North Carolina Gov. Bev Perdue

“My first comment on this whole Amendment One was in October,” she told me Friday, “long before I had decided not to run for reelection. I’ve always been me. I’ve always been very direct and have told the truth and have been very willing to stand up and speak out.”

Perdue, who is a Democrat, had just finished taking her message to a luncheon crowd at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg 2012 Women's Summit, and earned standing ovations for her passion. After a four-year first term filled with challenges, she seemed almost liberated away from the state capital of Raleigh.

“All of the gains we’ve made could be taken so quickly,” she said. “Women have to be very vigilant, and demand the very best in public schools, health care and pay, those things that men and women of this state value are at risk.”

“Decisions just look different with women at the table,” Perdue, 65, said in her speech. While she honored women who paved the way, “we still have a long way to go,” she said, citing the still low numbers of women in Congress and governor’s mansions. “The most powerful thing we own is our vote.”

Perdue derided North Carolina’s “Woman’s Right to Know Act,” a “creative name,” she said, for the restrictive abortion bill (requiring an ultrasound and a 24-hour waiting period to provide information on risks and alternatives); the GOP-led legislature last year overrode her veto. “Doctors in America have to be free to advise and treat their patients” without the interference of “political ideology,” she said, and called congressional hearings on contraception and reproduction rights a “debacle.”

She said she intends, on May 8, to vote against an amendment to define marriage between one man and one woman as the only domestic legal union recognized in the state. “Our Constitution is for guaranteeing rights, not taking them away,” Perdue said. “And no matter what religious or moral background you come from, no one has the right to put discrimination of any kind into our Constitution.”

The signature issue for the daughter of a Virginia coal miner and former teacher is education. Perdue has traveled the state, recognizing innovative learning programs and touting the importance of pre-K education. She said cuts in pre-K funding have “done damage to the brand of North Carolina,” citing a report from the National Institute for Early Education Research.

Last year, legislators overrode her veto of a $19.7 billion budget plan that she said would cause “generational damage,” particularly in education cuts. Even a few Democrats joined in with Republicans, who said the plan, which let a 1-cent temporary sales tax expire and cut more than $100 million from the state education budget, was fiscally responsible.

The pushback can’t be easy for Perdue, who rode the Democratic wave that led to Barack Obama’s narrow win here in 2008, a feat he hopes to repeat in this swing state. She was elected the state’s first female governor after serving in the legislature and as lieutenant governor. Since then, she has dealt with falling poll numbers, the repercussions of charges of campaign finance violations against several aides and the Republican majority elected to the state general assembly in 2010.

But Perdue said none of it drove her January announcement. “I’m spending a lot of my energy and time on education,” she said. “I have in some way helped define what the choices are for the voters of this state in a much more powerful way than I could have done as a candidate. The words that I say against the decisions made, against the investments cut, the diminishing of resources at all levels of education are much more powerful as a non-candidate.”

“I believe I could have won; I really do believe I was going to win.”

The mother and grandmother told me: “Education has fundamentally changed my life. It’s perhaps the mission of my life. I’m wed to it in a very powerful and personal way. And I chose the pathway that I believe could make me the most significant on changing the outcomes that we see now in North Carolina.”

Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., is a contributor to The Root, Fox News Charlotte, NPR, Creative Loafing and Nieman Watchdog blog. She has worked at the New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3