The Speech We Need to Hear | News Feature | Indy Week
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The Speech We Need to Hear 

If North Carolina's election system allowed candidates to tell the truth, here's what a candidate for governor might be saying.

Chris Fitzsimon is executive director of the Common Sense Foundation in Raleigh. This article is excerpted from the spring issue of the foundation's Journal of Common Sense. For subscription information, write P.O. Box 10808, Raleigh 27605-0808, or call 821-9270.I am running for governor of North Carolina. I am not running just to get elected governor. I am not running to talk about a bridge to the 21st century, or about "taking the state to the next level." I am not a coal miner's son. I have never been a prosecutor or the mayor of a big city.

I am running because nobody is telling us the truth about what is going on in our state, and what we need to do to fix it. I am talking to you tonight from my heart, not from a sheet of prepared slogans and soundbites lifted from the latest poll or focus group.

No high-powered consultant tested this message to find out if it would sell. I sure didn't take a poll to figure out how I feel about the lottery or the death penalty or corporate taxes. I know how I feel and I am going to tell you. If you agree with what I say, vote for me. If you don't, vote for somebody else.

I am here to tell you what I believe and what I think we can do to improve the quality of life for people in North Carolina. And I mean all the people, not just the ones that politicians usually target--"swing voters" like soccer moms, fiscal conservatives or social liberals who are supposed to decide elections. I am not targeting this speech or this message to any of those groups. I am not going to change the way I feel depending on where I speak or what the polls say, and certainly not based on where the campaign contributions come from. I am not here to drive up someone else's negatives or make voters stay home.

I am running to help restart a movement to fundamentally change the way North Carolina works and who it works for. This movement is based on a simple notion. It is pro-people. P-R-O-people. Power and Resources and Opportunity--for people.

People don't have power anymore in North Carolina. You have power if you can make a $4,000 campaign contribution or host a fundraiser at one of those dinner clubs at the top of those skyscrapers in downtown Charlotte or Greensboro or Raleigh. You have power if you own a huge hog farm or run a big bank or speculate in land deals with their insider information. You have power if your daddy had power or if they made the right friends in the right fraternity in college. You have power if they can hire a lobbyist in Raleigh to take politicians to play golf in Pinehurst a few times a year. You have power if you control those front two rows of padded seats at midcourt in the Smith Center, where deals are made during the time-outs of the basketball games.

I am running for the rest of us, for the folks who have to look at the prices on the menu at the diner for lunch or stand in long lines to buy a ticket to a basketball game. I am running for the people who don't have time to worry about the corporate tax rate because their child is sick or the car payment is due or the company is laying off again and their job is on the line because the company's shareholders want a greater return on their investment.

This campaign and this movement are about giving power to people who now feel powerless. The first thing we have to do is take back elections in North Carolina from the 1 percent of the people who control them. One percent of the people make 90 percent of the campaign contributions. That means 1 percent of the people control the elections.

We must have clean elections in North Carolina, elections decided by ideas not dollars. The politicians will work for us if we don't let someone else pay to get them elected. And the answer is simple: It would only cost roughly $1.50 per person per year in North Carolina to pay for clean elections.

I understand some people's apprehensions about spending public money on politicians. I wouldn't want to contribute to most of the politicians who are running now, either--and I don't. But that is the point: Most of the people running for office have friends who have a lot of money or they make friends who have a lot of money. They don't think about us too much.

Everybody who could give $10,000 to a politician today, raise your hand. Everybody who could give $4,000 to a politician, raise your hand. Everybody who knows 50 people who would give you $4,000 today, raise your hand.

Well, there you go. Nobody in this room can run.

If we are going to be pro-people, we need to get the big money out of the political system and put the ideas and the energy of average folks back in. That's the first thing we have to do to make North Carolina pro-people. I am willing to spend $1.50 a year to clean up our elections. Are you?

The next thing we have to do is to tell the truth about all the lies we have been hearing for years and years and years. The lies start with the economic news: that we are in a boom, with the stock market setting new records, bigger and bigger SUVs on the roads, and million-dollar houses sprouting up behind the walls of gated communities. The lie is that all those things mean most people in North Carolina are prospering like never before, that every single one of us is just a dot com away from prosperity.

That's not the North Carolina I know. I look around and see that our prisons are bursting at the seams, our school buildings are crumbling and our rivers are choked by hog waste spilled from the massive corporate hog farms that dominate Eastern North Carolina. I see that one in five children in North Carolina lives in poverty. That more than 1 million people have no health insurance. That fewer than one in five has a college degree.

In this era of economic prosperity for day traders, corporate insiders and computer moguls, the war against the poor rages on in our halls of power. That war is made far worse by our deeply embedded history of racism and oppression. But our political leaders' response to the problems has been largely to ignore them. While programs serving the poor are starved for funds, the state cut taxes $1.4 billion in the last five years. Corporate welfare and tax breaks for the wealthy continue to drain the state treasury of hundreds of millions of dollars every year.

