The fall from power is never short, and it’s rarely graceful.
The South was a bastion of ultimate Democratic Party control for the better part of the 20th century, and there was nowhere where that one-party system flourished more than in North Carolina. After riding into the century on a wave of racist, anti-Reconstruction rhetoric, the Democrats—not the state’s citizens—determined for the state, and the region, that the concept of the two-party system was more a suggestion than a mandate. And so, within that single all-consuming party that housed segregationists and pro-slavery industrialists developed a second faction. This one was home to the occasional pro-labor, pro-integration, pro-subsidies liberal, but mostly, it was made up of middle-ground, pro-business, faux progressives. Think the political reality of 2018, but within a single party.
It’s because the Democrats sought to maintain this system that placed party power over humane principles that they lost again and again and again come the end of the century. Since the 1930s, they told voters occupying the extremes on both sides, but mostly the left, that they needed to compromise at every turn; for seven decades, compromise and concede they did, all while dissatisfaction bubbled among those in the left- and right-wings. The goal was always to be a purple state in practice, just not in theory. When the state’s white citizens decided they were sick of a political machine that seemed to harbor little space for any kind of turn, they flocked to the one existing party that didn’t ask them to compromise.
It’s because the Democratic Party has always been plenty ready to tap dance for voters who carried racist tendencies rather than attempt to change those tendencies that it ceded ground to a completely ideologically revised version of what had once been the party of Lincoln. The downfall officially started when uber-conservative Jesse Helms broke the mold in 1972 and joined the new Republican Party. It was then that the liberals that called themselves North Carolina Democrats were first forced to stare at the bed they’d made and defecated in; rather than adapt and adjust, they just updated the same model, believing they could maintain the state’s record for being the least offensive member of the South.
Over the next 30 years, the GOP adopted new leaders and new causes, but all aimed in the same direction, the only changes coming in their articulation of the issues so as to fit the times. The Democrats, meanwhile, did not change; they stayed the course. They stood on the fence and expected North Carolinians to flock to them and play the same high-wire act. Democrats sought to carve a spot in the middle for moderates to buddy up with their nonexistent Republican counterparts. Even as the Cold War settled below the horizon, the Democrats feared the left turn, or rather the inevitable criticisms that would accompany any actions or legislation deemed socialist-adjacent.
Their opponents did not compromise, because they understood what politics, if not government, really comes down to—winning, by any means necessary.
And so, each time Democrats felt their power slipping from the state legislatures, specifically in North Carolina, they showed their true colors. They ceded ground on basically every major social issue; they bribed; they took bribes; they lied, cheated, and stole taxpayer money, all in the effort to maintain and take advantage of the dominance they had grown so used to. When one Democrat was caught, another would take their place, and the wheel would turn along, as long as Republicans could be kept at bay. The 1990s were a warning, a preview, but the 2010 election was the real deal. And by the time it happened, the Democrats couldn’t do shit except sigh. The purple state they had pushed for—the one the rest of the country was counting on to break the GOP’s lock on the Confederacy—was blood red in every place that wasn’t a city or a college town.
As America is still in the midst of the conservative rise, it’s probably still too soon to understand what, exactly, happened in 2010, or what’s happened since. The North Carolina Democratic Party is attempting to pick up the pieces—this year’s slogan is #BreakTheMajority. That references the fact they currently face a super-majority of Republicans in the North Carolina General Assembly House and Senate. This November, they can either bring four representatives to the House or six to the Senate to break it.
But this story is not about their ongoing attempt to win those seats. This is a tale—a couple of tales, actually—that, when combined, explain how the North Carolina Democrats ended up in the position to be fighting for such a pithy goal. At times, you’ll be staring at black-and-white photos, reading of the actions of white men in cigar-filled rooms and activists fighting on the front lines, and you might to tempted to ask a question: Yes, I know about slavery and Jim Crow and women’s suffrage; how does reinforcing this knowledge explain how the hell we got to this point in American politics? Don’t stop at the actions of the activists, though (even as you take them into account); look to the response of the people with the actual ability to bring about change who claim to support those same causes. By exploring the capabilities, and more importantly the limits, of the Tar Heel State’s Democratic Party, one starts to understand the way the people in and around politics think politics should work. Forget any sentiments you hold about the inevitable swing of political pendulum or the arc of justice, and instead take these tales for what they are: a true representation of the limits of progress in a two-party, recently white- and male-only system, limits that are only truly tested not by those in politics, but by those denied access to representation.
Like the tales of its farmers and mill towns, the tale of what happened in the North Carolina Democratic Party might feel oddly familiar to those still seeking answers as to what happened in the 2016 election.
There’s a slight chance your particular state’s Democratic Party has been an upstanding bunch, one that never lied or stole or sold out for their own gain; there’s even a possibility you’ve never had to enter the voting booth feeling like you were having to choose the least of the two evils. Maybe your state’s party has been nothing but efficient and successful and helpful and trustworthy to citizens of all backgrounds. If it’s anything like the one in North Carolina, I doubt it.
The one thing I kept coming back to while researching this series was the revelation that I had been taught about all the wrong people in history class.
The textbooks they sent us home with in middle and high school taught me the correct order of the presidents and the wars and the major civil rights legislation. It wasn’t useless, not in the slightest. But if you assume the academic foundation that was installed in K-12 is trustworthy and sound, like the majority of people with jobs and kids and other responsibilities do, or even let it drown into the background, then you’re left with a feel-good story, one of progress and constant steps forwards, one that even when the missteps are included in the calculation still produces a sum that is the greatest nation in history.
The untold history of North Carolina undercuts of every bit of that. It injects a healthy dose of cynicism toward those that championed and were hailed for bringing those progressive ideals to pass by contextualizing events that are otherwise a dot on a timeline for most. That history monumentally alters the foundational tenets folks tend to assume as set in stone; more plainly, it discards the notion that basically any moderate in the South espouses nowadays—that everyone was racist back in the day. It’s a flexible term that is meant less to define an era than it is to say, out loud almost as if to convince oneself, that that time of homogenous hate in our region’s history has come to a close.
Within this system, the efforts and direction of the national parties that operate within the country’s two-party system are often subject to those who can seize the most financial influence within them. The outer bounds of the Democratic Party in North Carolina have been defined by business and cultural concerns that the party’s establishment has consistently been all-too-ready to capitulate to.
The many stories of Pauli Murray stretch far beyond the borders of North Carolina, and all of them spit in the face of such passivity.
For those well-versed in the history of the Tar Heel State or its flagship university, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Murray’s story is familiar; to the majority of the state’s citizens, she is nobody, little more than a name. And yet, in both name and action, Murray is as much a Southern hero as has ever existed.
Her lineage finds its roots in rape and racism, a sadly common heritage for anyone with slaves among their ancestry. Murray’s great-grandmother, Harriet, was the slave of James Strudwick Smith, a physician and politician who also served as a trustee at UNC. One night, in the 1840s, Smith’s lawyer son Sidney raped Harriet; nine months later, Cornelia Smith came into the world. (Sidney was beaten up by his brother, Frank, who went on to father three of Harriet’s children in the coming decade.)
James passed ownership of Harriet over to his daughter in 1846; in her possession, Cornelia, against the state law, was taught to read and write and was baptized in a church on UNC’s campus. When emancipated, they remained under the Smith family’s ownership; when she died, they each received $150 and a useless last name.
While a Northerner by birth due to her family’s move to Baltimore, Murray was a Southerner by rearing, spending her youthful years growing up in Durham with her namesake and aunt, Pauline Dame. Murray’s mother died when she was young and her father, unable to care for her and her five siblings, was murdered in a North Carolina state hospital when she 13. Murray graduated Hillside High School at 16 years old (at the time, 1926, Southern schools only went to the 11th grade.)
Murray was just four years old when she moved to Durham, but her aunt never allowed her to forget what lay upon the other side of the Mason-Dixon Line. That curious soul of Murray was maybe her defining character trait; in her, by either the imperfect beauty of human perseverance or divine intervention, was a mind crafted to match an indomitable will, one that would listen to every gate-keeper possible hiss a forceful, “No” her way and somehow come away still believing she was in the right. To wit: Durham didn’t legally allow for black citizens to ride the buses at all until 1930; even after, Murray said hell to the buses and walked everywhere she needed to go in the Bull City. It’s the kind of perseverance one dreams of actually exhibiting, and she did it daily.
As detailed exhaustively by Glenda Gilmore in her marvelous history book, Defying Dixie, Murray’s path took her to New York after high school. There, she obtained another high school degree to be eligible for northern colleges; and graduated from Hunter College in 1933, during the throes of the Depression. Once out of school, she picked up a job working with Camp TERA, a residential workers camp overseen by none other than First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. (You can read more about their relationship in Patricia Bell-Scott’s book, The Firebrand and the First Lady.)
