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North Carolina - Republicans

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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22
Art Pope’s critics often accuse him of “buying the State of North Carolina.” If he did, he got it cheap.
 
The Washington Post this weekend published its obligatory profile about the mild-mannered retail magnate who became the Superman ruling over North Carolina’s budget, politics and university system.
 
Two numbers catch your eye.
 
First, the story reported that “Pope’s family foundation has put more than $55 million into a robust network of conservative think tanks and advocacy groups, building a state version of what his friends Charles and David Koch have helped create on a national level.” That money was spent, the story said, over a “quarter-century.”
 
Let’s see, $55 million over 25 years. That works out to $2.2 million a year.
 
But that investment – or purchase – didn’t pay off until the 2010 and 2012 elections, when Republicans took control of the General Assembly and Governor’s Office.
 
Enter the second number: “Pope and his family played a significant role, donating more than $500,000 to state candidates and party committees in 2010 and 2012, according to an analysis of state campaign finance data by the Institute for Southern Studies, a liberal research group. His company, Variety Wholesalers, gave almost $1 million more to outside groups that ran independent campaigns.”
 
So let’s get this straight. Pope & Co. spent just over $2 million a year for over 25 years, with no real impact. Then they spent $1.5 million over two election cycles to achieve their long-term goal of world (or, least, state) domination.
 
Now, when you think of someone “buying” North Carolina, you think billions of dollars. After all, this is North Carolina! But that’s all, a measly of measly million dollars a year? Not to mention the considerable help of a favorable national political climate in 2010 and Governor Perdue’s late decision not to run in 2012?
 
If that’s the case, there are a bunch of people around who can “buy back” North Carolina. Which leads us to the question: “Where is the Democrats’ Art Pope?”

 

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21
They’re not highway numbers, or ages. They are the two big numbers driving North Carolina’s education debate this year.
 
When you take an eight-miles-high view of the legislature, setting aside the partisan debates and vitriol, the most striking thing is that Republicans are arguing this year over whether to raise teacher pay 5-6 per cent (the House and Governor McCrory) or 11 percent (the Senate).
 
Now, set aside for a moment Democrats’ objections that neither 5,6 or 11 is real, as all the pay raise proposals come with big holes and big cuts in other education areas. The point is that, one year after freezing teacher pay, Republicans are competing to claim they raised teacher pay.
 
Enter this story and map by Dave Dewitt and Keith Weston from WUNC radio: “Why is a teacher raise suddenly so important?...In 64 of North Carolina’s 100 counties, a local school system is the largest single employer. A local school system is the second-largest employer in 24 other counties. In only 12 counties a school system not in the top two.”
 
These numbers recall what a long-time lobbyist predicted last year: “The legislators are going to go home and find out that a lot of school teachers and school employees are Republicans.”
 
And so they did.
 
Which leads to the other number: 48. That’s where education advocates say North Carolina ranks in per-pupil spending, and they say we’re in race to the bottom.
 
Behind all this, you can be sure, is another set of numbers that has caught Republican’s attention: the polls on their approval ratings.

 

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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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16
Republican primaries are the best entertainment you can find this summer.
 
First Eric Cantor loses in a monumental upset. Then black Democrats save Thad Cochrane’s hide. Then two former Democrats running for Wake County DA fight over who’s the best Republican. And now Phil Berger Jr. loses big despite outspending his opponent big, plus getting help from every lobbyist, superPAC and special interest his father could line up.
 
You can almost feel the ripples of glee running through the Democratic Party, the Republican House leadership and the Governor’s Mansion.
 
How we love to see the mighty fall.
 
Carter knows far more about this race than I do, but I refuse to let ignorance stand in the way of analysis.
 
John Davis wrote that the winner, Mark Walker, “fanned the flames of resentment of super PAC attack ads run against him and two other Guilford County candidates during April and May, and tied Berger to Washington and Raleigh political insiders wielding outside money.”
 
So maybe it was a backlash against big outside money and negative attacks.
 
Or maybe it was just geography. As Davis noted, Guilford County, Walker’s home, has 43 percent of the district’s voters and Berger’s home of Rockingham, only 12 percent.
 
Or maybe it was resentment at Berger Sr. flaunting his power in the legislature – and fighting with a Republican Governor.
 
Or maybe nobody knew who Phil Berger Sr. is.
 
Or maybe you should never underestimate the power of a Baptist minister’s organization in a low-turnout primary.
 
Or maybe Allen Johnson at the Greensboro News & Record got it: “The Berger Jr. campaign may have turned off some voters by holding too firmly to Dad’s coattails and not running on his own merits. But I’m betting also that Berger Jr. failed to connect on personal level with voters. That they didn’t find him engaging or likable. He seemed in a hurry at times to get on with his anointment…. Berger (Sr.) is a master at wielding his influence through the sheer force of his grip. But that kind of politics will get you only so far. It helps if people like you, too.”
 
