Local campaign: Gutsy Democrat in N. Carolina race

Beverly Perdue long ago set her mind to being the first female governor in North Carolina history.

She rose to prominence through the male-dominated state legislature, winning respect and cutting a trail for women in state politics. She made friends and gathered support in key political and fundraising circles. And as lieutenant governor, she spent years touring the state, speaking to any civic group that would have her.

On the campaign trail and in speeches, Perdue, 61, has emphasized that it is her personality that will make her successful as governor.

"I will be a bold leader who will take on the hard stuff," Perdue said in a recent interview. "My goal, my dream is for some day, somebody to say, 'She was gutsy enough to make it all happen.' "

When Perdue, a Democrat, began her political career, she was urged not to run because women didn't serve in the legislature from Eastern North Carolina. Since then, she has pushed and elbowed her way through the ranks of state politics.

But her success in breaking barriers has given her opponent, Republican Pat McCrory, the mayor of Charlotte, room to attack her as an insider. In a memorable ad run by the Republican Governors Association, two white men bring a "status quo" button to Perdue and goad her into raising taxes and paying for pork projects.

"That's why I think the 'status quo' ad is so funny. Look at me," she said. "Do you think I'm part of the status quo? I've been the odd woman out all my life."

Beverly Marlene Moore was born in 1947 in Grundy, Va., a coal-mining town near the Kentucky border.

Grundy was an isolated place where poverty put most on the same rung, said Lee Smith, a Chapel Hill novelist who went to high school in Grundy with Perdue's older brother.

Following father's lead

"I don't think she started out interested in being governor," Stubbs said. "She was interested in serving the community and making things work."Perdue ran for the state House of Representatives in 1986. She sought support among the Democratic establishment in Craven County. Folks were not enthusiastic about her candidacy, said Lonnie Pridgen, a former Craven County commissioner.

"At that particular time, women had just not run for positions like that," Pridgen said.

So Pridgen and others tried to talk her out of running. Perdue kept insisting.

"We saw that she was serious about it," Pridgen said. "After one or two contacts we decided that she'd make a good candidate."

Pridgen said Perdue worked hard and charmed people. She won a seat in the House and hasn't lost an election since.

After two terms in the House, she was elected to the state Senate.

In the spring of 1993, Gary Perdue told her he was unhappy. On Aug. 17, 1993, a friend of Gary Perdue delivered letters to Perdue and their two teenage sons. Her husband had left them.

"It was just devastating," she said.

"I remember thinking, 'I have two choices. I can run away, or I can hold my family and myself together.' "

Thinking about that choice caused Perdue to choke up.

"If I felt alone, how did somebody without a job and a career and money do it?" she said. "So I've always felt more empathetic to women or men who've had to raise children by themselves because I've had a pot of resources and I had stability and a home and I can't imagine the woman who's abandoned."

Gary Perdue died in 1997.

Winning over senators

Friends and colleagues say Perdue has projected a tough, bold image throughout her life. It was necessary in the state Senate.

Even now, the Senate is a male-dominated world. Of the 50 senators, seven are women.

Back then, Perdue was seen as an up-and-comer, but she was still a woman. Colleagues nicknamed her "Dumplin."

"It was tough for her," said former Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt. "First of all, she came from a very conservative area of the state that wasn't in the habit of electing women to anything."

Perdue said hard work eventually won over her colleagues.

"I think that after you work with people as hard and as aggressively as we all did, folks get beyond your color or your creed or your sex and actually respect the brain," Perdue said.

In 1995, Senate leader Marc Basnight was considering tapping Perdue to lead the Senate appropriations committee, which determines how to spend billions of taxpayer dollars. It's a powerful post, and Perdue would have been the first woman to hold it. Other senators convinced Basnight that she wasn't ready.

Basnight said in an interview this year that he went to her office to give her the bad news. He listened for a half hour as Perdue talked about what she wanted to do for the state. Basnight gave her the job.

It was about this time that people started to talk about Perdue as a future candidate for governor.

Perdue said she first thought about it when she was working with Hunt to pitch his Smart Start pre-kindergarten program. It was a tough sell, and Perdue was impressed with how Hunt, through sheer force of his personality, swayed voters and legislators.

"I understood from Day One that leadership could really make a difference," she said. "It can be mesmerizing."

Perdue, who remarried in 1997, ran for lieutenant governor in 2000, and she has essentially been running for governor since then.

Early on in her run for governor, Perdue locked up endorsements that helped her shut out state Treasurer Richard Moore, who lost the Democratic nomination. She also locked in key fundraisers.

Perdue's father, Alfred Moore, worked in the coal mines when she was young. In 1970, Moore was part of a group of local men who started United Coal Co. Before then, the timber and coal industries were controlled by outside interests, Smith said. It was astonishing -- heroic even -- when a group of local boys started their own company.

"You can't imagine what this means to local people to see people rise up out of the area and take control and be successful," Smith said. "I think she had an unusual model for believing that things can really be accomplished -- it doesn't matter who you are."

Perdue attended the University of Kentucky, graduating with a history degree in 1969. The next year, she married her first husband, Gary Raymond Perdue, a lawyer and accountant.

The couple moved to Florida. At the University of Florida, she earned a master's degree and a doctorate in education administration. Perdue says she saw her future in academia.

Meanwhile, Perdue's brother, Rick Moore, was running a bustling internal medicine practice in Eastern North Carolina. He started pushing his younger sister to move to North Carolina.

The Perdues moved to New Bern in 1975, and Gary Perdue formed a law practice with Trawick "Buzzy" Stubbs, a close friend of Moore.

Politics was her brother's passion. Stubbs said he and Moore considered themselves Jesse Helms Republicans.

"He used to say to me, Buzz, I'm going to be in the Senate. I'm going to take Jesse's place," Stubbs said.

Moore died in 1983. He was 40.

It was after his death, Stubbs said, that Perdue got interested in politics. "It's almost as if while he was alive, she respected his leadership," he said.

Making things work

Perdue says her interest began before her brother died, when she was working at the Neuse River Council of Governments in New Bern. She was impressed with how hard local officials worked for their constituents. She had been involved with civic causes and also worked in a campaign for sheriff. Unwanted noticeTwo of the men collecting checks have brought unwanted attention to her campaign. In January, Thomas A. Betts Jr. resigned his seat on the Board of Transportation after a report showed he had pressured a city official in Roanoke Rapids to raise $20,000 for Perdue. And last month, transportation board member Louis W. Sewell Jr. resigned after a news report showed he had steered road money to projects near property he or his son co-owned. Perdue was scheduled to attend a fundraiser in Sewell's home the same week the story broke.

Perdue equivocated about whether to attend and would not say whether she would reappoint Sewell to the transportation board.

"Lord have mercy," she said then. "I'm just trying to win the governor's race."

Sewell eventually canceled the fundraiser and resigned from the board.

Joe Sinsheimer, a former Democratic campaign consultant and a government watchdog, said there are about 100 Democratic insiders in the state who raise money for candidates and hover on the edges of government.

"Perdue learned over the last 20 years in office that maintaining friendships with those hundred people is the key to continuing to climb the political ladder," Sinsheimer said.

McCrory has hammered Perdue over both fundraisers and dismissed her plans to reform campaign finance, the state budgeting process and the transportation department. He says Perdue is too entrenched to bring reform.

Some of Perdue's supporters say that her campaign just hasn't communicated who she really is.

"I think she's had a pretty good campaign, but the campaign hasn't been as good as she is," Hunt said. "She will be a better governor than people have seen in this campaign."

(Staff writer Mark Johnson contributed to this report.)