North Carolina: Ground zero for conservative rule

     Rev. William Barber, president of the N.C. chapter of the NAACP speaks to supporters at the state legislature in Raleigh, N.C., Monday. Supporters of what the group calls

    Rev. William Barber, president of the N.C. chapter of the NAACP speaks to supporters at the state legislature in Raleigh, N.C., Monday. Supporters of what the group calls "Moral Mondays" are outraged over GOP policies that they say restrict voting access, undermine public education and hurt the poor and jobless. More than 80 people are facing criminal charges after the seventh week of protests. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

    The corporate-funded conservative movement, which lost big in the 2012 presidential election, is nonetheless thriving at the local level — most notably in the swing state of North Carolina, where ascendent right-wingers are turning back the clock and consigning the state’s proud progressivism to the chopping block.

    Move over Wisconsin, you’ve got company.

    The conservative takeover of North Carolina, which was bankrolled in 2010 and 2012 by multimillionaire Art Pope (a pal of the Koch brothers), has not been universally welcomed. Every Monday, thousands of civil-disobedience protesters storm the state legislature; at last count, including yesterday, roughly 500 have been arrested.

    Their leader, Rev. William Barber, calls it “a state fight with national implications,” and he’s right. Heck, Dallas Woodhouse, the Koch brothers’ on-the-ground guy in North Carolina, says the same thing: “There will be more conservative policy changes in North Carolina than in any other state this year.”

    Most progressive southern state?

    Until early this year, when a new Republican governor joined a Republican legislature to form the first all-GOP regime since 1870, North Carolina was reputedly the most progressive southern state.

    It has generally voted Republican in presidential races (aside from Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Barack Obama in 2008), but at the state level, it has built strong public schools, enacted laws to curb the power of big money in politics (especially judicial elections), expanded the opportunities to vote (early voting, same-day voter registration), provided decent benefits to unemployed workers, and pioneered a first-in-the-nation law that allowed death row inmates (who are disproportionately black) to challenge verdicts they perceived to be racially discriminatory. And a lot more.

    But now, thanks largely to Art Pope — whom the local papers have dubbed “The Knight of the Right” — the retreat from the future has begun. As a Republican strategist reportedly said back in 2011, “Art’s done a good job of changing the balance in the state.

    I should emphasize something: Pope, the scion of a business firm called Variety Wholesalers, didn’t do anything illegal when his advocacy network pumped $2.2 million into 22 state legislative races in 2010, and won 18 of them. (That may not sound like a lot of money, but, at the local level, it was unprecedented.)

    Nor did he do anything illegal when he essentially financed Republican Pat McCrory’s rise to the governorship last November. Nor did McCrory do anything illegal when he returned the favor by hiring Pope to be his state budget director.

    What we have here, instead, is a cautionary tale of what can happen when one party’s sugar daddy works the grassroots — when one party thinks two chess moves ahead — while the other party (guess which one) falls asleep at the switch.

    Dazed Democrats in North Carolina are still asking themselves what happened.

    Fast track to the past

    It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to answer that question. While Democrats sat on their butts, Pope and his Koch-affiliated pals did for McCrory what the Koch brothers did for Scott Walker in Wisconsin. (They were also greatly aided by the corporate-friendly Citizens United ruling. Natch.)

    The results in North Carolina speak for themselves. Since their conservative takeover, McCrory and his right-leaning legislature have commenced to trashing the state’s progressive tradition.

    These are only some of the highlights:

    They have either enacted or introduced measures to slash unemployment benefits, cut taxes for the state’s top five percent while raising taxes on the bottom 95 percent, drastically cut early voting hours, require that voters carry a government-issued photo ID (a la the Pennsylvania law that’s now in limbo), erase same-day voter registration, cut $90 million from public schools and give it to voucher schools, repeal a tax credit that augments the wages of 900,000 low-income people, spurn the federal Obamacare money that would’ve put 500,000 uninsured citizens on the Medicaid rolls, slash or kill a landmark clean water program, allow gun fetishists to carry their pieces in playgrounds and booze bars, erase the reforms that blunt the power of big donors in judicial elections, erase the ability of black death row inmates to challenge verdicts that might be racially biased …

    That should give you a flavor.

    They’ve also floated a bill to make Christianity the official state religion, but that one doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, maybe because it violates the U.S. Constitution.

    Growing protests

    Meanwhile, the Monday protests in the state capital continue to swell in size. The protesters now refer to the day as “Moral Monday,” while Republicans in the legislature have dubbed it “Moron Monday.”

    The governor complains that the protests are the work of “outsiders” — an amusing claim, given the fact that his Republican legislature was bought and paid for with outside money. According to the Institute for Southern Studies, a research group based in North Carolina, three-quarters of the outside bucks pumped into the ’10 legislative races came from far-flung conservative organizations with ties to Art Pope. By contrast, only a few of the 500 Moral Monday arrestees (at last count, eight) reportedly hail from out of state.

    The lesson of this story? Never ignore the grassroots, not in the Citizens United era. As a North Carolina Democratic strategist remarked last month, “the rules of the political game have changed.”

    State races may not be as sexy as the federal races, but those who give short shrift to the states do so at their peril. Corporate ideologues like Pope saw the opening, which is why North Carolina is putty in their hands and on the fast track to the past.


    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1



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