What is happening in North Carolina?

The North Carolina General Assembly special session for Hurricane and wildfire relief quickly gave way to another session that moved political power from the incoming Democratic Governor-elect Roy Cooper, to the Republican-controlled General Assembly.

I don’t think this was a coup (no one was murdered) but I think it was far worse than the latest in a tit-for-tat in the long running duel between the Office of the Governor and the General Assembly. There are two key aspects that distinguish the most recent events from those of 1976 and 1988, and the age old impulse of those in power to want to remain there.

First, the Democratic party that ruled North Carolina for 50 years had broad ideological diversity within the party, in large part because the Republican Party essentially didn’t exist East of I-95. I remember asking my granddaddy P.L. Barrow, who was a Tobacco Farmer and the Sheriff of Greene County in the 1960s and 1970s why and he said simply “because Sherman burned Atlanta.”

The impulse of the Democratic Party of the past to maintain its power is identical to that of the current Republican Party. However, the policy preferences of the current Republican Party are much further away from the policy preferences of the “state average” than were those of the Democratic Party in the 1970s because the current Republican Party has virtually no ideological diversity. This is partly due to the ideological sorting of the parties, especially since the 1994 Republican takeover of the U.S. House of Representatives (all the Blue Dog Dems down East became Republicans), and partly due to how much more precise gerrymandering has become due to data advances. Simply put, plenty of the Democrats in 1976 would be Republicans today, so any power grabs of old had less influence on policy than do those of today.

Second, there are inescapable racial dimensions to the voting legislation and litigation that have been a hallmark of the North Carolina political context since the Shelby County v Holder Supreme Court decision, and these disputes harken to a past South, that North Carolina has spent a good deal of effort to escape. That is an inescapable frame for the special session that makes it particularly ominous.

The rise in voter participation among African Americans–simply to roughly their proportion of eligible voters due to early voting and same day registration and voting–led to Barack Obama winning a razor thin victory in North Carolina in 2008. Republicans took both Chambers of the General Assembly in 2010 and the Governorship in 2012, and after the Shelby County Voters Rights Act decision in 2013, their response was to pass a voting law that was described in being struck down by the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals this past Summer thusly:

“The new provisions target African Americans with almost surgical precision” and “impose cures for problems that did not exist,” Judge Diana Gribbon Motz wrote for the panel. “Thus the asserted justifications cannot and do not conceal the State’s true motivation.”

These are devastating words that the writers of the North Carolina voter law do not recognize in themselves to be sure, but they should realize they provide the context for changes to the States voting procedures and processes that they rushed through this past week. Further, in November a separate Federal Court order required the General Assembly to redraw some State legislative districts by March, 15 and hold special elections in 2017 because

“While special elections have costs, those costs pale in comparison to the injury caused by allowing citizens to continue to be represented by legislators elected pursuant to a racial gerrymander,” the judges wrote Tuesday, adding that despite concerns about lower voter turnout, “a special election in the fall of 2017 is an appropriate remedy.”

Given these two court opinions, humility on the topic of elections might have been in order. Instead, they rushed election changes, that even though framed as bipartisan, may simply be designed to render executive branch oversight of elections toothless because the super-majorities required to act–to expand minimal early voting sites in any forthcoming law, for example– will never be obtainable. The rise in African American voter participation followed by a voter law that has been struck down on racial grounds and the fact that there are no Black Republicans in the General Assembly makes it feel as though North Carolina is going backwards on the issue of race, the issue that has most defined the South since the adoption of the Constitution.

The racial overtone of the politics of the past few years and the fact that the session addressed election rules, makes this power grab more ominous than those in 1976 and 1988.

*****

When I was a freshman at UNC Chapel Hill in 1986-87, I took an intro Poli Sci course and we had to interview someone about race and civil rights. I asked my granddaddy about his decision to hire a Black Deputy Sheriff in the early 1970s in Greene County. “Why did you decide to do that?” He answered practically and plainly as stoics do: he said that the hardest thing for a Sheriff was serving summons orders and warrants at people’s homes, and that since half the folks in Greene County were Black and half White, it made sense to have a Black Deputy.

He did not provide a stirring civil rights justification and I don’t know all that he might have thought or been motivated by because he was a man of few words. However, he was recounting one act that moved North Carolina ahead in a small way, and the story of the last half Century in North Carolina has been myriad subtle decisions, public and private that made our state “not Alabama” in so many ways. The ‘split the difference’ ‘win-win’, ‘get along-go along’ ethic that made North Carolina the great place that it is seems to be lacking in our current General Assembly, and this lack of subtlety is serving us all poorly.

Unfortunately, you can tear something down much faster than you can build it.

About Don Taylor
Professor of Public Policy at Duke University (with appointments in Business, Nursing, Community and Family Medicine, and the Duke Clinical Research Institute). I am one of the founding faculty of the Margolis Center for Health Policy, and currently serve as Chair of Duke's University Priorities Committee (UPC). My research focuses on improving care for persons who are dying, and I am co-PI of a CMMI award in Community Based Palliative Care. I teach both undergrads and grad students at Duke. On twitter @donaldhtaylorjr

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