After six years, the Republican supermajority in the North Carolina state legislature is dead.
I’d wager most people who don’t call the Tar Heel State home haven’t given much thought to what’s been happening in North Carolina politics, beyond an outlandish headline that might have caught their eye. So, allow me to issue this warning to those lucky souls: Ignore North Carolina’s active slide into extremist conservatism at your own risk.
Chances are most citizens at least know the reality of living in an all-blue or all-red state. As of now, just four state legislatures in the entire country feature split chambers—that is, a Republican majority in the House and a Democratic one in the Senate, or vice versa. This trend didn’t stop for the 2018 elections. Once the smoke settled from last Tuesday’s midterms, Democrats around the country had taken back and emboldened their stances in state legislatures. On the whole, this is good news for those hoping for a more progressive society, especially for those in North Carolina.
But with these gains, and the power that accompanies them, is the inevitable risk of complacency among even the most politically aware citizens—of believing that the folks in charge will be fine simply because of the “D” next to their name. That comfort can lead politicians into greed, laziness, and misguided policies—the kind that, among many other things, helped drive North Carolina’s Democrats into the political wilderness for eight long years.
In North Carolina, Democrats ruled state politics for over a century. Then, after a series of missteps and a four-decade racism-fueled campaign by Republicans, the GOP snatched control of the state and claimed a majority in 2010. Just two years later, seizing on their red wave, they established a two-thirds majority—also known as a supermajority—in both the state Senate and House. After that, they stopped caring that much about what anyone else thought. With the power to write the budget and set the bounds on social issues, they set about installing a right-wing government in the quickest, most vicious way possible.
Last Tuesday, in theory, should have been a day to rejoice. The North Carolina Democratic Party was able to break the supermajority in both chambers for the first time since 2012. But for those that experienced the years that preceded the comeback, the elation that accompanied the few gains the Democrats made felt too soon, and too hollow given the carnage wrought by Republicans during the previous eight years. Carnage which, though it drew a tremendous backlash and caused a wave of powerful activist movements to break out across the state, nevertheless set progress back in North Carolina in ways that will not be easy to repair.
Keeping in mind that the GOP still owns majorities in both the state House and Senate, it feels all the more crucial to reflect on the individuals that drove the Tar Heel State in reverse for the better part of a decade, because even after the midterms, the politicians and lawyers at the top of that Republican machine remain in power. Even with a Democratic governor and the courts and city governments solidly in Democratic, the hold that Democrats have on my home state is slippery and delicate.
What happened in North Carolina is the reality of what happens when conservative politics are pushed through unabated, and it’s one that the state’s Republicans are planning, right now, to return to.
Since 1898, North Carolina’s General Assembly had largely been a one-party operation, and the Democratic Party was the massive umbrella under which progressives and conservatives elbowed each other for space. It wasn’t until 1972 that North Carolina elected its first Republican governor or Senator. Republicans began siphoning off conservative Democrats, leading to slight swings in the Assembly in the late 1970s and mid-1990s. Still, the Democrats never ceded the majority, and so for a long time, North Carolina stood out as a relative beacon of Southern progress thanks to a legislature that was able to raise taxes to build community colleges and fund their public schools.
But as the Republicans pushed an agenda of social conservatism and lower taxes, Democrats failed miserably at finding a distinctive platform that resonated with a citizenry which had become justifiably distrustful of direct government involvement thanks to corruption being normalized at the highest levels. Nearly every top Democrat from 2000-2010 was involved in some sort of bribery or fraud or bribery-fraud-sex scandal, but the party thought it could weather the storm simply because power was its natural home.
In 2008, Barack Obama beat John McCain by 20,000 votes to become the first Democratic presidential candidate to claim North Carolina since 1976. The same year, Democrat Bev Perdue edged out Pat McCrory and became the state’s first female governor, and Republican Elizabeth Dole lost her Senate seat to Democratic newcomer Kay Hagan.
The North Carolina Republican Party (or NCGOP, as it’s commonly known) seemed to have little direction or potential, while the Democrats, the party that had ruled state politics since the turn of the century, grew content. But this was all a surface-level facade. Even as the statewide offices swung left, the General Assembly remained an open battlefield, with Republicans picking up a seat in the Senate. It was in these chambers that the NCGOP would make its move.
