Show up in Charlotte at the Vinroot for Governor campaign headquarters, and they’ll be happy to take you over to the Sugar Creek Charter School, founded by a number of the Queen City’s leading citizens, including corporate lawyer and former mayor Richard Vinroot. The school used to be a KMart–the all-purpose room and gym was the loading dock. It’s in a low-income area of town, where revitalization is talked about but not yet happening. The students, 500 of them in grades K-6, are predominantly African American. They wear uniforms–white shirts, blue pants or skirts–and they are tightly regimented, to a degree greater than might be suggested by what the school calls its “code of civility.” But there’s no question they’re seriously well-behaved. They should be serious, because really, they’re what the Vinroot campaign is all about.
Vinroot is the candidate, after all, who says he’ll always “do the right thing,” who likes to raise three fingers and tell audiences that he enlisted during the Vietnam War because, as a Boy Scout, he’d promised to do his duty. His duty now, he says, is to shake up state government and give the public school system some competition. “If you want politics as usual in the governor’s office,” he told state employees at their convention recently, “I’m not your man.”
“Richard is a do-gooder,” says Kevin Kennelly, the president of Park Meridian Bank in Charlotte. Kennelly’s on Sugar Creek’s board of directors. He likes telling how Vinroot, back when the school was little more than a plan, dragged his fellow members out in the freezing rain one night to eyeball the empty KMart. “He has endless energy,” Kennelly says, shaking his head. “It’s not easy starting a school.” Nor, he adds, is it clear that having started one is a plus for Vinroot, the Republican candidate, in his uphill campaign against Attorney General Mike Easley, the Democrat. “Statewide, it’s break-even at best, but Richard’s big on it.”
If you like charter schools, and not just a few of them here and there but a whole lot of them as part of a fundamental overhaul of public schools, then maybe you should vote for Vinroot on Nov. 7. Easley, by contrast, says he’s also dissatisfied with how public schools are doing, but he’ll continue to build the system up, not “drain money out” the way Vinroot would. “We’ve come a long way, but we’ve got a long way to go,” Easley says.
And on charter schools? Easley takes the orthodox Democratic position that he likes them as an experiment, but he would not move to change the law that limits the total number of them to 100–at least not for the next two years as the state finishes evaluating the 95 already open.
Indeed, Easley is in the mainstream of Democratic thinking on virtually every important issue, so that, though his restrained approach differs dramatically from outgoing Gov. Jim Hunt’s hands-on style, his election offers no change from the current direction of state policy–with the single exception of the lottery issue. Hunt was in office eight years this time (1993-2001) and 16 years in all without ever calling forth a lottery. Easley is calling for one, and his election will make its creation highly likely. Vinroot is against a lottery, though he might not be able to stop it.
Otherwise, Easley’s election would not change the mix in Raleigh from the status quo, which means middle-of-the-road Democrats occupying all the key leadership positions in the executive and legislative branches and advancing, as it were, on the center. Progressive ideas like campaign finance reform, smart growth, universal health care, fixing the mental health-care system, a living-wage law or a death-penalty moratorium are sometimes talked about, but not in polite company.
Meanwhile, a series of tax cuts tilted toward business have reduced state revenues by a total of $1.4 billion a year in Hunt’s second coming. Too much, as progressives say? Or too little, as per the conservatives? The strong economy allowed state spending to increase anyway, up 42 percent in real (inflation-adjusted) dollars to $13.8 billion a year, according to the nonprofit N.C. Budget and Tax Center.
No doubt, this balance of more-and-less has worked for Hunt and his party. No surprise, then, that Easley is sticking to it. All year he’s recited the same script: Increase school funding, help senior citizens buy prescription drugs, clean water, no new taxes–aside from the lottery, of course. State funds are in short supply; he’s not promising much. He’s not debating Vinroot much, either–once so far, and that time only about school issues. He’s comfortably ahead, polls show.
