place many of the current Chancellors, all seeming to do an excellent job under dire budget restrictions and changes. One or two chancellors might not be doing so well with athletics but that’s a subject for a different time.

Erskine has had a successful business career and would continue to keep a good climate for business in North Carolina. He would be an excellent recruiter for jobs here. His pluses are many and pile up with ease. But he has negatives as well including that he has never won an election, a public election. He twice ran for United States Senate—2002, losing to Elizabeth Dole, and 2004, losing to Richard Burr. In 2002, there was strong sentiment for the Republican administration of George W. Bush, and Dole, a native daughter with a national reputation, returned home and won, 54% to 45%. In 2004, despite a strong effort by Mike Easley in the gubernatorial race, Burr, who had served for 10 years as a member of the US House of Representatives, came from behind in the final weeks of the campaign to win 52% to 47%. After that election Erskine basically admitted he may be better off serving in other capacities.

This could be his moment in politics, but if I were advising him—and what do I know—I’d tell him to stay out, to enjoy his retirement and participate in public service on his own terms. He’s good at doing that. There are other reasons. One goes back to the photo, and the other goes straight to President Obama. In 1972, in one of the television commercials, Skipper Bowles had his family together, just as in the photo. The words I remember are not exact but he was introducing his family to the citizens of North Carolina, telling us that when—not if—he is elected these are the people who would be living in the Governor’s Mansion in Raleigh. This was going to be the State’s First Family. Skipper was a very nice person, a good politician, a sound businessman, but he came across as if he already had the job without the note, a projection the citizens didn’t appreciate so much. Erskine should not assume he can win just because Democratic leaders and friends are telling him he can.

As far as the part the goes straight to the President, in 2010, Mr. Obama asked Erskine, a Democrat, to co-chair the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform with Alan Simpson, a former US Senator (R-Wyoming). The result was a report—the Simpson-Bowles report—that outlined a path to return the United States government back to a balanced budget, a surplus possibly, how to restructure Medicare and Social Security to keep both of those programs solvent and working, and a whole lot more. While the votes needed within the Commission to pass the report were not secured, President Obama turned his back on the entire effort and turned it down because it was not politically good for him. Erskine and Simpson, and many others, really believe the work they did was important, but it appears President Obama didn’t. So, what leads Erskine to believe that President Obama would help him win the Governorship? "Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me."

If Erskine Bowles decides to take the plunge, to run for Governor, my advice is this: Do not take for granted you can win just because you are Erskine Bowles, a good name with a good family pedigree, and do not run just because North Carolina Democrats in high places asking you to run. And, do not run if you think President Obama will help your campaign. It’s the other way around. With you on the ticket, you’ll be helping Obama, something you may desire, but that is not a good reason to run for Governor.

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