By John Frank
Democrat Walter Dalton blasted Republican rival Pat McCrory's record as Charlotte mayor Saturday, striking a combative tone in a debate that reflected a governor's race so far defined by millions in negative television advertising.
In the first question in the campaign's first debate, the lieutenant governor took aim at McCrory's support for a downtown arena that many opposed and a budget that boosted his mayoral salary amid the financial crisis. "That is not leading by example," Dalton said, noting that he voluntarily took a furlough amid state budget cuts.
McCrory offered no response in the debate or a subsequent interview about the pay hike, but he had a witty retort about the arena project. "We've done such a good job the Democratic Party is coming to the city," McCrory said, invoking laughter from crowd. "The convention is coming to the arena he criticized."
Compared to Dalton, McCrory took an aw-shucks tone, grimacing and shaking his head as Dalton leveled attacks. He called for an end to Democrats' negative ads, noting that he asked the state Republican Party to remove a "ridiculous and stupid and irresponsible" Web video disparaging Dalton. "We have to have a dialogue that is constructive," he said. "This tit-for-tat is inexcusable."
The N.C. Bar Association debate in Wilmington - which will air statewide Sunday on News14 Carolina - gave the candidates a chance to critique each other on the same stage after weeks of passing each other on the campaign trail like ships in the night.
The race is getting early national attention, with Democratic and Republican groups airing more than $2 million so far in TV advertising, questioning McCrory's ethics and tying Dalton to the unpopular and controversial incumbent governor.
Asked after the debate about his aggressive approach, Dalton said, "I don't think people know Pat McCrory right now. And I think there has been some change in Pat McCrory over time."
The Democrat entered the hourlong event having already competed in three TV debates earlier this year in his party's primary contest. He showed improvement from prior debates by sticking to his message against Republican cuts to education and pivoting most questions into critiques of his opponent.
McCrory continued to hit themes from his campaign stump speech, labeling himself as an outsider with business world experience and speaking in visionary terms about "fixing the broken economy and broken government."
"I'm ready to step on the toes of the good-old-boy, and yes, good-old-girl system that we've had in state government for far too long," he said.
Dalton used the debate to continue linking McCrory to the Republican-led legislature, suggesting his rival is a "rubber stamp for an extremist agenda that helps special interests."
Views on legislature
McCrory gave a lengthy list of issues where he agrees with the legislature - from opposing a bill allowing death-row inmates to use statistics to show racial bias to a measure requiring photo identification to vote at the polls.
But he also used the opportunity to separate himself, saying he didn't agree with an unannounced midnight special session nor a bill to limit the authority of local governments to regulate billboards, a measure Dalton previously supported. "I'm running for governor. I'm not running for state legislature," McCrory declared.
Dalton less readily distanced himself from Perdue, saying he would be inclined to veto the current $20 billion budget on the governor's desk and opposed a couple of her vetoes last year. "I am not Beverly Perdue," he said. "We were elected separately."
McCrory again refused to release his tax returns as Dalton did earlier this year. Disputing an aerial banner asking "Who Pays Pat" that circled the debate site, McCrory said he filed the required state ethics forms and listed his employers. (Candidates are not required to release tax returns.)
The forms list his employers as Moore & Van Allen law firm and McCrory and Co., a firm owned by his brother. But it does not include his salary or client list. Pressed on this point, McCrory censured the reporter asking the debate question. "Frankly, I don't think that's your business. I'm not asking you for your income, either," he said, adding that such a question represents an attack on the private sector.
Dalton noted that former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a McCrory supporter, helped prod a reluctant presidential candidate to release tax returns. "Pat evidently doesn't follow that advice from Jeb Bush," he said.
McCrory's campaign wants Dalton to release his travel records, trying to draw comparisons to Perdue's 2008 campaign, which failed to disclose flights in its election finance reports. Dalton said his travel is public record and open to anyone.
Debate like it's 2008
The debate often felt like Perdue's 2008 campaign, with McCrory focusing on the governor, bashing her for ethical issues, including last week's flap about her office altering a state transportation official's letters to help push two toll road projects.
Dalton, too, rehashed lines from Perdue's campaign, such as the criticism about McCrory increasing his own salary two years after vetoing a budget with pay raises for police officers and firefighters.
The statement is misleading. In 2008, he didn't vote for the pay hike, but he didn't use his veto power, either. In the course of his long tenure, he allowed city budgets with mayoral and council salary increases to take effect but also voted against others with pay hikes. He vetoed the 2006 budget because it included a tax increase.