On the other hand, if Vinroot were somehow to pull off an upset, it would scramble Raleigh politics but good, especially if, as is likely, the Democrats maintain their majority (now 35-15) in the Senate and either hold it in the House (64-56) or lose narrowly. If that happens, the centrist Democrats and conservative Republicans will have to break bread with one another–and rewrite a few of the Hunt recipes.
True, the last Republican governor, Jim Martin, barely dented the dominant Democrats. But Martin didn’t have the veto. Eight years later, thanks to Hunt, governors do. Thus Vinroot, who like Martin is promising to clamp down on state spending, would actually be in a position to do it. Exactly how he’d do it, though, remains a mystery–to him as well as to us. He’d appoint an efficiency commission to advise him, he says.
And don’t look now, but if Vinroot wins, there might even be a moderate Republican at the table with all the centrists and conservatives. That would be “old Vinroot,” as people who’ve followed his career put it, as opposed to the “new Vinroot”” currently on view. Old Vinroot lost the ’96 Republican primary for governor to the more conservative Robin Hayes. New Vinroot is more conservative.
The new Vinroot is running a thoroughly negative campaign, crafted by Jesse Helms’ old sidekick Carter Wrenn, aimed at tearing down Easley’s still-shiny image. (See “Crying Foul,” page 22.) Old Vinroot was a middle-of-the-road man himself as mayor–the shy, 6-foot-8-inch do-gooder whose liberal basketball coach at Chapel Hill, Dean Smith, has all but endorsed him in a series of TV ads.
Put old Vinroot and new Vinroot together with Democrats Marc Basnight and Jim Black, the Senate and House leaders, respectively, and maybe you’d get a wild departure from the status quo, but more likely the result would be compromise, small changes, and maybe–maybe–a progressive thing or two.
That’s not to say Vinroot, old or new, is more progressive than Easley. He’s not. But would adding Vinroot to the old recipes, and scrambling, yield a more progressive set of results? Based on what the candidates have said, and the effect they’d be likely to have on policy, here’s what it looks like on 10 key issues:
1. Want a Lottery?
The next governor will find that Jim Hunt has cleaned out the money drawer and cashed in the penny jar. There’ll be no surplus, no rainy day fund, and maybe a deficit projected come next July, when the current budget year ends. Enter the lottery question–with its lure of easy money.
Easley’s pro-lottery and says the $300 million or so it brings in can pay for reducing class sizes in grades K-3 and a 4-year old program for every “at-risk” (low-income) child. He’ll ask the legislature to approve a referendum on the issue; polls show the voters would approve it 2-to-1. Easley calls a lottery “the right thing to do.” Vinroot says lotteries are “a scam” designed to separate the low-income people who play them most heavily from their money. That’d be especially true if North Carolina, like most states that have lotteries, paid out just half the money played–while keeping the other half. Vinroot wouldn’t block a referendum if the legislature wants it, he says, but he’d campaign against passage by the voters.
Good chance, then, Democratic legislators say privately, that the General Assembly wouldn’t pass a lottery in the first place if Vinroot wins, leaving him to stew in his own budget woes.
2. Schools need a shake-up?
Vinroot wants to grade the public schools “A” to “F,” and give students “opportunity scholarships” for private schools if their public schools fail two years in a row–just like Florida does under GOP Gov. Jeb Bush. But while 78 schools failed the Jeb test in year one, only four were repeaters in year two, and only 52 kids took the proffered ticket out. In other words, Vinroot’s “voucher plan” is mostly for show. And Democrats, given the anti-voucher stance of their allies in the teachers association, would fight it to the death anyway.
What’s not for show is Vinroot’s belief in charter schools–public schools run by private, nonprofit boards with minimal state oversight. “Letting the dollars follow the child, and letting the parents make the choices, are going to cause the public school system to get good, or lose the right to teach children,” he said in one interview. Vinroot would push the legislature to let some counties turn all their schools into charters if they want to, he says.
Charter schools have been most popular in black neighborhoods, especially those in urban districts where–for integration purposes–minority children are bused to suburban schools. There’s a cap in the charter law–just 100 are allowed pending a five-year review in 2002–and unless it’s lifted, charters are going nowhere. Vinroot would fight to lift the cap; Easley would wait for the review before deciding.
