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North Carolina - Democrats

01
It may still be unclear what this legislature did, but it’s very clear how they did it: with remarkable bile, bitterness and backstabbing among the forces of McCrory, Tillis and Berger.
 
Oddly, there wasn’t the usual simultaneous adjournment, with members from both houses sharing smiles and handshakes at the end. The Senate passed its budget and left town. The House was left to clean up. (And the state was left with no plan to clean up coal ash.)
 
The once-united troika of Governor, House and Senate fell apart this year. One Republican even said the Senate pushed for the so-called 7 percent pay raise just to put up a number that McCrory had said he would veto, challenging him to put up or back down.
 
Then there was the Governor comparing Berger to Marc Basnight, Tony Rand and even Harry Reid. Plus the obvious glee that McCrory and Tillis allies took in the defeat of Berger Jr.’s congressional race – and their possible involvement in that defeat.
 
In return, there was the Senate’s very public and pointed killing of the puppy-mill bill that was a pet project (so to speak) of the Governor and First Lady.
 
Certainly Democrats fought with each other when they held those positions. Jim Hunt had Jimmy Green, for Pete’s sake. But Republicans took it to a new level this year.
 
Democrats can’t be happy with what the session did. But they can learn to like the political damage it did to Tillis’ Senate candidacy, the issues they now have for the 2014 and 2016 elections and the prospect of more GOP division ahead.

 

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31
Shades of John Edwards and “Two Americas!” The state Senate seemed to channel the former Senator in the debate over how to help the state’s stagnating rural areas keep up with booming urban areas.
 
One Senator said we need to “level the playing field.”
 
There is a political angle to this, of course. Republicans tend to live in rural areas and Democrats tend to live in urban areas. This is not a trend Republicans want to see go on. It is a serious threat to their majority.
 
Beyond the politics lies a serious policy issue. Since the 1960s, as we moved from an economy built on farms and small factories to an economic built on science and technology, North Carolinians have tried to arrest the decline of rural areas. We’ve had Rural Economic Development Centers, Rural Prosperity Task Forces and a host of rural economic initiatives.
 
Notwithstanding all these studies and policy recommendations, people keep moving away from rural areas in droves and cities like Raleigh keep booming.
 
So the theory seems to be that, if the legislature makes it harder for cities to raise revenue to pay for both schools and transit, Company A will decide to locate in Onslow County rather than Wake County. Or will Company A instead go to Austin, Texas?
 
Recently Governor McCrory has announced a slew new companies coming to the state. Many of them are in Charlotte, where he and Speaker Tillis are from. That’s one of their differences with Senator Berger, a product of small-town North Carolina.
 
The unavoidable issue here is that bright young people today like urban living. They want to walk to work, stop a coffeehouse on the way and then meet their friends after hours in a downtown bar or restaurant. See downtown Raleigh any day after 5 p.m. 
 
Now, you might think that free-market conservatives would say this is the Invisible Hand at work and government shouldn’t interfere. But sometimes in politics you have to rise above principle.

 

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29
Democrats and progressives routinely decry Big Outside Money (BOM). Maybe they should recalculate. BOM has fundamentally reshaped the U.S. Senate race – in favor of Senator Hagan and against Speaker Tillis.
 
A flood of ads sponsored by pro-Hagan groups like the Senate Majority PAC have painted Tillis as the friend of CEOs, yacht-owners and polluters and the dedicated foe of the environment, education and schoolchildren everywhere. Polls show Hagan opening up a measurable lead in what inevitably will be a tight race.
 
Conventional wisdom is that Tillis has been hurt by the long legislative session. Don’t believe it. Voters aren’t following what is happening at the legislature. Here’s a political rule of thumb that will always serve you well: Voters are paying a lot less attention than you think. And they’re paying a hell of a lot less attention than you are.
 
No, the changed race is a function of the information that voters are getting on TV. And what’s happening on TV in the Senate race this summer should be a lesson to Democrats: (1) This is a big, rich country. (2) There are a lot of rich people who have Democratic views and values. (3) There is enough of that money to beat the Republicans at the game they invented.
 
There was a time when Republicans confidently thought Obamacare would carry them to an easy victory in November. They need to recalculate too.

 

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24
It’s an argument I’ve heard for 40 years: “Southern Democrats, meet your future: No more Republican lite.”
 
That’s the headline on a recent article by Bob Moser, Senior Editor at the National Journal. He wrote, “Candidates like (Kay) Hagan are stuck between the past, when Southern Democrats’ recipe for victory involved courting white moderates and conservatives, and a future in which they’ll be able to successfully campaign as full-throated, national-style Democrats.”
 
