Originally in The Charlotte Observer
October 13, 2016

Scroll down the ballot a ways and you will find three races that are immensely important, even if they get little publicity. The attorney general is the state’s top law enforcement officer and top lawyer. The treasurer oversees the state’s $90 billion pension fund and the state health plan. And the labor commissioner is charged with ensuring the well being of the state’s 4.5 million workers.

All three of these Council of State races feature experienced, credible candidates. Two feature candidates with extremely divergent views about how to do the job. Here’s how we see the races.

Attorney General

Two lawyers with deep political resumes are vying to succeed Roy Cooper as North Carolina’s attorney general. They would bring dramatically different political philosophies and priorities to the state’s top law enforcement office.

Republican Sen. Buck Newton of Wilson says he’s running because Cooper hasn’t done his job in defending House Bill 2, the 2013 voter ID law, and other controversial measures passed by his conservative colleagues running the legislature.

We doubt Newton, who helped lead the charge in the Senate for HB2, could be counted on to challenge legislators when they propose the kind of blatantly unconstitutional laws that have bogged the state in expensive and unwinnable legal battles the past few years.

He shows little sophistication in his understanding of LGBT rights, for instance, or of how badly the discriminatory law has hurt North Carolina’s national image. He even gave a reprehensible pro-HB2 speech at a rally in which he urged listeners to “keep our state straight.”

Former Democratic Sen. Josh Stein of Raleigh is a far better choice.

He worked under Cooper for eight years as deputy attorney general for consumer protection, taking on predatory payday lenders and other exploitative corporations. The Harvard-trained lawyer articulates a compelling vision for the office, one that includes protecting consumers and crime victims, as well as safeguarding minority rights.

We strongly recommend Stein.

Treasurer

You think the governor and legislature have a big job shepherding a $22 billion budget? The state treasurer is responsible for North Carolina’s $90 billion pension – roughly the 25th biggest in the world. The treasurer also oversees the state health plan, which covers more than 700,000 current and former teachers and state employees. With both underfunded, the next treasurer faces a big job. Democrat Janet Cowell did not seek reelection.

Two capable candidates seek the office – Republican Dale Folwell and Democrat Dan Blue III. We recommend Folwell, whose background and talents more directly prepare him for the job, and whose vision for it is more on point.

Folwell says he grew up poor and worked his way through UNC Greensboro doing things such as collecting trash and repairing motorcycles. He worked for 13 years as an investment adviser at Merrill Lynch and Alex. Brown & Sons. After eight years on the Forsyth County school board, he served four terms in the N.C. House. He authored 29 bills that became law, despite being in the minority most of that time.

He took over the state Division of Employment Security in 2013, helping erase its debt and improve its service.

Folwell has enough investment experience to serve as treasurer. More importantly, he has an incisive mind, common sense, a hunger to learn and a vision for the job. Among the elements in that vision: Putting more of the pension fund’s money into index funds and cutting investment fees by at least $100 million in his first term. He has won the endorsement of the State Employees Association of North Carolina, a group with a direct stake in the treasurer’s performance.

Blue, son of former House Speaker and current Sen. Dan Blue Jr., is a promising politician who could be effective in a number of public roles. His investment experience is more limited than Folwell’s, however, and his description of his vision less precise.

Labor Commissioner

This race is a referendum on Republican Cherie Berry, who has held the job for the past 16 years. Berry and her Labor Department have had one shortcoming after another. It’s past time for a change.

Fortunately, voters have a strong alternative: Democrat Charles Meeker was an effective Raleigh mayor for 10 years and served on Raleigh’s City Council for eight years before that. A graduate of Yale University and Columbia Law, he is a partner at Parker Poe and has practiced law since 1975. He would make a strong labor commissioner and deserves North Carolinians’ support.

Berry’s tenure has been marked by her looking out for employers at the expense of employees, despite her statutory mandate to fight for the general welfare of workers.

Reporting by the Charlotte Observer and the (Raleigh) News & Observer has detailed many of Berry’s failures. Employers frequently misclassified their employees as independent contractors, depriving those workers of benefits and hurting companies that played fair, while Berry looked the other way.

Workers who weren’t paid agreed-upon wages by their employers got little help from Berry’s Labor Department.

And Berry takes campaign contributions from corporate executives who have cases pending before her. The Observer showed in 2008 that Berry’s campaign contributors received larger-than-average breaks on fines they owed the Labor Department.

North Carolinians have endured enough of this kind of performance. Meeker is the better choice.