There, she first showed her roots in nonviolent protest against the treatment of her fellow black Southerners. When the First Lady strolled through the camp on a rare visit, all the other campers stood as Murray remained seated. For that, and for the ensuing discovery of a copy of Karl Marx’s Kaptial in her bunk, she was expelled. The position was ultimately of little import past her introduction to letter writing campaigns and the general tenants of Marxism. By 1936, she had a job teaching for the WPA; by 1937, she was enrolled at Brookwood Labor College. Then, 1938 arrived.
Suffice it to say that a halfway decent K-12 experience was the best most poor black or Native American folks could hope for in the South at the time; it’s why Murray and countless others flocked to the North. Back home, the path to secondary education depended largely upon whether your state even had secondary education opportunities available, which, in the case of Missouri, was seen as an opportunity to crack Jim Crow.
On Dec. 12, 1938, the Supreme Court ruled on the case of Gaines v. Canada. In the case of Lloyd Gaines, the justices found that Missouri’s failure to operate a state-funded law school for black students was unconstitutional—the state could either admit him to the University of Missouri or they could build a black law school. Naturally, Missouri opted to build a separate school to further entrench segregation.
The Supreme Court first heard the case on November 10; on November 11, Pauli Murray wrote UNC, requesting an application for their graduate school.
Murray understood the path to breaking segregation was going to find its path in the courts; what she didn’t understand, and actively fought against, was the notion that anybody, anybody, got to decide who among educated black citizens could challenge Jim Crow in the South. She wrote a letter to James Shepard, an African-American leader in the Durham community who had actually lent her tuition money to afford Hunter, requesting his assistance in integrating UNC. But Shepard, who supported the option of separate grad schools, declined to help her. Instead, he tried to use the Gaines case to lobby for funds for his project, the North Carolina College for Negroes.
On Dec. 12, the same day Gaines came down in Washington, UNC rejected Murray’s application. That’s when she took her complaint to one of the few white men in North Carolina politics who could actually be considered anything of an open ally to the cause of African-Americans.
UNC president Frank Porter Graham was heralded as one of the true Southern liberals of his time. He was buddies with FDR, among the handful of Southern political figures to be publicly supportive of worker’s rights and freedom of speech for liberals and leftists alike, and one of the few men of the South to accept Roosevelt’s position that the economic status of the region would forever be inescapable as long as such a stark system of racial inequality ruled supreme.
Graham even invited Roosevelt to Chapel Hill the same month Murray had been rejected, presenting him with an honorary degree. According to Gilmore, Roosevelt did not openly address any of the major issues with Southern democracy during his acceptance speech, but rather spoke in the “coded” language that front-line progressives have become all too used to deciphering. In the case of Roosevelt, his message was that while the rest of the world tried to figure out which path it would take, the American South, long a black eye on the nation’s international moral reputation, needed to ensure that democracy would rule out. But he would not say the words, let your people, all your people, black and white, be free.
Graham, at the least, was willing to put what Roosevelt hinted at into words. At a conference in 1938, per Gilmore, he said that “the black man is the primary test of American democracy and Christianity.” But putting this belief into action, it always seemed, was the tricky part for the white men of the time. It is thanks to the zeal and fight and documenting efforts of Murray that it was plainly proven that even Graham, and thus the height of the South’s liberals and Democratic Party leaders, had very real limits.
After receiving her rejection letter, Murray wrote Graham multiple letters (read the second, third, and fourth pages here), comparing the plight of the black citizen in the South to the new reports of discrimination being faced by the Jewish population in Germany, the discrimination that Graham rode about the South decrying in speeches at packed-house seminars.
“How can Negroes defend our institutions against the threats of Fascism and barbarism if we too are treated the same as the Jews of Germany?”
The very first sentence in Graham’s response—to a letter from a black woman asking for the simple right to attend his school—read as follows:
“The hundred years progress of the Southern Negro is perhaps without parallel in history.”
The remainder of his letter reads in the same dismissive tone, written by a man who believed himself to understand the precarious nature of racial progress in the South better than the woman he was responding to; in fact, he just understood, like Roosevelt, exactly how much political leniency he could be granted before conservatives would turn to uproar, and rather than invite the angry letters on the matter of integration, he preferred the route of gradualism.
Graham cautioned her against moving too fast for her fellow citizens, reminded her that she would be discriminated against in the North as well, and made sure to point out that he also was facing criticism for advocating in the slightest for her people. Graham concluded his letter by recognizing the limitations by which he believed himself to be bound, warning Murray that the “present alternative” to his plan of gradualism would be a reversal to the days of slavery.
Even the NAACP, looking for more cases to take up in court just like those of Gaines, declined to help her, citing her status as a New York citizen. In private, they lamented her leftist views and outspoken nature—Roy Wilkins, editor of the NAACP’s magazine Crisis, was supposed to help Murray but instead railed against her politics and what he felt was a combative nature.
This was the result of the legal path they charted. Even within the NAACP, there existed resistors to the idea of immediate integration, and among those who did favor it, the pressure to select a candidate that would stand the test of national scrutiny often left folks like Murray holding the bag. The result was that the group forced itself into a corner, having to select ideal middle-class candidates to take on for cases while leaving behind the on-the-ground work of local organizing and grassroots efforts among the poorest of those in the South.
But as comforting and pleasant as it would be, as a Southerner, to tell myself that Murray’s push was indeed too soon for the region, that the people of the time simply weren’t ready to upend the racial status of their landmark university, would be a total rejection of the actual ideals expressed by the people that actually inhabited the Tar Heel State and Chapel Hill at the time.
According to Gilmore, 10 grad students wrote to the student paper calling for immediate acceptance of Murray; the dean at Duke pondered during a Sunday church service whether Murray didn’t have a point about the similarities between the early efforts of the Nazis and the Southern system of segregation; the editor of the Raleigh News & Observer, Jonathan Daniels, a progressive segregationist, said he couldn’t see how grad students could object to taking a class with a black person; multiple UNC professors spoke up on her behalf; in a straw poll taken by the Daily Tar Heel, grad students voted 82-38 in favor of admitting Murray.
Murray fought the machine and lost, if the terms of victory being considered relate directly to whether her integration attempt was successful. But fighting, laying a paper trail, and forcing UNC’s student and North Carolina citizens and leaders, black and white, to decide openly whether her case was one grounded in morals and future legal precedents was a crowning achievement, one she would go on to surpass many times over in a life stuffed as full as any one can be. People like Murray saw the nation for what it was and rather than resolving that she had merely been born too early, called upon the society around her to stop dragging its feet. She spoke truth to what she saw in front of her, a racist system that over two centuries had perfected the craft of excluding people of color, any color, from its supposedly democratic process.
Had they—the white liberals, the NACCP, the Roosevelts, anybody with a modicum of institutional power—pushed for integration in the 1930s, when Roosevelt was rolling out federal social programs helping poor white and black citizens alike as the specter of Nazi Germany loomed, it’s perfectly reasonable to believe the nation could and would have survived it. Instead, they waited for another 20 years.
By then, the conservatives saw the writing on the wall; they, along with the moderates, also saw the beginnings of a plan.
While George Wallace stood bodily in the doorway to face down federal troops, North Carolina simply tried to run out the clock.
North Carolina had long been dubbed “The Rip Van Winkle State” for its agrarian economy, but that could just have easily referred to the state’s stance on integration. North Carolina’s Native American and African-American populations were effectively excluded from the state’s modernization, systematically and more or less by consensus. Then, in the 1950s, the idea of using the power of the state to promote the progress of minority citizens began to creep into the discourse.
North Carolina’s white conservatives responded exactly as you might expect, and insisted that they spoke for both themselves and the black community—Jesse Helms, who was not yet a politician, made a living shouting on Viewpoint about how nobody in the state wanted integration, especially African-Americans. The hardline approach adopted by the conservative party left the progressives and liberals who very, very slowly came around to the idea at odds with the state’s rural and small-town poor communities, who feared integration would sap them of the little governmental assistance they already received.
As explored from the conservative side in this series’ initial installment on Helms, the Willis Smith-Frank Graham Senate race of 1950—in which the slick and shameless Smith produced campaign flyers pleading, “WHITE PEOPLE WAKE UP!”—was this tug-of-war personified. Smith was the ultra-conservative president of the American Bar Association, and a man who was clear about his stance on the continued separation of the races. Graham, meanwhile, was the exact kind of candidate that a white leftist or liberal might look back on as a terrible missed opportunity.
The president of UNC-Chapel Hill, Graham possessed a solidly progressive record: He’d served on President Truman’s Commission on Civil Rights, fought for both organized and unorganized labor efforts, and was appointed to Carolina’s open Senate seat in an interim role by Governor W. Kerr Scott, a populist who was beloved in the rural stretches of the state for his work on behalf of the poor farming communities. As Murray proved, Graham wasn’t perfect on the race issue, or especially courageous about his imperfection, but by publicly acknowledging that inequality between the races as a real and present issue, Graham was progressive enough to be painted by Smith as an out-of-touch liberal.
