For many years, North Carolina was known as the Rip Van Winkle state because it was so backward. Stingy public officials and business tycoons wanted low wages and low taxes so there was little investment in civic needs. Roads and other public facilities were ignored while education of the state’s youth was minimal.
The state was governed by the whims of a plutocracy of landed aristocrats, then tobacco barons, monopoly industrialists and eventually bankers and insurance executives. They had little use for an educated workforce or civic infrastructure. Too often they viewed things through a racist or misogynistic prism.
The constitution of 1898, established after the political coup in Wilmington, effectively suppressed African-American voting. The state’s leadership refused to ratify the 19th Amendment for women’s’ suffrage, (symbolically ratified in 1971) and kept Native Americans from voting until the 1950s. The leaders also kept taxes low and regulation lax.
As late as the 1950s, historian Hugh Lefler noted that North Carolina was not moving in the right direction. Industrial wages had stagnated, per capita income near the basement (46th out migration increasing, and tax revenues failing to meet critical public service needs.
In the 1960s North Carolina experienced a transformation, melding with the modern world.
Governors Kerr Scott, Luther Hodges and Terry Sanford moved to join the mainstream. While Scott, Hodges and Sanford initiated the modernization momentum, it was in 1977 when Jim Hunt became governor that the state began the steady climb in education, civic improvements and broader prosperity. Critical to Hunt’s success was recruiting the business community and selling it on his agenda of public education, government services and modest environmental protection as critical to industrial and economic advancement.
The Research Triangle Park blossomed into a high-tech, high-wage and high-skilled business recruiting dynamo. Charlotte emerged as one of the nation’s leading financial centers while other areas of the state saw schools, community colleges and universities provide a trained labor force. The state’s national ranking rose under Democrat Jim Hunt and Republican Jim Martin (28th capita income in 2000). It seemed this new course had been irreversibly set.
However, today that trend is in jeopardy. The shadows of the state’s Southern regressivism had never vanished. Paralleling Hunt’s career was that of Jesse Helms, with his hallmark arch-conservatism and race-baiting rhetoric.
Starting in the mid-1970s, Helms and other conservative Republicans set up think tanks to give academic rigor to their ideology, recruiting bright lawyers and conservative journalists. In North Carolina one recruit was Art Pope, heir to a discount retailing fortune. Pope turned his energies toward establishing the John Locke Foundation and a stable of spinoffs. He joined with out-of-state forces like the Koch brothers and their Americans for Prosperity.
Ironically, it might have been the election of 2008 that sparked the GOP sweep of 2010. The Red State Project headed by Ed Gillespie and Karl Rove determined that to control a state and ultimately the federal government, they needed to take a sufficient number of state legislatures in a census year – thus controlling legislative redistricting. With that prize in view, Pope and Americans for Prosperity poured in millions. Republicans swept to victory in both the state House and Senate in 2010. They then imposed a redistricting plan that maximized the GOP strength and will likely keep them in place for at least the next decade.
While the 2010 GOP campaign mantra might have been jobs, jobs, jobs, it was quickly jettisoned to focus on divisive social issues, appealing to the newly labeled “tea party” base.
Just as had been done after 1898, they attacked voting rights, taxes, public schools and added to them contemporary issues of gays and abortion. The new GOP-dominated legislature passed the nation’s most restrictive voter ID law and lowered taxes on the wealthy – causing a half-billion revenue shortfall – thus starving schools and infrastructure. They added mean-spirited cuts in unemployment benefits and Medicaid and eliminated the Earned Income Tax Credit. In four years they laid waste to 40 years of moderate progress.
In 2012 the new Republicans added the governor’s mansion to their booty. Redistricting had been so masterful that they won nine of 13 seats despite the fact that almost 200,000 more votes were cast for Democratic than Republicans in the state’s combined congressional races.
The business community Hunt had so carefully and effectively courted abandoned the progressives. The N.C. Chamber imported a director from Kansas who emphasized the old standbys: low taxes, low government spending, weak regulations. The plutocrats seem content to let North Carolina go back to Rip Van Winkle’s slumber.
Now comes the 2014 election. In this off-year contest, incumbent Democrat Kay Hagan is locked in a tough race against Republican House Speaker Thom Tillis. When Tillis won the GOP primary, it was curiously hailed as a victory for the mainstream despite the fact that Tillis leads tea party forces in the legislature. Over $20 million of out-of-state money has poured in to defeat Hagan – control of the U.S. Senate hangs in the balance. Will the election be determined on the effectiveness of voter suppression efforts or will voter discontent for what is going on in Raleigh outweigh discontent with Washington government and the U.S. Congress?
Dr. James Leutze is chancellor emeritus of the University of North Carolina-Wilmington.