Commentary

Christensen: Moral Monday protesters may not sway GOP

rchristensen@newsobserver.comJune 1, 2013 

Although they did not call it Moral Monday, protesters showed up at the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison in 2011 to oppose the rightward lurch of state government there.

In one protest, 25,000 people demonstrated. In another 30,000. In a third, as many as 100,000 protested. It became a large national story. It led to a recall election against GOP Gov. Scott Walker and several Republican lawmakers.

In the end, Walker survived the recall, as did the majority of Republican lawmakers. The legislation passed, taking away the ability of public-sector unions to bargain collectively over pensions and health care, and limiting pay raises of public employees to the rate of inflation. And Walker became a national figure and a hero to many conservatives.

“The size of the protests in Madison were unprecedented anywhere in the country,” said Charles Franklin, a professor of law and public policy at Marquette University law school. “Despite that, the governor got everything he wanted in the bills that were subsequently passed. I think that is a demonstration that large public protests do not necessarily lead a unified, partisan government in both houses of the legislature, plus the governor, to change their views.”

If anything, Franklin said, the protests, helped unify Wisconsin’s Republican Party and politically strengthened Walker. That raises the question of whether the growing protest movement at North Carolina’s Legislative Building will bear fruit.

There are some similarities between Wisconsin and North Carolina. Both are moderate swing states that have seen a sharp swing to the right in their elected leadership. The conservative Koch brothers have been involved in both states. Walker campaigned for Pat McCrory last year.

Different time, different issues

But the issues are different. Wisconsin has been a strong union state, while North Carolina is the least unionized state in the country. The protests in Madison were driven by the labor movement; the protests in Raleigh are being driven by civil rights groups.

Unlike Wisconsin, the North Carolina protesters are engaging in civil disobedience – subjecting themselves deliberately to arrest to call attention to policies they don’t like, including voting rights, health care, unemployment benefits and environmental legislation. So far, 160 have been arrested, and the protests are scheduled to continue Monday.

There is little evidence, so far, that the protests are having an effect on the GOP lawmakers, who believe their policies are right for North Carolina. But the protests are beginning to draw attention from the national media.

Having covered the late Sen. Jesse Helms for most of his 30 years in the Senate, I can tell you that protests and negative news stories are likely to be seen as badges of honor. Most GOP lawmakers couldn’t care less if comedian Jon Stewart makes fun of the state.

Sometimes parallels are drawn between the civil disobedience of the civil rights movement of the 1960s and the current arrests. But often those earlier demonstrators were playing to a national audience. It was Congress, not Southern legislatures, that ultimately passed the groundbreaking civil rights laws.

What will swing voters think?

The Moral Monday arrests could help re-energize the left – although if the Republicans have not managed to fire up Democrats by now, the party does not have a pulse. Will it also energize the right, which may be complacent now that state government is in their hands?

A more critical question is how swing voters will view the protests and the arrests. If the Democrats are ever to regain control, that is the group they must win.

The argument from proponents is that the protests are helping shine a bright light on the actions of the legislature. But there is also a risk that some independents could be alienated by the tactics.

Christensen: 919-829-4532

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