Call me a curmudgeon. But put me down as skeptical. As much as my heart wants to believe it, my head and my gut tell me that is no better advice today than it was 10, 20 or 40 years ago.
 
It gains credence because Obama carried North Carolina in 2008 and narrowly lost it in 2012. But his candidacy was an outlier, fueled by the history-making opportunity to elect and reelect an African-American President. Also, Obama, as candidate and President, hasn’t always been a “full-throated” liberal.
 
North Carolina remains a moderate and, yes, even conservative state. No, Democrats will not get many, if any, votes from conservative whites. But they need votes with people who have some moderate and even conservative parts in their political makeup.
 
North Carolina’s electorate today is nearly equally divided between natives and newcomers. Natives, no matter how liberal on some issues, still can be conservative on issues like spending and the role of government and sometimes on social issues.  They’re for Good Government, but not necessarily always Big Government. Newcomers are generally liberal on social issues and human issues like education and health care. But they too bring a healthy skepticism about government and all big institutions.
 
Most telling: If people really loved “full-throated, national-style Democrats,” wouldn’t they register that way? They don’t. They register as Independents, even voters who registered just so they could vote for Obama.
 
Maybe you wish it wasn’t true. But wishing doesn’t make it true.

 

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23
As soon as Conor the Jessecrat sat down at our regular political dinner he unfolded a newspaper, pointed, and said, There’s a headline to strike terror in every Congressman’s heart.
I read ‘Judge Orders Districts Redrawn’ and thought about the half-a-dozen lawsuits in North Carolina about redistricting but it turned out this lawsuit was in Florida where the state constitution makes it illegal for legislators to gerrymander districts for their political advantage. 
 
Mike, a dyed-in-the-wool Republican lawyer, shrugged and said, a Well, there’s no such provision in our state constitution, and Conor nodded and said, But there’slways a reckoning: What are you Republicans going to do if Dan Blue introduces the same law here – vote against  ‘fair districts’ and for gerrymandering?
 
Mike set his lips – then slowly grinned. 
 
Yes, he nodded, in a heartbeat.

 

 

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18
New Yorker magazine, as I recall, once had a department called: “Which newspaper do you read?” It juxtaposed totally opposite headlines about the same story. To wit this week:
 
“Clay Aiken outpaces GOP candidate in 2nd quarter fundraising” (Sandhills Tribune).
             
“Rep. Ellmers ahead of Aiken in fundraising in 2nd Congressional District” (Fayetteville Observer).
 
In fairness, if you study the numbers hard enough, you might find that both stories are true. But, as it’s beyond me, I’m hoping Representative Ellmers will bring it down to my level. Maybe a pie chart or something.

 

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08
Locked in a wrestling match with the Governor over Medicaid (and how much it will go over budget) the Old Bull Mooses invited Art Pope (the Budget Czar) over to the Senate for a cordial visit then added if he didn’t come along peacefully they’d send him a subpoena.
 
Pope, responding like a gentleman, took the affront politely saying there’d be no need for fisticuffs then trooped over to the Senate, explained patiently how Medicaid had $70 million in cash (to pay its outstanding bills) so the Bull Mooses’ fear of a $250 million deficit was unfounded then added soothingly,  ‘There is good news but there are still many uncertainties.’
 
Now it must be said the Old Bull Mooses had history on their side: Last year Medicaid was $457 million over budget and the year before it was $375 million over budget so, naturally, the word uncertainties got the Senators’ attention – and they began to explore.
 
How many new people, they asked, had enrolled in Medicaid?
 
The answer was not what they’d hoped: No one knew because the computer system was broken.
 
How much, they asked, were doctors and hospitals owed that they hadn’t been paid?
 
The answer was equally disconcerting: Another computer system was broken so no one knew the answer to that either.
 
A Senator said Medicaid spending had been increasing by 5% each year and asked, How much will it increase this year?
 
Less, Pope said.
 
Then, leaving broken computer systems behind, Pope got down to brass tacks.
 
Senator," he asked, "what is the cost of overfunding Medicaid?” and then explained – in the Budget the Bull Mooses had proposed – the cost was firing 7,000 teacher assistants and removing 5,200 aged, blind and disabled people, including 1,600 patients with Alzheimer’s or dementia, from Medicaid.
 
Of course, that didn’t sit too well with the Senate’s budget writers.
 
