Under the Dome

SUNDAY DOME: Battle flag stirs a continued debate in N.C.

South Carolina Highway patrol honor guard members lower the Confederate battle flag in Columbia on Friday.
South Carolina Highway patrol honor guard members lower the Confederate battle flag in Columbia on Friday. AP

Fifteen years ago, a political debate raged in South Carolina about display of the Confederate battle flag, then atop the statehouse dome. The symbol had prompted boycotts and protests and fierce defenses of Civil War ancestors and heritage.

On July 1, 2000, compromise brought down the flag and it moved from the dome to a pole near a Confederate monument on the Capitol grounds. On Friday, the battle flag fell from that staff, too, amid applause, and was then put in a museum.

The flag’s furling was a fast-moving response to the shooting deaths of nine people in a church in Charleston last month. The alleged shooter was widely shown in photos displaying the battle flag.

Within days of the massacre, it was Gov. Nikki Haley, a Republican, who assembled the state’s congressional delegation and other leaders to call for the flag’s removal.

“For those who wish to show their respect for the flag on their private property, no one will stand in your way,” Haley said on June 22. “But the statehouse is different. And the events of the past week call upon all of us to look at this in a different way.”

The Senate acted and then the House – after a wrenching debate – and then troopers took it down. Three weeks had passed.

In North Carolina, Gov. Pat McCrory acted, too, focusing here on the battle flag’s image on a state-issued specialty license plate. That’s where the parallel stops.

McCrory’s call was for lawmakers to end the plate’s issuance.

Lawmakers seemed to barely notice. Senate leader Phil Berger said McCrory’s administration didn’t need the legislature’s permission to halt the plate. McCrory said he did.

As the fingers pointed, the flag purge went on, from Alabama (four flags at the Capitol came down) to Congress (the House voted to ban the battle flag at federal cemetaries).

McCrory’s office took a deeper look and concluded lawmakers would have to act here. His DMV ordered a new batch of plates after the ones on hand sold out.

The North Carolina battle flag plate is issued to members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, and the plate is possible under a state law that allows for special plates to be issued to a range of groups, including members of a “civic club.”

Under the state law, examples of clubs “include Jaycees, Kiwanis, Optimist, Rotary, Ruritan, and Shrine. The plate shall bear a word or phrase identifying the civic club and the emblem of the civic club.”

The Sons of Confederate Veterans group was originally rejected by DOT for the battle flag plate. The group later sued and won the right to be treated as a civic club for the purposes of special registration plates.

The state’s Court of Appeals noted in 1998: “SCV’s emblem strikingly resembles the Confederate flag. We are aware of the sensitivity of many of our citizens to the display of the Confederate flag. Whether the display of the Confederate flag on state-issued license plates represents sound public policy is not an issue presented to this Court in this case. That is an issue for our General Assembly.”

The governor’s office believes that because state law “authorizes the issuance of a special plate to the SCV and the display of their emblem, only the legislature can make this change.”

Berger’s office reiterated late last week, without offering specifics, that it thinks McCrory can act alone.

“He believes the governor and DMV have the authority to act,” a Berger spokeswoman, Shelly Carver, wrote in an email. “He still believes that any change can be done through the administrative process.”

Unanswered was a question of whether Berger – or other lawmakers – might still act.

Blue: No reason for delay

The leader of the Democrats in the Senate, Dan Blue, says they should. But he’s not holding his breath.

“There is no reason, no justification from a rules standpoint, for the leadership not to go ahead and bring the matter up,” Blue told Dome. “It’s just a matter of whether they desire to. And apparently they don’t desire to.”

Blue said the rules and stage of the lawmaking session do not allow Democrats to introduce a bill or take action to force a decision.

Blue, like most everyone, does not equate North Carolina’s plate with South Carolina’s statehouse flag.

Still, he said, “there is a high level of interest to remove the symbol from any official governmental activity. The interest by the leadership that can make that happen in North Carolina obviously is not as great as it is in the leadership in South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi and Alabama.”

He said the proper place for such symbols is in a museum “so that you can study what they meant and what their messages were and what they represent.”

“Not to be actively promoting it,” Blue said, “which is what anything that the government does to allow it to keep growing and keep being perpetuated would do.”

J. Andrew Curliss

What the Trump surge means

Some recent polling – nationally and in North Carolina – has shown businessman Donald Trump gaining support among Republicans and leading a field of 16 candidates who are pursuing the presidency.

The polling counts for more than horse-race tracking: Polling will determine the 10 candidates who appear in the GOP’s first televised debate, on Aug. 6 on Fox News. CNN, which holds the next debate, on Sept. 16, will also rely on polling to determine who appears.

No polls have yet been published that will factor into the decision. Fox has said it will rely on an “average of the five most recent national polls, as recognized by Fox News” that are published close to Aug. 4. Fox has not provided more details about which polls will be used.

What is clear is the polls now are worth more than chatter, and will be getting plenty of political attention.

That’s why a poll from Raleigh’s Public Policy Polling and a second from the Economist/YouGov generated lots of headlines toward the end of last week. Both showed Trump ahead of the pack with a 4 percentage point lead over former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

Trump’s rise in popularity comes as businesses are abandoning associations with him following sharp comments on immigration and other issues.

Michael Bitzer, a professor of politics and history at Catawba College, said Trump’s surge is “fascinating” and that “name identification and recognition is what’s driving a lot of this.”

“I have to think that the other Republicans are just going to have to go after him for some of the outlandish claims that he makes without really backing anything up,” Bitzer said.

Bitzer appeared on the Domecast, a weekly podcast on government and politics produced by The News & Observer and The Insider state government news service. This week’s Domecast is online at: http://bit.ly/1D63YZ8