If North Carolina had a file cabinet, it would be the Secretary of State's office.
The secretary maintains a host of records ranging from the list of current lobbyists to trademarks to business incorporations and commercial loan documents. The office regulates certain aspects of business and is responsible for ensuring that goods sold in the state aren't cheap knockoffs of the real name brands.
The candidates running for the job say the secretary of state, who runs a department with nearly 200 employees, can have a big influence on how business is done.
“It matters because this is where business is created in North Carolina,” said incumbent Elaine Marshall, a Democrat. “If people can start a business easily and at low cost, that means they can get on to supporting the economy and creating jobs.”
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Her opponent, real-estate lawyer and Republican Jack Sawyer, said the office needs a new leader after Marshall's three terms.
“I think Secretary Marshall has grown very comfortable in her position and has grown very complacent,” Sawyer said. “My background is as a real-estate attorney. I have owned my own law practice. I know what it's like to manage employees and make a payroll and live within a budget in a small business context.”
Marshall says that if she is re-elected she would make the office more accessible through online technology and use the office's regulatory authority over nonprofit fundraising and investment professionals to protect the public from unscrupulous practices. She also wants to reduce the red tape and paper documents in the office.
Sawyer says he would post the department's budget on its Web site, would call for an independent audit and push the Council of State – a panel of elected leaders including the secretary of state – to stream video of its meetings on the Internet.
The race for secretary of state has not drawn the kind of attention of higher profile races this election season. Marshall has touted her experience and achievements in making the office customer friendly.
Sawyer has hit on what he says are serious mistakes Marshall has made.
Sawyer points to an incident near the end of Marshall's second term in which Social Security numbers were posted on the department's Web site. The numbers were included on corporate records and loan documents submitted to the office. Sawyer said Marshall should have immediately pulled the documents.
“When Secretary Marshall refused to take the site down, it exacerbated the problem and became a failure of leadership,” he said.
Marshall said that Sawyer has drastically overblown the incident.
Shutting down parts of the Web site would have caused serious problems in the business community, she said. The office became aware of the problem in 2003 when three people complained. The legislature eventually gave the office money to pay for removing Social Security numbers from all documents, and Marshall says the office fixed the problem with only half the money the legislature set aside.
The secretary of state also registers lobbyists and records money spent on lobbying activities. Lobbyists have close access to lawmakers, and in recent cases some have tried to hide that influence.
Three people were convicted of lobbying violations stemming from a lottery company's attempts to influence who got the contract to run the state's new lottery.
In 2007, the General Assembly toughened the laws governing lobbyists and ethics. The current law splits regulatory authority over lobbyists between the secretary of state and the N.C. State Ethics Commission.
Marshall said the split of authority is a weakness in the law.
“There are a number of people who have influence at the General Assembly and a number of legislators at the General Assembly who don't exactly share the vision of what the ethics and lobbying reform law was intended to do,” she said.
Sawyer said the secretary of state shouldn't let the split stop him or her from aggressively regulating lobbyists.
“I think the secretary of state shouldn't take a back seat to enforcing the lobbying law and saying, ‘The state ethics board has a role to play, so I'm going to let them handle this particular issue,'” he said.