Where the GOP’s Wonderland Is Real

Republicans rule with unchecked power in North Carolina — and they’re using the state to bring all of their long-held dreams to life.

Ferris wheel pictured at the North Carolina State Fair.
National Journal
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James Oliphant
Sept. 19, 2013, 5 p.m.

RALEIGH, N.C. — She was the self-de­scribed “new sher­iff in town,” and Bev Per­due prom­ised, a thou­sand years ago in 2008, to change the way North Car­o­lina did busi­ness. As a wo­man and a Demo­crat, she em­bod­ied the quantum elect­or­al shift that was oc­cur­ring across the na­tion, one powered by the nas­cent Obama co­ali­tion. The na­tion’s first Afric­an-Amer­ic­an pres­id­ent had just edged out a stun­ning win in this South­ern state, and Gov.-elect Per­due had rid­den the surge, along with Sen.-elect Kay Hagan. With its di­ver­si­fy­ing elect­or­ate, its thriv­ing cit­ies, and both le­gis­lat­ive cham­bers and the Gov­ernor’s Man­sion in Demo­crat­ic hands, the state seemed on the verge of a new, more pro­gress­ive — and, yes, if you want go there — blu­er era.

Cut to: The new sher­iff’s be­ing run out of town on a rail, along with the Demo­crats run­ning the Gen­er­al As­sembly. The state is once again sub­ject to single-party he­ge­mony, but it looks a lot dif­fer­ent. Now the only pro­gress­ives who can be claim to be do­ing any­thing mean­ing­ful in the state cap­it­al are the ones who jammed it in protest every Monday this sum­mer as they watched con­ser­vat­ive le­gis­lat­ors dis­mantle as much of their leg­acy as fast as pos­sible.

The Re­pub­lic­ans, too, are out to re­shape the way the state does busi­ness, but in a much more rad­ic­al way. They have the keys to the en­tire king­dom: They own a su­per­ma­jor­ity in the Le­gis­lature and have a com­pli­ant ally in Gov. Pat Mc­Crory, Per­due’s Re­pub­lic­an suc­cessor. As such, they es­sen­tially gov­ern un­checked and un­op­posed, ex­ert­ing their will on everything from taxes to abor­tion to vot­ing rights to the so­cial safety net to more ar­cane mat­ters like deny­ing the city of Raleigh the use of state land for a pub­lic park.

In this new cli­mate, Barack Obama didn’t win the state the second time around; he lost to Mitt Rom­ney by 2 points. And Hagan’s reelec­tion next year is in deep jeop­ardy. “We’re push­ing le­gis­la­tion we’ve al­ways dreamed about,” says Claude Pope, the chair­man of the state Re­pub­lic­an Party. North Car­o­lina didn’t just step back from its once-im­min­ent purple-to-blue trans­form­a­tion. It now glows scar­let-fever red.

Con­ser­vat­ives na­tion­wide have watched the state with envy — and lib­er­als with hor­ror — as their bed­rock ideo­lo­gic­al prin­ciples have al­chem­ized from shop­worn cable-news talk­ing points to tan­gible policy. It’s as if the House of Rep­res­ent­at­ives were al­lowed to run the coun­try, a pro­spect that must make Eric Can­tor gaze at the moon like a dreamy child. The North Car­o­lina Le­gis­lature has been cheered by The Wall Street Journ­al and de­rided by The New York Times. Pope was so in­censed by a Times ed­it­or­i­al titled “The De­cline of North Car­o­lina” that he fired back an open let­ter to the pa­per. (“When you’re a South­ern boy,” he says, “you hear your whole life how stu­pid you are, how back­wards you are.”)

The driver of all of it, Re­pub­lic­ans say, has been the state’s eco­nomy, which has re­mained stub­bornly res­ist­ant to the lurch­ing na­tion­al eco­nom­ic re­cov­ery. At 8.9 per­cent, North Car­o­lina’s un­em­ploy­ment rate ranks fourth in the na­tion, right up there with luck­less states like Rhode Is­land and Nevada, neither of which has any­thing like North Car­o­lina’s crown-jew­el uni­versit­ies, boom­ing New South cit­ies like Char­lotte and Raleigh, or fam­ous Re­search Tri­angle Park. This, the GOP thinks, is reas­on to slash per­son­al and cor­por­ate taxes, cut the budget, and ease reg­u­la­tions — all in an ef­fort to make the state more con­du­cive to busi­ness, an eco­nom­ic-de­vel­op­ment strategy that may come at the ex­pense of thriv­ing urb­an areas like Raleigh. It’s an “ex­per­i­ment that has real sig­ni­fic­ance for the rest of the coun­try,” says Brent Lane, an eco­nom­ist at the Uni­versity of North Car­o­lina (Chapel Hill). “They’ve made an ideo­lo­gic­ally true bet on free en­ter­prise,” he con­tin­ued. “They’ve really rolled the dice.”