As much as the 2010 midterm wipeout was the result of weak leadership, it was also the result of the GOP understanding precisely how to capitalize on the racist backlash to the first black president, and the sexist backlash to the first woman governor. All they had to do was pick the right storylines.
Birth certificate, check. Healthcare, check. Gay marriage, check. Local Democratic scandals, check. It was frequently shameful, but not hard.
Democrats were slaughtered on Election Day 2010. The combination of racist backlash to Obama and the scandal-tarred state party was unrelenting. Republicans took a majority in the House (68-52) and Senate (31-19) for the first time since the turn of the 20th century.
But that wasn’t the end.
With the housing and financial crises still looming in 2012, the North Carolina Democrats shied away from pushing anything close to a left-leaning, worker-focused platform, leaving themselves running, basically, as Republicans But Nicer. Perdue, spent from her four years in office, backed out of the 2012 gubernatorial race 10 months before the election, leaving Lt. Governor Walter Dalton scrambling to throw together a run. He had neither the campaign infrastructure or the message or the political savvy to do much of anything.
And so it came to pass that Republican Pat McCrory moseyed into the governor’s mansion; the GOP took and held onto both U.S. Senate seats; and, in Raleigh, the Republicans claimed the dreaded supermajority. With the General Assembly being smoothly operated by Senate president pro tempore Phil Berger and then-House Speaker (now U.S. Senator) Thom Tillis, the GOP managed to hold the supermajority through two election cycles.
While their intentions were reprehensible, I’ll be damned if they didn’t operate one of the most efficient and effective state legislatures in recent memory.
I understand if it seems hard to care about any of this if you’re not from North Carolina. But what happened there is not unique.
Conservatives across America look at what the Republicans accomplished in the General Assembly and salivate. In just a few short years, the North Carolina GOP stripped the state of both its natural resources and already-thin social safety net; rejected the very idea that transgender people existed; and redrew district maps to favor themselves and disenfranchise poor black citizens. And they did it all while the hamstrung Democrats worked at a sloth-like pace to slow the bleeding.
Starting with Berger and Tillis’s control of the General Assembly in 2010, the Republicans committed to a rash of regressive tax cuts. The tax reform passed by then-House Speaker Tillis from 2011-2014 ended the estate tax paid by heirs of estates valued at more than $5.25 million. It also lowered the corporate tax rate from 6.9 percent to 3 percent, and dropped the individual tax rate to a single rate, lowering it from a high of 7.75 percent to 5.49 percent. The corporate rate will fall to 2.5 percent and the individual rate to 5.25 percent come 2019. And now, thanks to the actions of North Carolina voters last Tuesday, the income tax rate for state taxes is capped at seven percent.
Republicans in North Carolina have defended all of these cuts by pointing to a Best-in-Business rating from Forbes; the state was already in the top 5 on the list over the previous 10 years, not because their tax cuts actually help poor citizens get good-paying jobs, but because they help businesses jerk them around knowing full well they’ll never be able to unionize.
The GOP was outright homophobic, too, pushing both a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and the infamous so-called “bathroom bill,” House Bill 2 (cutting legal discrimination coverage based on sexual orientation and rejecting the very concept of being transgender) into being. They enacted voter ID laws that were determined by the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals to target black voters “with almost surgical precision,” and followed this with two sets of Congressional maps that were so clearly gerrymandered you’d think the racist Dixiecrats of 50 years ago drew them. (These maps were still in use in the 2018 midterms.)
The GOP adopted an aggressive anti-environmentalist stance. They slashed the Department of Environmental Quality budget. They then turned around and criticized the department for not dealing with contamination in the town of Cape Fear, and then used that as reasoning behind further withholding funding needed to study the effects. They (along with business-minded Democrats) backed the Atlantic Pipeline, which will carry natural gas through some of the state’s poorest eastern communities.
They said little when Duke Energy announced plans to make consumers pay for its coal ash mess, two decades after the company realized it was a big problem. They also repealed renewable energy tax credits during the 2015-16 session, after becoming one of the top solar farm states in the union. And they’re doing their darnedest to shut down a wind farm off the coast of Pasquotank and Perquimans counties.
