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A series of attack ads making their way into area mailboxes illustrate part of a vicious statewide political battle between two Republican factions.
The target: state Rep. Stephen LaRoque, R-Lenoir. LaRoque, an incumbent, is seeking his party's nomination Tuesday against challenger Willie Ray Starling of Wayne County.
Starling isn't tied directly to the three groups that are attacking House co-Speaker Richard Morgan and his supporters, who include LaRoque. But Starling is benefiting from it.
For example, one recent flyer mailed to registered Republicans in this district features a photo of a graveyard on the front, with LaRoque's picture on the inside. The high-gloss paper slams LaRoque for bringing "the death tax back to life," and voting for more than "$1 billion in higher taxes."
"It's all hogwash," LaRoque said on Tuesday. "In the budget, we kept the current taxes that were in place. … I'm still telling people that if you're married, you are paying less in state taxes this year than you were when I ran for office two years ago."
For some groups, that's not good enough. The Republican Legislative Majority of North Carolina issued the graveyard flyer. Similar ads have been sent out by the Americans for Prosperity group and the Citizens for a Sound Economy.
Art Pope, a former Wake County Republican legislator, sits on the national board of directors for one of the three groups. He once sat on the board of another, and provided some of the startup money for the third.
Pope downplays tying the circulars to attacks on Morgan and his supporters. He cites a 2001 vote in which nearly all General Assembly Republicans opposed a two-year sales tax increase, and compares that to the 2003 budget, which LaRoque, Morgan and several other Republicans voted for. That budget included the tax for another two years.
Pope points to the extension or altering of a handful of other taxes, calling them "all new." Starling reiterates that point.
Voters in 2002 had a choice between Democrats who raised taxes, and Republicans who didn't, Pope said. This year, that choice is absent, he said.
"They're just digging the hole deeper," Pope told The Free Press. "The first thing you do when you find yourself in a hole is stop digging."
Pope has donated $1,000 to Starling's campaign. Starling has had little to do with the flyers. He hasn't had to. But ask him, and he will cite what he calls problems in Raleigh that date back to the establishment of co-speakers in the House and the committee assignments that followed.
"There are times you need to stand up for yourself, and not stick with the party. But when you're picking leadership, you've got to," Starling said. "Like LaRoque's position on the Global TransPark. I don't agree with that, but I don't fault him for it. That took courage."
LaRoque, when questioned, began doling out a list of tax credits he supported. He's tried to keep his campaign full of "positive messages," focusing on the future, he said.
LaRoque said he plans two or three more mail pieces for himself, at least one of which will address the attack ads, before Tuesday's election. He calls the anti-Morgan faction of Republicans "radical extremists."
"The Republican Party is in a transition in North Carolina," LaRoque said. "I believe in opening up the tent and allowing others to come in. We don't have to agree on everything all the time. With this group, if you disagree one time, you're an outcast."
One possible side effect of the hard-line voting promoted by Starling, Pope and others: deadlock. They deny it. LaRoque doesn't.
LaRoque maintained that his opponents' insistence on ideology over practicality is not representative of people here. He cited that the three activists groups have deep roots in Raleigh and Greensboro.
"That's not the way Ronald Regan thought," LaRoque said, summoning a line from the late president's 1983 State of the Union address. " 'So, let us, in these next two years - men and women of both parties, every political shade - concentrate on the long-range, bipartisan responsibilities of government, not the short-range or short-term temptations of partisan politics.' "
Jason Spencer can be reached at (252) 527-3191, Ext. 237, or Jason_Spencer@link.freedom.com