Even Hurricane Floyd, which devastated Eastern North Carolina, could not shake our leaders out of their blind obedience to the corporate status quo. Do you know how we paid for the meager hurricane relief that we are not even giving out on time? We paid for it, and will continue to pay for it, on the backs of poor people across the state by cutting programs that serve children, victims of domestic violence and the mentally ill.

Apparently not even a hurricane can blow down the walls that separate the people in power from the rest of us. I am running for governor to knock down those walls.

The current General Assembly leadership has ruled out not only a tax increase this year, but has even ruled out closing unfair loopholes for the wealthy and special interests. A person buying a million-dollar yacht in North Carolina pays less sales tax than a person buying a pickup truck. Banks pay 2 percent tax, while other businesses pay almost 7 percent.

Our state gave RJR Nabisco a $60 million tax break in 1988 to build a cookie factory that was never built. They get the tax break; we get no jobs. I say let's get RJR Nabisco off welfare. If we have a two-year time limit for single mothers on welfare, shouldn't we have a 12-year time limit for corporations on welfare?

Last year, meanwhile, our state executed a man who may have been innocent. We freed three men from death row over the state's objections. They were innocent. And yet our Democratic governor and the attorney general who wants to replace him are leading supporters of the death penalty in North Carolina.

The death penalty is not a deterrent. It costs more than locking people up for life, and it discriminates on the basis of race and wealth. I also believe it is immoral on its face. My father taught me a long time ago that you don't kill someone to show that killing is wrong. Our streets are not safer because we inject someone with poison at 2 a.m. in Central Prison.

Our state continues to wage an unwinnable drug war that is costing us millions of dollars and thousands of lives. We lock up African-American men at astounding rates for nonviolent drug offenses, and then we wonder why there are so many single mothers.

Our state Board of Education is headed by the same man who runs the state's largest business group, a man who lobbies against workers' safety, higher minimum wages and universal health care--and then says he speaks for children.

Our schools are failing children of color and children who are poor, and yet the reforms enacted punish those very same children and the teachers who try to help them.

I am for school choice. I choose to fix the public schools, not destroy them, to spend more resources on the kids who are struggling, not redirect resources to children who are already succeeding. We don't need tax credits or vouchers to fix public education. We need the courage to help the children who are struggling at school, and we need the courage and commitment to help them at home with health care, decent wages for their parents and a decent place to live.

I am running for governor for the man in Garner who hears that the stock market has set a new record while he worries about how he can afford to pay the mortgage or send his kids to college. I am running to build a North Carolina where a woman in Wilkesboro who works hard can support her family and live in dignity and not worry about how to find the next meal or pay the doctor when her daughter gets sick.

I am running to close that ever-widening gap between the two North Carolinas, the one where people eat filet mignon at the top of the bank towers and the one on the streets 60 stories below where people are asking for quarters to buy a hamburger.

The dominant message of the masters of both political parties has been to convince white blue-collar workers in North Carolina that their problem is people of color getting promotions they don't deserve, or living off welfare because they are unwilling to work. No one in power is telling you the truth, that you have more in common with your African-American co-worker than you do with the guy who owns the company and pays both of you minimum wage so he can increase his own salary and spend his days sailing in the Caribbean.

I am running for governor because I am pro-people--the people who have been left out for far too long. That includes people of color. It includes the poor and the working poor. It includes gay men and lesbians. It includes farmworkers and custodians and single mothers. It includes children who need foster care, the aged who need long-term care and the more than a million people in our state who have no health care. It includes people who need AIDS drugs and transportation, people who need job training, people who need housing and women who want to decide what to do with their own bodies.

If you think about it, that includes the majority of people in North Carolina. It includes most of the people we see every day in our work and in our lives. People who have been locked out of the debate because they can't hire a lobbyist to prowl the halls of the General Assembly and take legislators to dinner down at the Oyster Bar and explain why they need the legislators' help. People who have been locked out of the policy debate because they have to get up every day and go to work waiting tables, washing windows, cutting grass--or doing more than one of those jobs.

This campaign is about people who spend their day trying to find work, and about people who can't afford to pay anyone to take care of their children so they can look for work.

It's also about people we try not to see: people we step over in downtown Raleigh or Charlotte, people we walk by on the bench or avoid at Moore Square when we are out with our friends after work. People in line every day at the Good Shepherd soup kitchen, people waiting for the shelters to open because they don't have a house.

But it is not just poor people who make up this campaign, this pro-people platform. It is angry people, too.

Anger is not limited to the wide pockets of poverty in North Carolina. It is in the state's heartland. It is nestled in the cul-de-sacs, hidden in the two-car garage with the sport utility vehicle, bought on a 72-month loan to keep up with the neighbors and the guys at work and the images that race by every night during the commercials of Ally McBeal.