But con­ser­vat­ives be­ing who they are, they didn’t leave it at that. The mo­ment, long-awaited, had to be seized by the throat. So they passed a re­strict­ive abor­tion law that will force most of the clin­ics in the state to shut down and a meas­ure that will re­quire voters to pro­duce IDs, which is al­most cer­tain to dis­pro­por­tion­ately af­fect minor­ity voters. They loosened gun laws to al­low con­cealed weapons in bars and res­taur­ants; gut­ted un­em­ploy­ment be­ne­fits; slashed teach­er pay; and re­jec­ted the Medi­caid ex­pan­sion avail­able through Obama’s health care ini­ti­at­ive. That, com­bined with a con­sti­tu­tion­al ban on same-sex mar­riage passed by voters last year, has eco­nom­ic-de­vel­op­ment of­fi­cials in ma­jor cit­ies like Raleigh rattled.

They worry the state’s polit­ic­al en­vir­on­ment has turned so tox­ic that, des­pite all the in­cent­ives, busi­nesses won’t want to re­lo­cate there, that re­cent trans­plants to the state will leave, and that col­lege gradu­ates will fol­low them. At the same time, deep tax cuts could leave North Car­o­lina un­able to in­vest down the road in edu­ca­tion, pub­lic safety, and in­fra­struc­ture if (very op­tim­ist­ic) rev­en­ue pro­jec­tions don’t pan out. “It’s hard to get people to un­der­stand the im­pact of what they’re do­ing is go­ing to be,” says Nancy Mc­Far­lane, the alarmed may­or of Raleigh.

Re­pub­lic­ans like Pope dis­miss com­plaints like hers as lib­er­al carp­ing, a hangover from Demo­crats los­ing power in a state they ruled — al­beit in old-school, busi­ness-friendly mod­er­a­tion — for more than a cen­tury. “Ima­gine if you were in power for 140 years and you found your­self out of that power,” Pope says. “They don’t know how to be the minor­ity.”

Pope’s at­ti­tude is com­mon among North Car­o­lina con­ser­vat­ives: They don’t want to hear it. And giv­en their num­bers in the Le­gis­lature, they don’t have to — at least un­til the pen­du­lum swings again. That may not hap­pen for a while. Sev­er­al pro­gress­ives I spoke to here shrugged off the sug­ges­tion that a polit­ic­al civil war was ra­ging with­in the state. “In a war,” one said, “both sides are evenly matched.” This was a mas­sacre.


Raleigh is a low-slung, verd­ant, tree-can­op­ied place that feels more like a tran­quil ham­let than a bust­ling city on the move. The square across the street from the city hall can be vir­tu­ally empty at the height of af­ter­noon. But blocks away, on gentri­fy­ing Wilm­ing­ton Street, brew pubs with draft beers like Green Flash Hop Odys­sey can be found next to Le­banese res­taur­ants serving kib­beh nayyeh. Spurred by the bur­geon­ing tech in­dustry, young res­id­ents are mov­ing down­town and bring­ing the to­tems of 21st-cen­tury hip­s­ter­dom with them: bikes, fest­ivals, farm­ers’ mar­kets.

Per­use just about any of those qual­ity-of-life sur­veys in busi­ness magazines, and you’ll find the re­gion ranked near the top. Be­sides the tech in­dustry and a grow­ing en­tre­pren­eur­i­al cul­ture (app design is big), the area has three ma­jor uni­versit­ies, strong pub­lic schools, af­ford­able hous­ing, an abund­ance of green space, and Re­search Tri­angle Park, the long­time tem­plate for pub­lic-private part­ner­ships that drew mul­tina­tion­als to North Car­o­lina and spurred much of the re­gion’s growth. Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill at­tract con­verts from both the East and West coasts who, nat­ur­ally, im­port their eth­os along with them.

The three cit­ies are the face of a chan­ging state. Wake County, where Raleigh sits, is the state’s second-most pop­u­lous, and it sup­por­ted Obama over Rom­ney by 10 per­cent­age points last year. To much of the loc­al cit­izenry, the state Le­gis­lature in the cen­ter of town is now something like a for­eign em­bassy. In turn, many of the con­ser­vat­ives from rur­al en­claves across the state view Raleigh and the Tri­angle at large as a bubble — an is­land of prosper­ity in a strug­gling state and an in­cub­at­or for Demo­crat­ic voters.

