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Wednesday, 19 December 2007 00:00

Smathers aims for state’s second-highest political job

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By Julia Merchant • Staff Writer

As mayor of Canton, Pat Smathers has overcome his fair share of obstacles — most notably the floods that devastated this Haywood County community in 2004. Now, Smathers is gearing up to face perhaps the biggest challenge of his career — attempting to become the first Western North Carolinian in more than three decades to win a high-level state office.

Smathers is making a bid for lieutenant governor, and is currently battling to win the Democratic primary on May 6 for a spot on the November 2008 ballot. The fact that Smathers is from a part of the state that has lacked representation in the capital may end up working to his advantage — Smathers is running on a platform of giving power back to local communities in a state he says is too Raleigh-centric.

“I think right now there’s a void in Raleigh of new ideas. We don’t need the same old, same old. We don’t need inside political operatives who have grown up in that organization. We need someone that’s going to come to Raleigh with new ideas and a fresh way of looking at things,” he says.

Rob Christensen, a reporter for the Raleigh News and Observer who has covered North Carolina politics for years, says this is exactly what some North Carolinians are looking for.

“There really is a bit of an anti-establishment mood out there. It’s anti-Washington and it’s anti-Raleigh. A lot of people are upset and that could work to Pat Smathers’ advantage,” Christensen says.

 

Control on a Local Level

The idea of giving local governments more control is a central message in Smathers’ campaign.

“You make the community strong, you’re going to have a strong state,” he says. “It doesn’t matter if you’re rural and agricultural or a large area like Charlotte — you make those communities strong and address the issues on the local level, you’re not going to have a problem on the state level.”

Smathers estimates from his experience as mayor that 70 to 80 percent of all the services and protections communities have are a result of local government or state employees working at a local level. Education, police and fire, social services, health departments and economic development — all of these are influenced on the smallest level of government, he says.

Control of these government functions should be given back to the local government partly because the legislature could run more efficiently without worrying about them, Smathers speculates.

“I think in a lot of respects we go to Raleigh for things that should be dealt with locally,” like funding for small-scale organizations and events, he says.

Local governments must also ask the legislature for the right to implement a new tax, and will often do so if they need funding for new projects, like schools. Proceeds from income and sales taxes are controlled by the state and local governments don’t have control over these funds.

“Anytime you want something, like to do a program, local governments must go to the legislature and ask for a special tax since the state controls income and sales tax,” Smathers explains.

Smathers is adamant that this tax code, which has been altered little since it was first enacted in the 1930s, needs to be thoroughly revised. He supports giving counties a “smorgasbord” of taxing authority including transfer taxes, sales taxes and impact fees.

“Counties need to have the right and ability to do those things,” Smathers says. He supports less tax money going to Raleigh, and more going to local governments so they’ll have options to deal with pressing needs in their own counties.

“The legislature needs to be dealing more with issues universally across the state and not so much with local issues,” he says.

Education is one of the universal issues the legislature should focus on, Smathers says. If he’s elected lieutenant governor, he’ll use the post to emphasize the need for change in this field.

“We have to change the way we look at education. Sixty percent of the state budget goes to education, but there are problems in education. When a third of our students are dropping out in high school, we can’t say we’re doing a good job. One of the things I see is that we’re always looking for quick fixes or the silver bullet, like No Child Left Behind, charter schools and vouchers. We’ve got to stop doing all the quick fix things,” Smathers says.

Smathers says that many behind-the-scenes issues, like affordable housing, home ownership and jobs for working men and women play a part in education. However, he says that “those things are not going to be resolved in Raleigh; they’re going to be resolved on the local level.”

 

Constituents

“The person that is going to win the lieutenant governor’s race is the one who can identify and mobilize his natural constituencies,” Smathers says. These are the people that naturally relate to Smathers — or other candidates — because of involvement in a similar career, avocation, hobby or volunteer area.

Smathers is the attorney for the Haywood County School Board, so he feels he can relate to and get the votes of teachers and administrators. He also hopes to score the votes of those involved in local government with his mantra of giving the power back to those on a local level. But the constituency that Smathers refers to the most is the state’s many military veterans. Smathers himself is a 28-year veteran of the North Carolina National Guard, and he says he can be a voice for veterans — something the state currently lacks.

