Point of View: McCrory’s stands strain his ties

This commentary was originally published on Oct. 15, 2013, on the op-ed page of The News & Observer.

My Charlotte friends who know Gov. Pat McCrory well say they’re starting to feel sorry for him. He’s the sort of guy, they claim, who knew instinctively he wanted to be governor. But that’s about as far as it went.

He’s not much tied to ideas or policies. Not his huckleberry. So there wasn’t much he really wanted to do as chief executive. But being top dog - that seemed first rate. Think of the kudos and accolades. He’d had a small dose in Mecklenburg. Imagine being the state’s most highly prized guy.

It’s not working out that way.

As a Moral Mondays veteran, I can attest McCrory always comes in for potent and deserved criticism at the protests. But no place produced the singular and virulent McCrory bashing hurled during the massive Charlotte gathering. Purported fans of the former mayor repeatedly expressed horror at the present governor. Betrayal and hypocrisy were watchwords.

Last summer, at a concert at Charlotte’s tony Bechtler Museum of Modern Art, when McCrory was introduced, he was booed by many of his former social running buddies. A couple weeks ago, at a birthday party among the Queen City’s legal elite, he got the same embarrassed treatment. Rough handling for the hail-fellow-well-met.

But if gubernatorial derision is par for the course, the United States’ decision, two weeks ago, to sue North Carolina for violating the Voting Rights Act is not.

Attorney General Eric Holder announced “more in sorrow than in anger” that key provisions of McCrory and friends’ new election law are racially discriminatory “in both intent and impact.” We “cannot simply stand by, “ Holder declared, “as North Carolina minority communities are shut out of self-governance.”

But there was much more. In one sense, Holder’s bold legal move has been under-reported. Not only does he seek to invalidate a laundry list of the law’s provisions, he has demanded that North Carolina “be subjected to a pre-clearance regime similar to the one required by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.”

In short, Holder triggered a formal process to have North Carolina declared an outlaw state - unwilling to protect the essential rights of its citizens. Federal receivership is necessary because we cannot be trusted to comply with the foundational American duty to govern fairly. If successful, Holder’s suit will assure that, for the first time, all 100 North Carolina counties (instead of the original 40 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act) submit to pre-clearance duties. An ironic legacy for McCrory and crew.

In announcing the suit, Holder chided officials, like McCrory, who have, in pursuit of “short-term partisan goals, “ forgotten they “occupy positions of public trust and must be stewards of democracy.” Historic “obligations have been entrusted to us, “ he stressed, “and we must reflect upon our own duty to the American people and our own place in history.”

McCrory may be a smiling back-slapper, but he’s also a 21st century successor to Maddox, Wallace and Faubus.

McCrory responded to the scuffle in character. Early on, he announced at a news conference he would sign the nation’s most ambitious voter suppression bill though it was clear he didn’t know what was in it. After Holder sued, McCrory rolled out the Republican talking points: these are “commonsense measures ... the right thing ... this is a good law.” With that, he pulled off something we never managed in the 1950s and 1960s. We now constitute the leading edge of Southern civil rights oppression. No wonder the Charlotte folks squirm.

To me, McCrory’s unfolding legacy was also on display in August when North Carolina’s greatest civil rights champion was laid to rest in Charlotte. Unsurprisingly, thousands attended. As media accounts put it: “City, state and national leaders gather to pay respects to Julius Chambers.”

As I sat in the throng, it was hard not to notice the governor’s absence. It seemed New York, D.C. and Raleigh had emptied to help fill the pews. I’m sure he had a scheduling conflict of some sort. But two possibilities occurred to me. First, it may not be acceptable for the leader of what has now effectively become a white person’s party to publicly celebrate the life of a great black civil rights hero. Or, second, maybe McCrory didn’t think he could listen to stories of Chambers undergoing bombings and burnings to secure civil liberties and then return, a couple days later, to Raleigh to sign the country’s most oppressive voting bill.

Too much, perhaps, even for hapless Pat. It’s starting to look like it may be hard to go home.

Gene Nichol is a Boyd Tinsley distinguished professor at the UNC School of Law and director of the school’s Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity.