Again, voters cool to change in Raleigh

North Carolina voters clearly wanted change in Washington.

In Raleigh? Apparently not so much.

N.C. voters helped put Democrat Barack Obama in the White House and bounced Republican Elizabeth Dole from the U.S. Senate. In the state capital, though, voters kept Democrats in charge of the governor's office and legislature.

Lt. Gov. Bev Perdue, who has held office in Raleigh for 22 years, moves up to the governor's office. Democrats – the same ones, in fact – return to the leadership posts in the legislature.

Voters made these choices despite news over the last year about secret budget decisions, a disastrous mental health system reform and a governor, Mike Easley, who at times appeared disengaged from the government he ran. Three years of scandal sent a trio of Democratic lawmakers, including former House Speaker Jim Black of Mecklenburg, to prison.

But the only significant change voters made in Raleigh was to oust State Auditor Les Merritt, a Republican who billed himself as the taxpayers' watchdog.

Merritt was defeated and will be replaced by a Democrat.

Political observers say that's due, at least in part, to a shadow that Washington casts over state capitals like Raleigh.

“The big issues of the day – the economy, the war on terror, health care – they're all driven by Washington,” said Brad Crone, a Democratic consultant.

Obama helped generate new registration and turnout, and those voters were encouraged to cast ballots for other Democrats as well.

Sen. Tony Rand, a Fayetteville Democrat and Senate majority leader, says those who call for dramatic change in N.C. government aren't in touch with what's working.

“Are you going to change the fact that we have a AAA bond rating,” Rand said, “and we're one of the few states that fully funded our pension plan, that our community college system is truly a wonderful thing? …

“I would argue you don't want to change any of those things.” Republicans counter that a state with a 30 percent high school dropout rate and some of the highest taxes in the Southeast needs a makeover.

There was no lack of effort by N.C. Republicans in this election.

Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, the Republican candidate for governor, pounded away at what he called the “culture of corruption” in Raleigh. Former state Sen. Robert Pittenger of Charlotte, the GOP candidate for lieutenant governor, ran television ads portraying the Democrats who control the legislature as pigs looking out for special interests.

Both men lost to Democrats who had been part of the leadership in the legislature.

Perdue dismisses any suggestion that her election as North Carolina's first female governor does not signify a call for change. “Just look at me and you see change,” she said.

During her campaign, Perdue embraced the role of reformer, promising to clean up state government.

“I'm going to open the windows wide in the state capital and we're going to let the sunshine in,” she said.

But look at where Perdue came from – the state Senate – and it's hard to get a sense of change.

Perdue, Lt. Gov.-elect Walter Dalton and U.S. Sen.-elect Kay Hagan were all helped in their political ascents by state Senate leader Marc Basnight, who gave each of them power and influence as key budget writers. Basnight has run the Senate for 15 years, a tenure that has led many observers to say that Basnight, not the governor, is the most powerful figure in state government.

Democratic leaders in the legislature, particularly in the Senate, hold a grip on power that has tightened with time. Their re-election is so likely that the individual leaders usually run unopposed. They take in hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from people who do business with the legislature. They spread that money around to the few Democrats facing difficult races, shoring up their majority and buying loyalty.

Decisions are often made by a top few and then approved by their party caucus, or among committee chairmen. The closed meetings have long generated complaints of secrecy.

Senate Minority Leader Phil Berger, an Eden Republican, said it's puzzling that the state historically votes for Republican presidents and U.S. senators but switches to the Democratic Party on state races.

“That entire change message did seem to address congressional, Senate and the presidential races but didn't seem to go beyond that,” Berger said. “I do think there was and is a significant ‘It's all Bush's fault' message that's been out there for a while and that's overridden everything else that's been out there.”

Jack Hawke, a senior strategist in McCrory's campaign, said there is plenty of dissatisfaction across the state with the culture of state government.

Hawke said Obama's ability to get out the vote in the presidential race drowned out dissatisfaction at the state level. Newly re-elected leaders shouldn't be comfortable, he said.

“They're making a big mistake if they think the scandals and the mismanagement and even the corruption – people going to jail – was accepted by the voters,” Hawke said.

Regardless of the election results, many of the campaigns for state offices were about transparency and ethics, said Bob Phillips, executive director of Common Cause North Carolina, a nonpartisan watchdog organization.

“They would be remiss and mistaken to feel like they're done, that their constituents are still not interested in this, that the citizens do not want to have a government that is more transparent and open,” Phillips said.