When our legislature voted to consolidate the traditional May Primary Election with the March 15 Presidential Primary they may have driven a nail in the coffins of political parties in our state.
Without public hearing or discussion even rank and file legislators were initially unaware of language that allowed the leadership of each party in each house to establish “Affiliated Party Committees.” One of the sponsors said this legislation was about creating more transparency. He was right. We see right through it and so did lawmakers, who recognized it would give the already too powerful House Speaker and Senate President Pro Tem even more power. Rank and file members balked; the bill was ultimately modified so the party caucuses, not just leadership, could control how the funds were spent. In another baffling addition they gave Council of State members the authority to create similar committees.
It is an end run on the state’s two political parties. One party memo called it a “poison pill.” Former Senate President Pro Tem Marc Basnight and former House Speaker Jim Black started the modern practice establishing legislative PACs to raise money from special interests and lobbyists eager to have access to them. They would dole out money to friendly incumbents or to candidates running against lawmakers who didn’t support them, essentially choosing winners and losers. But state campaign contribution laws limited how much they could give any one person. That didn’t stop them, however; they just funneled money to the state Democratic or Republican Party. These organizations didn’t have the same restrictions and could give unlimited amounts to candidates for “in kind” services like polling and printing. Even though the Speaker or Pro Tem supposedly had no legal control over how it was disbursed, everyone understood they directed where and to whom the money was spent.
This new bill eliminates the pretense of washing money through the party and at least eliminates the middleman. In that respect it is transparent.
Before smartphones, email, The Internet, 24-hour news channels and Facebook, the political party was essential in the political process by communicating from the state party down through the district, county and precinct levels. It raised money and encouraged volunteers to support candidates running for office, often sponsoring rallies for candidates. Grass roots campaigns of party members helped get out the vote. It was clear what the party stood for and whom they supported. Elected officials recognized the importance and power of the party and listened when leadership spoke to them about issues.
Political parties no longer have that same influence. State party leaders in both camps are saying they don’t think the creation of these parallel de facto parties will hurt their fundraising, but they are fooling no one. The party will immediately lose those funds formerly funneled from legislative PACs, but, more importantly, the message is clear that politicians no longer need the party or want their interference, because they can get elected without them.
Maybe the political party has become a dinosaur and will become extinct. At the least this should be a wake up call to them. I could be wrong but I hear football “Dandy Don” Meredith tuning up to sing, “Turn Out the Lights, the Party’s Over.”
Tom Campbell is the Executive Producer and Moderator of N.C. Spin.