(By the way, great headline on Johnson’s piece: “The son doesn’t rise: Why did Berger Jr. lose?”)
 
In the end, I think my wise young friend, consultant Nation Hahn, nailed the essential lesson: “Seems like Berger Jr's loss should cause Renee (Ellmers) some heartburn. Another establishment candidate going down. Walker was really a joke, but he was in the same vein as Brat in VA. Gadfly, who organized, and who tapped in to the incredible anger sweeping the country.”

 

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15
The Old Bull Mooses walked into a meeting with the House to wrangle over the state budget but before they could fire a shot the House’s lead wrangler, Nelson Dollar, threw them a curve ball: He announced he was calling half a dozen school superintendents to testify at the hearing.
 
The Bull Mooses had been ambushed – Dollar had invited the nice, earnest school superintendents to tell the Senators all the ways their budget  was wrong – while the TV cameras rolled.
 
Then the Bull Mooses did something that played into Dollar’s hands – they turned a little media event into a big media event: They got mad, stood up, and stalked out of the room.
 
Later, after the superintendents had left, when the Senators trooped back into the room they were still mad and, right off, Senate Majority Leader Harry Brown raked Dollar over the coals. After Brown finished, Senator Jerry Tillman waved the latest House budget proposal at Dollar and told him it wasn’t worth the paper it had been written on.
 
The Old Bull Mooses had been sandbagged. Trapped.  Gotten mad.   Dug the hole deeper. Then, still mad, acted like grumpy old men.
 
In their bones, the Bull Mooses surely believe they’re the true defenders of virtue standing up to House whiffenpoos  but, by the end of the meeting, instead of pillars of rectitude they looked like Liberty Valance pummeling Jimmy Stewart.
 
They’d turned themselves into the perfect foils and Governor McCrory – who’d already fired a broadside accusing the Senators were playing “inside the beltline politics” and comparing them “to Democrats” – let fly with still another broadside.
           
Senate Leader Phil Berger’s generally a soft spoken man but a couple more meetings like this and, instead the Old Bull Mooses being defenders of virtue, everybody’s going to be cheering for the man who shot Liberty Valance.

 

 

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15
This increasingly looks like a political death match – with one survivor in the end. I’m betting on Phil Berger.
 
Yesterday Governor McCrory compared Senator Berger & Co. to Marc Basnight, Tony Rand and – yes – Harry Reid.
 
Ouch. Them’s fighting words. Imagine Jim Hunt comparing a Democratic House Speaker in the 90s to Newt Gingrich.
 
A veteran observer of the legislature wrote, “Wow.  You'd think McCrory and Berger were locked in a tight election campaign.  Against each other.” And asked, “Is McCrory making a huge tactical and strategic mistake by taking sides in the budget battle?  I don't recall seeing that before.  The typical gubernatorial stance would be, ‘The House and Senate need to work out their differences and pass a budget.  That's what the taxpayers sent them here to do’."
 
It’s common for Governors to put public pressure on the legislature. But no matter how close Governors Hunt, Easley and Perdue were to Senate leaders, they never picked sides the way McCrory has.
 
Berger’s response to the Basnight-Rand-Reid comment was straight out of the Bugs Bunny Rule for Winning Debates. He said, “The governor and Senate have honest but resolvable differences over the state budget – these differences do not warrant personal criticisms of one another.”
 
(The Bugs Bunny Rule comes from Jeff Greenfield, the longtime TV political analyst: “The most comfortable person in the room always wins. Think Bugs Bunny Versus Daffy Duck.”)
 
This fight surely will last long beyond this session. What will the next two years be like for the Governor? And will he be running in 2016 against a Republican opponent backed by Berger?

 

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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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07
Governor Pat (Stupid Hat) McCrory’s admonition worked! No deaths or injuries were reported from Hurricane Arthur after he went on television urging North Carolinians along the coast: “Don’t put on your stupid hat.”
 
He even mimed putting on a stupid hat. And made air quotes around “stupid hat.” It got it on the CBS Evening News.
 
“Stupid hat” is definitely trending.
 
So a tip of the Stupid Hat to Pat!
 
Now, Governor, how about an encore? How about using it again this week with the legislature? Go on TV and tell them in no uncertain terms: “It’s time to finalize a budget, and it’s no time to put on your stupid hats. In fact, it’s time you take off the stupid hats you’ve been wearing the last couple of years.”
 
Help us, Governor. You’re our only hope.

 

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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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