Willis Smith won, of course, beating out Graham in a runoff that was dominated by talk of a recent civil rights ruling passed down by the Supreme Court. The loss devastated Graham and his followers—future governor Jim Hunt told Rob Christensen in an interview included in his must-read state history Paradox of Tar Heel Politics that his mother wept when Graham’s loss was announced.
It was even more painful when Smith went on to accomplish little more than adding to the laundry list of mid-century North Carolina representatives to die in-office, with his passing coming in 1953. With Graham no longer seeking a spot in the Senate, Governor William Umstead (keep that name in mind) gifted the open chair to Alton Lawrence. To give you a sense of this guy, here’s his response when he had the honor of being the only Southern senator to vote against citing seven Klansmen for contempt of Congress in 1966:
“I never heard it said that Klansmen were subversive or affiliated with any foreign government to overthrow the United States.”
Mercifully, Lawrence lost the election to complete Smith’s term to Kerr Scott, swinging power back to the progressive and left wings of the party for a fleeting moment. Kerr Scott’s election was an overall win, though imperfect; in reflection, it feels like a last grasp for the New Deal Democrats that had come to earn the praise of farming families in the darkest parts of the Depression. For the entirety of his lengthy political career, Kerr Scott displayed a fire for admirable economic policies and educational advances; materially, this meant raising taxes to pave rural dirt roads and build schools in farming communities. He used state forces to combat the Klan, and pushed for federal subsidies to protect the working class family farmers from violent market swings.
But Kerr Scott’s progressive streak was not quite as long as Graham’s on the issue of race. He voted against the Civil Rights Act and signed his name, along with conservative Senator Sam Ervin and six of the North Carolina House reps, to the infamous 1956 “Southern Manifesto.” With the stroke of the pen, he found himself in the company of program-cutting, corporatist conservatives he typically despised. While the Manifesto did little in action, its message showered Southern whites with comfort. The letter was read aloud by Howard Smith, a member of the House representing Virginia, on March 12, 1956.
The Manifesto referred to the Supreme Court’s ruling on Brown V. Board of Education as “unwarranted” and an “abuse of judicial power.” The public representatives claimed the system of segregation was “founded on elemental humanity and common sense” and that the Brown decision was actively “destroying the amicable relations between the white and Negro races” One wonders what whether Frank Graham would have opposed the Manifesto outright, or if he would have signed it and gone home to remind his black constituents how good things had been over the past century.
Seven of the former Confederate states—Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Virginia—had 100 percent of their all-white, all-male delegates sign the Manifesto. In North Carolina, all six of the House reps that signed the Manifesto were members of the Democratic Party. Per a 1985 East Tennessee State study on North Carolina integration, two of the three Democratic House reps that didn’t sign the Manifesto—Charles Deane and Richard Chatham—were identified by Patriots of North Carolina, Inc., a group of far-right “urban, white-collar, textile and professional business leaders,” and then voted out of office when they next came up for election just a couple months later in May 1956.
The Manifesto was just the first of many such maneuvers in the South. The conservative-dominated legislatures of Alabama and Georgia and Arkansas all sought to put their foot down defiantly, using state forces to physically resist the integration of their public schools. While the rest of the South burned, North Carolina’s Democrats were led by a coterie of ruling-class businessmen dedicated to the advancement of their bottom line, not the African-American community. These men did not desire a violent uprising, so they drew up the Pearsall Plan instead.
The Pearsall Plan was North Carolina’s manipulative response to the Supreme Court’s ruling. Governor William Umstead (there he is again!) appointed former speaker of the North Carolina House, Democrat Thomas Pearsall, to chair what was known as the Governor’s Special Advisory Committee on Education. In December 1954, after Luther Hodges, a pro-business Democrat and former textile executive at Fieldcrest Mills, assumed the governorship upon Umstead’s death, a 19-person committee containing just three black members produced what was formally known as the Pupil Assignment Act.
The major plank of the Pearsall Plan was the devolution of power regarding integrating schools from the state to local school boards and county governments. Those school systems that wished to comply with federal initiatives could do so, while those who maybe wanted to ease into it, or not do a damn thing unless they were forced to, were free to continue operating segregated school systems. The Pearsall Plan was purposefully vague and broad when it came to following the federal initiative, and did not mention race as a factor even a single time.
In a move that’s echoed in the state’s current educational disarray, the North Carolina government provided tuition grants and vouchers for white parents to send their kids to private schools, should their county integrate. Then-Assistant Attorney General I. Beverly Lake warned “every community in the state to be prepared to operate private schools to avoid integration.” It wouldn’t be until Hawkins v. North Carolina State Board of Education in April 1966 that state tuition grants for segregated private schools were declared unconstitutional in North Carolina.
The Pearsall Plan also forbade class-action lawsuits in matters related to desegregation—this barb was particularly despicable, as it required a state made up mostly of poor people to file and fund individual lawsuits against North Carolina schools. As of the 1960 Census, over two-thirds of the African-Americans that called North Carolina home lived in a rural situation, which was almost without exception one defined by poverty.
The commission’s three black members were granted little say in the matter of the act’s contents; the only moment they were able to force action, according to Hugh Victor Brown’s book E-Qual-ity Education, was when the trio threatened to pen a minority dissent opinion against the commission’s initial conclusion in the final report—a state-funded report that is, as of now, just 64 years old—that “the mixing of the races in public school cannot be accomplished and should not be attempted.”
In a 1956 special election, the Pearsall Plan was approved by the state’s citizens by a 5:1 margin. Per the ETSU study, it was the largest voter turnout for a special election in North Carolina history.
The Pearsall Plan’s stalling maneuvers might just have been the inspiration for Dean Smith’s legendary Four Corners offense—it was a plan specifically designed to smother voices of color calling for better school funding and higher education opportunities in a quickly changing world, and it sought to win that debate not with a counterargument but by waiting that movement out and then outspending it. And it was one Governor Hodges, in his classic moderate fashion, was all-to-pleased to cosign, according to the East Tennessee State study.
“[Brown V. Board of Education] did not forbid a dual system of schools in which the children of each race voluntarily attended separate schools and had never said that any state must set up a single school system.”
Calls for integration in the state were there, too, mainly from the people of color and educators who realized the potential that such efforts could have on the state’s overall education culture, especially in rural counties that struggled to operate the white schools, much less those for African-Americans and Native Americans.
A white superintendent of Greensboro schools wrote in an open letter opposing the Pearsall Plan that, “after careful deliberation it is my opinion that desegregation is an idea whose hour has arrived.” As a the keynote speaker at the 1954 North Carolina Democratic Convention, Irving Carlyle told his fellow party members that “as good citizens, we have no other course except to obey the law as laid down by the Court.” As was the case with the Democrats who boycotted the Manifesto, Carlyle’s stance cost him his shot at Clyde Hoey’s Senate seat in 1954, which instead went to the pro-segregation Kerr Scott; when Kerr Scott, say it with me, died in-office in 1956, Governor Hodges tapped avowed segregationist B. Everett Jordan to replace him.
It was only federal intervention, not leadership from the state’s shaky progressives, that got results.
In 1961, the year Terry Sanford assumed the governorship, an embarrassingly slow integration process had resulted in just 82 black children attending white schools; of the 10 systems that integrated, only three were rural counties, and only one had been the result of a court order, a testament to the vicious effectiveness of the Pearsall Plan’s class-action lawsuit stipulation. According to a 1964-65 report by the Southern Education Reporting Service, nearly a third of North Carolina’s students were black, but only 1 in 200 attended a desegregated school.
Sanford was a supporter of the Pearsall Plan but he was also one of the few governors of the time to start to comprehend and act on the intersection of poverty and race, through his Good Neighbor Council—think a modern-day human relations group—and the act of enrolling his own children in an integrated school. The urban hubs of Greensboro, Charlotte, and Raleigh all made moves to integrate, not out of moral compunction, but out of a desire by the regional businessmen to keep a lid on protests. This meant that North Carolina’s image would be sterling when set against the rest of the South, all while its rural counties, where the majority of people resided, continued proudly operating segregated schools. Among the few exceptions were regions like Person County, which integrated its Native American population starting in 1962, presumably as test for the coming integration of black students.
It took the 1964 Civil Rights Act—the one filibustered by Senator Ervin and his Southern counterparts for 75 days—and the lesser-known Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 to bring about actual change. Title VI of the CRA was the most crucial for North Carolina’s thinly funded schools, as it mandated that $96 million in federal subsidies would be cut if the state’s schools didn’t move to integrate. A year later, the ESEA provided a more substantial carrot—the federal government would actually boost K-12 funding for compliant schools.
