Politics & Government
6:00 am
Tue April 24, 2012

Etheridge Promises Educational Change In Gubernatorial Campaign

There are three main Democratic candidates in the race to become North Carolina’s governor. Yesterday we heard from State House Representative Bill Faison, who says his priority is jobs. But the subject of today’s story is focused on education. Bob Etheridge is a former U.S. Congressman who also served as the state’s Superintendent of Public Instruction for seven years.

Jessica Jones: Bob Etheridge was born at home in Turkey, North Carolina, as the first of five children. He says neither his mother nor his father finished high school.

Bob Etheridge: My parents were what today would be called poor, they were tenant farmers, didn’t own the land nor the house, but I grew up in Johnston County, and it was public education that gave me the chance.

His parents made sure all their children went to school. But as a farm boy, Etheridge also had work to do before he went to class.

Etheridge: My job as the oldest of five children was to milk the cow. the thing you learn about that is you gotta do it every day, you gotta do it at a certain time, the cow knows it real soon if you don’t go, and there are dire consequences for not doing it. And you gotta do it 365 days of the year.

He says the experience taught him how important it is to be diligent. He didn’t miss any school until he was sick and had to go to the hospital in the eighth grade. After high school, Etheridge worked in a cotton mill for two years to money for his first semester of college. He headed to Campbell, where he walked on to the basketball team and persuaded the coach to give him a scholarship. Etheridge says he was lucky to be able to attend college.

Etheridge: Public education was the ticket for me to have the opportunity. And I think that’s under assault today in this state. Not only the pre- Kindergarten, early childhood level..and you know that’s the American Dream. There’s still a lot of young folks across the state and adults who need an opportunity.

If elected governor, Etheridge says he would increase funding for public schools to hire teachers and other school personnel who lost their jobs because of state budget cuts. He says he’s against enrollment caps and tuition increases at state universities and community colleges.

Etheridge: I really think that we’re at a crossroads in North Carolina. We gotta decide as a state that North Carolina’s gonna recommit itself to quality education because to do that you’ve really got to invest in public education, so that we have those 21st century jobs with a 21st century education system as a foundation.

Etheridge has a long resume of public service to bolster his candidacy. After college and two years in the Army, he worked for an athletic equipment company. Etheridge was elected a county commissioner in 1973, then served in the State House of Representatives, and later became Superintendent of Public Instruction. In 1997 he was elected to Congress, but he lost the seat in a difficult race in the last election cycle to Republican Renee Ellmers. During the campaign, a Republican operative with a video camera recorded Etheridge losing his cool. Etheridge says it didn’t help.

Etheridge: I wish I had approached it a little differently. I apologized immediately, but that’s the kind of dirty trick that has no place in public life and certainly not in politics. The Republican party was awful proud of it the day after the election. They put an article in the New York Times and acknowledged they were behind it. They did it and felt it hurt my campaign.

But Etheridge says if elected governor he’d reach across the aisle. He’s long been known as a moderate Democrat who doesn’t veer too far to the left.

Etheridge: You gotta be willing to pull people together across not so much party lines, that’s necessary sometimes, but you really bring them across ideological lines, where people understand there’s a common purpose that’s bigger than all of us.

And Etheridge says he’s the best candidate to be able to do that.