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    North Carolina's politics

    By ROBERT FRIEDMAN

    © St. Petersburg Times, published October 11, 2000


    WINSTON-SALEM -- For casual observers, North Carolina politics begins and ends with Jesse Helms and tobacco, but that's not really fair to the state. Tobacco is still a major crop, but agriculture has ceded much of its hold on North Carolina's politics and economy to the Charlotte-based megabanks and the high-tech industries of the Research Triangle.

    And Helms, the irascible old race-baiter who has represented North Carolina in the U.S. Senate since 1972, has become an aberration. "Helms is an icon now," says Ferrel Guillory, director of the Program on Southern Politics, Media and Public Life at the University of North Carolina. "But a Jesse Helms couldn't get elected in North Carolina today if he were running for the first time." Two years ago, John Edwards, a young, telegenic trial lawyer, knocked off incumbent Lauch Faircloth, a Helms clone, to claim North Carolina's other U.S. Senate seat.

    Four-term Gov. Jim Hunt also has become an icon of sorts, and his political priorities are more typical of modern North Carolina than Helms' are. Hunt's innovative support for the state's public schools has won national acclaim. Vice President Al Gore's campaign acknowledges borrowing from Hunt's ideas -- including educational "SWAT teams" that go into underperforming schools to provide intensive help -- in setting its own school's agenda.

    Hunt follows in the progressive tradition of former governors such as Terry Sanford, who went on to serve as president of Duke University. Lawmakers in North Carolina -- a state that cannot begin to match Florida's financial resources -- have worked in a bipartisan way to build the finest public university system in the South. And while Florida politicians were throwing our universities into chaos earlier this year by abolishing the Board of Regents, North Carolina lawmakers were putting a $3.1-billion bond issue on the ballot this November for the state universities and community colleges.

    The higher education spending proposal has won the broad support of North Carolina's generally conservative business community, which relies on the skilled workers the state's top universities produce. Unfortunately, no similar consensus has emerged in Florida -- which may help to explain why Floridians are increasingly dependent on banks, power companies and high-tech industries based in North Carolina.

    "We're not Louisiana," Guillory says. "We don't expect our governors to entertain us. Governors here have to be education governors."

    Robert Friedman is the deputy editor for editorials at the Times.

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