by John Hood

The post of lieutenant governor is a constitutional office in North Carolina, and the only one empowered to exercise both legislative and executive powers. Those powers are rather limited, however — casting a vote in the state senate when there is a tie, “presiding” over that chamber in a titular (but rarely practical) sense, and serving on several boards.

In other words, to the extent North Carolina’s lieutenant governors wield influence, they do so by substituting personal relationships, rhetorical skills, and moral suasion for decision-making authority, of which they have little.

This year, the leading candidates for lieutenant governor are giving North Carolina voters a sharp contrast. The Democratic nominee, Yvonne Lewis Holley, says she will use the formal and informal powers of the office to check Republican majorities in the General Assembly (should those majorities extend into 2021) and to move North Carolina in a leftward direction. The Republican nominee, Mark Robinson, says that as lieutenant governor he will help GOP lawmakers continue the conservative reforms of the past decade.

With the parties so polarized, there are, admittedly, ideological contrasts present in many races. But few are so striking, in my view — and were clearly displayed in a recent televised debate hosted by the North Carolina Institute of Political Leadership and Spectrum News.

For example, when the debate moderator, Spectrum’s Loretta Boniti, asked Holley and Robinson to assess how well North Carolina has handled the COVID-19 pandemic, Holley praised Gov. Roy Cooper’s executive orders and faulted the legislature for failing to appropriate enough money.

“We have people who are unable to pay their mortgages and their rent,” she said, noting that over time the General Assembly had saved more than a billion dollars in its rainy-day fund. “This is our rainy day — and this is the time when we need to put our money behind the people of North Carolina and help them out,” Holley said.

Robinson, the Republican candidate, was critical of Gov. Cooper for issuing his orders unilaterally and treating North Carolina citizens and businesses unfairly. It would have been better for the governor to work with the Council of State “as a team,” Robinson said, and “to ensure that our small businesses, our large businesses, all of our businesses can determine their own future, that we are not picking winners and losers like we saw during the early days of the pandemic where the big box stories were open but the small businesses were being shut down.”

On taxes, the differences were also clear. Robinson lauded North Carolina for having “one of the best tax codes in the nation,” arguing that the legislature’s tax changes since 2010 — including lower tax rates on personal income, corporate income, and retail sales — have “caused organic business growth” by “making this a desirable area to do business.” For her part, Holley said corporate taxes had been cut too much, that “the money has not trickled down.”

School choice has been another dividing line in many state political contests. The lieutenant-governor race is no exception. “The state needs to be putting money in public education and not supplementing our private and parochial schools,” said Holley, who opposes the state’s Opportunity Scholarship program for children with modest incomes and special needs. “Public money belongs in public education.”

Robinson is an ardent support of the program, saying that one of his priorities is “returning control to parents and making sure parents are in control of where their children are educated — always.”

Voters who follow North Carolina politics closely know at least one thing about this race: its victor will be the first black lieutenant governor in state history. Now, after the only televised debate between Holley and Robinson, they can know something else: the winner of the race for lieutenant governor will be a passionate advocate of his or her party’s governing philosophy. In an office that lacks many formal powers, this advocacy role may prove to be important over the next four years.

John Hood (@JohnHoodNC) is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and currently chairs the board of the nonprofit North Carolina Institute of Political Leadership, which co-hosted the Holley-Robinson debate.

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