“In a state like North Carolina we don’t have anyone with experience in how the military operates and the needs of military families,” he notes.

“There’s nobody on the state level that ... (is a) unified voice of vets across the state. I want to be the person that talks about veterans’ needs in the state. The experience I’ve had and all the training and education the military has given me is good in dealing with natural disasters, but I (also) understand where vets are coming from,” he adds.

Smathers credits the National Guard with preparing him to face the floods in 2004, when Canton was declared a federal disaster area.

“Military service is not a requirement for public office, but it certainly enhances your abilities. It enhanced my ability when dealing with the floods. I’d spent 28 years dealing with natural disasters,” he says.

Natural disasters are an important issue to many North Carolinians in a hurricane-prone state. In the National Guard, Smathers coordinated recovery efforts from the mountains to the coast.

“I understand natural disasters, and we’ll have them again in this state, and I think somebody on an important level needs to understand how to deal with natural disasters like hurricanes. Not just how you prepare for them, but how you rebuild afterwards,” he says.

Smathers’ experience in dealing with natural disasters helped solidify his belief that local governments need more power to effectively grapple with major events.

“When something like (a flood) happens, counties and towns don’t really have the tools to address it. Obviously the magnitude of the floods was so great you’re going to have to have state help, but it just clarified how much local governments are dependent upon the state for help,” he says.

Christensen, the News and Observer political writer, notes that Smather’s military service “sends the right cultural messages that this guy has served his country.” That’s a positive for him, Christensen says, but “it’s not like it brings some huge group of people to him.” Smathers will have to rely on more than his military service to win votes.

 

It’s what you make it

The lieutenant governor is the second-highest leadership position in the state. The person holding the office is the successor in the event that something happens to the governor, presides over the state Senate (but only votes in case of a tie) and serves on various boards, such as the state Community College Board, NC Rural Center Board, and state Board of Education. The lieutenant governor also appoints people to different government positions. Besides those duties, the post is flexible depending on the person.

“It’s really an office of what you make it to be. It’s a unique office in North Carolina because you have one foot in the legislative branch and one foot in the executive branch,” Smathers says. “You don’t control legislation, but you have an impact on all of it.”

The leadership aspect of the job is what appeals to Smathers. He’d use the position to influence ideas, discussion and appointments in North Carolina.

“It’s a leadership office, so you’ve got to have a vision and ability to make people understand and see that vision and how to achieve it,” he says.

“You have the ability to really pursue it as the office of ideas and start talking about new ideas and how we do things in the state,” he adds.

 

Chances?

Smathers still has a long way to go before the primary in May 2008. Right now, Public Policy Polling, a Raleigh-based political polling organization, shows Smathers in second place behind Walter Dalton (a state senator) with 10 percent of the votes. However, these figures mean little because the poll showed that 65 percent of voters are still undecided. In reality, it’s too early to determine if there’s a definite frontrunner, Christensen says.

“I think most people would view it as a very wide open race,” he says. “The fact is that state voters don’t know who any of these candidates are. There’s nobody in that race that’s a household name.”

So what will Smathers need to do to win voters? According to Christensen, the most important thing is getting his name out to the public. That provides a couple of challenges for Smathers. For one, Smathers says he’s not willing to play into the big spending — an estimated $1 million for the lieutenant governor’s contest — that often accompanies high-profile races.

“I think we spend way too much money on campaigns. I think a lot of it is wasted. If you try to talk about, ‘they want this amount of money,’ you play into the hands of the people running the political system,” he says.

But getting his name out through television and other forms of advertising is crucial, Christensen says.

“Pat Smathers has an impressive resume and he looks like a lieutenant governor. His problem is he’s not very well-known across the state and he doesn’t come from a very populous area,” he says. “He’s a credible candidate. He’s got a record you can point to, but his challenges are becoming known and raising money from a fairly small corner of the state.”

 

Where he stands:

Here are the results from a Dec. 4th poll of the Lt. Governor’s race by the Public Policy Polling institute in Raleigh.

Walter Dalton, state senator    12 percent

Pat Smathers    10 percent

Hampton Dellinger, lawyer and former legal counsel to Gov. Mike Easley    8 percent

Dan Besse, Winston-Salem

city councilman    6 percent

Undecided    65 percent

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