Senator Bob Rucho turned to the head of the Hospital Association, who was sitting in the audience, and asked if there was enough money in Pope’s plan to pay all the bills the hospitals were owed.
 
The Hospital Chief said he didn’t know so Rucho next fired a tougher question at him: If it turned out the Governor hadn’t budgeted enough to pay the hospital’s bills would they eat the difference?
 
That didn’t sit too well with the Hospital Chief but, at least, when the smoke cleared Rucho’d established the hospitals weren’t about to risk putting their money where their mouth was when it came to verifying the exactitude of Medicaid budgets.
 
At the end of the day the Bull Mooses were still dead-set on cutting Medicaid to the aged, blind and disabled to balance a budget the Governor’s budget director says doesn’t need balancing except for the fact there are some uncertainties and two broken computer systems which mean no one is sure of the real numbers.

 

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08
Aaron Fussell was one of those modest World War II heroes who saved the free world, then came home and spent the rest of his life building a better world.
 
I knew him as school superintendent and a legislator. But I got to know him best much later, on the golf course. That’s where you can really get to know a person.
 
Aaron played, walked and stayed active well into his 80s. He also loved to talk politics. I enjoyed walking nine holes with him late afternoons. He pulled his clubs behind him on an ancient cart. His shots were short, but always straight down the fairway. Typically on a par four, he’d be 20 or 30 yards off the green after two shots. He’d take out an eight iron, chip the ball up to within a few feet of the cup, sink the putt, take his par and walk on to the next hole, talking every step of the way.
 
If he ran into a young person, he’d pepper them with questions: Where are you in school? What subjects do you like? How are your grades? Do you play any sports? Where are you going to college?
 
He knew everybody, and he had a connection with everybody. “I coached his daddy at Elm City.” “I hired her mother to teach at Millbrook.” “His great-uncle and I played basketball together at Atlantic Christian.”
 
The ultimate connection came one day when he introduced me to his friend Hannas, who grew up in Belgium. I shouldn’t have been surprised when Aaron added, “My unit liberated his village.”
 
He liberated a lot of people, and he touched a lot of lives. He was a great soul.

 

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04
There’s a lit stick of dynamite – and one unanswered question – being blithely passed from hand to hand in the backrooms of Raleigh: Who will the State Senators and Representatives make pay to cleanup Duke Energy’s coal ash ponds – which Duke says is going to cost $10 billion and which, Duke also says, in fairness ought to be added to its customers’ electric bills. 
 
Attorney General (and not one to look a gift horse in the mouth) Roy Cooper, who’s running for Governor, promptly disagreed, saying Duke ought to pay every penny which inspired Cooper’s Democratic allies to add an amendment to the Senate Republicans’ ‘Coal Ash Cleanup’ bill to make Duke pay. 
 
The old Bull Mooses promptly quashed the Democrats’ amendment then fell cryptically silent which oddly – given the murky waters of Senate politics – sent a crystal clear message: The Bull Mooses, after they’d just kiboshed Duke paying the $10 billion, faced a tough choice: Either tell consumers their electric bills would be going up or lay low and say nothing.
 
Silence spoke volumes.
 
Which attracted the attention of Conor (the Jessecrat) who grunted, What we have here is half-baked politicians coming up with the wrong cure for a problem.
 
Conor explained both Cooper’s and the Republicans’ solutions had more to do with politics than fixing the problem then added, The real question here is how much can Duke afford to pay?  If it has $10 billion, fine, let it pay it all.  But if Duke can only pay $1 billion then some poor soul’s got to find the backbone to tell people their electric bills are going up $9 billion.
 
Of course, even for our finest politicians, that would be just plain treacherous – imagine a Bull Moose, running for reelection, looking voters straight in the eye and saying, I voted to increase your electric bills, while at the exact same moment his opponent’s looking the exact same voters in the eye saying, Duke should pay it all.

 

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03
The Governor sent his budget over to the Senate.
 
And as Rodney Dangerfield used to say, He got no respect. It was DOA.
 
The Senate sent its budget over to the House.
 
And it got no respect either. DOA, again.
 
The House sent its budget to the Senate.
 
And met the same fate.
 
Then, just when things looked bleak, House Speaker Thom Tillis, an optimist, announced anyone who “reports there’s a big gap between the House and the Senate isn’t paying attention” and sent another, abridged, budget to the Senate.
 
He got even less respect than the Governor.
 
The old Bull Mooses declared his budget was a “gimmick” – and went home for a long weekend.

 

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