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Governor Perdue Leaves Mixed Legacy

Today was the last full day of Democratic Governor Bev Perdue’s four-year term as the highest office holder in North Carolina. As the state’s 73rd governor, Perdue came into office fighting an uphill battle against a bad economy. She became a lightning rod for criticism from Republican state legislators. But she also served as an inspiration for women as North Carolina’s first female governor.

At a luncheon held by the state Council of Women a few weeks ago, Governor Perdue said she’s been nostalgic about her inauguration day four years ago. She remembers shaking hands with scores of people, including one little girl who was wearing a big sign around her neck. Perdue says she’ll never forget it.

Bev Perdue: "And I walked out and saw that little girl with that sign around her neck that said wow maybe I can be a girl governor too. If I can tell you how inspirational that was to me, you can each tell me how something similar has been an inspiration to you."

Perdue officially shattered the state’s glass ceiling by becoming the first woman to lead North Carolina— no mean feat in a state with a legendary old boys’ political network. Jill Dinwoody and Jenny Ward are both involved with the Council of Women.

Jill Dinwoody and Jenny Ward: "It’s a big statement to girls and women that yes, women can be governors of states./For women especially to think that’s possible for me, or that’s possible that more of us can be at the table, because when you have men and women at the table, there’s more of a balanced outcome."

Perdue worked hard to get her spot at the table. She was a state legislator for 13 years and served two terms as lieutenant governor. But she faced a lot of problems as soon as she became governor. Bob Phillips heads North Carolina’s chapter of Common Cause, a non-profit advocacy organization.

Bob Phillips: "Like any kind of governor, she came in hoping to do the best she could, was dealt a really bad hand, and it was a very difficult time, and I think it would be that difficult for anybody, regardless of the party and who they are."

Phillips says no governor could have had a quick fix for the state’s worst economic downturn since the 1930s. And Perdue came into office when flagging revenues meant the state could barely make payroll. That wasn’t something she could control, but there were other problems too.

John Hood: "Certainly she didn’t articulate some broad vision here’s what we’re going to do. And when you don’t do that you’re sort of hostage to events, and the events were not to her benefit."

John Hood heads the conservative John Locke Foundation, a North Carolina think tank.

Hood: "I also think because she did not spend a lot of time describing and selling a reform agenda the things that happened under Governor Perdue’s tenure that are good, that deserve to be credited to her are largely unknown."

Perdue reworked the state’s organizational chart to make state government more efficient. That included combining several branches to create an umbrella Department of Public Safety. She also streamlined the Department of Health and Human Services. Hood thinks Perdue should have spent more time with the media making sure the public understood how beneficial those changes were. But again, the slow economy was in Perdue’s way. Mac McCorkle is a former Democratic strategist and an associate professor at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy.

Mac McCorkle: "When the narrative is one that’s very hard for a good narrative to be shaped, you don’t see a lot of politicians say oh I go to see the press every week and answer questions. Remember when Governor Hunt’s running in the 90s he’s not having to think about tax increases, he’s doing tax decreases, tax cuts to rival Republicans."

McCorkle says by the time Republicans gained control of both houses of the legislature in 2010, Governor Perdue was already suffering from what he calls a soft lack of approval among independents. Lawmakers butted heads with the governor publicly and bitterly. She responded by vetoing 19 of their bills, including measures allowing natural gas fracking and requiring voter identification cards. That opened the door to what Bob Phillips calls a new chapter in modern North Carolina politics.

Phillips: "I do for her and just for really the citizens of this state regret that we’re in that time where it seems that there’s just an inability of people from both sides of the aisle to sometimes put those differences aside and work with each other and again be civil to each other and it just seemed to be absent during her time as governor."

Republican governor-elect Pat McCrory may have an easier time when takes office tomorrow. He’s closely aligned with the Republican leadership of both the House and Senate. But Governor Perdue has said she has no regrets about her term. She says she had to make tough decisions, but she believes they were the right ones for North Carolina.

Jessica Jones covers both the legislature in Raleigh and politics across the state. Before her current assignment, Jessica was given the responsibility to open up WUNC's first Greensboro Bureau at the Triad Stage in 2009. She's a seasoned public radio reporter who's covered everything from education to immigration, and she's a regular contributor to NPR's news programs. Jessica started her career in journalism in Egypt, where she freelanced for international print and radio outlets. After stints in Washington, D.C. with Voice of America and NPR, Jessica joined the staff of WUNC in 1999. She is a graduate of Yale University.
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