It may not come as a sur­prise, then, that some loc­al of­fi­cials, such as Mc­Far­lane, feel tar­geted by the Le­gis­lature — that the GOP is busily work­ing to un­der­mine the ba­sic ten­ets that fuel cos­mo­pol­it­an suc­cess in the in­terest of be­ne­fit­ing the state’s oth­er re­gions. They worry that cuts to pub­lic edu­ca­tion, both at the uni­versity and K-12 levels, will make it harder to draw and keep young fam­il­ies and to re­cruit large em­ploy­ers look­ing for a skilled work­force. That con­ser­vat­ive stances on is­sues such as abor­tion and same-sex mar­riage will ali­en­ate the young pro­gram­mers and de­sign­ers who are the lifeblood of the tech sec­tor. That the hos­til­ity to tar­geted tax in­cent­ives and pub­lic in­vest­ment will drive away high-end in­dus­tries. (Gov. Mc­Crory’s budget, for ex­ample, slashed fund­ing for the state’s Bi­otech Cen­ter, which as­sists start-ups in that in­dustry, by al­most one-third.)

Raleigh of­fi­cials note with irony that, dur­ing the same sum­mer the state banned gay mar­riage, the re­gion­al air­port fi­nally se­cured its first non­stop flight to San Fran­cisco — something the tech com­munity had been clam­or­ing for. “There’s a dis­con­nect,” says Mary Ann Bald­win, who sits on Raleigh’s City Coun­cil and has played a large role in re­cruit­ing tech firms, such as Cit­rix. “The GOP be­lieves they are cre­at­ing an en­vir­on­ment that sup­ports job cre­ation. That mod­el doesn’t work any­more.”

To Mc­Far­lane and Bald­win, it can come down to something as simple as a park. Dur­ing Per­due’s ad­min­is­tra­tion, the state had signed off on a deal to trans­fer 325 acres it owned (an aban­doned men­tal hos­pit­al sits there now) to the city of Raleigh for use as a world-class civic green space. When the Re­pub­lic­ans took con­trol of the Le­gis­lature, they passed a law un­do­ing the lease deal. “The kids we are at­tract­ing, this is the kind of thing they want to see,” Mc­Far­lane says of the park plan.

Al­lan Frey­er, a re­gion­al eco­nom­ist who works for the left-lean­ing North Car­o­lina Justice Cen­ter, char­ac­ter­izes the di­vide this way. “Clearly, cul­tur­al is­sues mat­ter,” he says over lunch at Sitti, the Le­banese res­taur­ant on Wilm­ing­ton. “The qual­ity-of-life vari­able — they don’t get it.”

What’s play­ing out in Raleigh mir­rors a na­tion­wide de­bate between lib­er­al and con­ser­vat­ive eco­nom­ists and urb­an­ists: What really mat­ters when it comes to eco­nom­ic de­vel­op­ment? And, in a lar­ger sense, what is the fu­ture of met­ro­pol­it­an areas?

Is it the Tri­angle ap­proach, which calls for deep in­vest­ments in edu­ca­tion and in­fra­struc­ture; tax in­cent­ives for high-end in­dus­tries; de­vel­op­ment of an urb­an core (with, for ex­ample, dog parks, bike lanes, light rail) for young pro­fes­sion­als; and “cre­at­ives” like the ones stream­ing in­to Raleigh, ac­com­pan­ied — to be sure — by a pro­gress­ive view on so­cial is­sues? Or is it the GOP philo­sophy, which seeks to lower reg­u­lat­ory hurdles for busi­nesses, keep more money in the hands of tax­pay­ers, and in­tro­duce the free mar­ket to edu­ca­tion? (In the lat­ter case, that would mean private-school vouch­ers and more charter schools to com­pete with, and po­ten­tially even cripple, the ex­ist­ing sys­tem.) As for cul­ture, bike lanes and dog parks be damned. People like their cars — and they care more about find­ing af­ford­able hous­ing in sub­urbs and ex­urbs close to their jobs than in­hab­it­ing an urb­an play­ground. In that GOP view, so­cial is­sues don’t enter the eco­nom­ic equa­tion at all.

“Part of it is get­ting gov­ern­ment out of the way,” says Bri­an Balfour, policy dir­ect­or for Civ­itas, a con­ser­vat­ive ad­vocacy group based in Raleigh. Be­fore the flip at the State­house, Balfour was resigned to be­ing an un­wanted guest at the party. Now he rel­ishes Civ­it­is’s new role as a part­ner to the poli­cy­makers. “Taxes are the largest bar­ri­er to growth,” he says — echo­ing a Re­pub­lic­an ar­gu­ment dur­ing last year’s pres­id­en­tial cam­paign.