This is all before you get to the re-segregation of North Carolina’s public school system, which was left in such tatters from budget cuts and stagnant funding that teachers from across the state descended upon Raleigh in April to protest the legislature.
The North Carolina GOP did all of this in the time it took me to complete my high school and undergraduate degrees. By the time I was done, the state I had grown up knowing and hearing about from others as being the light of the South was dim, dark, and in an ugly rightward slide. The people who were architects of the entire movement are still there, at the top, looking down, plotting their return to unchecked dominance.
Learning the names of your state and local representatives, to put it lightly, is not that high up on the list for most folks.
It’s tiring enough to keep up with the minutiae of national politics; trying to figure out who sits on the Capital Improvements Oversight Committee of your state legislature is a hassle most folks would care to avoid
But it’s the folks behind these unknown names that have a prolonged effect on everything from education to Medicaid expansion. What happens on the local level can end up making or breaking a state just as much as having a game-show host president.
So let’s get comfortable with the major political actors starring in North Carolina’s take on this hot new Hellworld stage adaptation. Every person you’re about to meet is still in office, even after the midterms.
In Washington, Senator Richard Burr is the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee; his fellow North Carolina senator, Thom Tillis, was a member of the key Senate group drafting DACA legislation—which is also, because of Republicans, now also mostly about border control security—but he was reportedly booted from the group after his staffers couldn’t keep quiet, irking the other senators. According to Open Secrets, of the 535 active members of Congress, Burr ranks No. 2 in total donations received from the NRA at $6.9 million; Tillis ranks No. 4 at $4.41 million.
At the federal judicial level, lawyer Thomas Farr is still up for a judgeship he’ll almost certainly get, despite an Indy Week report detailing his potential involvement with an infamous Jesse Helms campaign tactic during his 1990 run against Harvey Gantt, in which the Helms people mailed postcards threatening black voters with legal retribution should they register or vote improperly.
North Carolina has also been able to place a number of nuts high up the tree over the past eight years in the U.S. House of Representatives.
There’s Patrick McHenry, who was the chief deputy whip for the Republican majority; Virginia Foxx, who chaired the House Education Committee (and who said Jesse Helms was “the truest of patriots”); and the leaders of two key House caucuses—Mark Walker of the Republican Study Committee and Mark Meadows of the House Freedom Caucus. Meadows is the one who sits so rigidly and so far on the right that he got John Boehner to resign and call him an “idiot.”
Alongside them is George Holding, former legislative counsel for Helms and heir to the First Citizens Banks fortune. This beautiful ghoul holds between $1 million and $5 million worth of stock in the bank and routinely votes on its behalf. He voted for a handful of amendments two years ago to block federal funding for fair housing investigations similar to the one targeting his family bank. At the time, First Citizens Bank was being investigated by HUD for discriminating against minority loan applicants.
In August of 2017, Holding refused to support the renaming of a Chapel Hill building after historic Black Wall Street banker and community leader John Harvey; when asked, he said it was because the bill’s sponsor, Democrat G.K. Butterfield, had refused to support a recent bill naming a federal building after Jesse Helms. Holding was challenged by Linda Coleman this past Tuesday and while the race was closer than his 2014 election, he still won by six points.
Then there are the state-level Republicans.
House Speaker Tim Moore and Lt. Governor Dan Forest provocatively harangue the Democratic leadership while allowing their legislative wizard, Phil Berger, to continue his reign as the General Assembly’s most powerful politician. After a brief break to work on other campaigns, Berger’s key aide, Jim Blaine, is back by his side. Berger and Blaine are the people who waited until items like the repeal of HB2 (the so-called “bathroom bill) dominated the headlines to enact their more heinous measures, including their successful attempt to strip the incoming Democratic governor of his appointment powers.
There’s a whole string of lunatics that make up the fringes of the North Carolina House—Larry Pittman, Carl Ford, Michael Speciale—who are basically anthropomorphized Breitbart blogs. They tend to put the most radical propositions on the floor (and on Facebook) in order to appease the extremists in their ranks and to make people like Berger look moderate in comparison. They rarely get their ideas (such as Pittman’s call to arm teachers in the wake of the Florida school shooting) passed into law, but do an excellent job of slinging just enough mud and doing just enough public chest-beating to remain in office.
