The legislature's neo-Redeemers may have set us back half a century | Citizen | Indy Week
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The legislature's neo-Redeemers may have set us back half a century 

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The Republicans have a strategy for the 2014 elections in North Carolina. Call it their Stockholm Syndrome Strategy. Convince the hostages—we who are about to vote—that they had our best interests in mind when they kidnapped our state.

Take state Sen. Chad Barefoot, an aptly named foot soldier in the Wake County Republican army. Barefoot is in the Senate because the GOP spent $1 million in 2012 to unseat the Democratic incumbent in District 18 and replace him with an eager Republican neophyte who would follow orders.

And follow them Barefoot did, voting for every right-wing measure that Senate President Phil Berger and his House counterpart, Speaker Thom Tillis, put before him. The resulting mess, however, means Barefoot's re-election bid is in serious trouble.

So Barefoot, in a TV ad, denies responsibility for the damage. Oh, no, he tells us. Blame former Gov. Bev Perdue, a Democrat, for over-spending "a few years ago." That would be the Bev Perdue whose four years as governor coincided with the Great Recession—the Bev Perdue who, faced with plummeting state revenues, balanced every budget with painful spending cuts.

Unburdened by the facts, Barefoot presents himself as our rescuer, and frankly the only reason I single him out is that he has a degree from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, and I'd think he'd have more regard for the truth. Otherwise, he's only a Republican parroting the party line, which is that they cut funding for education to "improve" it, and they cut taxes for millionaires and corporations because, uh, jobs.

The Republican campaign would be laughable but for the fatigue we feel after the long GOP siege. The theory behind the Stockholm Syndrome is that people in custody start to identify with their captors—as happened in a hostage case in Sweden—grateful their plight isn't worse.

If you're even a little in doubt who's persecuting us, I recommend Jim Leutze's new book, Entering North Carolina: Set Clocks Back 100 Years. Leutze is an historian and chancellor emeritus of UNC-Wilmington; he was the personable host of Globe Watch, a public television series.

Amiable though he is, Leutze's book is a "call to arms" against the radical Republicans who took over the General Assembly in 2010 and who've ruled, since 2012, with compliant Republican Pat McCrory as governor.

Leutze joked, when we talked, that he wanted to sub-title his work "I'm Mad As Hell And I Want My State Back," but his publisher talked him out of it.

But he's angry, no doubt about that.

At 156 pages plus appendices, Entering NC is a highly readable survey of our political history by a good storyteller with a point to make. It is that North Carolina has lurched, from 1800 to the present, between periods of progress and regression without getting ahead. "One step forward, two steps back," Leutze writes. Bill Friday, forward. Jesse Helms and Art Pope, back.

From the 1890s to the mid-20th century, North Carolina "hardly moved the needle" economically, lagging nearly every other state. Only when the business community began to see that better schools, an excellent university system and infrastructure improvements would serve its interests did the state, from 1960 to 2010, start to advance forward.

These gains came under Democratic governors (Terry Sanford, Jim Hunt) and Republican governors (Jim Holshouser, Jim Martin), all of whom governed as progressive moderates, Leutze writes. Which meant cultivating business support.

Meanwhile, the biggest businesses—Wachovia Bank, N.C. National Bank, the old Duke Power—stood with the governors and education leaders like Leutze as board members of N.C. Citizens for Business and Industry and the Education: Everybody's Business Coalition.

But in 2006, after Leutze left the NCCBI board, its leadership changed. Phil Kirk, a former Martin aide and stoutly pro-education, was out as CEO, replaced by Lew Ebert, from the Kansas Chamber. Soon, NCCBI was renamed the N.C. Chamber; its formerly moderate approach gave way to hard-nosed lobbying for tax cuts and less regulation of business.

Meanwhile, Pope, ally of the Koch Brothers (of Wichita, Kansas) and creator of Raleigh organizations like the John Locke Foundation, poured money into Republican campaigns. The upshot was a right-wing takeover of the GOP, with centrist voices purged.

You know the rest. Republicans swept the 2010 elections, which gave them control of redistricting after the Census. Consequently, they control a veto-proof 60 percent-plus of the seats in both houses, most of them rural seats, with half the popular vote. Democrats, including minorities, are packed into a handful of mostly urban districts.

And the wreckage is everywhere. Unemployment benefits: slashed. Medicaid expansion for working people: denied. Minority voters: suppressed. Local government: Usurped. The public schools and UNC cut back hard so businesses and the rich don't have to pay for them. Yet, because of tax cuts, state revenues are lagging again.

It's a replay of what happened to North Carolina a century ago, which explains the subtitle Leutze did choose. Unless they're stopped, the radicals—Leutze calls them Redeemers, after the white supremacists who sought to "redeem" the South after the Civil War—may set us back for another half-century.

Leutze has some interesting ideas on how to turn the tide. Most involve regaining the support of business leaders, perhaps even starting a separate business group to compete with the Chamber.

But his main point is, we have to stick with it. We won't get our state back in one election, or two or three. But we can't give in to the propaganda, or we'll never get it back. So, we vote in this election. And then we start on the next one. And we build. That's how progress happens.

This article appeared in print with the headline "What's the Matter with North Carolina?."

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