Thu Aug 15, 2013, 09:41 PM
illegaloperation (259 posts)
North Carolinians Fear the End of a Middle Way
EDEN, N.C. — When Pat McCrory, a Republican former mayor of Charlotte, was elected governor last year, he pledged to “bring this state together,” and to focus on bread-and-butter issues amid an ailing economy.
But with Republicans controlling all branches of the state government for the first time in more than a century, the legislature pushed through a wide range of conservative change. The Republicans not only cut taxes and business regulations, as many had expected, but also allowed stricter regulations on abortion clinics, ended teacher tenure, blocked the expansion of Medicaid, cut unemployment benefits, removed obstacles to the death penalty, allowed concealed guns in bars and restaurants, and mandated the teaching of cursive writing.
Just this week, Mr. McCrory signed into law strict voter identification requirements, prohibiting same-day registration and cutting early voting. “Many of those from the extreme left who have been criticizing photo ID are using scare tactics,” he said in a video on his Web site. “They’re more interested in divisive politics than ensuring that no one’s vote is disenfranchised by a fraudulent ballot.”
Lawsuits have been filed — including one on Monday by the N.A.A.C.P. — and protests are taking place almost weekly in Raleigh, the capital, and other cities, leaving North Carolinians across the political spectrum worried that the state’s often-hailed political pragmatism may have given way to the ideological warfare of Washington.
“This is a definite break from what I would consider normal behavior for North Carolina,” said David French, 27, who is looking for a job in industrial design here in rural Rockingham County. “The whole political system nowadays is becoming more extreme.”
In an interview, Mr. McCrory said that critics had obscured what he called a pragmatic and fiscally responsible agenda. “It’s a combination of people on the two extremes wanting to bring up and exaggerate controversial issues,” he said, adding that he had pushed back against earlier versions of the abortion and tax bills, and was planning to veto other bills this week.
But the agenda that did pass was unquestionably a right turn for a state that only five years ago voted for Barack Obama, the first Democratic presidential candidate to win here since Jimmy Carter. With a run of Democratic governors stretching back to 1993, North Carolina was considered such a promising state for the Democrats that they held their convention in Charlotte in 2012.
“It shocked everybody,” said Sam Hummel, a 76-year-old retired investment adviser who was arrested last month in Raleigh wearing an Uncle Sam costume and taking part in the protests that have come to be known as “Moral Mondays.”
North Carolina has long had a strong conservative strain, even when its political leadership was almost entirely Democratic. There have historically been libertarian-leaning Republicans in the western mountains, and social conservatives have been peeling away from the Democrats for years. The state was the home of Senator Jesse Helms, known for his small-government defiance as Senator No.
But it was also the home of Senator John Edwards, the Democratic populist who ran for president and became John Kerry’s running mate. For decades, the state’s contradictory inclinations came to something of a stalemate, resulting in its pragmatic political style.
Things began to change in 2010.
President Obama drew antipathy from rural white voters, and state Democrats were dogged by troubles: federal investigators were looking into the campaign finances of former Gov. Mike Easley, while the sitting governor, Bev Perdue, was dropping in the polls. The state’s economy had been rocked more than most by the recession, and places like Rockingham County, on the Virginia border, which traditionally swung in its partisan allegiances, had been growing steadily more desperate after the loss of thousands of jobs with the closing of textile and furniture mills and tobacco plants.
The tipping point may have come in the suburbs. Conservatives and pro-business groups had been building a formidable organizational and donor structure, as part of a national Republican strategy to win control of statehouses in time to shape legislative redistricting.
Most active in these efforts in North Carolina was Art Pope, a retail magnate, who founded groups that put over $1.7 million into the 2010 elections and whose financing of conservative candidates and policy groups was described at length in a 2011 article in The New Yorker, as well as a series of articles by the Institute for Southern Studies, a liberal group based in the state.
John Hood, the president of the John Locke Foundation, which Mr. Pope helped found, said that Democrats had enjoyed a substantial spending and organizational advantage in the past, and that his effort “was partly a response to a liberal party infrastructure that had been built over the previous decades.”
Other business leaders began leaping into the fray, like Allen E. Gant Jr., the president of Glen Raven, a 133-year-old textile company based in Burlington. He started a group called Carolina Business Coalition, which pushes for low taxes and pro-management policy.
“We finally found some people who are willing to listen to us,” Mr. Gant said of the new Republican leadership.
With all of this brought to bear in the 2010 elections, a cycle deeply unfavorable for Democrats nationwide, North Carolina Republicans won both houses of the legislature for the first time in a century. More critically, they also won control of redistricting. One year later, they drew districts guaranteeing safe seats for a Republican majority for years to come.
In 2012, with Ms. Perdue’s late decision not to run again, Mr. McCrory won the governor’s office easily. Naming Mr. Pope as his budget director, he promised an agenda focused on economic growth, even pledging not to sign into law new restrictions on abortion. But Republicans in the legislature were not interested in half-measures.
“I think part of it was the frustration of being out of power for such a long time,” Mr. Hood said.
Mr. McCrory, who was in Rockingham County on Tuesday morning to announce the coming of a gun manufacturing plant, said he had “spent 95 percent of my time on jobs and the economy, but the media has probably spent 95 percent of the time on other issues.” He added that he had met most of his major economic goals.
But many voters, those neither cheering nor protesting, are frustrated.
Doug Clark, a columnist for The News and Record of Greensboro, welcomed the partisan change, but he now sees the state’s Republican leadership as fostering “extreme partisanship and abuse of power.” He questioned why the legislature, after passing laws governing abortion, guns and voter identification, and frequently trying to exert control over issues traditionally left to local governments, never got around to passing the governor’s plan to overhaul job recruiting.
“That was his signature economic development initiative,” Mr. Clark said. Mr. McCrory says that the money for the initiative is in the budget, and that he can proceed without new legislation.
Senator Phil Berger, the Republican president pro tem of the State Senate, who represents this region, takes issue with any suggestion that the legislature was overly aggressive or that it was not responding to voters’ wants.
“There’s not, in my view, an issue that we’ve addressed that was not articulated as this is something that needs to be done, changes that need to be made in North Carolina,” he said.
But voters now seem to be souring on both parties. While the number of North Carolina voters over all has risen since 2008, the number who are registered as either Republicans or Democrats has shrunk.
Unaffiliated voters now make up more than a quarter of the voting population.
“Honest, I’m not much into North Carolina,” said Cyril Seacat, 78, who moved here decades ago to work in a Glen Raven-owned mill and was sitting in his truck outside a Walmart. “I don’t think they’re doing much of anything right.”
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