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What’s the matter with North Carolina? Maybe we just expected too much

By Tom Baxter

In 1896, a young conservative newspaper editor, William Allen White, was so infuriated after being accosted by a gang of progressives on the streets of Emporia that he fired off one of the most famous blasts of vituperation in the history of journalism, under the headline “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” The question resonated so deeply that Thomas Frank wrote a book with that title more than a century later.

If that question were recast for today, it might better be, “What’s the matter with North Carolina?”

It’s not that North Carolina ever ranks 50th in anything. In fact, Forbes magazine has ranked it the best state in the country to do business for the past two years. But its reputation as the Southern state most dedicated to education and development has suffered. In 2011 Education Week ranked North Carolina’s public school system 19th in the nation; in 2018 it ranked 40th.

More troubling than any ranking has been a sharp decline in social and political comity. Once known as a state with smoother edges than its neighbors around the South, North Carolina now has what the Almanac of American Politics describes as one of the most polarized political climates in the country.

Along with simmering political dysfunction has come a wave of scandal. Earlier this year, as the feds were building a case in Georgia against then-Insurance Commissioner Jim Beck, North Carolina Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey was wearing a wire in an FBI bribery investigation which resulted in the arrest of the state Republican Party chairman, a Republican county chairman, the biggest political contributor in the state and one of his consultants.

The arrests were preceded by the fiasco earlier this year in which the State Election Board ordered a new election in the 9th Congressional District after hearing evidence that a campaign consultant committed voter fraud on behalf of Republican Mark Harris. Some of the most damaging testimony in the board’s hearings came from the candidate’s son and the consultant’s step-daughter.

The arrests were followed by a motion filed this month by Common Cause which says the computer files of the late Republican redistricting expert Thomas Hofeller prove that Republican officials lied to a federal court when they said they hadn’t done the research needed to draw new maps for a special election in 2017.
Somewhere near the middle of all these controversies is Robin Hayes, who served two stints in Congress separated by an unsuccessful run for governor. He later served a term as state party chairman, and then was reinstalled in that post in 2016 as part of a tense dispute in which the party executive committee ousted the first black state GOP chairman, a tea party activist named Hasan Harnett.

Hayes is accused of working with Greg Lindberg, a Durham insurance businessman, to get Causey to remove a deputy from oversight of one of Lindberg’s companies. Lindberg, by the way, was a generous contributor to the current Democratic state chairman, Wayne Goodwin, when he was the state insurance commissioner.

One might think this much scandal with “R” stamped on it would be great for Democrats, but veteran Democratic consultant Gary Pearce advised his party  in a recent blog post to ignore a recent poll which showed the party surging in all the major 2020 contests.

“The more Democrats swallow swill like this, the more trouble we’ll have in 2020,” Pearce wrote.

The Democrats did elect Roy Cooper governor in a 2016 race against a wounded incumbent, even as Hillary Clinton was going down in flames in the last state she campaigned in. In 2018 they broke the Republicans’ supermajorities in the state House and Senate, but the Democrats may not have felt any real legislative traction before this month.

Last April, with one Democrat siding with the Republicans, the North Carolina Senate voted to override Cooper’s veto of the “born alive” abortion bill, which would have made it a crime for doctors and nurses not to care for a living infant after a failed abortion. Cooper argued there were laws already on the books covering such situations.

Earlier this month, the North Carolina House upheld that veto, potentially signaling Cooper is gaining strength for his own initiatives, particularly Medicaid expansion. But it has been a slow slog for the first-term governor, at best. Part of the political dysfunction in North Carolina has been about Republican overreach in the past decade, but the companion part has been about Democratic weakness. You seldom hear it mentioned anymore as the next blue state.

What’s the matter with North Carolina? Maybe only that it looks more like this region, and this country, than it used to.

Tom Baxter

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.


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  1. E.Cook June 18, 2019 11:15 am

    And you didn’t even mention the “Bathroom Bill” from the McCrory era, nor the ongoing controversy about the confederate statute “Silent Sam” at UNC-Chapel Hill and the subsequent departure of Margaret Spellings and all the hoopla surrounding the UNC system’s Board of Governors (i.e. Board of Clowns). Don’t even get me started on what is happening at ECU. The list goes on … GA has nothing on NC these days, that’s for sure!Report

    1. Katherine Cummings June 19, 2019 9:11 am

      Charlotte set the high standard for successfully desegregating public schools, but then returned to neighborhood school choice. My alma mater, West Charlotte, struggles for everything while schools in more affluent, traditionally white neighborhoods, do not.

      Plus there are the Duke Energy coal ash ponds and eastern NC’s hog farms in marginalized communities.Report

    2. S. B. June 19, 2019 9:32 am

      What’s happening at ECU?Report

  2. Tom Baxter June 19, 2019 10:44 am

    The ECU-Vidant controversy was too complicated to get into in the column, but it’s another good example of dysfunctional politics.Report

  3. Brainstar8 June 19, 2019 10:57 am

    After decades of living and working in the City of Atlanta, we retired and moved to a small mountain city just outside of Asheville. We were moving away from the chaos of a ATL as much as we were moving to a more serene, healthier place.

    So far, the difference we’re seeing between NC and GA is the former’s quicker recognition of its problems and its willingness to move forward quickly to correct them. They seem not to become obsessed with and by them the way many states have. This includes education and its politics, and race relations and its politics. The small city we chose has a very low crime rate. Its population is surprisingly diverse but well-educated/well-trained and gainfully employed. So far, we haven’t identified people with heavy shoulders due to the chips they carry. That’s an issue GA – and ATL in particular – and maybe you all need to grapple with your countless problems before you tackle another state’s. Start with your own pervasive city/county corrupt, incompetent governments and go from there.Report

  4. Richard June 19, 2019 7:50 pm

    I’m pretty sure you’d have the exact same experience if you moved to a small town in the mountains of increasingly affluent north Georgia. You’re experiencing small town vs big city, not GA Vs NC. Unrelated, it’s interesting you’re commenting on AJC and not on your local NC town news site. Figure it be too much ‘chaos’ to read.Report

    1. brainstar8 June 20, 2019 12:52 pm

      That’s probably true about smaller cities and towns (almost) anywhere. I was raised in a small Northwest GA city, my husband in ATL. We lived for many years in the latter and enjoyed it, or at least were willing to put up with it.

      We have long loved the Asheville area and had stopped loving ATL, for countless reasons in both cases. These things happen in relationships with cities as they do in human relationships. We studied NC before we made the move – livability ratings, crime rates and general demographics. We have friends and relatives here, so we knew what it had over ATL, at least for us. We both have fond memories of the ATL, but sadly, most of them are not recent. Not healthy to live on sweet memories. Time to move on.Report


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