The early returns on charters have been fairly bad, and Sugar Creek, which opened last year, is no exception. But Marla Oakes, the school’s director, says there’s an explanation for that. Charters, like all public schools, are judged on end-of-the-year tests starting in grade 3; her kids did poorly because, when they came to Sugar Creek from other, traditional public schools, they didn’t read very well. Improving their reading skills took all year, meaning they didn’t spend much time studying the state curriculum on which the EOY tests were based. “Let’s see how our kids do the second year they’re here,” she says confidently.
Vinroot’s idea for countywide charters isn’t likely to pass the General Assembly, nor much else that he has in mind, given the Democrats’ view that Hunt’s program will work if given time. Says Sen. Brad Miller, D-Wake: “A lot of what we need to do, we are doing.”
What might pass, though, is a deal between Republican legislators and black Democrats to allow more charter schools in inner-city neighborhoods under the control of neighborhood boards, an idea suggested by John Hood, president of the conservative John Locke Foundation. “It would have to be part of some larger, ‘excellent schools’ bill for cities, but I think it would have a chance,” Hood says.
The differences between Vinroot and Easley on school issues are vast, but they can be boiled down to this: Easley thinks the public schools are getting better and will stick to Hunt’s guns, emphasizing higher teacher pay and smaller classes; Vinroot thinks the schools are failing so many low-income kids that it’s time their parents had a chance to take them elsewhere. Both support the current state testing program (the “ABCs”). Both say they’d spend more on schools overall, including more aid to low-wealth counties. Vinroot is for merit pay for teachers; Easley says he likes the “team concept” in place now, with a salary guide based on longevity and bonuses for the faculty if the school does well.
3. University vs. community colleges
Both candidates have endorsed the $3.1 billion bond issue for UNC and community college facilities to meet growing enrollment needs and deferred maintenance But that’s where the agreement ends. Easley blasts Vinroot for saying the tuition at UNC campuses should be higher, pointing to the provision in the state constitution that the universities be free to the extent “practicable.” Vinroot argues that ordinary taxpayers shouldn’t be saddled with the bill when the children of wealthy parents attend a state university, and only needy students should get big subsidies.
And their disagreement goes way beyond that. The “workforce needs” of 70 percent of students can be met at the less expensive community colleges, while just 30 percent require university training, Vinroot says. So he thinks more of the bond money should have been earmarked for the former, less for the latter. Assuming the bond issue passes, he’d make every project in it pass muster with “an independent auditor” to be sure it’s worthy, according to his campaign. Bond proponents at UNC call Vinroot’s position that fewer students need a university education “elitist.” Armed with a budget veto, though, and some populist rhetoric, Vinroot might be able to shift state funding down the higher-education food chain at least a bit.
4. Corporate welfare, anyone?
During Hunt II, the state started handing out money, mainly in the form of tax credits under the William S. Lee Act, to corporations that build new facilities in North Carolina or hire new folks at the ones they’ve got. The handouts are multi-year, and they’ve built up to about $100 million not collected in corporate taxes in the current budget. Easley favors these “incentives” because other states have them, though he says they should be “targeted” to businesses in economically distressed rural counties. Vinroot says he’ll stop corporate welfare and work to get the Lee Act repealed.
Whether either candidate could get the legislature to curb its penchant for giveaways is questionable. But just eliminating the tax credits in the most affluent counties, where business is booming anyway, would save the state $75 million a year within four years, according to the Budget & Tax Center.
5. Rally ’round the loopholes
Casting around for new money, the Covenant with N.C. Children, a progressive advocacy group, pointed to a series of tax loopholes for favored businesses that, if closed, could net the state more than $400 million a year. Some are easy, like charging the 6 percent sales tax on luxury items (boats, airplanes, cable TV). The biggest, though, would require bringing the sales tax into the 21st century–or replacing it with a more progressive, broad-based tax. As it stands, the sales tax doesn’t apply to most services, the fastest-growing part of the economy, and Internet sales are escaping it too. The upshot, Cartron says, is that state revenues keep falling short of projections, which is why the predictions of a deficit at the start of the next fiscal year might not be–as so often in the past–too pessimistic.