Take, for instance, Speciale’s heavy-handed defense of Roy Moore in the face of the horrifying child sex abuse allegations against him:
“If the accusations against Roy Moore are proven, then I will withdraw my support but accusations do not prove guilt,” he said. “This is still America and we are still innocent until proven guilty!”
Or you can take a gander at Ford’s proposal to keep marriage wholly heterosexual, known as the Uphold Historical Marriage Act. By the will of our Lord and Savior, apparently, Ford returned to the General Assembly, only now he has a seat in the Senate—Ford moved his campaign there after redistricting put him and Pittman in the same district.
Then there’s the actual institution of the NCGOP. Its executive director Dallas Woodhouse is crucial to understanding how Trumpian tactics bleed down to local politics.
Woodhouse is little more than an off-the-rack conservative activist—he rose up through the North Carolina faction of the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity, was a vocal opponent of Obamacare and was a key local actor when it came to mobilizing the state’s rebuke of the Affordable Care Act (which, as has been said a million times now, was basically a conservative idea in the first place.) He’s now a proud Trump supporter, an unabashed tweeter, and among the best people in all of American politics at effectively deploying bad-faith discussions to fire up a base.
It’s best to think of Woodhouse as a bloated Flavor Flav of Modern Conservatism—a hype man and something of a clown—as can be seen in this MSNBC appearance before the 2016 election, when he waved some handcuffs at Hillary Clinton.
These are the leaders my home state has chosen. They are not particularly striking characters or candidates. But the North Carolina Republicans found leaders that understand how to work both the Senate and the House by way of fundraising loopholes, special sessions, last-minute committee meetings, rushed votes, and the sheer unadulterated power of outnumbering your opponent. As a result, the state now looks the way they want it to look.
The important thing to realize after burning through the above rundown of conservative characters is that they are not permanent. They are very much replaceable, by representatives that would turn the legislature in the opposite direction or by folks that would carry on the very goals they laid out for themselves. The point is that when left to their own devices, state governments can pull off some incredible heinous shit.
Take Alabama, for example. There, the GOP has held a supermajority in the state legislature since 2010. This past Tuesday, 42 new representatives were elected to the two chambers of the Alabama Legislature and yet the Republican Party still has a supermajority, meaning it can continue putting forth ballot measures and bills that deconstruct and defund abortion clinics and, oh yes, allow for the Ten Commandments to be plastered on any type of public property. The point isn’t who sits in the chairs, necessarily, but what the end results of a given faction claiming power will consistently result in for the citizens of that state.
The biggest reason North Carolinians turned their back on the Democratic Party after a full century of commitment was the fact that the peddlers of race-baiting tactics the South has grown to love simply switched party membership. But another cause was the fact that the people felt disappointed by the neoliberal results they produced. Under the Democrats, rural schools and minority-heavy districts still got the raw end of the stick, entire mill towns flocked overseas with no steady replacement jobs, and corrupt party leaders ran rampant, only to be caught by the media or the cops and be replaced by another person with a “D” next to their name.
In breaking the supermajority, the Democrats have provided themselves a bit of breathing room, though they’ll have to act as a cohesive unit if they want to influence any future legislation. Republicans, even if only slightly, will have to start listening to the left-leaning voices and votes in the House that decry their power grabs, though I wouldn’t hold my breath for any of them crossing the aisle. Another ramification of the supermajority’s death is that Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper will now no longer have his vetoes discarded like expired lunch meat by a Republican supermajority. He will instead be able to reject any particularly heinous pieces of legislation that make their way to his desk, though his track record suggests that he will need watching.
Democrats now also rule both the state Supreme Court and the appeals courts, and they dominate the city commissioner seats as a result of the elections. What is likely to follow is a round of progressive and moderately liberal urban and suburban representatives being pitted against their conservative rural counterparts in the General Assembly, as the two groups grow increasingly partisan. This means more petty spats that blow up in the state’s face, like HB2, and more unchecked power for Democrats in urban areas—which, as was proven in the last two decades, does not always produce great results, not that the alternative is any better.
And yet, given the alternative, these gains and this party are what anyone hoping for the emergence of a new, progressive North Carolina will have to cling to and fight for. If they don’t, then they can take a look at the last six years and decide if the alternative of living in a twisted 1950 cosplay reality suits them better.