The ESEA gave schools three options: 1) They could completely desegregate and fill out an assurance of compliance (HEW Form 441), which would secure their funding increase; 2) They could desegregate by way of court order; and 3) They could become “Freedom of Choice” districts, where they would submit a plan for desegregation and then eventually comply.
You will not be surprised to learn that No. 3 was the overwhelming favorite.
Although his educational advances are laudable, all those that would like to posit that Sanford was the greatest Southern progressive that ever lived should try asking a minority citizen of the state that actually lived through his time in office whether they were pleased with the rate of change. (Also, not necessarily a knock, but the guy tried to land the official presidential library of Richard Nixon when he was the president of Duke University.)
The economic and racial progressivism that for a moment seemed destined to envelope the South and make New Deal Democrats of them had been put off for 20 years, to be dealt with in the 1950s and 1960s. In that time, Southern conservatives, still mostly Democrats or Dixiecrats, realized their attack on future federal government initiatives concerning race could be be smuggled in the Trojan horse of anti-communism. Sanford lost his reelection bid to Helms-backed conservative Democrat Dan Moore. As progressive Democrats suffered more electoral losses, they sought other means of remaining in power. The most notable and currently applicable case came in 1966 with Drum v. Seawell.
The background here is that U.S. House Republican Charles Jonas had carved out a nice spot in the state’s Tenth District in Mecklenburg County, playing to his voters’s racist tendencies and pointing to the likes of Sanford and Graham as proof that the Democrats were in thrall to fallen modernity and not traditional values. Well, Democrats didn’t like Jonas constantly trolling them, so they gerrymandered him, moving Mecklenburg County (where Charlotte is located) out of the Tenth District. The resulting lawsuit and bad press cost them not just the Tenth, but state-wide losses, as North Carolina’s growing conservative hot spots, places that the Democrats long wrote off as in their back pocket, bucked their longtime party runners.
The Democrats, seeing only the losses, did what they’ve done ever since—they emulated the Republican model, opting for conservative businessmen and moderates as candidates once again, a plan that blew up spectacularly shortly after Jesse Helms exploded onto the scene as the spearhead of the Republican Party in 1972.
Oh, and if you’re curious, UNC currently offers and funds the Thomas J. Pearsall Professorship in Political Science.
A party in decline is typically a party in denial; more dangerously, it’s also a party that’s willing to make real, foundational sacrifices and with a straight face call them compromises. Remember the point of politics.
The history of the last 50 years of American politics is quite clearly defined by the civil rights movement, and by the reaction to the civil rights movement. It’s not exactly a secret just how much of the 2016 election was fueled by racist anti-Obama pandering and knee-jerk reactions; the question was always how far the GOP and mainstream conservatives were willing to wade into the waters they’d pretended to step out of after the 1960s. Whereas in 2008 John McCain thinly attempted to assuage a woman’s fear that Obama wasn’t American while simultaneously promoting a vice-presidential candidate in Sarah Palin who “appreciated” Donald Trump’s questions about Obama’s birth certificate, Trump cut the out middle man in 2016, refusing to leave his VP to do the grunt work of playing up the race card.
But as much as the constant refusal to address or even recognize how modern racial imbalances brought America to this moment, the rise of the GOP in North Carolina finds its explanation more complex. With each passing election, the Republicans realized that they would need to sell themselves as more than the racists that had migrated from the conservative wing of the Democratic Party or the Dixiecrats; and so, they sold themselves as ideologues. They grounded themselves in the visceral disgust at the idea that Big Gubment is the answer to any of life’s issues, and it made for excellent fodder against the backdrop of the neoliberalism of the 1990s that sent textile jobs overseas entire towns at a time.
The Democratic Party started and ended the 20th century as the dominant party in North Carolina. Plenty of Southern states could claim the same about opening the 1900s with a strong push of conservative Democrats, thanks to a strong pushback against the biracial efforts of the 1890s, but almost none of the other state chapters, except that of Tennessee, could claim to be in a semi-healthy position as Y2K approached. For all the failings of the party, that is a feat; not a necessarily good feat, but an accomplishment worth reflecting on if only to remember the state’s leaders constant willingness to trade ideals for power.
The gradual bloodletting of voters to the reborn conservative Republican Party isn’t because North Carolina’s Democrats doubled-down on attracting working class voters—they didn’t. It’s because they toed the corporate line and aligned themselves with the few moderate Republicans that existed, hoping to speak sense to the people. In essence, they believed they could function on an undefined middle ground without making any meaningful gestures to the left and remain in power. As hindsight proves, they were dead wrong.
The above description is essentially a subtweet of Jim Hunt’s time atop the Democratic Party. The man sat in the Governor’s mansion for four terms by the time it was all said and done; two terms from 1977 to 1985 and then another two from 1993 to 2001.
His proponents will point to his work on education and civil rights. In his second (well, technically third) go-round as governor, Hunt breathed life into Start Smart, a preschool program that sought to bring all students across the state to a baseline starting level prior to them entering the K-12 system so as to prevent children from low-income backgrounds from falling behind from the beginning—a 2017 study published by the American Educational Research Association found a 12-percent difference in graduation rate between kids that receive early childhood education and those who don’t. He also supported the Equal Rights Amendment (which failed to pass by two votes in the state and still hasn’t been ratified) and supported state-funded abortion funding for low-income women.
But Hunt’s penchant for looking good on those items was undone by, well, a whole lot of bullshit.
His law-and-order policies would have landed perfectly coming from the mouth of a Republican—Hunt ramped up prison construction faster than any governor in state history, per Christensen; more famously, he refused to pardon 10 black citizens known as the Wilmington 10 who were wrongfully convicted following race riots in the beach city, only to have a federal court do it in 1980. Even worse, Hunt signed a law raising the compensation for wrongfully convicted citizens from $500 per year to $10,000, but he, and thus the state, never pardoned any of the Wilmington 10. It wasn’t until 2012, 32 years after the judge overturned their conviction, that Democratic governor Bev Perdue pardoned the six living members. A court ruled the families of the four members that had passed on couldn’t receive the money.
This was also a man who saw fit for politicians in power to remain in power; in his case, this meant strengthening the governor’s powers (he secured the veto in 1997) and rooting himself into the old systems of power politics left behind by the once all-encompassing Democratic Party. He expanded his staff in each term, ousted the Republicans, and stuffed his staff positions with pro-Hunt Democrats. So then, it makes perfect sense that Hunt also played a larger role in helming the Democratic Party’s efforts to reform their nomination process following faceplants by George McGovern in 1972 and Jimmy Carter in 1980.
As the head of the infamous Hunt Commission, the governor helped design the DNC’s top-heavy superdelegate system. Fast forward to 2016 and the corruption of said system (paired with an inexcusably weak Southern strategy from Bernie Sanders) remains one of the main points of contention after the Democratic primary. The very result the Hunt Commission had intended—to give those at the top of the DNC an irresponsible amount of power—handed Hillary Clinton the nomination and Donald Trump the country.
His pro-business streak was no different. Hunt had little interest in using the government—or any lever of power, really—to actively protect workers. He was starkly right-to-work, openly opposing unions in his state when pressed during his 1984 Senate loss to Jesse Helms. He courted businesses to the state by encouraging the General Assembly to throw tax money to companies, who could then move into the state and access the cheap and unshielded workers. Whereas Kerr Scott openly criticized the N.C. Citizens for Business and Industry, Hunt named its president to State Board of Education.
As Hunt told Christensen in an interview:
“I am a progressive who believes in providing full and equal opportunity for all people to become all that they can be and all God wants them to be. I believe government has major responsibilities in making that happen. But public leaders should also encourage the private sector and the faith sector.”
Hunt was as fine an example as exists of the Socially Liberal, Fiscally Conservative routine; more than that, he and the Democrats were going out and daily completing the task of attempting to Out-Business the conservatives. They were completing free ad work for the opposing party, in practice and reality; by telling voters that they agreed with the Republicans on the legislative changes that packed hundreds of the state’s mills up and shipped them to Mexico and Asia, locked up people of color at an alarming rate, and outsourced the family farm in favor of cheaper foreign labor, they were essentially asking voters in my home state to make a choice based on two things: hot-button social issues and income tax.
This is what I meant when I said the Kerr Scott really felt like the last of the Democrats unafraid to be a progressive, economically and socially. He ascended to the governorship and the U.S. Senate on a platform railing against the state’s domination by industrial titans in textiles and tobacco; when boiled down to the basics, Kerr Scott viewed the government as a machine to be used to help push up the people he came from.
