When I first arrived in Durham, as a twenty-five-year-old hired by the INDY to cover state government, I spent countless hours sitting on Paul Luebke's living-room sofa. Surrounded by piles of newspapers—and with his young son, Theo, coming and going—he immersed me into a years-long tutorial on North Carolina politics.
Luebke, who died Saturday of lymphoma at the age of seventy, was a sociology professor at UNC Greensboro when we met in 1986. Back then, he was writing Tar Heel Politics, which argued that the essential political split in North Carolina was not between Democrats and Republicans. It was between "modernizers" of both parties—who support public schools and civil rights because they benefit the business climate—and "traditionalists" steeped in evangelical Protestantism, low-wage economies, and segregation.
The foundation of my understanding of North Carolina came from those early conversations. I learned a lot about my new hometown, too. Luebke was a founder of Durham People's Alliance, formed in the 1970s in part to prevent the Durham Freeway from obliterating the close-knit, majority-black Crest Street community. People's Alliance became part of a multigroup, interracial campaign that ultimately realigned the highway, spared the local church, and rebuilt the neighborhood for those who wanted to stay.
"I learned from Paul's leadership that something that could not have been done by any one of the groups could be accomplished in coalition," says former Durham City Council member Lanier Blum.
Of the many issues Luebke championed in People's Alliance, his favorite was tax fairness. He was a relentless advocate for repealing sales taxes on food and shifting the burden to multinational corporations and buyers of luxury goods. "Each time you tax food, you literally take food from the mouths of our poorer citizens," he told a legislative study committee in 1986.
Then, in 1990, Luebke himself was elected to the legislature. He held his Democratic House seat until his death. When he arrived, some of my fellow reporters underestimated him. I remember satirical articles on the press-room bulletin board identifying Luebke's political party as "S" (for Socialist) rather than "D." But he stood up to his own party and succeeded in getting the food tax repealed—an enduring victory for poor and working-class North Carolinians that we now take for granted.
By 2009, the last biennial session before Republicans took over the legislature, the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research ranked Luebke eleventh in effectiveness among 120 House members. As he rose in stature, he stayed focused on social and economic equity. He was a primary sponsor of the Racial Justice Act, which helped guard against bias in death sentences (and was repealed when the GOP took control). And he didn't shy away from losing battles: Luebke was one of ten House members in 1996 who voted against a ban on same-sex marriage.
In July, during a celebration of Paul Luebke's twenty-five years as a legislator, Theo Luebke—an accomplished political organizer in his own right—talked about his own memories from the 1990s (see video below): "Again and again, watching my father on the phone at night, tirelessly working to prevent, delay, and obstruct the next attempt by the state to execute one of its own citizens." Viewing the video of that speech, I can't help but believe that Luebke's greatest accomplishment was raising a son who will carry on his work.
"He gave me the gift of knowing early on what it meant to be part of a community that fights for things," Theo said about his father. "A community—our community—who cares so deeply about the core principles of justice and equality that we're willing to struggle, and we're willing to fight, however imperfectly at times, for things that matter."
This article appeared in print with the headline "A Hero's Farewell"