As Democrats look for a contender for the U.S. Senate race in 2016, working families in N.C. are hoping for a candidate who will talk candidly about inequality and offer solutions like higher wages, paid sick leave, collective bargaining rights and progressive tax reform.
Working folks are tired of struggling. Most of the jobs created since the Great Recession don’t pay enough to cover rising costs of food, gas, housing and other necessities. Poverty in our state remains stubbornly high. And our elected officials have made things worse. State legislators have refused to raise the minimum wage or expand Medicaid while at the same time repealing the state Earned Income Tax Credit. The majority of our representatives in Congress just voted to move forward with a trade deal that could ship more good jobs overseas.
Never has the gap between the haves and have-nots been so great, but you would hardly know it if you listen to state politicians. Republicans tout their “Carolina Comeback” while Democrats seem to hope for a “Carolina Flashback” as they fall back on their mantra of good schools and wax nostalgic for their glory days. Both parties are missing the point: Working folks aren’t interested in going back. We want to move forward to a new era of shared prosperity.
Working people want a candidate who will talk not just about jobs, but about good jobs that pay family-sustaining wages and offer benefits. And we seek a candidate who recognizes that if we want every child to get a quality public education, then every parent needs to earn a living wage. After all, socioeconomic status is the best predictor of educational success.
Working families are tired of policies and rhetoric that target the symptoms and not the disease. Economic inequality creates inequities in our schools, our criminal justice system and our political process. Whether candidates or political parties like it or not, voters will make the 2016 election about income inequality.
If Democrats are to win the U.S. Senate race, they must stop the death march to the middle and instead embrace the change that working families crave. Give us a populist candidate who offers a vision of a North Carolina where both businesses and workers thrive, where all people are treated equally and with respect, and where citizens down on their luck can get a hand up. Working families don’t want another politician who checks poll numbers and donor lists before taking a stand. We want a leader who is driven by conscience, who recognizes that inequality is the defining problem of our generation and who will challenge us to think big and act boldly to fix it.
Put simply, we want a candidate who can inspire. We want someone who will work not only to raise wages but also to raise expectations. It’s not OK for North Carolinians to work full-time and still live in poverty. It’s not normal for people to work two or three jobs just to survive. And it’s not acceptable for politicians to put the interests of their donors above their constituents. We need to expect more from our employers, our politicians and from ourselves.
And we can start by raising the bar for candidates in 2016. If Democrats want working families’ votes, they have to offer more than slick campaign ads and tired stump speeches. They have to offer concrete policies to reverse inequality, and, most of all, they have to offer hope that together we can and we will do better by working families.
MaryBe McMillan is secretary-treasurer of the N.C. State AFL-CIO.