ROCKY MOUNT The candidates for North Carolina governor concluded their third and final televised debate Wednesday with more subdued disagreements over taxes, education, health care and mental health.
Democratic Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton was once again the aggressor, portraying former Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory as the candidate of special interests, while McCrory cast Dalton as part of a failed Democratic leadership in Raleigh.
But the fire and the edge of the first two debates seemed to be missing, perhaps a recognition that if the polls are correct, the election in two weeks will not be close.
Do you want big corporations to pay zero taxes and increase taxes on middle class working families and senior citizens? Dalton asked during the debate at the Dunn Center for the Performing Arts on the campus of North Carolina Wesleyan College before an audience of about 800 people. Do you want to take money from the public schools and fund private schools? Do you want to up the cost of health care for women? If you do, Im not your man.
McCrory pitched himself as the outside reformer.
We have a broken government in North Carolina, McCrory said. We have a broken economy in North Carolina. We have unlimited resources. We have to unleash those resources underneath the ground. We have to unleash the private sector. That is why I am running for governor. It is time for a Carolina comeback.
The debate, sponsored by WRAL-TV and the Rocky Mount Chamber of Commerce, comes two weeks before Nov. 6, but in the middle of early voting. It was moderated by WRAL anchor David Crabtree.
While the debate lacked the intense exchanges of the first two contests, there were still some surprises. McCrory complimented Beth Wood, the incumbent Democratic auditor who is running against Republican Debra Goldman, and said he would not support further restrictions on a womans access to abortion.
There also were plenty of disagreements between the two men, particularly on education and taxes.
McCrory said he wanted to give secondary education students the option of enrolling in vocational programs so they could graduate with marketable jobs skills. But Dalton expressed reservation about tracking students as early as the fifth grade away from academics.
His system defines a 15-year-old before he defines himself, Dalton said.
McCrory talked about a major overhaul of the tax code, including reductions in corporate and personal income tax and ending the estate tax. But he gave only vague answers about how he would replace the revenue, talking about taxing Internet sales, revenue from future natural gas exploration, and future revenue growth when the economy recovers. This has led Dalton to charge that McCrory will shift the tax burden to consumption or sales taxes that most heavily fall on the middle class. McCrory has denied that.
McCrory for his part, continued to criticize Dalton for backing a proposed 3/4-cent sales tax increase during the last budget shortfall to avoid education cuts.
Dalton, as he did in last weeks debate, also briefly brought up an episode in which the N.C. Supreme Court chastised McCrory for not recusing himself in a vote as Charlotte mayor pro tem when Duke Energy was involved in a land condemnation of a farmers property. At the time, McCrory was a Duke Energy executive.
McCrorys current job as a policy expert with the major law firm of Moore & Van Allen also came up.
Modest house, used cars
Asked to describe his job, McCrory said he provided business advice to the lawyers in the firm. He once again declined to release his tax returns or to describe how much he earns, saying his parents had always told him not to discuss such personal matters. He said past governors had not released their tax returns.
But he said he lived modestly in a 2,600-foot-square house, that he and wife drove two used cars and, I probably am going to be working the rest of my life.
McCrory was also asked about Debra Goldman, the Republican candidate for state auditor, who has been in the swirl of controversy following The News & Observers reports that in 2010 she accused fellow Wake County school board member Chris Malone of burglary.
Malone, a Republican candidate for state House, in turn, told Cary police the two had a physical relationship. Malone was cleared as a suspect in the reported burglary.
McCrory began to put some distance between himself and Goldman.
I am very concerned about some of the things Im reading, McCrory said. Im most concerned about the family members of all those involved. ... But if there continues to be things and police reports that show behavior thats not appropriate for an elected official, especially regarding if there are any false police reports and were hearing rumors, but it is very hard for me to base any knowledge on unfounded allegations.
I will compliment the current auditor at the same time, he said of Democrat Beth Wood. I think she has done a good job. She at least had the courage to stand up to the Perdue administration on some broken government issues.
Mental health care
There were also differences on health care and mental health issues.
McCrory was sharply critical of the mental care system. He said he would attempt to change recent policies of the administration of Democratic Gov. Bev. Perdue that he said were pushing mentally ill people out of rest homes and on to the streets.
Come January, we could have catastrophe, he said.
McCrory also suggested that he would re-examine the states policy of selling the old Dix Hospital property near downtown Raleigh that once served as a major mental hospital. Many city advocates would like for it to become a park.
I will not support right now getting rid of the land where Dix Hospital was. It makes no sense to me to build a new hospital and close down an existing hospital.
I think this is going to be the most serious issue in addition to the Obamacare issue the next governor is going to have to deal with. There has been no improvement in the mental health area for the last four years.
Dalton agreed that the effort to privatize mental health system has not gone well, particularly in rural areas.
In many cases, police departments have become mental health providers.
But he disagreed with McCrory that the Affordable Health Care Act would be bad for the state.
McCrory said it would hurt small businesses and have a staggering effect on Medicaid, the health insurance program for the poor.
But Dalton said the law would help rural hospitals and mental patients, and would eliminate pre-existing conditions as a barrier to buying health insurance.