Opinion: How N.C. Republicans used division to consolidate power

By: - June 10, 2019 2:09 pm
Senate leader Phil Berger and Speaker of the House Tim Moore

We’re now less than a week removed from a climactic veto override vote on Republicans’ “born-alive” abortion bill, one designed as much to fire up social conservatives as to make any kind of real change to abortion laws.

And the news is replete with hot-takes about its impacts on the GOP and Gov. Roy Cooper’s agenda, but Politics N.C.’s Thomas Mills has a sharp take today, scrutinizing how the state’s GOP power base has used discordant legislation to bolster their power in the past, typically at the expense of good governance, North Carolina’s reputation and, of course, general decency.

Instead of a blow-by-blow analysis of the state budget — in its chrysalis stage with a GOP hand-picked conference committee from both the House and Senate — we’re mostly left to digest a lurid clash of religion, intrusive government, and a bitterly endangered Roe v. Wade, all issues lawmakers would rather talk about than their reliably miserly budgeting.

Lawmakers should get to work on actual policymaking, beginning with Medicaid expansion, a move that could actually save lives.

Read Mills’ take below:

The so-called “Born Alive” bill that Roy Cooper vetoed is the most controversial bill of the legislative session so far. The bill and the veto override are accomplishing the goals of the GOP and continuing a tactic that’s helped them maintain power. They are energizing their base while dividing the state. It’s no way to govern and a sharp departure from the principles that helped North Carolina become the state it is today.

The bill itself would have impacted very few people. It required doctors to give medical treatment to fetuses that “survive” abortions. The bill addressed so-called late term abortions. Virtually all of them are performed either because the fetus is non-viable or the life of the mother is at risk. The bill would likely have forced mothers to carry to term babies with severe handicaps that wouldn’t survive long after birth.

Really, though, the bill is not about abortion. It’s about division. It drives a wedge between pro-choice activists who oppose the bill and less informed people who don’t understand it. The strategy follows a pattern we’ve seen since Republicans took control of the General Assembly back in 2010.

They divided the state with Amendment One in an effort to excite the right side of the GOP by casting the Democrats as the party of gay rights. They passed the most egregious voter suppression bill in the country to restrict access to the polls, narrowly targeting vulnerable, older African-Americans. In the wake of the Charleston massacre, when South Carolina was taking down Confederate memorials, the GOP in the legislature enacted legislation to protect North Carolina’s monuments to the Confederacy. They passed HB2 to fire up their base by burnishing their anti-transgender credentials. They’ve used division, not unity, as a governing strategy.

And they used division to try to consolidate power, though often unsuccessfully. They made nonpartisan judicial races partisan. They did the same thing to local school board and city council races. They redistricted municipal and county districts to give Republicans the advantage, overriding the will of local governments. They politicized the UNC Board of Governors, leaving it in turmoil that still exists today.

When Republicans won control of the legislature in 2010, their divisive tactics were new to North Carolina, even if they’ve been adopted nationally today. Modern North Carolina was built by avoiding sharp social divisions. Instead, leaders of both parties used moderation as a governing philosophy. The state was never part the vanguard of change, but, unlike their Southern neighbors, they weren’t putting up roadblocks, either.

State leaders from Democrat Jim Hunt to Republican Jim Martin tried to keep a lid on social unrest by allowing history to drag us forward, focusing instead on building a strong economic infrastructure and educational system. They believed that good jobs and good schools were the keys to our future. While the late 1960s and early 1970s saw social turbulence, the upheaval was less than other states and we became a destination for businesses and families looking for stability, progress and opportunity.

Our social evolution was too slow for some people and too fast for others, but hit the sweet spot for most North Carolinians. We may not have been a leader in the march to marriage equality, but we didn’t have an amendment fight until the GOP took control. We saw slow but steady progress on voting rights to atone for almost 100 years of Jim Crow disenfranchisement until these new, radical Republicans decided too many black people were voting for Democrats.

Republican leaders have made division a governing principle. The goal is power, not progress. They’ve cast moderation aside, hoping that a sharply divided state can keep them in power by motivating their base. It may or may not be good politics, but it’s definitely bad for North Carolina.


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Billy Ball

Billy Ball, worked at NC Policy Watch from 2016 to 2020 — first as an education reporter and later as managing editor.