The N.C. House voted Tuesday to make it harder to remove historical monuments – throwing Gov. Pat McCrory into the center of an emotional debate over the fate of Confederate memorials.
The House split 70-39, largely along partisan lines, to ban state agencies and local governments from taking down any “object of remembrance” on public property that “commemorates an event, a person, or military service that is part of North Carolina’s history.” Legislators could still file bills to move or remove individual monuments in their districts.
McCrory hasn’t announced whether he’ll sign the bill, veto it, or let it become law without his signature. But he did speak out against vandalism on the State Capitol grounds overnight after the House’s initial vote on the legislation.
Someone spray-painted the slogan “Black Lives Matter” on the Women of the Confederacy monument – the latest in a string of similar vandalism across the state. “One does not change the hearts and minds of others by damaging public monuments or private property,” McCrory said in a news release that didn’t mention the legislation.
The monuments bill passed the Senate in April, long before the shooting deaths of nine black church members in Charleston, S.C., touched off a nationwide debate about Confederate symbols.
Rep. Garland Pierce, a Scotland County Democrat who chairs the Legislative Black Caucus, told House Speaker Tim Moore that scheduling the bill this week was “disrespectful” to the Charleston victims.
“This bill has been really divisive,” Pierce said, addressing Moore directly. “I really wish that we could have waited and not had this conversation for awhile.”
Moore noted that the bill “has somehow taken on a life of that” larger debate since it cleared the Senate, but that the proposal “simply is what it is.”
“We’re all the victims of circumstance in a lot of ways, Rep. Pierce,” Moore said.
Now it’s McCrory’s turn. He has already said he wants the state to stop issuing Confederate battle flag license plates, but century-old monuments are a thornier issue.
“From the governor’s perspective, he would have preferred this (bill) to happen months ago or next year,” said David McLennan, a political science professor at Meredith College. “The timing for him is as awkward as it could be.”
While McCrory gears up to seek re-election statewide, Republican supporters of the bill come from conservative districts where many fear that Confederate monuments could be removed – and leaders in Alamance and Mecklenburg counties are already facing such pressure.
“I fear that a lot of people are starting to view history in the wrong context,” Rep. John Blust, a Greensboro Republican, said of the Confederate memorials. “They want it to be condemned when it should be seen in the vast tapestry that led this country to greatness.”
But Rep. Nathan Baskerville, a Henderson Democrat, said he and other black people view the monuments differently. “Brown people see oppression,” he said. “Brown people see Jim Crow. Brown people see slavery.”
Baskerville noted that Tuesday’s debate came hours after the spray-paint vandalism a block from the Legislative Building.
“I’m not condoning that, but whoever did that was letting you know what emotions were evoked in them,” he said. “We’re going to see it all across the state here.”
Political observers say House Republicans shouldn’t have been surprised by the emotional response the bill received this week.
“It’s a piece of the political debate that wasn’t there three months ago,” political strategist Carter Wrenn said. “Running that bill right now was sort of like pouring gas on a fire.”
Historic Artifact Management and Patriotism Act
Senate Bill 22 didn’t spark an outcry when Sen. Dan Soucek, a Boone Republican, filed it in February. Nor did anyone in either party oppose it in the Senate.
The controversial provision about removing monuments appears at the bottom of the bill’s second page. Other provisions haven’t drawn debate, such as a new process outlining how state government should retire old flags.
“The focus was on veterans and honoring veterans, which is what this bill is really all about,” said Rep. Nelson Dollar, a Cary Republican.