Closing loopholes isn’t in Easley’s script, because Vinroot would be quick to call it raising taxes. Easley does bow in the direction of making taxes more progressive if they’re cut. If the state weren’t so short of money, he says, he’d propose raising the income threshold to which state taxes apply, exempting more low-income folks. “My priority will be to make the tax system fairer to working families and more progressive generally,” he says.
Vinroot, by contrast, has a tin ear on the subject. He rejects questions about it with his summary opposition to “new taxes,” and once, asked what he would do to narrow the growing gap between rich and poor in the state, answered: “Well, I don’t know that I want to be governor of a state whose policy is that we will narrow gaps. I want to be the governor of a state which frees the economy and business from over-regulation.” That, and better schools, would “give everyone a fair opportunity to see their own fortunes,” he added.
6. Caps or cuts?
Vinroot touts the idea of a spending cap (“taxpayer protection act”) that would limit overall budget increases to the percentage growth in population, plus whatever the inflation rate is. The effect would be to cut the growth of state spending from the Hunt-era rate (42 percent in eight years, inflation-adjusted) by at least three-fourths. The cap worked in Charlotte, Vinroot says, when he got it enacted there. Why not the state? Along with school choice, it’s his signature issue.
The problem is that city budgets don’t pay for programs that service, as Kim Cartron of the Budget & Tax Center terms it, “need populations.” The biggest two are school-aged kids and senior citizens, for whom cities–unlike the state–do virtually nothing.
Moreover, Cartron says, children and senior citizens are the fast-growing parts of the population, and so it isn’t surprising that they account for two of the three areas in which state spending has jumped: school aid, especially for raising teachers’ salaries, and Medicaid, which pays for nursing homes as well as the poor. The third jumper? Prisons. The number of state inmates went from 18,600 to 31,300 in the ’90s. Take them out of the equation, and state spending has been pretty flat. Since Vinroot says he, like Easley, would increase school expenditures, what would he cut? He doesn’t know. He says he’d do an efficiency study–create a blue-ribbon commission–to point out wasteful spending and streamline management. Some state functions might be handed over to private businesses if they could do them for less, he says.
Given the way state spending was pared to find money (without a tax hike) for Hurricane Floyd relief, even some Republicans are skeptical about the Vinroot plan. “I think he would be putting himself in a box,” Rep. David Miner, R-Wake, says. “With all due respect to my conservative colleagues, there are not a lot of places left to cut.” Cartron, moreover, says comparing North Carolina’s spending to other states’ will only show “that we mimic them perfectly”–spending is up everywhere for schools, senior citizens and prisons–and North Carolina ranks 30th in spending.
And Easley? He’s against new taxes (other than the lottery). His spending proposals are suitably modest, therefore: more for schools, a small subsidy program to help low-income seniors buy prescription drugs, and a general promise to support clean-water spending.
7. Who’s for hogs?
Easley, as attorney general, negotiated a deal with giant Smithfield Foods: The corporation will pay $15 million to N.C. State University to support its work on the hog-waste issue; when the university finds a better–but still economical–method of waste disposal than cesspools (“lagoons”), Smithfield’s corporate-owned farms will use it.
Environmentalists generally welcomed the plan, though its effect is to put off a solution to the hog problem for up to five years. They had little choice, however, because while many of them gave Easley mixed grades on pollution issues as attorney general, Vinroot’s campaign has failed them completely. He’s labeled the state’s environmental enforcement staffers “overzealous government regulatory bureaucrats,” the Conservation Council of North Carolina’s political arm complained, and his platform “fails to even mention the need to control air and water pollution.” Indeed, Vinroot says, when reporters ask, “I support the industry.” Vinroot’s chief political strategist, Carter Wrenn, has worked for the hog industry and helped fashion its strategy of blaming water pollution on local governments while trashing legislators–with negative TV and radio ads–who took it on.
