For most of the latter half of the 20th century, at least from 1960 on, North Carolina was a state on the move. In contrast to its southern neighbors, North Carolina took a moderate approach to social issues and focused on building a modern economy. In doing so, it became one of the fastest growing states in the nation and attracted Fortune 500 companies as well as entrepreneurs. We had broadly shared prosperity and the tools to help people move up the economic ladder.
In the early part of the 21st century, that began to change. While the state continued to grow, the economic benefits were increasingly concentrated in a handful of urban areas. Trade deals, automation, and changing attitudes about tobacco hurt rural North Carolina, creating an urban/rural divide that continues today. Urban counties see unprecedented growth while rural counties lose population every year.
For the first decade of this century, the world didn’t notice the problems facing rural people. The state seemed to be growing. Tourism attracted people from across the country. Companies like SAS and Red Hat thrived in the Triangle while Charlotte became one the country’s major financial centers.
Then, the Great Recession hit and laid bare all of the pain in rural North Carolina. Unemployment, which had already been high in some places, skyrocketed in many counties to above 12%. They responded in an angry howl in November 2010 by throwing out incumbent Democrats across the state, giving Republicans control of the General Assembly for the first time in more than 100 years. Two years later, with the advantage of GOP districts, those voters elected the third Republican Governor since Reconstruction and gave Republicans veto-proof majorities in both the state House and state Senate.
Drunk with power and believing they had a mandate from the their largely rural constituency, the GOP started a reign of overreach that has embarrassed the state and damaged its national reputation. They locked in their power by drawing the most gerrymandered districts in the nation and tried to further solidify their support with voter suppression laws that targeted African-American and younger voters. When the Supreme Court opened the door to marriage equality, they responded by allowing magistrates to opt out of marrying gay people. They shifted the tax burden to the poor and middle class. They tried to pass a bill that established a state religion. They passed some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the nation.
They also tried to hobble local governments. They redistricted local races like school board, city council, and county commission without the support of residents. They tried to strip valuable assets away from local governments.
They also thumbed their noses at health care reform. They prevented the state from setting up insurance exchanges to attract competition in the health insurance market and they rejected Medicaid expansion, costing the state millions of dollars in federal money. They left 500,000 people uninsured.
Most people thought the Republicans would moderate after they got a good taste of power. They didn’t. Instead, they called a special session last March to quickly pass the infamous House Bill 2 that prevented local governments from enacting non-discrimination ordinances that protect LGBT citizens. The law has cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars in business and revenue. An attempt to repeal it in December failed, largely, because gerrymandering has eliminated the moderate faction of the GOP.
In December, the GOP further damaged our reputation by stripping power from the Governor in a special session of the legislature that was called to address damage from Hurricane Matthew. The rest of the country asked, “What’s wrong with North Carolina?” How could a state that was known for its moderation become so radical in such a short amount of time?
North Carolina’s reputation is damaged but we have a chance to restore it. Governor Roy Cooper is already trying to make changes. The new legislature takes office next week. It’s time to make North Carolina great again.
The legislature can start by repealing HB2. Republicans who control both chambers might have to rely on Democratic votes but they can truly claim they’re attempting bipartisanship. Next, they can pass a bill authorizing an independent redistricting committee. Gerrymandered districts have clearly made caucuses difficult to control and led to the extremism we’ve seen in the state. Again, Republicans could argue that they’re trying to unite our dangerously divided state and nation.
The GOP should drop their efforts to restore voter suppression laws that were found unconstitutional. If there’s a fear of voter fraud, even if it’s unfounded, find a way to address that problem without restricting the right to voter. Surely, there’s a compromise in there somewhere.
Focus energy where it needs to be focused—helping rural North Carolina share in our economic revival. Let’s invest in infrastructure like broadband internet and better roads and rail that the will help rural counties compete. Let’s spend money on building new schools and attracting more teachers to rural North Carolina. And let’s expand Medicaid because rural residents will benefit disproportionally.
It’s time that we grab some good headlines for a change. Let’s show we’re still that moderate, welcoming state that values hard work and strong education. Let’s use this new legislature and our new governor to turn the page on the McCrory years. Let’s make North Carolina great again.
Thomas Mills is the founder and publisher of PoliticsNC.com