NC runoff low-key affair compared to primary

Gary D. Robertson // Published June 22, 2008 in Associated Press
After the most exciting primary election season in at least 20 years, two candidates for North Carolina state labor commissioner believe there's still enough voter enthusiasm among Democrats for a runoff.

John Brooks and Mary Fant Donnan, the top vote-getters in the May 6 Democratic primary for state labor commissioner, will be the only candidates on the statewide ballot in Tuesday's runoff election. The winner takes on Republican Commissioner Cherie Berry in November. Two legislative districts also have runoffs.

Runoffs are usually low-key, with turnouts over the past 15 years ranging from 2.5 percent to 8 percent of the eligible voters in the party's primary, said Gary Bartlett, executive director of the State Board of Elections.

Nearly 1.6 million people voted in the May 6 Democratic primary, excitement generated from presidential hopefuls Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton crisscrossing the state three weeks before the election.

Elections board data bear out Bartlett's projection of low interest Tuesday. About 5,700 people had voted early at county polling spots as of last week. Unaffiliated voters also can participate.

"I am hoping that we do not have a record" low turnout," Bartlett said. "I hope that people do participate, but I do not see a lot of activity."

Brooks called for the runoff after he finished about 38,000 votes behind Donnan in a tight four-person race. A candidate must receive more than 40 percent to avoid a runoff.

Brooks, the labor commissioner from 1977 to 1993, said he's seen a lot of interest from local Democratic leaders, who have put on forums for him and Donnan to present their views.

"There's been a tremendous amount of activity since the first primary," Brooks said.

The runoff will cost the counties from $3.5 million to $5 million to administer, deputy state elections director Johnnie McLean said.

Some people want the state to switch to instant runoff voting, which allows a winner to be named without holding a separate runoff because voters rank all the candidates by their preference during the primary. The concept has been used in Cary and Hendersonville as a way to boost voter involvement and save money.

"It would have made sense to just identify your choice and backup choice," said Bob Hall, research director with the campaign reform group Democracy North Carolina. "More people would have done that than (will) show up at the polls."

Donnan said she's targeted her campaign to areas with the highest potential turnout, in particular where legislative or local runoffs are occurring. But she hasn't been too picky.

"I've tried to talk to any county (party) meeting that I can get to," she said.

Donnan and Brooks both argue Berry has failed to protect North Carolina workers adequately or push for more apprenticeship training for vocational fields.

Brooks, 71, said he's the most qualified because of his four terms as commissioner. As an attorney - unlike Donnan - Brooks said he would be able to work with other labor officials nationwide on improving labor law.

The state's enforcement of workplace safety laws has eroded since Berry took office in 2001 and workplace injuries cost billions of dollars, Brooks said.

"We need to get serious about occupational safety and health because we have way, way too many industrial-related work accidents in North Carolina," he said.

Brooks lost in the 1992 primary in the aftermath of a 1991 fire at a chicken-processing plant in Hamlet that killed 25 workers. But Brooks, now an attorney at the state Industrial Commission, said the plant was never licensed, so his department didn't know it existed or needed to be inspected.

Donnan, 46, worked in the department from 1994 to 2001 and has been endorsed by third-place primary finisher Ty Richardson and fourth-place finisher Robin Anderson. Donnan said as a commissioner she would be more active in recommending labor law changes to the General Assembly, such as on whether to raise the minimum wage.

She also wants the department to be more proactive in determining safety issues in new and emerging industries such as biotechnology.

"We need public policy improvements about what comes out of the department," Donnan said. "Everyone has to figure out ways to work together."

In the 5th Senate District, covering Greene, Pitt and Lenoir counties, Snow Hill Mayor Don Davis and State Board of Education member Kathy Taft will compete for the Democratic nomination. The winner, who wants to succeed the retiring Sen. John Kerr, D-Wayne, will take on outgoing Rep. Louis Pate, R-Wayne, in November.

In the 67th House District, covering Stanly, Union and Montgomery counties, Rep. Ken Furr and Justin Burr will participate in a runoff for the Republican primary. Furr was appointed last August to succeed Rep. David Almond, who resigned.