As we watched the egregiously unqualified Donald Trump campaign for and win election to the White House, any good news on the government and politics front was likely to be obscured amid concerns about what Trump’s ascent could bode for the nation’s well-being.
Concerns? That’s putting it mildly. Those of us who value our efforts to avoid war, our programs to protect the environment, our democratic institutions and civil public discourse, and our pledge of justice for all under the rule of law can’t be blamed if our hair is standing on end as we contemplate the damage Trump seems poised to do.
Perhaps we will one day look back at the Trump era and recognize it as a time when our system of checks and balances and the wondrous Constitution that is our national cornerstone were tested and bent but were able to endure unbroken. That is where our hope as loyal Americans must lie.
But as North Carolinians, there already is room for us to hope that the radical conservatives at the state government helm have done their worst and in one fashion or another will have to answer for their bad judgment, intolerance and greed.
That’s despite their recent vengeful hissy fit in which they deprived incoming Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper of significant powers in a desperate effort to protect their own. As if a substantial chunk of the electorate – i.e., the majority of voters who decided one term was plenty for Republican Gov. Pat McCrory – wouldn’t care if McCrory were succeeded by a mere figurehead.
Fortunately, Cooper has the chops to make his governorship a productive one even if the General Assembly fights him at every turn.
Unlike McCrory, whose part-time service as Charlotte’s mayor had given him little feel for the demands of state leadership, Cooper is a veteran state capital decision-maker. He was a prominent state senator before serving four terms as attorney general. Throughout those 16 years he kept his powder dry, waiting for the right moment to advance if that moment were to come at all.
Then, with the legislature careening off the ideological rails and McCrory either unable or unwilling to apply the brakes, Cooper stepped up to say enough. As the 2016 campaign took shape, he put down some conspicuous markers – most notably with his opposition to House Bill 2, the law enacted last spring that brought North Carolina national notoriety for circumscribing the rights of gays, lesbians and the transgendered.
McCrory was left to flail in what became a massive H.B. 2 undertow. His defeat was narrow – by some 10,000 votes out of 4.7 million – but decisive. And it was all the more remarkable for coming in the same election that saw Trump win handily in North Carolina over Hillary Clinton and Republican Sen. Richard Burr easily claim a third term in his contest with Democratic former legislator Deborah Ross.
So the outcome of the governor’s race helped flesh out North Carolina’s most prominent 2016 political story line – the rash passage of House Bill 2; the strong pushback from a range of business interests, cultural figures and human rights advocates; the legislature’s intransigence, with McCrory awkwardly assuming the role of the law’s chief defender and going on to pay the price.
The bill – product of a one-day special legislative session in March — blocked a Charlotte ordinance authorizing transgendered people to use public restrooms matching their gender identity. The General Assembly’s action was disingenuously characterized as protecting the safety and privacy of women and girls who could be threatened by male sexual predators masquerading as women – when the bill included no means of enforcement and when existing laws already proscribed any such misbehavior.
But the Charlotte ordinance also had extended anti-discrimination protections to gays and lesbians. In response, the law went on to make clear that state anti-discrimination standards would not go that far and to prohibit localities from taking such action on their own. So besides exhibiting a deeply uninformed skepticism toward the needs and motives of the transgendered, H.B. 2 put North Carolina in the national forefront of perceived hostility towards the whole LGBT community.
Thus began the cascade of cancelled concerts, business expansions, conference bookings and sporting events. The NBA pulled its 2017 all-star game from Charlotte and the NCAA relocated basketball tournament games. The state, hostage to the legislature’s narrow-mindedness, faced torrents of sarcasm and ridicule.
A hollow deal
Perhaps it was McCrory’s loss that got their attention. But legislative chiefs, secure as they are in voting districts drawn to their overwhelming advantage, after the election were looking for a way to get off the hook. Cooper offered it, brokering a deal with the Charlotte City Council.
Charlotte would repeal its contentious ordinance. The legislature – convening in its fifth(!) special session of the year – would then repeal H.B. 2. Fully repeal, was the deal.
It didn’t happen. Diehard H.B. 2 proponents, egged on by social conservatives and the religious right, insisted that the repeal take effect only after a “cooling-off period” during which the law’s main features would remain operative. Their concern was that without such a delay, ordinances such as Charlotte’s would crop up again as soon as H.B. 2 was taken off the books.