But, as both sides poin­ted out then, the re­search is all over the map. “Pick a study,” con­cedes Lane, the UNC eco­nom­ist. Still, while loc­al ex­perts like Frey­er worry that GOP policies cre­ate only low-wage jobs in the ser­vice sec­tor, not the kind of high-end jobs that states cov­et, Lane says that might not be such a bad idea. “What we need are liv­ing-wage, low-skill jobs,” he says. The Tri­angle’s suc­cess, he ar­gues, doesn’t spill over to the rest of North Car­o­lina — and the Le­gis­lature is try­ing en­cour­age job cre­ation in oth­er parts (where most res­id­ents live), even if it comes at the ex­pense of places such as Raleigh. Ten-thou­sand tech jobs, Lane says, can’t re­place 100,000 jobs lost as the state’s man­u­fac­tur­ing base con­tin­ues to erode. Lured by state mar­keters’ sales pitch, which makes North Car­o­lina sound like a land of plenty, too many people are stream­ing in­to the state without em­ploy­ment lined up. “Our goals,” he drawls, “don’t fill our holes.”

Thom Tillis, the Re­pub­lic­an speak­er of the House of Rep­res­ent­at­ives, re­jects the no­tion that the As­sembly’s ag­gress­ive stance on so­cial is­sues could im­pede eco­nom­ic de­vel­op­ment, ar­guing that North Car­o­lina is a South­ern state vy­ing for busi­ness against Ten­ness­ee, Geor­gia, South Car­o­lina, and Vir­gin­ia. “We’ve got to fo­cus on states that are truly our com­pet­i­tion,” Tillis says. (The last thing lib­er­al Raleighites want is to be more like South Car­o­lina or Ten­ness­ee.) “All of them have those policies for years. It doesn’t seem to be hurt­ing their abil­ity to com­pete,” he says. “That’s more of a red her­ring.”

Oth­ers aren’t so sure. Brad Wilson, the CEO of BlueCross/Blue Shield of North Car­o­lina, told a cor­por­ate for­um in Au­gust that the Le­gis­lature was tar­nish­ing the state’s im­age. “Broadly speak­ing and all things con­sidered, it has not been help­ful to the North Car­o­lina brand na­tion­ally,” said Wilson, ac­cord­ing to The News & Ob­serv­er of Raleigh. “Any­thing that tar­nishes the brand, by defin­i­tion, has the po­ten­tial of erod­ing the state’s eco­nom­ic de­vel­op­ment story.”

At the same for­um, Colin Pow­ell, the former sec­ret­ary of State, made news for rip­ping the state’s voter-ID law. “These kinds of ac­tions do not build on the base. It just turns people away,” he warned.


Yevonne Bran­non blinks in the sum­mer sun­shine. We’re sit­ting out­side a Bur­ger King down the road from the farm­ers’ mar­ket. “I was there the day the gov­ernor came out with cook­ies,” she says.

That was Ju­ly 31, the height of the protests over the Le­gis­lature’s agenda, when Mc­Crory walked out of his man­sion, crossed the street, and greeted a hand­ful of abor­tion-rights pro­test­ers with a plate of cook­ies. The na­tion­al me­dia quickly seized on the mo­ment as a crys­tal­line im­age of the gulf between the state’s war­ring camps. The pro­test­ers thought Mc­Crory was be­ing con­des­cend­ing. The gov­ernor says he was just be­ing friendly. (His of­fice de­clined an in­ter­view re­quest for this art­icle.)

A former Wake County com­mis­sion­er, Bran­non has been a lib­er­al act­iv­ist in Raleigh for dec­ades, and this day, she’s wear­ing a T-shirt with an hon­est-to-good­ness peace em­blem on the front. Her hatch­back sports a bump­er stick­er that reads: I CAN’T BE­LIEVE I’M STILL PROTEST­ING THIS CRAP. She calls the weekly demon­stra­tions at the Cap­it­ol, which be­came known as Mor­al Mondays, “the only source of hope and solid­ar­ity” in the cur­rent polit­ic­al cli­mate. “It’s everything Re­pub­lic­ans hate about the Tri­angle,” she laughs, but she calls Mc­Crory’s cook­ie mo­ment “a gift.” The in­cid­ent cata­lyzed the op­pos­i­tion, she says, and shone an even bright­er light on the Le­gis­lature’s ac­tions. “I be­lieve the pub­lic’s catch­ing on. I think the pub­lic will turn on them. I think they already are.”

