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Risking a shot at a big grizzly

By D. G. Martin
Posted Monday, September 6, 2004

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"If you are going to take a shot at a grizzly bear, you'd better be sure you kill him. You don't want to just wound him."

This advice came to me from my former senior law partner, W.T. Covington, Jr. I was preparing a motion asking a judge to remove himself from a case because, as I would have to assert, he was personally prejudiced against my client.

In general elections Democrats have taken their endorsements for granted.

"You don't want to make a grizzly bear angry. He will make you pay dearly. And if that judge denies your motion and you lose on appeal, I wouldn't want to be you when you have to face that judge again," Mr. Covington continued.

Last week, I thought about that advice when the State Employees Association's executive director, Dana Cope, announced that the association's PAC had endorsed Republican gubernatorial candidate Patrick Ballantine.

It was the first time the group had ever endorsed a Republican candidate for governor. Only rarely has it supported Republican candidates for any state office, usually only when the Republican candidate was a sure winner.

Why do the state employees usually support Democrats? Because the Republican promises of tax reductions, cutbacks in government, outsourcing, and privatization are not consistent with higher pay and secure job for state employees.

Democratic candidates often work hard to secure the endorsements of teachers' groups and state employees in contested Democratic primaries. But in general elections Democrats have taken their endorsements for granted.

So why has the group made an exception this time?

That question is harder to answer.

The official answer from Cope and PAC chair goes like this: "North Carolina's state employees are ready to support the bold, hopeful and energetic leadership provided by Patrick Ballantine. Ballantine has put forward a platform that will benefit all of North Carolina's working families on the issues that matter most to them: health care, jobs and education. Ballantine 's record shows consistent support for state employees and an efficient state government without cutting jobs. He steadfastly has asked for our support, and now he has earned it."

Nobody believes these words are the real answer.

Most observers think the organization's leadership is determined to show Democrats that state employees are tired of being taken for granted.

And they are angry with Governor Easley for not pushing for higher pay increases and for using some of moneys allocated for the employee's retirement fund to deal with the state budget emergency in 2001.

Last week, they showed that they are angry enough to take a shot at a pretty big grizzly bear, the governor himself. Their problem, as Mr. Covington would have explained, is that that they are more likely to make the grizzly bear angry than to kill him. Easley still has a big lead and a Ballantine victory would be a big upset.

At least once before, Cope has taken a shot at a big bear. In the 2000 election he took aim at powerful state senate leader Marc Basnight. Under Basnight's leadership the senate had held out for less generous pay increases than the state house. In response, the state employees took aim at Basnight by endorsing the opponents of two of Basnight's key lieutenants, John Kerr and Howard Lee.

The effort against Basnight missed and the state employees paid the price, just as Mr. Covington would have predicted. Cope got a long-term deep freeze treatment from the senate leadership.

Last year the Raleigh News & Observer reported that Cope had changed course, turning from a "pit bull" into a "teddy bear." Cope told the N&O that the state employees' leadership wanted him to take an approach that is more cooperative than combative. The paper quoted Cope, "I will try to do what my client wants. And I didn't need to continue the fight and struggle I've had with the North Carolina Senate."

Now, a year later, with the endorsement of Ballantine over Easley, the state employees' leader is back to being a "pit bull."

But, assuming Easley wins this fall, it will be a challenging task for Cope to turn back in to a "teddy bear," one that will have to live for four more years right outside the big grizzly bear's den.


D.G. Martin is the author of "Interstate Eateries" a handbook of home cooking places near North Carolina's interstate highways-available through Our State Magazine (800-948-1409 or He is the host of UNC-TV's North Carolina Bookwatch, which airs on Sundays at 5:00 p.m. This week's (September 12) guest is Bill Thompson, author of "Sweet Tea, Fried Chicken & Lazy Dogs."

Programs coming up:

September 19: Orrin Pilkey, How to Read a North Carolina Beach

September 26: Orin Starn, Ishi's Brain

October 3: Karen Barker, Sweet Stuff

October 10: Dr. Gerald Bell, The Carolina Way

October 17: BJ Mountford, Bloodlines of Shackleford Banks

October 24: John Shelton Reed, Minding the South

October 31: Steven Sherrill, Visits from the Drowned Girl

November 7: Carl Ernst, Following Muhammad

November 14: John May, Poe & Fanny

November 21: Walter Turner, Paving Tobacco Road

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