Rob Christensen

10 things I’ve learned in 45 years of covering North Carolina politics

As I wind down my stint as political columnist for The News and Observer over the next two weeks, I wanted to share 10 observations that I gleaned from covering Tar Heel politics for more than 45 years.

1. At its best, North Carolina has often been a forward-looking state. As a once poor state that did not have a magnolia-scented history, North Carolina has always had to hustle and innovate. North Carolina created one of the nation’s great university and community college systems, the first state-supported symphony, art museum, and residential arts conservatory, one of the nation’s best research parks, and it became a leading banking center. At times, it built roads that were the marvel of the nation. It was a leader in early childhood education and other programs. It is one of the reasons so many people want to move to North Carolina. We need to keep that spirit alive.

2. North Carolina may have some progressive instincts, but it still is socially conservative – a product of its rural and small-town heritage. According to the Pew Center, it is one of the most religious states in the country. Progress is possible, but not if you stick your fingers in people’s eyes. Because some people are slower to come around on gay rights or transgender issues does not make them a bigot. Some of those pushing to tear down Confederate memorials seem politically tone-deaf to the fact that North Carolina produced more men for the Confederacy and suffered more casualties than any other Southern state. (Some of the antis seem not to realize that most of the Confederate monuments were erected at the same time as the Union monuments in the north – a recognition of the 25th and 50th anniversaries of that terrible conflict, not because of white-supremacy sentiments.)

3. Mayberry is in trouble. The fictional TV town represented much of North Carolina’s small-town culture in the 1960s. But deindustrialization and a decline in agriculture has hammered many of these towns, which have been bleeding population and jobs. There is no one solution to this problem, but many small steps to take – including providing Internet service to rural areas, promoting agribusiness, and making sure there are quality schools and health service.

4. The decline of lunch-pail North Carolina. When I started covering politics, I would accompany politicians as they worked the shift changes in tobacco factories in Durham and textile mills in Kannapolis. Those jobs are gone. Things are going pretty well for white-collar North Carolina, but not so for blue-collar Tar Heels. The lack of decent jobs in some areas has led to more drug abuse, an increase in suicides, more births out of wedlock, a decline in marriage rates, and less civic activity – from church to Little League. We need more jobs in rural and small-town areas, more job training, more apprenticeships, and better schools.

5. Cutting taxes is not the answer. Nobody likes to pay taxes, but you get what you pay for. The current state legislature is very proud that it has been one of the leading tax cutters in the country. But it has less to say about North Carolina ranking 39th in the country in per-pupil spending for the public schools, according to figures compiled by the National Education Association. We tried the low-tax strategy in the 19th century. As a result, North Carolina’s leading export was people seeking a better life elsewhere.

6. The University of North Carolina system has been – and still is – one of the state’s economic drivers. It is a key reason why major corporations have been considering relocating to the Triangle. UNC-Chapel Hill alone receives more than $1 billion annually for sponsored research, according to the university. But state funding has not kept pace since the Great Recession, with the state spending less per student today – in inflation-adjusted dollars – than it did in 2017, according to the legislature’s Fiscal Research office.

7. North Carolina is main street America. It remains one of the most closely contested states in the country. If you look at the margin of victories in the top races – president, governor, and U.S. Senate – North Carolina had the second closest races of any state in the 1980s, the closest in the 1990s, and in the first decade of this century, only three states had closer elections. This trend is likely to continue, especially with urbanization and with the large migration into the state.

8. But is it a healthy democracy? Two years ago, the Election Integrity Project, a non-partisan academic research organization, released a report which tracked 213 elections in 153 countries. Andrew Reynolds, an NC State University professor, involved in the project, said if North Carolina was a nation-state, it would rank with Cuba, Indonesia, and Sierra Leone, as a “deeply flawed, partially free democracy.” Last month’s election was a case in point. Republicans won 50.4 percent of the vote but won 10 of 13 U.S. House seats – assuming the results of the disputed 9th district House race are not overturned.

The main reason is extreme gerrymandering of congressional and legislative districts – a toxin the Republicans didn’t invent but perfected.

To put the question in perspective, North Carolina has often been less than a pristine democracy – excluding most rural black voters until the mid-sixties and women until 1920.

9. There is a mismatch between the voters and the legislature. North Carolina is a moderate state with a slight conservative tilt, according to the annual national polls of voter attitudes conducted by the Gallup organization. But the GOP legislature has made North Carolina into a national laboratory for sharply conservative policies. The policies don’t fit the profile of Tar Heel voters.

10. Bill Snider, the late Greensboro newspaper editor and columnist, once gave this advice to young reporters: ‘From time to time, you will be tempted to write that race is no longer a factor in Tar Heel politics. Don’t do it.’ While we have come a long way, racial views are still a potent force in shaping voting preferences.

Rob Christensen can be reached at robc@newsobserver.com or at 919-829-4532.
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