Indeed, some LGBT advocates urged as much. And no wonder, considering the principles at stake – both of tolerance for people’s sexual orientation and of deference to local values and standards.
In the end, state Senate Democrats who held pivotal votes despite their minority status refused to back a conditional repeal. Coupled with opposition from the far right, that was enough to drag the repeal effort down. And with that last bathetic gasp, the legislature on Dec. 21 packed it in after a difficult and disappointing year.
Normal legislative business had been, well, pretty normal for a group whose legacy already rested in large part on tax cuts for the well-off and weakened regulation of business.
With the state’s anemic support for public education becoming both an embarrassment and a political liability, McCrory and budget writers teamed up to boost teacher pay to an average of $50,000 and change. That lifts North Carolina a few rungs up the ladder – a few rungs from the bottom. And per-pupil spending continues to lag.
The $22.3 billion budget for the 2016-17 fiscal year, approved at the end of June, envisions a further income tax cut from 5.75 percent to 5.499 percent in 2017. And that’s now a flat rate, with high-end earners no longer paying a greater share.
To make up some of the revenue losses, sales taxes have been broadened to cover various services – another regressive shift that hurts those who don’t have money to burn. Still, the N.C. Justice Center calculated that state spending as a percentage of overall personal income was likely to be the lowest in 45 years. That’s a trend only small-government conservatives can love.
It’s not that taxation and spending are inherently desirable. It’s that they are the mechanisms by which government – in other words, the public acting through its elected representatives – addresses challenges that can’t be solved by individuals, charities or the private sector.
Those challenges include providing equal opportunities for a decent education to all of our young people, no matter their family circumstances or where they live. They include effective protection of our air and water. They include programs to help depressed rural communities join the state’s prosperous mainstream. And they include adequate services to the mentally ill, who now too often fall between the cracks of our overstressed health care systems.
Voters and voices
The Council of Churches supports all of those priorities, and others like them, in its advocacy of state policies that can help the disadvantaged deal with the bad hands they’ve been dealt in a sometimes callous world.
And it’s from that perspective as well that the Council so strongly emphasizes the importance of fairness and equality in the methods by which we choose our leaders. As it happens, 2016 was a year when conservative efforts to distort and restrict voting rights and to muffle the voices of certain voters via the nefarious arts of gerrymandering were repelled in the federal courts. At least for now.
One of the General Assembly’s first major initiatives in 2013 – the first year its Republican majority operated in tandem with a Republican governor – was to enact a sweeping bill that made it harder for many citizens to vote.
It wasn’t a coincidence that the law was pushed through to passage soon after the U.S. Supreme Court lifted the requirement that certain states, including North Carolina, get permission from the federal Department of Justice before making substantive changes in election laws.
Nor was it a coincidence that the voters most likely to be inconvenienced by the changes – racial minorities, poor people, students – tended to back Democratic candidates.
Under the law’s flagship provision, voters would have to show a government-issued photo ID, typically a driver’s license. There were workarounds for citizens who didn’t drive, but the upshot was likely to be a suppression of the Democratic vote.
The law also rescinded a popular option known as same-day registration, by which someone could register and vote on the same day during the early voting period prior to Election Day. The number of days for early voting was reduced and out-of-precinct voting was barred.
Voting rights advocates challenged the law, and when it looked as though they were gaining traction, legislators softened the voter ID rule. Still, challenges went forward. As far as 2016 was concerned, those challenges came to a head in July, when the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the law as racially discriminatory. So the fall elections were conducted under prior rules.
That represented a major victory for those, including the Council of Churches and its allies, who believe access to the polls should be encouraged, so long as the process is honest and orderly.
It’s true that Republican legislative candidates did well despite the overall failure of their attempts to suppress the vote. But that didn’t invalidate the arguments against suppression, which hinge on the importance of letting each qualified voter have his or her say. It simply pointed up the effectiveness of the gerrymandering used by Republican legislators to stack the electoral deck.
On that score as well, the federal courts in 2016 blew the whistle, or multiple whistles:
- The state’s congressional district map, dating from 2011, was thrown out because two districts were found to have been gerrymandered to the detriment of African-American voters. The maps were redrawn, but in the fall elections, Republicans still captured 10 of the state’s 13 U.S. House seats, or 77 percent, while garnering 53 percent of the total congressional vote. That’s a sign that Democratic-leaning voters have been marginalized and that Republican officeholders have been shielded from meaningful accountability to the people they represent.
