Erskine Bowles is a fairly unusual would-be Democratic nominee for Governor. At a point in life at which the typical politician would be thinking about winding down his or her career, Bowles has yet to actually ever win an election. According to his own description, he was a “terrible politician” during his most recent attempt at high state office. To make matters even more challenging, his background is mostly as a wealthy corporate boardroom type — hardly the typical resumé for a standard-bearer of the Democrats — a party whose base still tilts liberal/progressive. His most recent actions as a public servant — to propose enormous and painful cuts to federal spending — outraged many thoughtful progressives.
So, why then are so many North Carolina Democrats waiting and hoping that Bowles will throw his hat into the ring for the now wide-open Democratic nomination?
Here, it would appear anyway, are some of the main reasons:
#1 – There is no other obvious choice. Lt. Governor Walter Dalton may be the official #2 in the Democratic political line-up, but truth be told, his claim on that position is very tenuous. He is three years into a mostly ceremonial job that he won over token opposition. His record before that was as a mostly conservative state legislator from a conservative, off-the-beaten-path district. He is not particularly charismatic and has has few strong ties to the progressive movement. Democrats of all stripes worry that he may not be a strong enough voice to lead the party and fire voters up during what promises to be a very tough campaign against a candidate who has been running for more than half a decade.
#2- Most of the other potential candidates do little to stir progressive hearts. Amongst the four current or former congressmen rumored to be interested, Mike McIntyre and Heath Shuler are so conservative as to be seen by many as thinly-disguised Republicans. Neither has ever served in state government and Shuler seems more at home in Tennessee than Raleigh. Bob Etheridge is more widely liked than Shuler or McIntyre and has won statewide office before, but he lost in 2010 and, at age 69, has a considerable amount of political baggage. Brad Miller is clearly the most progressive choice amongst the four and has served in state government, but he faces real name recognition and money challenges.
That leaves Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx (a virtual political novice with no state government experience), State Senator Dan Blue (see Brad Miller’s challenges) and State Rep. Bill Faison (who has plenty of cash to finance his own campaign but few friends in politics and little record or name recognition to run on).
#3 – The grown-up factor – Last but not least is what we might call the “grown up factor.” There’s good reason that Republicans fear Bowles; With his corporate ties, national political experience, budget-cutting credentials, and international prominence he would be a true heavyweight in any election. By comparison, GOP presumptive nominee Pat McCrory looks like a little leaguer — a middle class middle-manager who served a few terms as a moderate mayor of a city ruled by the banking industry who must now prove his far-right credentials by kowtowing in every conceivable way to the main conservative money man – Art Pope – and groups like Americans for Prosperity. Many Democrats, after months of dreading a Perdue-McCrory debate, clearly long for the prospect of a smart, grown-up nominee who can put McCrory (and the right-wing General Assembly) in their places.
Will it happen? Will it work? Obviously, it’s too early to say.
Even if he runs, Bowles could live up once more to his reputation as a lackluster campaigner. If elected, Bowles could quickly anger progressives and make them wonder what in the heck they were thinking if he heads too far down the pro-corporate, budget-cutting path.
On the other hand, it might also work out. Unlike the U.S. Senate, where camera-hogging and long-windedness are more important than an ability to govern, the Governor’s office seem well-suited for the nerdy Bowles. And when it comes to the single most important state governmental function — education — few other candidates seem better informed or positioned to resist the conservative, privatization onslaught than the former President of the UNC system.
Could it be that Erskine Bowles has finally found the right elected office for him and that North Carolina has stumbled upon the ideal person to lead it during a very tough time in its history? It looks like we may actually find out in the near future.