Bey­ond the back and forth over eco­nom­ic policy, the true ar­gu­ment ra­ging in Raleigh and else­where in the state is wheth­er Re­pub­lic­ans will pay a polit­ic­al price for run­ning rough­shod, or wheth­er they can con­tin­ue to gov­ern with im­pun­ity for the fore­see­able fu­ture. Chan­ging the Le­gis­lature’s makeup won’t be easy. The tea-party wave in 2010, which gave Re­pub­lic­ans con­trol of both cham­bers of the Gen­er­al As­sembly, al­lowed the GOP to re­draw con­gres­sion­al and state dis­tricts to help en­sure they stay in power. The state Demo­crat­ic Party re­mains tain­ted by a sexu­al-har­ass­ment scan­dal that helped eject Per­due from of­fice. Per­due’s former cam­paign fin­ance dir­ect­or was also in­dicted and even­tu­ally pleaded guilty in a cam­paign-fin­ance probe.

The first test will be wheth­er Hagan, elec­ted with the help of Obama voters, can keep her Sen­ate seat next year, when turnout will be lower, older, whiter, and red­der. Her cam­paign plans to make the Le­gis­lature’s agenda a cent­ral is­sue, es­pe­cially since Tillis in­tends to run against her. The state Sen­ate pres­id­ent, Phil Ber­ger, is said to be mulling a run, too. “It’s go­ing to be a big li­ab­il­ity for either one of them,” says Ben Ray, a spokes­man for the state Demo­crat­ic Party. “This will stick to these guys. They will own it.”

Tillis, who doubts his re­cord will hinder him, con­cedes that Hagan will use it “to try and get some trac­tion in the state.” And while the Le­gis­lature seems se­cure, Mc­Crory may have reas­on to worry. The state is still about evenly di­vided, and some cent­rists be­lieve the gov­ernor, a former may­or of Char­lotte, has strayed too far from his man­date. A re­cent poll by the Demo­crat­ic firm Pub­lic Policy Polling showed his ap­prov­al rat­ing drop­ping to 35 per­cent. In a show of in­de­pend­ence, Mc­Crory re­cently picked a fight with the Le­gis­lature over two high-pro­file bills that he ve­toed; but to show how little power he has, the Re­pub­lic­ans re­turned to Raleigh in a spe­cial ses­sion to over­ride them.

If Re­pub­lic­ans have one truly vul­ner­able spot, it may lie in edu­ca­tion spend­ing. The Le­gis­lature ap­proved a vouch­er pro­gram that will help route fam­il­ies to private schools. It also froze teach­er pay for K-12 and elim­in­ated a bo­nus for teach­ers who ob­tain ad­vanced de­grees. That’s what most wor­ries busi­ness lead­ers — even those sym­path­et­ic to the GOP plat­form. “We did not get here with that philo­sophy,” says Bob Geolas, the chief ex­ec­ut­ive of­ficer of the Re­search Tri­angle Park Found­a­tion, which over­sees the sprawl­ing re­search cam­pus north­w­est of Raleigh that is home to such com­pan­ies as IBM, Cisco, and Glaxo­S­mithK­line. “It’s a fun­da­ment­al mis­take for the state to back away from that com­mit­ment.”

Tillis seems to un­der­stand that. He says that when the Gen­er­al As­sembly re­con­venes next year, it will re­con­sider edu­ca­tion fund­ing and teach­er pay (just in time for the midterm elec­tions). Lane, the UNC eco­nom­ist, pre­dicts a course cor­rec­tion. “I think they will re­gret some of the de­cisions they’re mak­ing now,” he says, adding that the neg­at­ive pub­li­city has ob­vi­ously dam­aged the state. “It’s ter­rible,” he says. “Of course it mat­ters.”

Pope, the GOP chair­man, dis­agrees. “Who is it that says our brand has been tar­nished?” he asks, de­fi­antly. “It’s the Demo­crats who are crit­ic­al. They’re try­ing to make it a brand is­sue when it’s a power is­sue.”

He is right about that. Re­pub­lic­ans have it — they have all of it. The old ad­age about power is that you use it or you lose it. But that isn’t al­ways true in polit­ics. As Obama and his al­lies found out in 2010 with his health care plan, and as the GOP may dis­cov­er here in time: Some­times, you use it and you lose it.

COR­REC­TION: An earli­er ver­sion of this story mis­spelled Bev Per­due’s name.


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