Meanwhile, Hunt departed from this antagonistic attitude toward the corporatists that saw North Carolinians as nothing more than dollar signs. Instead, he paired the state with as many businesses as he could. The decision gave Democrats the Research Triangle and lost them the Piedmont and the fields of the east, where it turns out there are quite a few House seats to be won.
In 1994, Republicans surged through the General Assembly chambers. For the first time in the 20th century, the GOP owned a majority in the House of Representatives. Do you know what Hunt did when they tried to pass a massive tax cut bill despite school funds in rural counties desperately needing to catch up with their urban and suburban counterparts? He doubled-down and instead offered a package that slashed taxes even more than the plan offered by Republicans.
As the Leandro Decision of 1997 proved, the issue of inequity among the races still divided the state’s education system when Hunt was nearing his final years in office. The quieter, bubbling issue of racism remained behind everyone’s lips (except Helms) as the Latino population tripled and African-Americans found themselves slowly breaking through to the once-forbidden white-collar sectors and neighborhoods. And the one-time strongholds of the Democratic Party in the Piedmont and eastern counties had their local economies painstakingly shipped away over the course of four decades by both parties basically the entire time he was governor.
Hunt was the mold for Democratic lawmakers in the Tar Heel State for four decades, serving as the cheery alternative to the fiery Jesse Helms, who would hold court with the nation’s conservatives for 30 years in the Senate. Hunt had an opportunity to knock him off his horse in 1984; ugly as the race was, he failed, plain and simple.
It was in failure that he grounded his centrism—Hunt was very obviously shaped by two losses in his political career, the Democratic Senate and gubernatorial losses that made him the party leader as lieutenant governor in 1972, and his 10-rounder with Helms in 1984. He spent the periods directly following both setbacks attempting to play middle-ground politics and doing so successfully enough to get re-elected. But it was not a sustainable effort for a party that wanted only to flirt with but not commit to social and economic progressivism. Like the national party, Hunt’s precedents allowed for Republicans to steal voters from his concessions and trap him in his contradictions, all in pursuit of the precious suburbs. Once the GOP had the power they sought, the handshake and days of compromise were done.
It still doesn’t quite drop the election of 2010 solely on his shoulders, though.
It’s tough to pin a starting point for the fall of North Carolina’s modern Democrats, but a good place to start would be with the progeny of one of the state’s most storied political populists.
Meg Scott Phipps, daughter of Bob Scott and granddaughter of W. Kerr Scott, followed in their footsteps as a Democratic political force. She was elected to follow legendary “Sodfather” Jim Graham, who had held the post for 36 years, as the state’s new Agriculture Commissioner in November 2000. Given the impending consolidation of the state’s farms, the position would be crucial in helping the state to respond to rural counties losing what had been a centuries-long way of economic dependency on the fields.
In place of her grandfather’s populism, Phipps would go on to leave a legacy of corruption that came to define the state Dems in the late 1990s and mid-aughts. As Phipps was attempting to climb the ladder, she, like several other North Carolina Dems, sought a viable stream of cash to keep her campaign coffers flush; rather than attempting the mass appeal that enriched Republicans in the 1970s and 1980s, Phipps went the other way.
She wooed private donors, particularly ones with vested interests in her being named the new commissioner. As commissioner, Phipps was tasked with running the North Carolina State Fair, which is a fairly big deal for most North Carolinians. So, she cozied up to Amusements of America, promising them full run of the fair’s midway in exchange for several thousand dollars in campaign contributions, which they then clumsily funnelled to her.
She took the cash, paid off $65,000 worth of campaign debt for fellow Democrat Bobby McLamb, her defeated ag-commissioner opponent. McLamb, in return, joined her campaign and allowed her access to his various fair-related business and political connections.
In 2002, the State Board of Elections ordered her campaign to pay $130,000 for taking illegal cash and corporate contributions in 2000. The board found Phipps had accepted over $84,000 in contributions with unidentifiable contributors and another $14,000 in illegal corporate contributions.
After two campaign aides were indicted in 2003—one pled guilty to federal fraud and extortion—then-Governor Mike Easley asked Phipps to step down; she cooperated, removing herself from office on June 3. She was caught lying in the investigation that followed, saying that she never handled campaign funds only to later have an FBI agent find out that, in fact, she accepted illegal payments by hand on two separate occasions. Three months later, Phipps was found guilty of perjury and obstruction of justice; she would go on to be charged with two counts of extortion, two counts of mail fraud, and one count of conspiracy; she was sentenced to four years in a federal prison in West Virginia, where she befriended fellow inmate Martha Stewart.
Just as Phipps’s trial and sentencing was coming to a close, another Democrat stepped to the plate. This time, it was a member of the U.S. House, Frank Ballance, Jr., who represented the state’s 1st District. Ballance, a long-time state senator, resigned his seat in June 2004; at the time he cited health concerns.
Shortly after, though, he was indicted on allegations that he had funneled $2.3 million in taxpayer money from 1994-2003 via his nonprofit, the Hyman Foundation, which was meant to assist low-income citizens with drug and alcohol abuse issues. Law officials said he doled the money out to his family, law practice, and church.
Ballance pleaded guilty in November to one count of conspiracy to commit mail fraud and money laundering, forgoing a jury trial. It was a move he later regretted. Ballance maintained his innocence throughout, writing it off as “sloppy bookkeeping,” which was the same excuse Phipps tried. It didn’t work here, either, but it played wonderfully for an opposition party looking for any excuse to limit a loosely run government.
One year after Ballance’s 2005 sentencing, came the first back-breaker: Jim Black. While not a national figure in the way that Ballance or the two men that would come after him were, Black’s place among the General Assembly made him one of the state’s Democratic kingmakers. A Charlotte-area optometrist, Black became a career politician in the 1990s, cruising to 11 consecutive terms in the House and rising to Speaker in 1999; he held the position until 2006, carving out a legacy as one of the most powerful House speakers in the body’s storied history. Then he, too, earned his fluffy, buttery ticket to prison.
See, in his role as an optometrist, Black had made a number of wealthy connections, mainly amongst a chiropractor community with which Black making a straight-up trade, cash-for-legislation. In this case, it was a 2005 law that guaranteed insurance co-payments for the state’s chiropractors would maintain the same rates as primary care physicians; in return, Black pocketed $25,000 in cash and another $4,000 in what would be illegal campaign contributions.
The headline-making moment came when Black and state representative Michael Decker met up at the IHOP in Salisbury (one I’ve been to actually a lot!) for a cash exchange. Decker didn’t have chiropractor connections; he was a former conservative Republican who’d mysteriously changed parties just prior to the 2003-04 legislative session. Prior to his flip, the House Republicans held a 61-59 advantage; his move to the Democratic Party allowed Black to form a coalition government and serve as co-speaker with Republican Richard Morgan after Decker threw his support behind Black. At that magical house of endless pancakes and butter-soaked bribery, Black returned the favor by handing his lackey $38,000 in blank checks from a group of North Carolina optometrists as well as an additional $12,000 in cash, per the Raleigh News & Observer. Black also helped Decker’s son land a legislative job.
This followed another scandal involving Black in which one of his top aides turned out to be working for a firm that had a special interest in seeing through the creation of the state’s lottery, which passed through the NCGA in 2005 much to the chagrin of the state’s social conservatives. Within a month of the lottery commission appointments, three of the nine members resigned, with one telling a grand jury two days after he left that he’d scored a cool $24,500 from the exact firm Black’s aide worked for.
The GOP had a field day with both scandals, though it would be the IHOP one that ultimately landed Black a three-year stint in prison. Even after serving his sentence, Black didn’t seem all that remorseful in the 2011 interview with WRAL.
“There are people who need you out of the way, want you out of the way, and there’s no way to be careful enough to not cross the line somewhere,” he said. “If the right people want to take you out of the picture, stepping on the sideline is absolutely prohibited. So, that’s just how it happened.”
He also claimed he pleaded guilty to avoid racking up more court costs. Yard signs went up featuring Black’s mug with the tagline “House for Sale,” an admittedly fantastic slogan that paired well with their new attack on “a culture of scandal.”
North Carolina’s Democrats still seemed to be in thrall to the idea that they’ve done enough to win the people of the state over by simply being Not Jesse Helms, or more modernly, Not Donald Trump. Politics are obviously not as simple as that. In a state with such a long history of moderate governance and a recent one of dishonesty, championing a more powerful state looks less like increased democracy so much as advocacy for more corruption, more lies, more bureaucracy, and more inaction. It doesn’t matter, at a certain level, how clever or brilliant these new government approaches are—the history of failure is so long and so heavy that it isn’t quite history.
But—and you’ll note, this is a very long section covering a very short amount of time—Black was not the most disgraced and disgraceful Democratic politician in the state.
That, my friends, is an honor that belongs solely to John Edwards.
Edwards is tough to categorize.
For the better part of a decade the man was supposedly the fresh face of the state’s ambiently anti-establishment, semi-leftist population. For a flash, he looked like he could bring the dang thing home and even take the presidency. But then, in a case that was as messy as it was frustrating, Edwards tripped over his own dick.
Edwards came from a textile town in South Carolina, but made his way as a lawyer, and not exactly the kind who’s credible as a man of the people. Because he represented small-time folk occasionally, though, he was able to sell his background as that of a man that fought The Man. Take, for instance, the time he helped win $25 million for a Cary-based family of a young girl injured by a Wisconsin-based company’s pool drain, or the one time, of many, he sued a hospital group for malpractice, the most notable being a reward he landed for a child with cerebral palsy.
Edwards entered the political realm after the death of his son, Wade, in 1996; according to Christensen, Wade had encouraged John to get throw his name in the hat. With the message of an outsider and a fighter, one he paired with handsome looks and admirable policies, Edwards made his push for the Senate in 1998. By a four-point gap, Edwards ousted Lauch Faircloth, a conservative who switched his party allegiance from Democrat to Republican in 1990. This earned him the Senate seat opposite Helms, who was then entering the final term of his run and absolutely detested his new peer.
After deposing Monica Lewinsky as part of Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial in his second year as a Senator—feel free to cut a Jim Halpert face at the camera, if you so desire—Edwards rose in the national party’s ranks. He was considered by Al Gore for Vice President in 2000. Still, he had the smile and the rising star; the national party was all to happy to hitch onto the new guy. When his 2004 run petered out, John Kerry tapped him as a running mate in his losing presidential campaign to incumbent George W. Bush.
If you weren’t paying close attention, you’d think Edwards walked the walk. He came out openly and loudly for universal healthcare, you know, the kind Obama and his crew slunk away from in the name of compromise? The kind now supported but not provided for 70 percent of the American public? Edwards was on board with it:
What we need is a universal health care system that gets doctors out of the business of having to deal with insurance companies on a daily basis, to protect them from that. We have a serious nursing crisis. We need to do is expand our nursing schools, give scholarships to young people willing to commit to come out & go to the places that are underserved after nursing school. We need to get rid of things like mandatory overtime, & have safer staff-to-patient ratios so that we can deal with this crisis.
It was a good show, and Edwards was the best man to sell it. Everything he said sounded good, because the words and ideas were pleasant, even if they didn’t necessarily result in action. Edwards was, in voice, an economic populist, which played well in a state that just suffered catastrophic factory closures as the textile industry’s manufacturing operations flew overseas. He spoke about a government’s responsibility in a way that reflected some actual thought instead of pure reactive partisanship, and while he wasn’t perfect on the issues, he brought a tinge of leftism that the state, for a moment, seemed open to hearing. Hell, during one of the most vicious periods of nation-wide union membership decline, Edwards was openly courting unions, including United Steelworkers and United Mine Workers and local branches of S.E.I.U.
He also supported a housing voucher program to place low-income citizens in middle-class neighborhoods; he was pro-choice; he drafted a program that would provide students that worked part-time a tuition break; he was a major global warming awareness advocate; he led a successful Democratic boycott of a 2007 presidential debate hosted by FOX News; the same year, he slammed Ann Coulter for calling him a “faggot,” with Edwards responding that the use of the slur was “Un-American.”
But it was still a show. Edwards constantly set himself up to be trolled, with numerous displays of his wealth undercutting his ability to speak from the side of the Two Americas campaign that he claimed to represent. The holes he poked in his own message of being outsider and man of the people were many—the $400 haircuts, his McMansion in Chapel Hill, and let’s not forget the $4 million home in D.C. that he nearly sold to one of Saudi Arabia’s PR consultants. If anything, Edwards is a perfect embodiment of the exclusivity of politics. The only reason he was ever in the position to burst into the Senate in 1998 was because he staked $6 million of his personal fortune into his campaign; when he ran for president in 2004, he didn’t do so with thousands of small contributions, but with nearly half of his campaign donations ($7.5 million as of Jan. 31, 2004) coming from lawyers.
His campaign is disproportionately financed by lawyers and people associated with them, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which calculates that about half of the $15 million he has raised comes from lawyers.
He was imperfect, but campaign-wise he was working; with the Democratic Party having lost its tight grip on the South, they had little choice but to place at least some of their bets on Edwards. His ambition, and his own untethered ego, pushed him to pursue the presidency every cycle after Al Gore nearly brought him on as VP in 2000.
By 2008, with Bush’s run mercifully coming to a close and the economy in tatters, the Democrats lined Edwards up as one of the leading candidates to take back the White House. As Hillary Clinton was the front-runner, Edwards hoped that his ability to offer Southern suburbs would convince party leaders and caucus voters would make him one the leading voices for the New South and the Democratic Party. Were it not for the force that was Barack Obama, the South Carolina native might have had a shot at the 2008 presidential nomination.
Well, that and the fact that Edwards cheated on his Elizabeth, his cancer-stricken wife, and wound up fathering a child out of wedlock and used campaign funds to cover it up.
Backtracking, Elizabeth was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004; she went into remission before the cancer returned in 2007. Simultaneously, the then-Senator met Rielle Hunter in a bar in 2006, where she would pitch him an idea to follow him around and record his work for a video blog, one he quickly accepted. The two began a romantic relationship that lasted throughout the election.
The affair ended and exploded with a string of National Enquirer reports publicizing their fling, starting on Oct. 10, 2007. Edwards denied the affair the very next day, telling the AP, “the story is false. It’s completely untrue, ridiculous.” By January 2008, Edwards was out of the presidential race, having placed second to Obama in the Iowa primary and garnering just 17 percent of the vote in his home state of South Carolina. (It gets so, so much worse.)
The Enquirer’s reporting revealed that Hunter had a child by Edwards in February 2008. It wasn’t until August 8 that Edwards publicly admitted to sleeping with Hunter, but he still denied being the child’s father, instead having a campaign aide claim responsibility initially. (The aide, Andrew Young, later wrote the book The Politician and nearly got an Aaron Sorkin flick out of it.)
When Edwards finally admitted the child was his in January 2010, Elizabeth filed for separation. She, of course, was much more than a sidenote in a tawdry scandal retelling: A Jacksonville native and Chapel Hill resident, Elizabeth was an accomplished lawyer and author, and herself way ahead of the curve on healthcare, opposing the Iraq War, and supporting gay marriage. She died in December 2010.
By that time, every single political aspiration Edwards had was charred and ground into the earth. Hunter was called to testify in front of a grand jury in August 2009. Come 2011, the former Senator was indicted for shelling out $1 million in campaign funds to hide Hunter throughout his run. He also faced allegations that he had falsified his campaign financial reports to keep her presence from both the government’s and the voters’s attention. He didn’t go to jail thanks to a deadlocked jury that acquitted him of one charge and declared mistrials on the other five. Somewhere along the way, far too late to be notable, he admitted the kid was indeed his.
Edwards, despite being a man of admirable policy ideas and real political talent, never saw any of his ideas find purchase in North Carolina’s political soil. He never really tapped into the state’s rural population in a lasting way. Politically, his tragic horniness made things much more difficult for the Democratic Party in a state already doomed with pocket-stuffers. Policy-wise, the far-right’s rise after his fall provides fairly solid proof he didn’t encourage or influence much of a shift to the left in the regions that were slipping from the hands of Democrats.
Thousands of millworkers and small farmers remained out of work or lost their jobs even before the steamroller that was Recession came through—not that Edwards didn’t make a profit off of that with his investment in Fortress Investment Group, a hedge fund that cashed in on subprime mortgages during the financial crisis as well as literal treasures. His explanation as to why he worked for the group was that it was “mainly in order to learn about the relationships between financial markets and poverty.” As was the case with everything with Edwards, the true answer would reveal itself only after he’d been asked the question a dozen times.
“It was primarily to learn,” Edwards said, “but making money was a good thing, too.”
When it was all said and screwed, Edwards was no help at all. And God, did he make things harder for a Democratic Party that was plenty willing to follow his lead and shoot itself in the foot.
While Edwards flamed out in 2008 and Obama strolled into the White House, the GOP in Raleigh saw a path. It wasn’t quite clear yet, but the gears were turning. And, of course, the scandals kept churning right alongside them.
When Democratic Governor Mike Easley’s spot of infamy came about in 2009, it was, in comparison to what preceded it, clearcut and unspectacular. But after nine years of powerful Democratic men and women attempting to subvert government income, the North Carolina public wary to give much leeway, least of all the supposed leader of the state party. That’s to say nothing of the American public’s attitude toward the very concept of the nation’s first black president.
