04/04/12 — Etheridge brings his bid for governer to Wilber's

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Etheridge brings his bid for governer to Wilber's

By Ty Johnson
Published in News on April 4, 2012 1:46 PM

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Former Congressman Bob Etheridge, who is running for the Democratic nomination for governor, speaks at a campaign stop Tuesday at Wilber's Barbecue. A former head of the state Department of Education, Etheridge said education is the key to the future of eastern North Carolina and that the Republican-led General Assembly is endangering that future.

A former U.S. congressman was in town Tuesday afternoon as part of his bid to be the Democratic nominee in the state's gubernatorial election this fall.

Rep. Bob Etheridge, who represented North Carolina's second congressional district before losing his seat in 2010 to current Rep. Renee Elmers, visited Wilber's Barbecue to fraternize with supporters and deliver a short speech on his plan for the state if he is elected, with a large concentration on education.

Education has emerged to be the rallying cry of Democratic nominees in the state's governor race as they compete to run in the place of current Gov. Beverly Perdue, who has announced she won't run for re-election.

Etheridge, Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton and state Rep. Bill Faison, the front-runners in the Democratic primary, said the Republican-led General Assembly this year hurt the state in reducing revenues for education. The nominees did not attack each other during a forum held March 29, but instead pinned the lack of investment into education on the legislature's decision to allow a temporary penny sales tax to expire, leading to $1 billion less in annual state tax revenue.

Etheridge highlighted his accomplishments in public education to the handful of supporters at Wilber's, claiming he put education first in each of his roles in politics. Etheridge was first a Harnett County commissioner from 1973 until 1976 before being elected to serve in the state legislature in 1978 for two terms. After his time in the General Assembly, he served as the state superintendent of public instruction for two terms from 1989 until 1996 before running for Congress.

He began an open discussion with those gathered about the move of the Kinston Indians baseball team from their home in Lenoir County to Zebulon where they will play as the Carolina Mudcats. The loss of that team, he said, represented the loss of an economic engine for the region.

That rhetoric appeared throughout his address, as he made the case that education was the state's best economic engine.

"I think we're at a crossroads in this state with public education," he said. "If you want 21st century jobs, you need 21st century education."

He pointed to his decade-long support of a bill to establish a zero-percent interest loan program for building schools which was passed in 2009 as part of President Barack Obama's recovery act.

He voiced his disapproval of the budget cuts that have led to teacher lay-offs and reductions to community college and university budgets, once more calling those higher education institutions economic engines leading to private investment

"You look around any university and in some instances community colleges -- that's where small businesses are growing," he said.

He said education systems were one of the first aspects prospective companies look at when considering where to invest.

He said economic visionaries like Gov. Terry Sanford set the state up for educational investment in the 1960s but that progress had come to a halt since Republicans took over the legislature.

"Education moved North Carolina from 1960 to 2011-12 and now we can't move forward," he said, summarizing an Asheville Citizen-Times editorial that said it was time for the state to reinvest in education.

Although he didn't serve as Wayne County's representative in Congress, Etheridge pointed out his parent's upbringing in the area and his family ties in Seven Springs, along with his rearing in Johnston County, a similarly rural county with one city as its main hub of activity. He said his upbringing means he knows what the regional concerns are.

"Eastern North Carolina is left out more than any other regions as far as educational opportunities and roads," he said. "I understand the challenges we face."

Etheridge restated his dedication to education following his address, calling it the foundation upon which the rest of the state should be built on. Without public education, he said, he would not have been able to attend school, adding that he had to work to put himself through college. With the doubling of tuition and fees in the state's colleges in the past decade, he said it was time for the state to take a stand for education.

"If you get education right, you get jobs right and businesses are going to come," he said.

But what differentiates himself from others in the Democratic race, he said, is his leadership and history of making tough votes while in Congress.

He also addressed concerns about a video that surfaced in June 2010 showing him grabbing at a young man who said he was a college student working on a project. Etheridge repeatedly asked the two young men who they were, leading to a media firestorm that some credit with his mid-term election loss.

Tuesday he said he wouldn't have acted differently if given a second chance, but predicted that issue wouldn't be a blight on his campaign, citing poll numbers indicating he was running well in the eastern region.

"In hindsight I probably wouldn't have reacted like that," he said, adding he was tired when the altercation occurred.

He said the video could actually serve to help his campaign, since the National Republican Congressional Committee revealed that it was behind the ambush video the day after the 2010 election.

"It was a Republican political stunt," he said, bluntly. "None of the polling is indicative that it's been a negative," he said. "In the end, it may be a positive."