“The difference between these two candidates on the environment is major,” says Dan Besse, the CCNC’s political director. “Vinroot seems to buy into the false old idea that we can’t have a healthy environment and a healthy economy,” he says. “Easley is genuinely committed to controlling the pollution problems resulting from the rapid growth of our healthy economy.”
8. Sprawl: a draw?
Both candidates say they’re for mass transit–rail and buses–in urban areas. Neither has a plan to pay for it with state money. Easley is much better rhetorically on the subject of “smart growth.” He knows what it is, and says he’ll continue the Hunt administration’s initiatives to improve local planning and step up public purchases of open space. It’s not specific, but it’s more than Vinroot offers. Vinroot rejects state funding of open-space programs, saying it’s a local responsibility.
Still, Rep. Miner thinks the Triangle might make more progress under a Vinroot administration than with Easley. His reason is that, as long as rural legislators dominate the legislature, whether Democrats or Republicans, they’re not going to pay for urban transit regardless of who’s governor. To finance it, therefore, we’ll need a dedicated tax along the lines of Charlotte’s half-cent sales tax for transit. Triangle voters would have to go along, but first, the legislature must pass a bill letting us put it to a vote. And on local issues like this, it’s the local legislators who decide. Since it’s the conservative Republicans in the General Assembly–Wake County Reps. Russell Capps, Rick Eddins, and Sam Ellis, specifically–who are blocking a vote, they’ll likely keep on blocking it if another Democratic governor is elected. But they might stand aside if Vinroot, who backed Charlotte’s initiative and says he’s in favor of “home rule” on such things, asked them to.
9. Soft money? Tough luck.
Campaign finance reform? Again, Easley is rhetorically better but not specific. And after eight years of Democratic foot-dragging, some advocates think a Republican governor, even one like Vinroot who’s against reform now, might help break the logjam. Maybe it’s wishful thinking, but Chris Heagerty, who heads the N.C. Center for Voter Education, a pro-reform group, thinks that “if Vinroot made political reforms an issue and used it to go after independent voters–the McCain vote–in the closing weeks of the campaign, it would be brilliant.” And while Republican legislators nearly all oppose public financing of campaigns, Rep. Connie Wilson, a Charlotte Republican, is one of the General Assembly’s leading proponents of tougher disclosure laws–which have been resisted so far by the Democratic majority.
10. Death penalty? Same story.
Under Easley, the attorney general’s capital-crimes section has gone all-out for the death penalty. Easley’s for it, and he’s against a moratorium on executions, rejecting evidence that there’s racial bias behind jury decisions and also the idea that mentally retarded criminals should not be put to death. Actually, after five death-row inmates were executed last year, there’s been a kind of moratorium in 2000, with no executions so far. But last week, the state scheduled another one–for Nov. 9, two days after the election.
Vinroot is also strongly pro-death penalty and anti-moratorium.
If ending capital punishment is your issue, your only choice is the Libertarian Party candidate, Barbara Howe. (See “The other choice.”)
Bottom line, electing Vinroot could plunge the state into a serious fiscal crisis if he stuck by his taxpayer-protection scheme and vetoed more generous Democratic budgets. Neither Easley nor Vinroot would be able to tap lottery proceeds for a year or two, at a minimum, and Vinroot not at all if he gets his way. So financing any progressive programs, difficult under either candidate, would be impossible under Vinroot, it seems, save for some urban-schools bill of the kind envisioned by the Locke Foundation’s Hood.
And, lottery aside, the hopes for progressive outcomes from a Vinroot administration depend largely on his willingness to put his new, conservative cloak in the closet and bring out the old pin-striped Vinroot the voters in Charlotte used to know. With six weeks to go to Election Day, Vinroot still has time to make campaign finance reform his issue, reach out to Triangle voters on the transit issue, call for the hog industry to clean up its mess now, instead of someday, and realize that the Democrats’ failures on issues like health care, mental health, low-income school children, and tax fairness are his opportunities to reach out to independent voters and overcome Easley’s lead.
New Vinroot isn’t getting it done. Perhaps voters would like the old Vinroot flavors better.