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Cooper, Troxler, Wood for Council of State

Here are the Observer's recommendations for attorney general, state auditor and agriculture commissioner. We will endorse candidates in the remaining four Council of State races on Saturday.

Roy Cooper for

attorney general

N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper is a Democrat running for his third term. He has a record of pushing lawsuits in federal court to clean up the state's air, organizing a law enforcement campaign to fight illegal drug labs and beginning to push the legislature to provide more ways to fight the growing gang problem. Cooper, who was an effective legislator during his seven terms, has pursued reforms in the lending industry and pushed to take better advantage of DNA technology to identify criminals and free the innocent.

He is being challenged by Republican Bob Crumley, a lawyer and energetic entrepreneur who has brought an inquisitive mind to his first political campaign. A former Randolph County manager and county attorney, Crumley wants to look for innovations in the state justice department, re-examine the State Bureau of Investigation's mission, beef up the department's response to the growing gang threat and promote more strategic planning. He has some good ideas, but we believe Cooper's steady leadership and his environmental and consumer protection ethic have served North Carolina's people well. We recommend Roy Cooper for attorney general.

Beth Wood for state auditor

Leslie Merritt has been a conscientious state auditor intent on ferreting out financial and performance problems in state programs. His departmental audits exposing problems in the Northeast Partnership, the state's mental health system and in a major office supplies contract have helped citizens understand how things go wrong in Raleigh. He wants to be more pro-active in heading off problems in state agencies – but in two instances Merritt's office has made mistakes that raise questions about his judgment.

Merritt's office either misunderstood election law or misinterpreted data – and unwisely inserted itself into the legislative process by urging the Senate to hold up action on an important elections bill. When senators concluded that the auditors' findings were incomplete and incorrect, the Office of State Auditor lost the legislature's confidence.

More recently the auditor has looked into allegations at the new State Ethics Commission despite a new state law that restricts the agency's investigation. We think the auditor had a right to make inquiries but ran off the track when the office did not give the commission adequate time to prepare a response to some initial findings. That's a breach of good practice that calls the office's reputation for fairness and deliberation into question.

By contrast, Democrat Beth Wood is a highly professional accountant and instructor in accounting and auditing practices. She has worked for a major accounting firm, has audited local governments and served for 10 years in the Office of State Auditor, including as its director of training.

We believe Beth Wood has a firmer grasp on the central need of the auditor's office: understand the data, gather the facts, get the agency's response, and then publish findings and recommendations. We recommend Beth Wood for state auditor.

Steve Troxler, agriculture commissioner

This race features two public-spirited individuals, both of whom have the best interests of the state's agricultural community and its people at heart.

The Democrat is Raleigh lawyer Ronnie Ansley, a capable communicator who wants to make this state a leader in developing alternative energy supplies, especially biofuels. He also sees food safety as a growing concern and hopes to improve marketing of N.C. commodities abroad.

So does Steve Troxler, a Republican who won his first term four years ago and who has been a popular and effective commissioner of agriculture.

He has overseen the increasing use of alternative fuels for the department's research farm and other vehicles. He has worked to preserve family farms and use the Farmland Preservation Trust Fund to keep working farms in business. And he has worked to gain the trust of the General Assembly. Steve Troxler has been a good fit at the department and deserves another term as commissioner of agriculture.

Here are the Observer's recommendations for insurance commissioner, secretary of state and state school superintendent.

Wayne Goodwin for insurance commissioner

Voters in the race for commissioner of insurance have a clear choice. The Republican in the race is Raleigh businessman John Odom, a former Raleigh City Council member and deputy mayor. He was known as a common-sense member of the City Council who worked across partisan lines to resolve disputes and get things done. Libertarian Mark McMains of Fuquay Varina is also running.

Their opponent is former state Rep. Wayne Goodwin, a lawyer. He has worked to improve public schools and workplace safety, and to reform the political process. He has performed well as assistant commissioner of insurance under the outgoing incumbent, Jim Long. Goodwin's understanding of the complicated insurance laws, his commitment to adequate regulation of insurance companies and his personal concern for firefighters and first responders overseen by the insurance department make him the better choice. The Observer enthusiastically recommends Wayne Goodwin for insurance commissioner.

Elaine Marshall for secretary of state

Elaine Marshall has served the state well. Her opponent, Republican Jack Sawyer, is a bright lawyer with a variety of experiences in finance and real estate. But Marshall's depth of experience as a lawyer, a state legislator and as secretary of state since 1997, when she became the first woman elected to statewide office, qualify her for another term. In particular, Marshall's decision to appoint a study commission to examine North Carolina's system of regulating lobbyists was prescient. That was before revelations of wrongdoing, influence peddling and corrupt fund-raising practices tainted the legislature. Her sound judgment about what works and what needs fixing in Raleigh merits her another term. We recommend Elaine Marshall for secretary of state.

Tossup on schools chief

North Carolina's structure for public school governance is dysfunctional. The Constitution requires an elected superintendent of public instruction, but in reality the office is largely ignored. The State Board of Education makes policy. It's chairman is appointed by the governor, and not long ago the board hired a chief operating officer to do its will. This system won't change until someone has the backbone to lead a consensus to make the office appointive and accountable to the governor.

Incumbent June Atkinson is a veteran educator with good ideas, but she has been ineffective for two reasons: she has been marginalized by a governance system that doesn't allow the elected superintendent to fully do the job and she has failed to use the bully pulpit the office does afford.

Her opponent, Republican and former House co-speaker Richard Morgan, supports a change that would give the appointment to the governor. While we do not agree with all of his positions on education, such as experimenting with even the limited use of vouchers, his ideas are substantive. Morgan was a ruthless negotiator in the House, and could be something of a bully. Yet he shows evidence he has tempered that tendency into a more workable leadership style.

Both candidates are interested in lowering the dropout rate, boosting graduation and improving teacher salaries. Yet the key question is whether the state will resolve its goofy governance impasse. If you believe the superintendent should be elected, support June Atkinson and preserve the current system. If you believe in change, vote for Richard Morgan. But until the state takes action on this question, it won't matter much who's in this office.

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