Will the Trump Bubble Burst?

Will the Trump Bubble Burst?

Not unlike Alice from Lewis Carroll’s Victorian novel, I’ve recently fallen through the rabbit hole of reading various articles and other texts about the history and rise of financial markets. Something – anything – unrelated to politics and away from social media seems like a positive development in this over-connected world. Alas, in reading Niall Ferguson’s Ascent of Money, his explanation of financial bubbles conjured a clear parallel in my mind to the rise (and fall?) of Donald J. Trump. 

The rise and eventual explosion of financial bubbles are divided into five categories, which appear consistently across bubbles in history ranging from Tulip mania in 17th century Netherlands to the housing bubble that plunged the world into the Great Recession just a decade ago. The five verbatim from Ferguson’s book:

  1. Displacement: Some change in economic circumstances creates new and profitable opportunities for certain companies.
  2. Euphoria or overtrading: A feedback process sets in whereby rising expected profits lead to rapid growth in share prices. 
  3. Mania: The prospect of easy capital gains attracts first-time investors and swindlers eager to mulct them of their money.
  4. Distress: The insiders discern that expected profits cannot possibly justify the now exorbitant price of the shares and begin to take profits by selling.
  5. Revulsion or discredit: As share prices fall, the outsiders all stampede for the exits, causing the bubble to burst altogether.

Who better to map against the rise and fall of valuation, of boom and bust, than Donald Trump?

Politics and economics are intertwined, no doubt, but the parallels here may come across as somewhat contrived. Regardless, I think there is value in attempting to relate a subjective, political story to a generally accepted empirical framework for financial markets.

Displacement

We begin with displacement. In fact, this story begins in the devastation of the last major bubble bursting: the 2008 housing crisis. Barack Obama ascends to the White House with promises of hope and change, and a mandate from the people as Democrats commanded the presidency, the House and the Senate. With the economy in dire straits, the administration passed a bailout to prevent major corporations from going belly-up, on top of a program that helped homeowners who were facing foreclosure and capped by the Affordable Care Act in 2010. 

The middle portion, aid to homeowners swindled by banks hawking subprime mortgages whose rates exploded after a fixed term, drew particular ire from conservatives. Rick Santelli, a CNBC contributor, delivered a rousing speech in February of 2009 that spurred the Tea Party Movement from the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange: “The government is promoting bad behavior,” he said. “Do we really want to subsidize the losers’ mortgages… we should reward the people who want to carry the water instead of those who want to drink the water.” 

From the ashes of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, the Tea Party arose like a phoenix, or more properly a fiscal hawk. This marks the clear displacement referenced above: The Republican Party is in some ways a big tent, but the Tea Party represented a fierce belief in smaller government, lower taxes, and strict originalist readings of the Constitution. The “market” saw a void and the Tea Party filled it, perhaps a portent of Trump. While its leaders may in good faith espouse this, in practice the movement seems to have given a home to more fringe elements of the party, such as those who questioned Barack Obama’s citizenship. Donald Trump, prior to his serious bid for the presidency, was a loud and frequent “birther,” suggesting Obama was illegitimate and not an American. 

The piece of this ideology that remained consistent both in philosophy and in practice was a distrust and disdain for “establishment” politicians, not just in the opposition but within the Republican Party. That’s why otherwise unlikely candidates such as Michele Bachmann were propelled into the halls of power, and how in safe-red districts the real challenge incumbents face is a primary opponent that tacks even further to the right.

Moving forward to the 2016 elections, a massive field of candidates, not unlike the Democrats have in 2020, ran to be the Republican answer for eight years of Obama. In that field were plenty of anti-establishment candidates, among them: Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul and, yes, Donald Trump. But perhaps above all the others, Trump truly bucked the trends and took Republican disregard for “political correctness” to dizzying heights. He seemed to say and do whatever came to mind, with no thought or concern for the repercussions. The strategy bore fruit, as his rise in the polls hardly faltered and he cruised rather easily to the nomination, though stragglers like Jeb Bush, John Kasich, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz nipped at his heels through the summer up to the convention.

So ends the displacement. Republicans moved away from the statesmen-like figures of Reagan, McCain or Romney and toward the bull in the china shop, Donald Trump. If big banks ruined the economy, let Trump disrupt the political class – Republican and Democratic alike.

