Concession ends doubt in agriculture post race: Republican wins office for first time
News and Observer February 5, 2005

By Lynn Bonner, Staff Writer

Republican Steve Troxler had to wait more than three months to take the state agriculture commissioner's office he had claimed since November.

When incumbent Democrat Britt Cobb conceded Friday morning, abruptly ending a prolonged dispute over uncounted votes, Troxler gave no victory speech nor imparted a grand vision. Instead, the plain-spoken Guilford County farmer said he would take a few days to decide his next moves as he takes control of a department regulating one of the state's biggest industries.

Troxler, the first Republican elected to lead the department and now the third Republican on the Council of State, said he'll be sworn in Monday or Tuesday. He said he would use the weekend to "think about the department, think about agriculture."

He pushed for more than a month to have state elections officials declare him the winner of the race. Though Troxler was 2,287 votes ahead in the statewide tally, 4,438 ballots dropped by an improperly programmed voting machine in Carteret County could have tipped the race toward either candidate.

The dispute bounced between the State Board of Elections and Wake County Superior Court as Troxler and Cobb maneuvered for advantage. Last month, Troxler's campaign went into Republican-leaning Carteret to collect affidavits from lost-ballot voters to show that he would have won had all the votes been counted.

Cobb argued for a new statewide election to resolve the contest. He resisted calls from Democratic legislators and newspaper opinion-writers to concede, and condemned Troxler's affidavit drive as a violation of voter privacy.

Cobb said Friday that he conceded so Troxler wouldn't try to introduce the 1,412 voter affidavits as evidence in the elections dispute. He worried that would set a precedent for future races.

"The only person who could have stopped that was me," Cobb said.

Cobb said that by Thursday night, he was "99 percent sure" that he would concede. He made the decision Friday morning and answered questions about the decision in his nearly empty office.

"This thing could have drug on for many months," he said. "It was time."

Gov. Mike Easley appointed Cobb, a career department employee, to lead the agency in 2003 after former Commissioner Meg Scott Phipps, caught in an extortion scandal, resigned.

Cobb, credited with stabilizing the department after Phipps' resignation, initially said he would not run to keep the job but changed his mind. Cobb said Friday that he didn't regret running.

"Had I not run, I still would have retired," said Cobb, a department employee of more than 32 years. "I've always believed people should be involved in the political process. I felt like we could truly be making a difference."

The 1,344-employee department takes a lead in regulating and marketing farm products. Agriculture accounts for 22 percent of the state's income, according to the department, and North Carolina is the nation's top tobacco producer. The tobacco industry is entering a period of uncertainty, with the end of the federal price support and quota system.

The department also handles food and drug protection, gasoline inspections and the State Fair. As commissioner, Cobb instituted a bidding process to select the carnival company for the fair. He credited the open bidding with increased state profits.

No job plans

Cobb said he did not have future job plans and batted away questions about the possibility he would continue to work with the department as a consultant.

"I will do anything I can to help this agency," he said. "I'm not sure it would be fair to a new commissioner for me to be a permanent employee of the department."

Easley issued a statement Friday thanking Cobb and welcoming Troxler.

"The people could not lose," Easley said. "Steve and Britt are both my friends and both have the skills to make a good commissioner of agriculture."

Easley said he wanted to fix flaws in the election system that prolonged the contest.

The department will likely see some changes as a Republican takes a job that the farmer's icon, Democrat Jim Graham, held for 36 years before Phipps was elected. Troxler can replace high-level employees with his own appointments.

Deputy Commissioner David Smith described the department atmosphere as "a little surreal."

"Most of the time when you have an election, you have a winner," Smith said. In a normal transition, "the time line is laid out, spelled out," he said. "You know what's going to happen. We just didn't have that option."

Smith, who was named to his current job by Phipps, has worked in the department about 33 years and is eligible to retire. Troxler can replace him, but Smith said he'd like to stay on.

Troxler becomes the third Republican to enter a 10-member club of elected officials called the Council of State.

"The political bedrock in North Carolina is shifting from the Democratic stronghold of 150 years to the Republican majority, though not as fast as I would like," said Ferrell Blount, state GOP chairman.

Blount speculated that Troxler might use the office as a political base, but the commissioner-elect was more interested in connecting with his farm support.

Within an hour of his long-delayed victory, Troxler headed to the State Fairgrounds to talk to tobacco growers attending their annual association meeting. He basked in applause from hundreds of farmers.

"It was special to be able to go back to that group as the commissioner," he said.

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