For generations, North Carolina has had a reputation as a pragmatic and progressive state – a standout in the South. Ideology largely took a backseat to a forward-thinking philosophy built on coalitions. Even our political parties were a bit different than they were in the rest of the country. “North Carolina Democrats” were generally pro-business and socially moderate – and often disagreed with the national party.
Our state was blessed with leaders that stepped up at the right time – Governors Terry Sanford and Jim Martin, Bill Friday, and many others. They were politically astute but also committed to doing the right thing for North Carolina and our future.
We built a university system and a community college system that were the envy of the country. We avoided many of the problems with integration and continued to make progress on race relations. We fostered economic development with innovative projects like the Research Triangle Park. We were leaders in strengthening voter participation, becoming the first in the nation to implement public funding for judicial candidates and strong adopters of early voting.
Not everything was perfect, for sure. There were bumps along the way and some wrong turns. But it feels like all those gains, all those forward-thinking ideas and ideals have been wiped away in the span of just a few years. Who are we now? Where is North Carolina headed?
North Carolina is still a decidedly purple state. We voted for Mitt Romney for president in 2012 in a very close race, decided by about 2 percentage points. In 2008, President Obama won the state by less than 1 percentage point. However, our state legislature and our congressional delegation have shifted toward Republicans due, at least in part, to strategic redistricting and strong fundraising.
But with Republicans in charge of the General Assembly for the first time since Reconstruction and with a Republican in the governor’s office, the state has taken a strong conservative turn. Our leaders are not simply advancing conservative policies; they are pursuing ideological and often social agendas that are being replicated across the country. Between ALEC and the Koch Brothers influences, we literally see the same piece of legislation introduced in states across the country.
Today, public education is under attack in North Carolina, with the number of charter schools exploding and vouchers gaining both support and funding. According to a report by the National Education Association, the average salary for a North Carolina public school teacher last school year was $47,783, putting our state in 42nd place nationally. The same report ranked North Carolina 46th in per-pupil spending. Even the university system has suffered painful cuts, and legislators have meddled in the teaching and curriculum.
Voter participation has been under the gun as well. Voters must now present a state ID to be eligible to vote; early voting has been cut; same-day voter registration has been eliminated; and public financing for campaigns has been rolled back. All that means that fewer people are going to vote and it is going to be a whole lot harder for those who do.
And North Carolina has been on the wrong side of history, resisting the marriage equality movement until imposed by the courts. This session, the General Assembly showed its continued displeasure, passing legislation allowing magistrates and registers of deeds to “opt out” of performing gay marriages.
So, what’s next for North Carolina? Unfortunately, a lot of disagreement and division lie ahead. The cities – our economic engines and drivers of growth – are becoming increasingly progressive. The push and pull between the political leadership and the population centers has been evident in legislation targeting cities’ autonomy, and tensions are likely to continue to escalate. Will these forces hurt economic development and impact what has been steady growth?
Will the state continue on its conservative trajectory or will moderating influences step in? Given the current legislative districts, the fundraising advantages of Republicans and the disarray of the state Democratic Party, powerful leadership – by voters, by politicians or by leaders – will be required to change course.
Here’s hoping North Carolina can find another one of those powerful leaders, ready to do the right thing for all of us.