N.C. Republicans can dispense a stack of ready-made attack ads against their opponents this year: Another Democratic state legislator sent to jail, an $80,000 state pay raise for the Democratic governor's wife, a mental health system in turmoil.
And, in the end, even some Republicans concede it may not make much difference.
Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, the Republican nominee for governor, has hammered the idea of cleaning up Raleigh as a central tenet in his campaign, disparaging a “culture of corruption.”
But at a forum on Tuesday to discuss such issues, McCrory seemed frustrated by how difficult it is to get voters to pay attention to incidents such as former Democratic state Rep. Thomas Wright of Wilmington being convicted of public corruption.
“Where is the outrage?” McCrory said, referring to, among other issues, the near-doubling of First Lady Mary Easley's pay at N.C. State University.
McCrory and Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, appeared at a forum Tuesday convened by the N.C. Coalition for Lobbying & Government Reform, which helped push through a lobbying reform law in 2006. The candidates, appearing separately before a crowd of about 75, outlined their reform proposals.
McCrory said state officials use intimidation to keep local leaders and state employees from criticizing state leaders, leaving workers fearing for their jobs or local officials worried that they'll lose state funding. He said such threats have been passed on to him before, but couldn't name anyone else subjected to such intimidation because he said they feared for their jobs.
Perdue didn't hesitate to politely distance herself from her own party, echoing a McCrory complaint about the secrecy surrounding budget negotiations. Early in her legislative career, Perdue said, she was frustrated by how Democratic leaders in the legislature made major spending decisions privately among themselves.
“I really resented the fact that even I didn't know what was going on,” Perdue said. She eventually became a leader of the Senate appropriations committee.
McCrory and Perdue disagree on much, but organizers of the forum were pleased to hear both pledge greater access to records and budget- writing.
“They're out ahead of their parties,” said Jane Pinsky, the coalition's director. “I was delighted and a little bit surprised. Because in the last legislative session we got some pushback from legislators who basically said, ‘We've done lobbying reform and that's enough.'”
Republicans in 2006 attempted to tar a variety of Democratic candidates as allies of then-House Speaker Jim Black, the subject of a federal investigation and embarrassing revelations about his fundraising.
A GOP state Senate candidate in Raleigh used Black in an attack ad, while some Republicans posted a real-estate style sign: “House for sale,” featuring Black's photo. (Three months after the election, Black would plead guilty to federal corruption charges for accepting payoffs.)
Instead of chipping away at the Democratic majorities in the legislature, Republicans lost seats, and Black won re-election. If voters sensed misdeeds in Raleigh, they didn't seem to agree on whom to hold accountable.
The blurriness continues this year. A July poll by the Civitas Institute “suggests that North Carolina voters are in the dark concerning which party holds power in the General Assembly.”
Fewer than half the respondents knew Democrats controlled the state House, while 40 percent knew a majority of senators are Democrats.
“I bet upwards of 90 percent know what party the president of the United States represents,” Tom Jensen, communications director for the Democratic polling firm Public Policy Polling in Raleigh, wrote in a Web site posting.
“Pat McCrory and other Republican candidates can rail on corruption all they want this fall, but I think voters are much more likely to associate that term with Republicans in Washington than Democrats in Raleigh.”