The Best Reporting on the North Carolina Takeover

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One of the biggest political stories of 2013 — a year of DC discord and gridlock — unfolded at the state level in North Carolina.

In 2012, North Carolinians elected a Republican to the governor’s office. That same year, the Republican majority in the General Assembly — first elected in 2010 — grew to a supermajority. The result was that conservatives won the power to change state law dramatically — and over this last year, they used that power. The new legislation included ending benefits for the long-term unemployed; declining the Obamacare Medicaid extension; eliminating the earned-income tax credit; and passing what some observers call the worst voter suppression law in the country. In response, those critical of the right-wing legislative agenda united around protests at the state legislature on Mondays, part of a growing citizen movement that has come to be known as “Moral Mondays.” So far, the movement, however ambitious, has done little to slow the state’s Republican majority from pushing through its agenda.

But this story didn’t start on Election Day 2012 — its roots run deep. And a similar situation could unfold in any of America’s 50 states.

Here’s a rundown of some essential work by reporters following the money trail in North Carolina politics and the legislative agenda it has helped usher through.

A police officer watched over demonstrators at a Moral Mondays protest June 24. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

How did hardline conservatives win so big in what has long been considered the South’s most moderate state? –> In The American Prospect, two writers from the progressive, nonprofit Institute for Southern Studies — Sue Sturgis and Chris Kromm — provide a comprehensive overview of the social and political forces that came together to make the moderate (and sometimes even progressive) state move hard-right. Read more »

The role of redistricting –> ProPublica reported on how big money powered the redistricting of the state. Once Republicans won control of the legislature in 2010, they used their power to draw new district lines meticulously, taking into account individual households’ voting habits. It paved the way for big wins in 2012.

“Redistricting is supposed to protect the fundamental principle of one-person-one-vote,” ProPublica reported. “As demographics change, lines are shifted to make sure everyone is equally represented and to give communities a voice. In order for Republicans to win in North Carolina, they undermined the votes of Democrats, especially African-Americans. The strategy began in the run-up to the 2010 elections. Republicans poured money into local races in North Carolina and elsewhere. It was an efficient approach. While congressional races routinely cost millions, a few thousand dollars can swing a campaign for a seat in the state legislature.” Read more »

Who is Art Pope? –> Most recently, he’s been Governor Pat McCrory’s budget director. But he’s been described as the architect of the conservative takeover. Pope is behind a foundation that backs three groups that were behind 75 percent of outside spending in North Carolina political campaigns in 2008, and is the primary funder of one of them. He used to be a North Carolina state legislator, and once ran for lieutenant governor. But at the root of Pope’s political power is his fortune, which comes from a discount store business (think regional Dollar General–esque chains) begun by his father. Though a private citizen at the time, he was in the room as Republicans redrew the new districts that would reinforce their 2010 wins in 2012. (Fun fact: Pope helped found the Libertarian Party of North Carolina but resigned when members spoke too frequently and too seriously about mythical beasts such as Sasquatch.) In the The New Yorker, Jane Mayer’s 2011 profile chronicled Pope’s path from wealthy businessman to political puppet master. Read more »

Art Pope on Raleigh CBS affiliate WRAL.

The end of clean judicial elections –> In 2002, the North Carolina Legislature set up a program of publicly funded elections — a system by which taxpayer money helps cover the cost of political campaigns to minimize the influence of rich individuals and corporations. (For example, the system would protect a judicial candidate from being forced to accept or refuse a campaign donation from a lawyer or business that might later appear before her in court.) As a state legislator at the time, Art Pope played a leading role in the fight against the system, the Institute for Southern Studies’ publication Facing South reported. Over the next decade, Pope’s outside spending groups continued the battle — and once installed as McCrory’s budget director, Pope was well positioned to end public funding. His first budget slashed funding for the program. Read more »

“Sinful and tyrannical”? –> A case study in some Pope-funded rhetoric: The Civitas Institute, for which Pope provides majority funding, wrote an op-ed saying there was “no moral justification” for publicly funded judicial elections, which are “sinful and tyrannical” (a common and deliberate misreading of Thomas Jefferson, which the late, brilliant Aaron Swartz debunked succinctly). Read more »

Supermajority in action –> The Nation’s Ari Berman summarized the legislation that drove Moral Monday protestors to raise their voices this summer: “So far this year, legislation passed or pending by Republicans would eliminate the earned-income tax credit for 900,000; decline Medicaid coverage for 500,000; end federal unemployment benefits for 170,000 in a state with the country’s fifth-highest jobless rate; cut pre-K for 30,000 kids while shifting $90 million from public education to voucher schools; slash taxes for the top 5 percent while raising taxes on the bottom 95 percent; allow for guns to be purchased without a background check and carried in parks, playgrounds, restaurants and bars; ax public financing of judicial races; and prohibit death row inmates from challenging racially discriminatory verdicts. ‘They’ve drank all the Tea Party they could drink and sniffed all the Koch they could sniff,’ [North Carolina NAACP president Rev. William] Barber says.” Read more »

Members of North Carolina student chapters of the NAACP and opponents of voter ID legislation wear tape over their mouths while sitting silently in the gallery of the House chamber of the North Carolina General Assembly where lawmakers debated and voted on voter identification legislation in Raleigh, N.C., Wednesday, April 24, 2013. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

Demonstrators wore tape over their mouths as they protested new legislation regulating voting by sitting silently in the gallery of the House chamber of the North Carolina General Assembly, April 24, 2013. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

The “worst voter suppression law” –> North Carolina’s new voting restrictions were signed into law less than two months after the Supreme Court gutted the voting rights act. The Nation’s Berman reports that the NAACP and a coalition of voting rights groups filed lawsuits to block the legislation on the same day that Gov. McCrory signed it. “The sweeping law requires strict government-issued photo ID to cast a ballot, cuts the number of early voting days by a week, eliminates same-day voter registration during the early voting period, makes it easier for vigilante poll watchers to challenge the validity of eligible voters and expands the influence of unregulated corporate money in state elections,” wrote Berman. “[S]ince the Supreme Court took away their most potent weapon for fighting voting discrimination, voting rights groups have no choice but to hope that the compelling and disturbing facts of this case persuade the courts to block the ‘monster’ new law.” Read more »

Now what? –> North Carolina’s General Assembly adjourned at the end of July, though protests continued. The Rev. Dr. Barber, one of the Moral Mondays protest organizers, says that the new year will see the “largest, most robust march in the South since Selma.” The 2014 legislative session begins in May. Last week, The News & Observer reported that activists from 12 states converged on Raleigh to attend a meeting to learn how to start Moral Mondays protests in their states. Meanwhile, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that demonstrations may be coming to Georgia as soon as this month: Protestors there plan to call on the legislature, which convenes this month, “to expand Medicaid, restore funding to public schools and [raise] the minimum wage.”

John Light is a reporter and producer for the Moyers team. His work has appeared at The Atlantic, Grist, Mother Jones, Salon, Slate, Vox and Al Jazeera, and has been broadcast on Public Radio International. He's a graduate of Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. You can follow him on Twitter at @LightTweeting.
Laura Macomber is an associate producer at Okapi Productions. She is a former employee of Newsweek and The Daily Beast, where she produced news stories for the company’s live journalism events, Women in the World and The Hero Summit. Follow her on Twitter: @Lemacomber.
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