District's plant closings shaped Dalton's career

State Sen. Walter Dalton can readily tick off the plant closings in his Western North Carolina district – Fieldcrest, Burlington, Cone Mills, Collins Aikman, Dan River, Stonecutter, Miller Tanner, Spring Ford Mills, Gaylon Lord, Broyhill Furniture.

The loss of 15,000 jobs in his district during the past decade has shaped the legislative career of Dalton, a 59-year-old Rutherfordton lawyer.

Dalton is a pro-business Democrat who has supported utility companies, the billboard industry and homebuilders. He has focused on aid for laid-off workers – from helping people keep their homes to making it easier to attend community college.

“Since the time I've been down here, we have been through some tough times,” Dalton said. “No area probably was devastated more than in my area.”

Dalton quickly became a key cog in the Senate Democratic caucus headed by Sen. Marc Basnight. Dalton is now rated the fifth-most-effective member in the 50-member Senate, according to the nonpartisan N.C. Center for Public Policy.

Dalton “is a perfect example of the Democratic Party of the 1980s and 1990s,” said John Hood, president of the John Locke Foundation. “He is well respected in the business community. He wields significant power in the Senate.”

Now Dalton is trying to move to the front of the Senate chamber as lieutenant governor, where he would preside over the Senate – a position that might afford him less power, but greater visibility.

As co-chairman of the Senate budget committee until earlier this year, Dalton's fingerprints are all over state spending.

“Walter is as reliable and as steady as anybody you will ever see,” said Senate Majority leader Tony Rand of Fayetteville.

Dalton has focused his legislative efforts on education. He was one of the architects, for example, of “Learn and Earn,” a program that allows young people, in five years, to earn a high school degree and two years of college.

The aim of the program, which has received national recognition, is to keep students in school while saving tuition money.

But if Dalton can take credit for North Carolina's successes, he is also vulnerable to criticism. His Republican opponent, former state Sen. Robert Pittenger of Charlotte, said Dalton should be held responsible for the problems of the state's education system.

Pittenger also said Dalton, as a key budget writer, should be held responsible for a 44 percent increase in state spending.

“Look at the results,” Pittenger said. “Is anybody saying we are a good roads state? Is anybody saying we have great education? Is anybody saying we have safe neighborhoods? Do we have a low tax burden in the state?”

Dalton is part of a long tradition of legislative Democrats who have been close allies of business. He receives strong ratings from business groups, but only lukewarm ratings from environmental groups.

He has at times been a legislative ally of various industries.

Dalton has been a proponent of Duke Energy's $2 billion plan to build two new coal-fired generating plants at Cliffside, on the Cleveland-Rutherford County line in his district. Dalton says it would provide 1,000 construction jobs and replace four inefficient units built in the 1940s.

Environmental groups said the plant would harm air quality in the Great Smokey Mountains.

Dalton, who has received campaign donations from Duke Energy, also voted against a measure to reduce incentives for building new coal or nuclear power plants.

But Dalton gets high marks from environmentalists for leading the effort to preserve Chimney Rock, a privately owned North Carolina landmark located in Dalton's district. When the owners were thinking of selling the property for development or for a resort, Dalton helped set aside $15 million of state money – combined with private donations – to make it a state-owned park.

In 2004, Dalton helped the billboard industry win a 20-year fight to require local governments to compensate them when billboards are banned. Prior to the Dalton effort, local government would allow billboards to stay up for a few years as compensation, a process called amortization.

Dalton said the new law will encourage towns to bar billboards in the first place.

The billboard industry has been a major Dalton donor. In 2004, Dalton and Rand played, at the invitation of the billboard industry, at the Augusta National Golf Club.

In 2005, Dalton tried to push through a tax break for the home building industry. He backed legislation to allow homebuilders to increase the value of their property by creating lots, paving roads and installing water and sewer lines without paying property taxes on the improvements. Dalton said homebuilders should get the same tax break as car dealers and furniture store owners.

Local governments opposed it, saying it would erode local revenues. The measure failed.

On social issues, Dalton has occasionally swung to the right. He co-sponsored, for example, a constitutional amendment banning gay marriages.

“I represent an area that felt like they deserved to vote on that,” he said.

Dalton said perhaps the best moment in his Senate career occurred not in Raleigh but back home in his district. Dalton had stopped for gas when a constituent – a laid-off textile worker – told him his foreclosure program had enabled him to keep his house, providing him with a bridge loan until he could find another job.

“I just want to thank you,” Dalton recalls the man saying. “You saved my home.”

News Researcher David Raynor contributed to this article.