Easley was a man who came up as a hard-nosed DA on the coast of North Carolina combatting drug traffickers; politically speaking, he was the next logical version of Jim Hunt. But his time in state politics, like a great many of those that came to represent the Democratic Party, came to be defined by a coziness with business and lobbyists. Nine months after Easley left the governor’s office in 2009, the Board of Elections began hearings focused on his campaign’s conduct, namely whether they had reported the use of private jet flights and similar contributions from wealthy donors hoping to remain outside of the public eye.
After two years of state and federal investigations, Easley submitted an Alford plea to one (1) violation of state campaign finance law after he agreed his campaign did not properly report a $1,600 helicopter ride he took with a private supporter in 2006. He was forced to pay a thousand bucks as a community penalty. The blow was worsened when Easley’s wife, whom federal agents had investigated but failed to determine whether she had improperly picked up a job at N.C. State, was fired from that post. She made $170,000 in the taxpayer-supported gig; the scandal cost a provost and a dean at the university their job.
Again, this was small beans in comparison to the onslaught that came before it, but the timing couldn’t have been worse for the party or for the state’s most vulnerable citizens. Instead of having the state’s top progressive lawmakers focused on assisting the communities that lost their job providers in the 1990s and then suffered through the financial crisis of 2008, their efforts were instead spent trying to plug multiplying holes and refilling leadership positions. It left the Democrats a shell of their former self in terms of political power, and their refusal to adopt a top-down stance on issues that actually mattered, like the privatization of K-12 schools or universal healthcare coverage, allowed for the GOP to pull the country’s state legislatures to the right.
For those not keeping track, in the course of 10 years, North Carolina Democrats sent the following positions to court: Agriculture Commissioner, U.S. House rep, Speaker of the General Assembly, U.S. Senator, and Governor. And still, people were shocked when they got the party teeth kicked in come 2010.
The story behind the GOP’s outstanding showing in the midterm election of 2010—the event all of this was building to all along—is actually quite anti-climatic.
As detailed by a recent profile of Jim Blaine by the News & Observer, the Republicans did not enter the fall with a master plan meticulously crafted over half-smoked cigarettes in the wee hours of the night. Rather, they simply cut campaign spending on advertising and instead focused on placing uber-conservative candidates in “flippable districts,” aka districts that Democrats thought were a given based on previous decades of control. Blaine laid it out as simply as he could:
“It became readily apparent to me that we didn’t need to reinvent the wheel,” he said. “We just needed to look about four blocks down Hillsborough Street, and we just needed to rip off their model.”
They did just that.
The DNC, concerned more with the coming 2012 presidential election, offered little financial and personnel support in a place that was already being reconsidered as a purple state. Meanwhile, the North Carolina chapter was trying to stomp out the fires caused by its leaders, as well as ongoing scandals in Governor Bev Perdue’s office. Perdue, tasked with carrying the state through the Recession, was the first woman to claim the governorship; she also paired with the recently disgraced party runners to completely flop in a time when the state needed bold leadership.
Prior to the November midterm elections, Democrats owned the House 68-52 and the Senate 30-20. When the bloodshed was over, the GOP was staring at history: for the first time since Reconstruction, Republicans owned majorities in both the House and Senate. The GOP outnumbered their Democratic counterparts 67-52 in the House and 31-19 in the Senate. The Dems, trying to stay cool, refused to panic, when panic was the perfect reaction. Remember, a party in decline is a party denial—Andrew Whalen, the executive director of the North Carolina Democratic Party at the time, hand-waved the losses to Star News, saying elections are “cyclical” and that, “no Democrat in North Carolina should be hanging their head.”
In a post-election cycle filled with enraging takes, that one might have topped them all, because the ensuing eight years (and counting) sent the heads of many reasonable North Carolinians spinning and rolling. I’ll go into more detail about the stark rightward shift in the forthcoming series finale, but the GOP did basically everything it wanted, with little care given to any complaints that came from anywhere left of center.
They slashed K-12 budgets, encouraged the growth of charter and private schools, refused federal Medicaid funds, repealed the Earned Income Tax Credit, slapped a 24-hour waiting period on abortions, busted anything resembling a union, took a shotgun to environmental regulations, cut unemployment, and dropped to their knees for any major corporation that wanted tax dollars and unprotected labor.
They did all that and then absolutely dominated the Democrats again in 2012, when they won not just the governorship but a supermajority in the House and Senate. A supermajority with a fairly weak executive office meant the General Assembly could basically do whatever the hell they wanted, even if a Democrat would have won the governor’s race. In Raleigh, the Republicans claimed 32 of 50 Senate seats and 77 of the 120 seats in the House. In Washington, they stormed the House of Representatives 9-4 while conservatives Richard Burr and Thom Tillis claimed the two Senate seats.
With outspoken Charlotte mayor Pat McCrory carrying the torch for the GOP in the election for governor, the Democrats again did themselves in by not having anything close to a decent backup in the case that Perdue decided not to seek reelection. Spent by years of putting out scandal fires and being undercut by the General Assembly, she pulled out of consideration late in the game (late as in Jan. 6, just 10 months before the election) leaving poor Walter Dalton to be creamed by McCrory. Dalton went home with a pathetic 43.2 percent of the vote.
Now, had the Democratic Party taken these defeats for what they were—losses rooted in racism and economic, market-humping half-measures—an actual counter-strategy could have been formed. But it wasn’t, and so far, still hasn’t come to pass. The clearest representation of this came in their fight against HB2, the infamous “bathroom bill.”
For those who may have forgotten, HB2 found its roots in the Charlotte city council, which tried to pass an ordinance aimed at protecting members of the LGBTQ community from being fired on account of their sexual orientation, which was legal by state law. It failed when it first came to vote in 2015 but passed in February 2016. Conservative groups seized on it, and within a couple months, the General Assembly drafted and passed HB2.
For all its endless moral and financial faults, the anti-trans legislation HB2 was—hell, still is—considered a success by many traditionalists in the state because its foundation was nestled in an Old South sense of basic morality and (to them) common sense. It turned the eyes of the nation on their state, which appeared to be the only thing Democrats cared about.
When Democratic HB2 repeal efforts failed—and they did fail, by allowing the GOP to bully them into increasing the moratorium on future ordinance from six months to three years—they did so because the state party was unwilling to commit to a minority group, lest they leave themselves open to future ad campaign attacks. Instead of showing the state’s more socially conservative citizens the immense pain they caused the LGBT community and making a plea for empathy and plain human commonsense, Democrats pointed at the loss of basketball tournaments, of concerts, of tourism, of potential business. They did not, collectively, point to the state’s LGBT citizenry, the group actually harmed by the bill’s attempt to strip legal avenues to seek justice.
As state reps Deb Butler and Cecil Brockman pointed out the day HB 142 passed, the bill’s sponsors—all Democrats—failed to even consult a single LGBT member of the General Assembly when drafting the repeal bill.
As a January 2018 Meredith College poll showed, rural North Carolina, and thus the General Assembly, is still very much in the Republicans’s pocket.
Like any national politics reporter still pushing idea that any gaffe will ultimately do in Trump, those that posit the Democratic goal of #BreakTheMajority is a laudable bar should be excommunicated and discredited for the remainder of their career for sheer short-sightedness. Even if the dreams of Democrats come true in November, it won’t mean jack shit if the party is still pitching the same moderate tent.
As of August 2018, the Dems are staring up at a 34-15 deficit in the Senate and a 75-45 margin in the House. This has left the state’s liberals and leftists to depend on Roy Cooper, from rural Nash County, as being the latest Democratic answer. He is not. He is a fine North Carolina Democrat and governor, which is to say he’s a moderate Republican if you plopped him down in any blue state.
Like Hunt, Cooper can be expected to be at least halfway decent on social issues but he continues to focus his limited political power on economic bills that land money in the pockets of the state’s industry leaders, just like his predecessors. But he’s a rural guy, like me, he wouldn’t do such a thing, you may think. And you’d be wrong. Being a lawyer from rural or small-town North Carolina, as John Edwards proved, doesn’t mean you get an automatic pass from the people in those 80-some counties, nor does it mean your policies will necessarily help those at the bottom of the bottommost counties.
Cooper is cut from the same cloth Democrats have been hacking away at for four decades now. And while we’re just over a year into his tenure, it’s fairly plain we’ll be getting the same results. Cooper showed his true colors on unionism early in his term, signing off on legislation that barred one of the most vulnerable workforces in the state, foreign farm laborers, from organizing or paying union dues, claiming bipartisan support was good enough for him; he and the Democratic leadership bungled every step of the HB2 repeal; when the Republicans didn’t block his reduced number of gubernatorial nominations, he simply missed the deadline; and, most recently, he has now not only supported the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (which will run through some of the poorest counties in eastern North Carolina) but brought in a fucking American Petroleum lobbyist to serve as his new legislative director. I mean, come on, look at this shit:
Even the good stuff is limited. Cooper’s Hometown Strong program and its goal to speed up the process of obtaining public and nonprofit funding for the struggling rural communities sure sounds nice; so did W. Kerr Scott’s road paving and Terry Sanford’s community college construction. That’s to say, barring massive Republican resistance, the idea and plan will funnel more money to these communities, but that’s not the only things these places need if Democrats ever hope to win them back.
