Perdue crafted a position of influence

Second of two parts

Beverly Perdue's election as lieutenant governor in 2000 looked like a big promotion.

In some ways, it was the opposite.

Perdue had been a state senator from New Bern. She ranked as one of the state's most influential legislators because she co-chaired the Senate appropriations committee, which helps decide where to spend money.

As lieutenant governor, Perdue had little power. The state's No. 2 office holder presides over the Senate, but only as a referee.

But Perdue took the largely ceremonial post of lieutenant governor and built something out of it. She used the office to get involved in issues such as health care, technology in education and economic development around the state's military bases.

“It's a function of the person,” Perdue said last week. “The office simply becomes a conduit for the (personality of the) person who holds it.”

It also provides a launching pad for a campaign for governor, and that's how some Perdue critics and allies alike say she has handled the office.

“Beverly has worked very hard to become the governor. During, I would say, almost six years she's been working with that goal in mind,” said Sen. Ellie Kinnaird, a Chapel Hill Democrat, during last spring's Democratic primary. Kinnaird supported Perdue's primary opponent, state Treasurer Richard Moore.

Perdue's record, both as a legislator and as lieutenant governor, also cemented a reputation for being elusive on some controversial issues and sometimes, switching positions. The examples range from a legislative coup in 1989 to offshore drilling during the current race.

Perdue laughs off the “status quo” label that her Republican opponent, Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, has tried to affix to her. She recounts how she has dismantled traditional barriers in a male-dominated career. When Senate President Pro Tem Marc Basnight elevated Perdue to co-chair of the appropriations committee, she was the first woman to hold that post.

Perdue's record, or that of any senator under Basnight's leadership, is difficult to single out because Democrats move legislation as a caucus.

For example, Perdue highlights her role in helping create the Clean Water Management Trust Fund, which awards grants to clean up water pollution. But that was a project Basnight was pushing and entrusted to her.

“It's more an evolution of the caucus than any one member driving things through,” said Molly Diggins, state director of the Sierra Club's N.C. chapter.

When Perdue arrived at the legislature in 1987, she represented a somewhat conservative eastern N.C. district and her record reflected that. On the environment, for example, she voted against a ban on phosphate detergents in 1987 and initially expressed reservations about cracking down on the hog industry over animal waste.

After two terms in the House, Perdue moved to the Senate.Her votes grew more moderate or more liberal as she spent more years as a lawmaker.

Bill Holman, former secretary of the state department of environment and natural resources, said some legislators never change and rely on the same colleagues for guidance. Others, such as Perdue, talk to other legislators and interest groups, learn about things outside their district, become better informed and change their views, he said.

“If you're going to run statewide, you have to change your views,” Holman said. “It's a big state, and you're representing a different constituency.”

Perdue attributed her jump to the lieutenant governor's race, in part, to the frustration of trying to advance long-term changes in the legislature.

“You could never get beyond the crisis of the day,” she said in an interview last week. “One year it was schools. One year it was juvenile crime. One year it was something else – Hurricane Floyd.”

She saw the lieutenant governor's office as a venue from which she could leave a longer-lasting imprint.

Gov. Mike Easley, also a Democrat, put Perdue in charge of the state's new Health & Wellness Trust Fund and, later, the state's efforts to prevent military base closings.

Perdue's signature achievement with the health and wellness fund was a ban on smoking at all N.C. public schools, a breakthrough in the No. 1 tobacco-producing state.

The American Lung Association still gives North Carolina ‘Fs' for its comparatively low cigarette tax, air quality and spending on tobacco prevention.

The group, though, upgraded North Carolina from an ‘F' on youth access in 2006 to a ‘C' last year.

Another assignment from Easley was to protect the state's military bases from being closed. Phil Kirk, a McCrory supporter who sits on the state's economic development board, complimented Perdue for recognizing that lobbying was not the way to win with the base-closing commission.

“It's in organizing the (community and government) support and showing the commission that North Carolina is military friendly,” Kirk said, “and she did a tremendous job.”

The state was effectively spared any base closings.

As lieutenant governor, Perdue has a seat on the State Board of Education. After about six months of wrestling with the complexity of the board's tasks, Perdue said she noticed something: “Nobody was talking much about technology.”

Fellow board members said she championed the effort to link teachers to more remote schools through the Internet.

“She kind of led the board through this,” said Jane Norwood, a Republican from Charlotte.

Perdue also cast the tie-breaking vote to create a state lottery.

Skeptics of Perdue point to her second term in the House as the point when questions began about her consistency and trustworthiness.

A group of Republican House members and dissident Democrats, including Perdue, plotted to oust then-House Speaker Liston Ramsey, a Democrat, in 1989, replacing him with Democrat Joe Mavretic. Perdue pledged to vote with the uprising until the morning of the vote, and then backed out. Perdue said she was a rookie legislator who agonized over the decision, but ultimately felt too much respect for Ramsey to vote against him.

Most recently, Perdue switched her position on coastal oil drilling. In June, she said she was “100 percent opposed” to oil drilling off North Carolina's coast; two months later she said she would appoint a panel to study it.

“In the 21st century, North Carolina – and the country, actually – benefits from somebody who says, ‘I'll rethink it.' I don't know that that's necessarily good or bad,” Perdue said last week. “I'm proud that I'm able to stand up and say, ‘Hey, the world's changed and perhaps I need to change.'”

(Raleigh) News & Observer Staff Writer Benjamin Niolet contributed.
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