By Neal Peirce
There was a time when North Carolina was a symbol of Southern enlightenment. Compared to the policies of the old “Solid South” – Democratic, conservative, fervidly anti-civil rights – the state embraced relatively progressive policies in such areas as education and race relations.
In the new, suddenly solid Republican South, the Tar Heel state is racing to lead the pack in conservative anti-city and implicitly anti-black politics.
Just check the record of what’s occurred since 2010, when Republicans for the first time since 1896 won control of both houses of North Carolina’s Legislature.
They’ve passed a tax bill that will reduce state revenue by more than a half-billion dollars a year, benefitting higher-income taxpayers while increasing taxes for small business owners and lower- and middle-class taxpayers.
Moves on unemployment insurance will cut benefits and the length of coverage for tens of thousands of North Carolina workers.
The state’s earned income tax credit is being closed off, raising the tax burden on thousands of the working poor.
Aid to elementary education is dropping, with the growing state now spending less on public schools than it did in 2007.
On the social side, the GOP-controlled legislature recently repealed the Racial Justice Act of 2009 – a law that allowed death-row inmates to claim that racial bias played a role in their convictions. With 152 people on death row, that decision and others helped spark a series of political rallies at the state capital in Raleigh, called Moral Mondays. The NAACP and allied civil rights, labor and immigration groups have joined in, trying to combat what they call North Carolina’s new “mean-spirited” public policies.
But what are the odds that Moral Monday protests or the like will deter North Carolina’s new right-wing politics? Realistically, very low. The state’s sharp political shift is neither accidental nor short-lived. It reflects years of planning by Republican political operatives in close alliance with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the corporate-sponsored lobby that helps develop and circulate model laws reflecting not just corporate-friendly but ultra-conservative social agendas (like “stand your ground” gun laws).
Thomas Edsall, in a perceptive analysis on The New York Times’ website, says the Republicans’ success in gaining control of all 11 legislatures in states of the Civil War Confederacy represents a conscious effort to identify the Democratic Party as the party of blacks, and Republicans as the party of whites. The theory has been that “white” Republican votes would outnumber “black” Democratic ones. African-American political power is clearly being eviscerated in the process: In less than 20 years, the percentage of black legislators in the South serving in the majority party where they can influence policy (formerly the Democratic Party, now the Republican) has fallen from 99.5 percent to 4.8 percent.
To a degree, the policy is working nationally – witness the Republican takeover of legislatures in Pennsylvania, Indiana, Wisconsin, Ohio and Michigan, shifts all relegating black elected officials to the minority. By no accident, all the switched states are seeing strong pushes for voter-ID laws, restricted early voting and shortened polling hours – moves clearly designed to suppress the votes, and policy voice, of blacks, Hispanics and the poor.
North Carolina, Edsall suggests, has “become a tea party test tube” with its current wave of measures bearing harsh consequences for blacks and other minorities. The state House speaker, Thom Tillis, is a board member of ALEC. And the legislature is broadening its agenda not just to suppress minority and poor peoples’ voices but to punish urban areas in general.
Case in point: an effort to eviscerate North Carolina’s long-standing annexation powers of cities, laws widely seen as among the nation’s fairest. The legislature ripped an area of recently annexed territory out of Goldsboro – even after the city had obligated itself for $7 million to build water and sewer lines to serve the new area.
Now the Republican legislators are out to seize city assets outright. Prime example: a law to force Charlotte to give up ownership and control of the airport that the city had founded, bonded and supported for decades.
The legislation as originally adopted (moves were afoot late in the week for a compromise of a sort) put the airport under a regional authority – reasonable enough if the region had created and paid for the facility, which it hadn’t. Another legislative target is Asheville’s water system. It’s to be given to a new regional authority – with no monetary compensation whatever to the city. (The city sued and a judge has temporarily blocked the move.)
Charlotte is also fighting in court, and the legal outcome is unclear. But it’s clear an ugly “reward-friends, punish-adversaries” politics is in full flower. Growing Hispanic and other more moderate political voices could offset the trend. But with North Carolina’s legislative districts carefully drawn to entrench the ascendant Republicans, a return to moderation may be years – if not decades – away.