There is anger at events beyond our control, anger at not sharing in the stock-market boom, anger at feeling like the only one who wasn't smart enough to buy stock in a fledgling high-tech company or Web business, anger that we are not sharing in the explosion of wealth and material comfort, in the beach houses that get larger with every construction permit, the trips to Europe, the gourmet ingredients for every meal, the lawn service, the membership at the new club built just for you with its columned main house and its formal dining room and its prime-rib dinners and galas twice a year, its championship golf course where all the charity events are played, where Michael Jordan comes once a year and the media follows, making the members feel good about their club, their camaraderie, their commitment to charity.

This anger is now documented everywhere, from radical journals to The Sun to Business Week. Anger is afoot in North Carolina. It makes rural farmers who lose their livelihoods and their culture to the big banks and multinational conglomerates turn to militias or worse, makes them believe promises that holding on to a way of life requires hate and blame and even violence. It makes them turn to politicians and well-heeled interests who use their anger for personal gain.

I don't mean to impugn the integrity of the people who run our government, but I am absolutely here to impugn the way our government is run, especially the way our elected leaders put the budget together. I am running to change it.

I am also running to send a message to my friends who work hard for the poor and the angry in the halls of power, but are so caught up in the system that they almost can't think straight. Year after year, they heap praise on the legislature and pat themselves on the back for getting a half-million dollars when the program really needed $10 million. Or they resort to the phrase that makes me so angry: "It could have been a lot worse."

Is that our expectation for our government, for our elected officials who spend our tax dollars: "It could have been a lot worse"? It can't be much worse for people who still don't have a safe, clean, affordable house. It can't be much worse for the child taken out of a troubled home with no place to go, no foster family to take care of him or her.

I do want to agree with my conservative friends on one point. There is waste in government. The problem is we never see the real waste cut. The waste is at the top of government where the politically connected get the jobs that pay $100,000 a year. But those jobs are never cut. They are maintained for the next election cycle for the brother or daughter of the governor's chief fundraiser.

I met a woman on the street in front of my office a few months ago who asked me for $5 to help her pay for a room for the night at a neighborhood halfway house. She was fleeing her abusive husband. I asked about all the shelters and social services I knew. She said they were full.

All this makes me think of a song that you all know well, a song we learned in school: This Land is Your Land. That song was written by Woody Guthrie as an answer to God Bless America. Guthrie was moved to write it as he traveled around the country and saw despair and poverty everywhere he went. The verse you all know:

As I went walking that ribbon of highway

And saw below me that endless skyway,

I saw below me that golden valley,

This land was made for you and me.

I roamed and rambled and followed my footsteps

To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts,

And all around me, a voice was sounding,

This land was made for you and me.

There are other verses Guthrie wrote that people don't sing much. Here they are:

Was a big high wall there that tried to stop

me.

A sign was painted said "private property,"

But on the back side, it didn't say nothing,

This land was made for you and me.

One bright sunny morning in the shadow

of the steeple,

By the relief office, I saw my people,

As they stood there hungry, I stood there

wondering,

If this land is made for you and me.

This land and this state are made for you and me and all the people who live here, not just those with influence and power and money, not just those who will be fine if we stay the course.

We are told this year that we are not even going to get crumbs for the people who need help in North Carolina. We have to cut the state budget, they tell us, because there is a shortfall. After huge tax cuts and ever-present corporate welfare, there is a shortfall.

We need to forget about the crumbs and start working to change the way the table is set. We need a nonviolent revolution in this state. We need to demand that our lawmakers put together a budget with people first, with people who need help first--and then spend money on aquariums and museums and golf tournaments.

Pro-people means closing tax loopholes for the rich. It means opening the secret corridors of power to all the people. It means that open space and clean water and air are as important as rising stock prices.

Pro-people means health care is a right, not a luxury. It means that North Carolina should provide health care for all its people--sound, decent health care funded by a single source, not farmed out to HMOs who put accountants in charge of medical decisions.

Pro-people means keeping university tuition low so that the poor can go to school alongside the rich. It means abolishing the barbaric practice of capital punishment that does nothing but continue the cycle of violence. It means providing a living wage to everyone who works hard, and programs to serve those who can't.

It means protecting people from being fired or denied housing or benefits because of the color of their skin or where they were born or whom they love. It means redirecting the anger in our heartland to positive action that transforms North Carolina into a pro-people state.

If that makes me a liberal, so be it. If it makes me a radical, then I am proudly admitting that, too. I stand for the people in North Carolina, not the powerful. I stand for the angry and the forgotten and abused.

I am running for governor because, above all else, I am pro-people. Join me and let's reclaim North Carolina. EndBlock

More by Chris Fitzsimon

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