The last week in December is a time to reflect back on what was before considering what will be. I began 2013 thinking that it could be one of the most significant years in North Carolina because Republicans controlled all three branches of power–the executive, judicial, and legislative branches. Twelve months later, I realized that I grossly underestimated the changes that would be undertaken by the Republicans and how those changes would affect people’s perceptions of the state.
Below is my list of ten tends that began in 2013 and my thoughts of the short and long-term implications of each.
10. Republicans attempt to wrest power away from local government. The long session began with the General Assembly attempting to dictate control over the Charlotte-Mecklenberg airport and the Asheville water system. Later they set their sites on local building codes and Wake County’s school construction process. Given that Republicans have traditionally supported the idea that power should reside closest to the people being served, these efforts to control local issues from Jones Street may create more rifts in the Republican Party.
9. The emasculation of the political center. The extremes in both political parties controlled the legislative debate in the General Assembly and the news headlines. A majority of North Carolinians, as indicated by polling results throughout the year, found a lot to dislike at the state and national level with the direction both political parties were moving with the policy agendas. Moderate Democrats and business-friendly Republicans in the General Assembly were historically able to move educational and economic development legislation through the legislature, while disagreeing about social and tax policies. Now there is virtually no bi-partisan support for any issues. The 2014 election may be an opportunity for moderates in both parties to push back, although redistricting has made that difficult.
8. The business community has lost its seat at the table. The business community in North Carolina has traditionally moderated both political parties through their financial support of candidates and their power over the state’s economy. The slow recovery from the Great Recession, along with the increased power of the political extremes in both parties have caused business leaders to lose authority. The dramatic changes to public education during the recent year caused many influential business leaders to question many of the policy choices made by the General Assembly, but with little obvious effect. The 2014 campaign season, along with campaign finance law changes, may allow the business community to reassert itself.
7. Protests everywhere. The Moral Majority protests, organized by the state NAACP, received the most attention, but conservative counter-protests, as well as protests by other groups, such as teachers and physicians, began during the legislative session. These protests gave various groups the opportunity to express dissatisfaction and bring together people of similar views, but did not affect the policy debates or decisions in 2013. The real question for 2014 is whether the Moral Majority protests can galvanize moderates and liberals across the state to come out in record numbers in swing legislative districts to start cutting into the Republican majority in the General Assembly.
6. Less civility in political discourse. Although political debates, particularly among ideologues, has been a part of NC politics since the state’s founding, intra-party debates have become more public and less reserved. President Ronald Reagan famously said “Thou shall not speak ill of fellow Republicans.” This so-called 11th commandment, as it has on the national level, has been all-but-forgetten in North Carolina as Tea-Party inspired Republicans publicly attacked fellow Republicans that did not pass their litmus tests on policy issues. There is little evidence that this trend will end as Tea Party candidates have already announced their candidacies in primary races against incumbent or more well known Republican candidates in the US Senate and US House races.
5. The deterioration of the NC Democratic Party. The year began with turmoil in the state headquarters as a fight over the party’s leadership became ugly with charges and counter-charges made made about Randy Voller’s selection as party chair. As the year progressed, several of the most well-known Democrats in the General Assembly including Representative Deborah Ross and Senator Ellie Kinnaird announced their departures from the legislature. Newer members in the General Assembly, such as Josh Stein, have taken leading roles, but the Democrats appear to be suffering from the lack of a true leader. NC progressives seem to be following the lead of Reverend Barber and his Moral Monday protests, but this approach will not return the Democratic Party, which depends on attracting moderates, back to power.
4. Public relations failing to move the needle. Governor Pat McCrory had a difficult first year in office, especially in responding to public relations crises. Issues such as bad personnel decisions (e.g., DHHS officials and the rapid departure of Kieran Shanahan), poorly thought-out photo opportunities (e.g., delivering cookies to women protesting outside the Governor’s Mansion), or untrue statements (e.g., McCrory meeting with Moral Monday protestors) put a great deal of pressure on the governor’s communication staff. Their efforts did not appear to affect public opinion, but the governor was not alone in finding political spin ineffective.
3. Further shifting of power from rural to urban areas of North Carolina. Through the 1990s rural areas of North Carolina received a disproportionate share of state budget expenditures, due to political leaders from these areas. With the census of 2010 and the retirement of most of these prominent leaders, power has shifted significantly to the urban and suburban regions of the state. Transportation money, the most obvious sign of regional power, has been significantly cut, particularly to eastern counties. Other signs of this shift is the defunding of the Rural Center and rumors over possible consolidation of UNC system schools, particularly those in more rural areas of the state.
2. The nationalizing of state politics. Former House Speaker Tip O’Neill once quipped that “all politics is local.” Although some local issues remained prominent during the legislative session (e.g., control over the Asheville water system), almost every significant new state law was tied to national issues. The restructuring of Medicaid was obviously a direct result of conservative’s displeasure with the Affordable Care Act. Changes to NC voting laws was a result of the American Legislative Executive Council (ALEC), as were other laws made in the state. State Democrats and independent groups are attempting to raise the issue of ALEC’s influence, especially in the US Senate race with attacks on Thom Tillis, but it is difficult to see this line of attack as affecting most North Carolina voters.
1. The reestablishment of the solid South. Legislation passed during 2013 got North Carolina much national attention, most of which embarrassed liberals and moderates in the state. Conservatives, however, welcomed the attention and it caused them to redouble their efforts to defend controversial policy decisions to change voting laws, reject elements of the Affordable Care Act, or change public education policies, such as teacher tenure. These efforts, on the heels of voting for Mitt Romney for president and passing a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage in 2012 moved North Carolina closer politically to its neighbor to the south–South Carolina–than its immediate northern neighboring state of Virginia. National Republican leaders, as well as prominent Tea Party officials, point to the state as a bastion of conservatism, equalling that of Texas or Alabama.
It would be hard to imagine a more consequential year than 2013 in terms of politics in North Carolina. 2014, however, promises to be a very important year as Democrats try to organize and fight back the Republican juggernaut. Republicans, on the other hand, seem equally energized after their monumental year. With a US Senate race that is attracting national attention and US House, as well as legislative races, that will be heating up not he next ten months, the next year could be as loud as the one we are just ending.