Ministers involved in 'Moral Mondays' call off talks with lawmakers

jmorrill@charlotteobserver.comJuly 5, 2013 

— One lawmaker’s quiet effort to start a dialogue between Republican legislators and ministers active in the “Moral Monday” protests has ended abruptly after the ministers accused him of bad faith for disclosing the talks.

Sen. Jeff Tarte, a Cornelius Republican, started the behind-the-scenes conversations in what he called a bid to find common ground. Twice he convened a group of 10 lawmakers and about a dozen religious leaders.

Tarte revealed the talks this week in response to a question from the Observer about his reaction to the weekly protests.

A statement signed Thursday by eight ministers, including three from Charlotte, said they’re breaking off talks after Tarte “brazenly breached” one of their ground rules – keeping the discussions private.

“Our dialogue has now been used as an opportunity to make headlines and what appears to be a vain attempt to divide our movement,” the statement said. “As a result of what we can only conclude was a sophomoric effort to divide us, and the bad faith this represents, we have decided to discontinue the discussions.”

On Friday, Tarte called the ministers’ decision “unfortunate.”

“But that’s their choice if they want to discontinue to meet,” he said. “I think that’d be sad.”

The statement underscores the divide between lawmakers and protesters who have rallied at the General Assembly in growing numbers. Monday will mark the 10th week of “Moral Monday” protests which have so far resulted in nearly 700 arrests and drawn national attention.

Meeting at Starbucks

Sign-carrying protesters have blasted Republican policies, including decisions not to expand Medicaid, to end jobless benefits for the long-term unemployed and to enact voter ID laws.

Some GOP legislators dismiss the protests. Some called them counterproductive. Sen. Thom Goolsby, a Wilmington Republican, dubbed them “Moron Mondays.”

Legislative leaders have declined to comment on the demonstrations. Last month Gov. Pat McCrory, a Charlotte Republican, suggested “outsiders” were to blame.

It was against that backdrop that Tarte said he started attending the protests, held weekly before lawmakers convene for their Monday night sessions. “The crowds were starting to get pretty big, and it was intriguing,” he said. “You hear they’re ‘outsiders,’ ‘crazies.’ I wanted to check it out for myself.”

“The thing that kept gnawing at me,” he said, “was that … the crowd was saying ‘conservatives (aren’t) listening and don’t care.’ And that’s simply not true.”

At one rally, he heard the Rev. Rodney Sadler, a seminary professor and associate minister at Charlotte’s Mount Carmel Baptist Church. Tarte said approached him and arranged to meet at a Starbucks in Huntersville.

The result was what Tarte called the “Social Justice Conversation Group.”

He invited rank-and-file legislators, most Republican and most with what he calls a “strong faith background.”

Among them: Republican Sens. Tamara Barringer of Cary and David Curtis of Denver and GOP Reps. Bill Brawley of Matthews and Jason Saine of Lincolnton. Democratic Sens. Joel Ford of Charlotte and Dan Blue of Raleigh also attended.

The ministers included Sadler, Jay Leach of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Charlotte and Peter Wherry, senior minister of Mayfield Memorial Missionary Baptist Church.

They met in a legislative conference room just before the Monday protests were to start. “It’s just initial discussions,” Brawley said before the ministers decided to end the talks. “But it’s better than what’s going on outside. … This is a group interested in listening as much as talking.”

Leach even mentioned the talks at his Sunday service.

Ford said, “You’ve got to commend Sen. Tarte for trying to listen.”

“The problem,” he added, “is that Sen. Tarte is not a part of leadership.”

Tarte, a former Cornelius mayor in his first term, acknowledged that the leaders weren’t involved in talks with protesting ministers. But he said that wasn’t the point. He said he wanted to build trust and relationships and figure out whether there were ways to solve issues.

‘Never close the door’

On Wednesday, Tarte and some of the clergy leaders were careful to say they were not negotiating legislation or even debating policy.

The goal was to have an opportunity to know who the people are on both sides – “an opening salvo for conversation,” Sadler said.

In their statement breaking off the discussions, the ministers said they’d kept state NAACP President William Barber apprised of the talks. Barber and other leaders have met once with McCrory but have unsuccessfully sought meetings with him and other GOP leaders.

“The atmosphere seems to be (we) may meet and talk but that’s all,” Barber said Friday. “And if you criticize us publicly, we will not even meet.”

The ministers’ statement went on to criticize “legislators responsible for the acrid wave of regressive law spewing like sewage from our legislature.”

“We have determined that the only course for them now is to repent,” it said.

Tarte said, “There are solutions we can agree on, but you have to start a dialogue before you do that.”

“I’ll keep an open invitation for anybody who wants to sit down and have a conversation,” he said. “Never close the door.”

Morrill: 704-358-5059

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