Without an honest General Assembly in place, one with representatives that won’t just grab the cash for them and their friends (as the pork-loving Republicans have done as well), any program like this can be stripped and shut down or repurposed to spend the money on the people who need it the least. And if the current state of Charlotte politics is any indication, that isn’t coming anytime soon.
A pair of Charlotte Democratic leaders—Mayor Patrick Cannon and State Senator Joel Ford—have taken up the scandal torch in recent years. Cannon, the youngest city council member in Charlotte history, climbed the ladder all the way to the mayor’s office in 2013. He lasted less than a year. In March of 2014, Cannon was arrested by the FBI in connection with a sting that dated back to 2010, when he was a city councilman. Cannon had been taking bribes from federal agents disguised as real estate agents and private business investors—he accepted bribes from undercover FBI agents five separate times, per WBTV, which brought charges of theft and bribery concerning programs receiving federal funds, honest services wire fraud, and extortion under color of official right. The wire fraud charges stuck, landing him a 44-month sentence in a federal penitentiary.
Ford’s scandal—the most recent in N.C. politics if we’re not counting the former Wake County Register of Deeds charged with embezzling a stunning $900,000—saw the state senator landing himself in some shit for his actions as the vice president of Cardinal Health Innovations, where he worked until mid-2017. He stepped down from the VP post after his mental health services company was lambasted for shelling out millions in public money on executive salaries, bonuses, retreats, and parties. As the state’s largest managed care organization, or MCO, Cardinal Health received $100 million from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services and another $721 million from Medicaid payments. According to the Observer, a third of that money comes from the state’s pocket.
The scandal in this was the revelation that Cardinal Health had doled out over $6 million in severance payments from 2015-2017, including a $52,000 check for the state senator, who was defeated this past fall in his run for Charlotte mayor. That race went to Vi Lyles, the first African-American woman to hold the mayor’s seat in the Queen City. When pressed on his company’s dealings, Ford deflected, pointing out that what he made and the $3.8 million dished out to four executives was merely a tiny part of the company’s overall budget. The rebuttal doesn’t quite hold up when you’ve got patients waiting on Cardinal Health over seven years for care they would otherwise be unable to afford.
I think that’s all of them, but hell, who knows.
Allow me, if you will, to make an elementary but necessary point: If you want to be the party of social progress, of equality, of economic gains, of expanded government, then you cannot commit a single one of the above missteps.
When it comes to big-picture messaging, top-level Democrats in the South have rarely committed to decisions that will appear liberal, leftist, or generous, because they don’t think they have the voter support; instead of doing the decent thing, they dance for business leaders and perform their reasonable-ness on social issues and hope for the best. They have, in a real sense, gotten just what they deserve.
So, set aside for a moment the misgivings that North Carolina’s voters might feel about the state’s Democrats and what they’ve done to harm the state’s rural and factory-town citizens. Don’t forget them, but keep it in the part of your mind where you keep politics day by day, quarantined away from more impending stressors—account balances, rent or mortgages, debt, children, health, school. Try to think like a that faux-middle-class voter in a rural or small town in North Carolina the Democrats have so unabashedly been chasing.
You are not badly off by any means, but you’re not exactly writing off a yacht either; you see yourself as living somewhere in the middle, although statistically you’re somewhere upper-middle class, among the top 15 percent of earners in the entire nation. You’re in your mid-40s to early-60s, making $100,000 to $250,000 in pre-tax income—loads more than your parents ever made as a factory worker or farm owner or teacher or nurse—and you’ve got a couple kids. You were born in the 1960s or 1970s, so you don’t remember the Old South segregation system, but you remember living in the shadow it cast on your small, everybody-knows-everybody community. Depending on whether your parents were Sanford or Lake people, you believe the low-income community—this means black people and Mexicans, you’ll think instinctively—deserve a chance, or you believe they’re eating away at the state budget. What’s certain is that you’re a fiscal conservative, in part because that’s what your parents and their parents were, but also because you came of age in the fallout from Watergate and the ensuing rally cry of small government belted out by Reagan and his acolytes. That viewpoint certainly isn’t swayed by the fact that you’ve got a job that provides you health care and financial security, which makes you, in your mind, independent. As you understand it, you have made it; others should be able to as well, although you’re not really keen on paying for them to do it. You’re open to letting people live their lives, provided they don’t flaunt it or expect a damn parade.
Your child is a top student, thanks to a litany of factors—your socioeconomic status, your area’s access to affordable early education, your insistence upon the same work ethic that your parents passed on to you—and is accepted to the state’s top public and private universities. Neither offers any financial aid, as you’re just outside the range to qualify, so you stick with a school in the UNC system and push your kid to work a side job to earn out-on-the-town funds, not realizing how much more stressful the college environment than when you went through it. You worked your way through college and paid off your debt—ignore, as you will, the fact that Millennials have to work 4,459 hours of minimum wage to pay for four years of public college, compared to Baby Boomers’s 306—and figure your child should be able to help out. You’re doing all right, but also holy shit there are a lot zeroes on that tuition bill. It would have helped if you were rich enough to get your kid into private-K-12-academy system, because the Meck and Wake County kids that are in it tend to clean up on the state’s select few merit scholarships. But you’re not that quite that comfortable, or that lucky.
You, a first-generation college graduate and successful middle-class white-collar worker, have turned on the news every evening from the late-1990s on and seen a constant stream of corrupt Democrats—your parents’s old party—whose plans, when not diverting funds, amount to allocating slightly more funds for the subpar public school your child graduated from. These funds that will be pulled not from the state’s richest citizens, but from people like you. You kind of zoned out earlier when I was droning on about the poor mill worker and before when I talk about the farm laborers because, well, that’s just the state of private business. That’s capitalism, and while it’s rough it’s also the only thing that works. It sure works better than letting Democrats raise your taxes to help folks who sit forever on welfare at your expense. All this just so you can pump six digits back into the system through your kid’s tuition, which, by the way, will be raised yet again next year.
The path to conservatism is easy, because it’s about turning your financial focus and priorities inward. It’s easier still because a more holistic and broad-minded politics, in a state like North Carolina, mostly doesn’t exist. Party leaders won’t push a Medicare-for-all plan in North Carolina, not until 35 other states have co-signed it into an inevitability; they won’t even sniff a universal basic income; it has taken an outrageous amount of foot-stomping to get even the newspapers to review the state’s unjust court fees, a punitive leftover of the old political machines; they won’t find an efficient way to maintain tuition control; and forget about a minimum wage increase (especially in urban and urbanizing areas struck by gentrification) or reasonable auto and semi-auto gun control measures.
For the better half of the 20th century, North Carolina Democrats prided themselves on an ability to count both conservative and liberal voters among their ranks, with the power shifting from one faction to another. But, as was the case with Hillary Clinton in 2016, that dog won’t hunt anymore. By allowing Jim Hunt to plant their party just right-of-center in the 1990s and refusing to stretch left in any meaningful way for fear of losing conservative voters, Democrats allowed far-right ideology to not only grow, but prosper and envelop the state legislature while also refusing to use the political weapons they could have used to fight it. It is easy to write-off Donald Trump’s victory as one delivered to him by the hordes lower-class, uneducated white voters; it’s not even entirely wrong, as the folks in my hometown and the towns surrounding it supported him in droves. But it was the support of the middle and upper-class North Carolinians—people like the man you just met—that were the decisive vote. These were the suburbanites that the DNC believed would be turned off by Trump’s oafish bigotry and crass idiocy. They weren’t. In 2016, national Democrats failed in the same way that Democrats have failed in North Carolina. In the face of a truly destructive and predatory ideology, they just couldn’t quite bring themselves to offer more than condemnation.
The party’s successes in integration look like successes because the days of George Wallace standing in the doorway and Strom Thurmond drawling on about state’s rights are over. But this is stylistic as much as anything else. Look at North Carolina’s rural and minority communities, and see if you can say with confidence that the leadership of governors Marion Butler, W. Kerr Scott, Terry Sanford, or Roy Cooper—or their cohorts in the General Assembly—yielded long-term results. The Democratic Party has not always been the better option through anything but default; today, when it should be so clearly the superior choice for floundering rural communities, it is instead the party that is slightly more inclusive and more inclined towards clever neoliberal gimcrackery. Substantive policies—ones that could raise the state’s poverty floor, or expand opportunity in more than just rhetorical terms—are ignored because candidates fear being tarred by the GOP as left-wing, loose-spending, extremists from Carrboro, or because at some level they just can’t be bothered.