- Legislative districts also were ruled unconstitutional on similar grounds. Still, the elections in November were based on the tainted districts because there wasn’t time to reconfigure them. The legislature is under a court mandate to redraw the districts by March 15 and to hold special elections next fall. Whether that mandate will survive on appeal is anyone’s guess. But it’s not inconceivable that some of the legislature’s actions during 2016 could be challenged on the basis that they reflected the work of lawmakers whose very districts have been declared invalid.
- Wake County school board and commissioner districts, redrawn to give Republicans a boost after Democrats had reclaimed control, were tossed for violating the equal representation principle known as one person, one vote. Suburban, GOP-leaning voters were accorded more influence than their urban counterparts, and that didn’t fly.
But if gerrymandering has enabled Republican legislators to maintain their district-by-district edge, it wasn’t a tool that could be used in statewide races. Not only Cooper, but also Democratic Supreme Court candidate Mike Morgan and the party’s candidate for attorney general, Josh Stein, scored significant victories. McCrory was left to pout over the seeming injustice of it all.
The governor and his forces cried foul from the moment a late surge of votes reported on Election Night from Durham put Cooper, who had been trailing, in the lead. There’d been fraud, they said. Malfeasance. They filed protests, demanded recounts. In the end, even with Republican-majority state and local elections boards giving full attention to McCrory’s complaints, the charges and accusations dissolved into nothing.
It didn’t reflect well on McCrory that he chose to follow Donald Trump down the road of implying that our election systems can’t be trusted when there was no evidence of substantial problems. (At least that was Trump’s line when he thought he was going to lose.) Our method of government, with its hallowed tradition of the peaceful transfer of power, depends of course on election systems and rules that are efficient, fair and honest. At the same time it requires losing candidates and their supporters to accept the validity of the outcome rather than insisting that the winners in effect couldn’t have won without cheating.
With Republican legislators anticipating that McCrory’s successor could become a big-time thorn in their collective side, despite their veto-proof strength in both the House and Senate, they resorted to another set of tactics corrosive to our concept of independent, co-equal government branches.
McCrory, serving his last month in office, called the General Assembly into special session on Dec. 13 to address the needs of eastern communities stricken by Hurricane Matthew’s flooding and by wildfires in the mountains.
With no advance notice and no time for proper review, legislative chiefs convened a separate session on Dec. 14 whose driving purpose was to clip Cooper’s wings. They enacted two bills, House Bill 17 and Senate Bill 4, that subtracted from the governor’s powers.
Cooper will lose influence over elections boards, the Department of Public Instruction, university boards of trustees and upper levels of the bureaucracy. His appointees to head the various cabinet departments will have to be confirmed by the Senate, something no recent governor has had to put up with.
A confirmation process that operated in good faith wouldn’t necessarily be a hindrance to the new governor. But if Republican senators’ main impulse is to obstruct – taking a page from their party’s conduct in Washington – Cooper could be intolerably and inexcusably hamstrung. It’s hard to say when McCrory’s generally disappointing performance hit bottom, but the moment may have come when he signed the bill containing the new confirmation rule even while asserting that he opposed the change. Better if he had defended the prerogatives of the executive branch.
The right stuff
Cooper’s career has been marked by caution, moderation and patience. But there never has been any doubt that he understands the importance of state policies geared toward equal opportunity and uplift for the struggling. Those might be individuals left behind by the forces of economic change, or people who desperately need access to good schools as their path out of poverty, or the residents of hard-pressed rural communities that, compared with the state’s flourishing cities, comprise the “other North Carolina.”
The new governor’s formal powers have been curbed. Yet he retains the authority to propose and promote budgets that address deep-seated problems and that raise needed revenues via fair and adequate taxation. He will have the state’s biggest microphone. Judging by his performance during and after his successful campaign, we can expect him to make good use of it.
Cooper also has shown himself to be a politician who understands the value of collaboration and compromise. Those instincts will be tested as legislative foes try to further marginalize him and as he seeks to articulate a different, more constructive vision for the state’s future. But he has the skills to recognize common ground when it’s available while not surrendering his principles.
The Council of Churches and its partner organizations, whose aspirations for North Carolina closely align with his, will wish the new governor every success in 2017 and across the years to come. Especially with storm clouds descending over Washington, much is at stake.