Primaries loom for low-profile jobs that make N.C. tick

“It’s tough, because they’re not in the public eye. Especially these days, the vote is going to be highly partisan.”


Mac McCorkle
Duke University professor, political consultant

The Associated Press

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RALEIGH – Almost two dozen candidates are running for statewide offices that attract little attention but that are responsible for protecting North Carolina’s public employee pensions, ensuring safe workplaces and investigating how taxpayer money is spent.

Candidates for statewide Council of State offices facing primary elections March 15 know the contests stir little voter interest unless something goes wrong. As a result, incumbents can stay in their posts for many years. Incumbents holding five of the nine seats face no primary challenge for their party’s nomination.

Two other positions – attorney general and treasurer – will see turnover. After 16 years, Attorney General Roy Cooper is leaving his duties representing the state and its agencies in court to seek the Democratic Party’s nomination for governor. Treasurer Janet Cowell, also a Democrat, is stepping down after eight years in office and has not announced her next step.

Primary candidates can expect to struggle for public attention, said Mac McCorkle, a Duke University professor and political consultant for former Democratic Govs. Beverly Perdue and Mike Easley.

“It’s tough, because they’re not in the public eye. Especially these days, the vote is going to be highly partisan. Most people are going to be voting straight Republican or straight Democratic or they’re going to drop off and not vote in the lower-level races,” McCorkle said.

So most of the campaigning for Council of State positions will not be on TV, but social media and personal efforts targeting interest groups that care deeply about who regulates their industry.

Candidates also will hunt for endorsements that may sway some votes, McCorkle said.

“It’s the only thing to do. You don’t have enough money to mount a truly professional statewide campaign,” he said.

Seeking to replace Cooper with another Democrat are state Sen. Josh Stein of Raleigh and Marcus Williams of Lumberton.

Williams spent a dozen years as a director of free legal services across eastern North Carolina, was an assistant public defender, and has spent the past decade running his own firm. Williams ran in Democratic primaries for U.S. Senate in 2008 and 2010 and for governor in 1992.

Stein spent eight years as Cooper’s deputy for consumer protection before being elected to the Senate in 2008. The attorney has worked for the overseer appointed after the 2012 settlement in which the country’s biggest banks promised to pay $25 billion over mortgage foreclosure abuses during the recession.

On the Republican slate, state Sen. Buck Newton of Wilson and Forsyth County District Attorney Jim O’Neill are running in the March 15 primary. O’Neill has been a Forsyth County prosecutor since 1997, taking over the top job in 2009.

Newton, formerly chairman of the Wilson County GOP and aide to the late U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms, has been in the Senate since 2011. Last year, he co-sponsored a measure allowing magistrates to opt out of performing same-sex marriages.

The treasurer’s primary job is overseeing and investing public employee pension funds for more than 900,000 North Carolina teachers, state employees, firefighters, police officers and others valued at about $87 billion. He or she also controls the health insurance program for state employees, teachers and retirees.

Republican Dale Folwell faces no primary opposition. He will face the winner between bond lawyer Dan Blue III of Raleigh or Ron Elmer of Cary.

Elmer, whose background is in investment management and accounting, lost the Democratic primary to Cowell four years ago. He previously worked for a Durham firm that invested money for states and big corporations, and before that researched investments for banks.

Blue is the Wake County Democratic Party’s former chairman and Cowell’s choice. He has been endorsed by the state AFL-CIO and the political arm of the State Employees Association of North Carolina. His father is Senate Democratic leader and former state House Speaker Dan Blue Jr.

Four Democrats are competing in the primary for lieutenant governor, with the winner facing first-term incumbent Republican Dan Forest in November. They are Buncombe County Commissioner Holly Jones, financial services business owner Ron Newton of Durham, retired state employee Robert Earl Wilson of Cary, and former state personnel director and ex-legislator Linda Coleman of Knightdale. Coleman lost to Forest in 2012 by about 6,900 votes out of almost 4.4 million cast.

Democrat Elaine Marshall has been the secretary of state for 20 years and faces no primary opponent. The job’s duties include enforcing ethics rules, overseeing legislative lobbyists and investigating securities fraud.

The Republicans fighting to face her are A.J. Daoud of Pilot Mountain and Michael LaPaglia of Durham. Daoud lost in the same GOP primary four years ago and was the Republican Party’s chairman for the 6th Congressional District. LaPaglia owns a consulting company that advises museums and historic sites.

Democrat Wayne Goodwin, who has had the duty to balance insurance company profits with consumer costs as the insurance commissioner for eight years, has no primary challenger. Three Republicans are vying for the chance to succeed him after November’s elections. They are former Onslow County commissioner Joe McLaughlin of Jacksonville, Ron Pierce of Charlotte, and Mike Causey of Greensboro.

Causey tried and failed to win the 2014 GOP primary for U.S. House to succeed long-time Rep. Howard Coble. He was the Republican nominee for insurance commissioner in 1992, 1996, 2000 and 2012 but never won office.

McLaughlin is a financial adviser who in 2008 unsuccessfully challenged U.S. Rep. Walter Jones for his 3rd Congressional District seat.

Pierce said he is running because of bad experiences dealing with insurers as a construction company owner. He said he is also angry with Goodwin. Pierce said Goodwin’s agency “put me in jail under false charges” when it charged Pierce with insurance fraud in 2014. Prosecutors dropped the charges because of lack of evidence.

The labor commissioner is responsible for protecting the safety of the state’s 4.3 million workers. Republican incumbent Cherie Berry has served since 2001 and has no primary opponent.

The Democratic contest pits attorney and former Raleigh mayor Charles Meeker against Mazie Ferguson of Greensboro. Meeker is endorsed by the state AFL-CIO. Mazie Ferguson is an activist and minister waging a low-profile campaign.

Steve Troxler, who has headed the agency as agriculture commissioner for 12 years, faces gun-rights activist Andy Stevens of Greensboro in the Republican primary. The winner faces Democrat Walter Smith of Yadkinville, a farmer and retired USDA Farm Service Agency official who lost to Troxler four years ago.

The elected head of the state’s education bureaucracy has virtually no power or management duties. Incumbent Democrat June Atkinson has been the superintendent of public instruction since 2005. She is being challenged in the primary by Henry J. Pankey of Durham, an assistant principal in Winston-Salem and former Durham principal.

The Republicans’ primary field includes lawyer and Winston-Salem/Forsyth Board of Education member Mark Johnson of Winston-Salem, Dunn high school teacher J. Wesley Sills, and pediatrician Rosemary Stein of Snow Camp. Stein has promoted Republican outreach to Latino voters as chair of the state’s GOP’s Hispanic assembly.

Republican challenger Chuck Stuber and Democratic incumbent Beth Wood face no primary opponents in the race for auditor. The auditor tracks how the state’s money is spent and works to highlight inefficiency or waste.