Those of us aligned with the Council of Churches share a political outlook whose priorities include equal rights, equal opportunity, environmental stewardship, ample investment in public services and fair allocation of that investment’s costs.
We believe that the United States must lead by example through sustained efforts to build a just, prosperous and compassionate society, and that those efforts are vital in keeping our nation strong and secure.
Judging by those standards and others, the 2016 elections served up a slew of disappointments. Yet in North Carolina the results weren’t without their bright spots, actual or potential – if, for example, state Attorney General Roy Cooper maintains his narrow Election Night edge as he seeks to oust Gov. Pat McCrory, the state’s perhaps reluctant chief cheerleader for discrimination against gays, lesbians and the transgendered.
The race won’t be decided until absentee and provisional ballots are counted and any challenges are settled. But a Cooper victory would mean an upgrade in the quality of leadership North Carolinians can expect from Raleigh even as the General Assembly remains under small-minded conservative control.
Then there was the contest for the presidency. As much as we might like to be calm, cool, collected and philosophical in that contest’s aftermath, for many of us it’s not easy.
It’s not easy when the person chosen to occupy the White House for the next four years lacks the experience, knowledge and judgment normally demanded of a successful candidate.
It’s not easy when the person generated and rode waves of fear and loathing directed against immigrants, whether Latino or Muslim. This, in a nation that still purports to honor the Statue of Liberty with its welcome to the oppressed.
It’s not easy when the person deployed outrageous incivility as a campaign weapon and seemed to revel in vain, sexist boorishness. When his self-proclaimed identity as a business icon rests in large part on his disregard for principles of fair dealing.
We could go on. But come noon on Jan. 20, Donald J. Trump will take the oath of office as our 45th president. Disappointed and frustrated though many of us are, it’s crucial to probe the reasons for Trump’s appeal and to reach out to those who backed him rather than Hillary Clinton.
Yes, some of those voters were responding to the dark emotions he cultivated – dangerously and despicably cultivated, it must be said. The emergence of a group of citizens so embittered, so susceptible to a candidate’s appeals to hatred, is troubling in the extreme.
Others voters, though, acted out of an understandable sense of desperation over lost jobs, over diminished prospects for themselves and their families, over perceived threats of terrorism emanating from far-off zones of war and chaos if not from within their own communities.
Stronger in unity
There’s no point downplaying the depth of these concerns, which Trump recognized and articulated in a manner that resonated more convincingly than Clinton could offer.
What remains for those who nevertheless saw Clinton as the better choice is to press on in a spirit of solidarity with all those so grievously disaffected – idled factory workers of the Rust Belt, residents of the poverty-stricken rural South, all who have been penalized by shortcomings in our education systems and frightened by the pace of change.
As Clinton herself has said, Trump must be given a chance to lead. So let’s make sure he and his supporters understand what the rest of us believe his leadership should entail, what attitudes it should exhibit, what policies it should embrace.
When the new president does something we see as right, let’s be ready to take yes for an answer. Hillary Clinton may have reached the end of her long political career, but her “Stronger Together” slogan will be just as apt once she’s gone.
Then there’s this to think about: For all Trump’s blustery, mean-spirited pledges to do this, that or the other, his inexperience coupled with his relatively apolitical past could open him to other views (note: an as-yet-undetected smidgeon of humility required). Those could be more centrist, humane views by which society’s underdogs – irrespective of geography, ethnicity, culture — are seen as people whose interests must be defended if our society as a whole is to thrive.
Vulnerable and scorned
The defense of underdogs was precisely what Pat McCrory failed to undertake amid the bitter dispute over the “bathroom bill” targeting transgendered people as well as gays and lesbians. It was a failure that may well have cost him a second term.
Yes, he got crosswise with many voters in normally Republican-leaning suburbs north of Charlotte because he declined to block a plan to put tolls on I-77. But the former Charlotte mayor also took a big hit in his hometown because of House Bill 2, which overrode the city’s enlightened and sensible decision to let people use public restrooms matching their gender identity.
Meanwhile the Triangle area, with its large base of progressive voters, went for Cooper overwhelmingly. The attorney general properly had criticized H.B. 2 as unwise, unnecessary and likely unconstitutional. More than setting rules for bathroom access, the law codifies the state’s refusal to protect people from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
The governor may not have been enthused when the legislature passed the law in a rush-job special session, but he immediately signed it and became its principal defender.
On Nov. 8, with Trump rolling up a statewide margin over Clinton and with many other Republicans enjoying similar success, McCrory closed out the evening with unofficial returns putting him on a path to defeat. Even the governor’s capable role in mustering emergency relief after Hurricane Matthew’s disastrous flooding apparently couldn’t save him.
The Council of Churches has had plenty of issues with McCrory’s performance over the past four years aside from H.B. 2. While he sometimes acted as a counterweight to the legislature’s more extreme measures, he was too quick to go along with others that reflected narrow partisan interests (voter suppression, for example) or that exacerbated the divide between rich and poor, such as tax cuts chiefly benefiting the wealthy. His former identity as a moderate pragmatist got lost in the shuffle.
