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Our Council of State endorsements, part 1

North Carolina has one of the longest ballots in the nation, and that’s due in part to how several of our Council of State officials are chosen. While many states’ governors appoint positions such as Insurance Commissioner and Agriculture Commissioner, North Carolina calls on its voters to decide.

Those offices oversee critical areas such as food and business safety, insurance rates and labor issues. We believe voters should know who they’re putting in those important offices. Our recommendations for four Council of State races follow. We’ll offer endorsements for four others next week.

Insurance commissioner

The race for commissioner of insurance offers two familiar faces. Incumbent Democrat Wayne Goodwin faces Republican Mike Causey, a retired insurance executive who lost to former commissioner Jim Long in 1992, 1996 and 2000.

Causey is campaigning as a reformer, and he is specifically targeting the N.C. Rate Bureau, which he says limits insurance competition in the state. That lack of competition, he says, causes consumers to pay too much for health and property insurance.

Goodwin was elected commissioner in 2008 after serving as assistant commissioner to Long. He believes tweaks can be made to the Rate Bureau to improve competition, but that eliminating the structure would result in premiums going up.

We agree with Goodwin that the Rate Bureau has served North Carolinians well. Auto insurance rates in the state are among the lowest in the country, according to the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, and the lowest in the South, according to Goodwin. Goodwin also shows a keen grasp of the challenges North Carolina faces in meeting the logistical demands of the Affordable Care Act. Given the complicated insurance landscape ahead, we recommend voters keep Goodwin in office.

Agriculture commissioner

Voters have a choice between two strong candidates for commissioner of agriculture, a position that maintains and protects the state’s $70 billion agribusiness industry and regulates areas that include food, animal health and motor fuels.

Incumbent Republican Steve Troxler, who won election to the office in 2004, has vigorously pursued safety issues in the state. N.C.’s food and drug protection lab is one of the best in the country, and when the 2011 N.C. State Fair was marred by an E. coli outbreak that Troxler says likely came from livestock contamination, he appointed a commission to investigate the outbreak, then instituted the safety measures the commission recommended.

Democrat Walter Smith, a Yadkin County farmer who administered federal farm programs for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, believes the state can do more to protect an agriculture industry that makes up more than 15 percent of the state’s workforce. Smith proposes saving farms by enhancing marketing and promoting business models such as sustainable farming and organic farming. He also believes North Carolina is lagging behind other states with laws that would put an end to puppy mills without placing hardships on other commercial breeders.

We’re troubled about an incident in which the head of Troxler’s animal health program tipped a friend to an upcoming raid at his Hoke County turkey farm. The official pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors, yet Troxler suspended her for only two weeks. The misdemeanors involved not telling the truth to investigators, Troxler said, and the tip to the friend was about an issue not under the jurisdiction of his department. The light punishment, however, seemed to excuse behavior that damaged the public’s perception of Troxler’s office.

Still, we believe Troxler’s excellent performance in other areas, including food safety and agricultural marketing, has earned him another four years.

Labor commissioner

The labor commissioner is charged with ensuring the safety of the state’s 4 million-plus workers. The commissioner enforces workplace safety regulations, investigates workplace injuries and deaths and oversees business compliance with wage, hour and child labor laws.

The three-term incumbent, Republican Cherie Berry, faces a challenge from Democrat John Brooks, who was the labor commissioner for 16 years ending in 1993.

Berry has frequently given the impression that she cares more about businesses than the workers she’s tasked with protecting. Her office has been notably apathetic about enforcing wage and hour laws. It has conducted few investigations and imposed few penalties, even though a (Raleigh) News & Observer investigation found some employers frequently misclassifying their employees as subcontractors. Berry’s overly business-friendly approach brought a rebuke in 2010, when the U.S. Labor Department criticized the N.C. workplace safety program for slack enforcement and fines. Berry says the feds “are just wrong. That’s their opinion.”

Brooks has been a staff attorney who analyzes workplace injuries for the N.C. Industrial Commission. He understands labor issues and is knowledgeable about the Labor Department, and his work at the Industrial Commission gives him a deep understanding about workplace injuries in the state. He would likely try to beef up enforcement and more aggressively protect workers.

Brooks was labor commissioner when a fire at a Hamlet chicken plant killed 25 people in 1991, a tragedy that critics say he didn’t handle well. He was also known as a poor communicator and collaborator.

Even so, his concern for workers’ well-being is genuine, which is what the role demands. We recommend John Brooks.

Secretary of State

The secretary of state’s office has diverse responsibilities that include the efficient handling of business incorporation documents and registering of lobbyists and trademarks. The office is the access point for corporate documents, and it protects citizens and businesses from fraud.

Democrat Elaine Marshall has doggedly protected North Carolina consumers from unscrupulous businesses – and businesses from trademark fraud – since she was elected to the office in 1997. She also has improved her office’s efficiency by establishing computer access to corporate records for citizens and businesses, as well as decreasing the time it takes for corporate documents to be processed.

Republican challenger Ed Goodwin, who is currently chair of the Chowan County Board of Commissioners, promises to be more responsive to businesses across the state that he says are being squeezed by regulations. The former Naval Criminal Investigative Service agent also says he has the investigative background to root out fraud.

We think Marshall continues to do a superb job as secretary of state. She deserves another term.

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