Cooper, the attorney general for 16 years and before that an influential state senator, has a record of cautious progressivism that puts him squarely within the moderate Democratic mainstream exemplified by former four-term governor Jim Hunt. He has been strong on environmental protection and on civil rights.
If he does prevail against McCrory as the votes are sifted and resifted, he will face a legislature in which Republicans maintain veto-proof majorities in both chambers. Yet as governor, Cooper will be able to set forth an alternative vision to the GOP’s ideal of a government forced to muddle along on inadequate revenues and with its regulatory authority weakened so as to make life easier for businesses.
The legislature won’t have to accept a single line of it, but Cooper would propose a state budget, as if hoisting a flag around which progressives and moderates could rally.
He would make key appointments such as cabinet secretaries and oversee their agendas. Even if his veto would seldom hold, using his veto stamp would allow him to explain his disagreements with the legislature and, in effect, take his case to the public.
If Trump and Congress proceed to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, as they’ve promised, Cooper could push for a viable substitute to protect North Carolinians who otherwise would be marooned without health insurance – a prelude to illness, job loss and needless misery.
In this election, only rarely did legislators themselves pay a price for their rash enactment of H.B. 2 and the prejudice that law embodies. The Republican majority has drawn districts that, given the voters they include, allowed most GOP candidates to escape serious challenge. (Two notable exceptions occurred in Wake County, where both Clinton and Cooper ran strongly: well-known Reps. Marilyn Avila and Gary Pendleton each lost their seats.)
Not surprisingly, the GOP’s redistricting ploys have drawn a spate of legal challenges on grounds that they amount to unconstitutional gerrymanders. The federal courts so far have been sympathetic. That’s in contrast with the state courts, and especially the Supreme Court where Republican judges have held a one-vote majority.
Nobody wants judicial opinions with intense partisan overtones always to correlate exactly with judges’ partisan affiliation. These matters are supposed to be decided on the basis of facts and law, not political preferences. Still, it’s no surprise when a judge who identifies as a Republican interprets the law in a way that jibes with the view taken by his party’s legislators, and similarly for a judge who’s a Democrat.
Republican Supreme Court Justice Bob Edmunds, an able court veteran, was squarely in the middle of such a situation when he wrote a majority opinion that absolved the legislature of gerrymandering accusations filed by voting rights advocates. He also authored an opinion sanctioning state support for private schools under the so-called Opportunity Scholarship voucher program – a program strongly opposed on constitutional grounds by public school allies.
There’s no telling yet how these rulings may have affected Edmunds’ re-election bid. But the fact is that despite overall Republican successes, Edmunds was defeated handily by Democratic challenger Michael Morgan, an experienced trial-court judge who as it happens will become the court’s second African-American.
The practical effect of Morgan’s win will be to switch the high court’s balance to 4-3 in the Democrats’ favor. The consequences could be significant, especially if the legislature continues to enact bills pushing the constitutional envelope. In particular, the court can be expected to take a broader view of the legislature’s responsibility to provide citizens with access to the polls and to make sure all votes carry equal weight, which gerrymandering acts to prevent.
Hired by Trump?
Across the country, Americans are attuned to the importance of Trump’s victory when it comes to the make-up of the U.S. Supreme Court. He predictably has vowed to appoint a conservative to the seat still vacant months after the death of conservative Justice Antonin Scalia. That would end the 4-4 ideological stalemate that in some instances – such as North Carolina voting rights cases – has worked in progressives’ favor. Is Trump capable of finding a nominee, conservative or not, who has the intellectual heft and integrity to serve responsibly in this critical post?
The same kind of question must be asked with respect to the many other key appointments Trump will make – cabinet secretaries, national security officials, military commanders, agency chiefs, ambassadors, other judges.
Will he have the good sense to seek the advice of wise counsel in staffing his administration, whether that advice comes from within his party or without? Will he prove able to listen and defer to other people’s judgment? The pattern – of a vain bully who seems to have little idea how much he doesn’t know – is far from encouraging.
Trump in fact has yet to show that he has the ability to act like a decent human being who follows precepts as basic as the Golden Rule. But even if he spotlighted the frustrations of the American working class mainly as a way to help pull together a political base, he nevertheless has summoned us to empathize with people who are being crushed in the 21st century global economy.
Roy Cooper no doubt would profess a similar concern for those residents of “the other North Carolina” who struggle to find work or to learn skills that can put them back in the job market, who see their families’ prospects for better lives slipping away. In that regard his challenge will be to point toward policies that might actually make a difference – likely putting him at odds with a legislature that simplistically sees tax cuts as an economic cure-all.
Trump also favors tax cuts. But at the same time, he wants to see major infrastructure investments, which would be helpful in North Carolina and elsewhere. How to pay for them? Perhaps Cooper, if he becomes governor, will be able to work with the Trump administration in sorting out that and other puzzles — benefiting the residents of this state who are most eager for fresh chances to succeed.