Euphoria

With the background out of the way, the rest of these categories are liable to be rather short in comparison. Euphoria, to my mind, is the stage after it was clear Donald Trump would be the nominee. Plenty of candidates stayed in the primary, as I listed above, but it was a fool’s errand to be sure. 

If any single candidate had challenged Trump in that primary, it seems possible, if not likely, that the challenger would have prevailed. Trump consistently polled well below a majority in the primary, but with a half dozen other candidates dividing up the establishment vote, there was little room for anyone besides Trump to win. Couple that with winner-take-all states later in the primary, where nothing but first place really mattered, and Trump was bound to win.

At the same time as his success in the polls, Trump was holding massive rallies where he ginned up the audiences. Euphoria seems a fitting enough term for the spectacles, where people would appear in droves to see the celebrity-turned-candidate, waiting hours often in bad weather just to catch a glimpse of the man in the red hat. The rallies often took dark turns, with Trump openly calling for his supporters to rough up any protestors that might appear, and chants of Lock Her Up in reference to Hillary Clinton echoing throughout the venues. North Carolina’s own Dallas Woodhouse, erstwhile head of the NCGOP, appeared on television with a pair of handcuffs, dangling them during his interview and suggesting Secretary Clinton would soon don a pair.

The Trump rallies during the primary, and still today as he campaigns for reelection, produced a frenzy likely paralleled in rancor only by something from the Deep South years ago. Outright suggestions of violence against particular groups, thinly and not-so-thinly veiled, were and are constants, and the divisions within the nation only appear to be deepening. 

Mania

Part of the issue with the Trump candidacy and now presidency is his proclivity to endorse and entertain far-right fringe and conspiratorial theories. Perhaps unknowingly or perhaps with a clear-eyed plan, the president propagates ridiculous and easily discredited “alternative facts,” to borrow from Kellyanne Conway’s lexicon. More troubling than the fact that the president openly lies without repercussion is the readily eager crowds of supporters who accept everything he says as gospel. Or, worse yet, know he lies but don’t care.

This is the issue with mania: it discredits the truth and makes everything meaningless. Why does it matter for anyone to attempt to find the truth of a story if the most powerful man in the nation openly discards any narrative, even the most factual, that diverges from his predisposed view of the world? It is a sad lens of the world but true, nonetheless. This behavior has seeped into every part of the discourse, and partisans of any stripe are encouraged to find the narrative that makes them feel good and reinforces what they already believe, instead of challenging preexisting notions.

The latest example of this mania is what has caused the current talk of impeachment. The president apparently tried to coax the new leader of Ukraine into digging through the business dealings of Hunter Biden, Vice President Joe Biden’s son. The younger Biden worked in the Ukraine and served on the board of a company that would have possibly faced scrutiny by a Ukrainian prosecutor, all while the older Biden was VP.

The alleged impropriety is that Joe Biden pressured Ukraine to relinquish that prosecutor of his duties because he was too lax on corruption. Eastern European corruption remains an issue as the former Soviet satellites strive to build modern, Western economies and democracies; corruption makes that impossible, and pushes Western entities otherwise inclined to support their efforts away. 

In fact, this is where the story being hawked by Trump and his supporters falls apart: The crux of their scandal requires Joe Biden to have acted in a way that directly supported his son, apparently in a corrupt manner. But the facts disagree; truth be told, keeping the derelict prosecutor in place would have done more to shield Hunter Biden from inquiry than removing him in favor of a more deliberate prosecutor. On top of the illogic of that reasoning, it wasn’t Joe Biden alone making this decision. He worked as Barack Obama’s point person, and it would have been the opinion of the US State Department and plenty more individuals with less than zero concern for Hunter Biden, that were pressuring Ukraine to dismiss their prosecutor. Beyond the United States, other Western nations and institutions like the International Monetary Fund were pushing for the same result; you would have to be willfully obtuse to believe the conspiracy pushed by the president.

But then again, the president released an attack ad just this past week suggesting the Biden story held water and attempting to foist the blame away from himself and toward another. It’s a decent tactic, but likely the only one he has. The issue before Trump is that he now faces impeachment because of throwing around his own weight in an attempt to dig up dirt against Biden. He either doesn’t know that he ought not pressure foreign governments for help in domestic campaigns or doesn’t care; either choice is distressing.

Distress

Distress. You are here. This is the point in the bubble of the Trump presidency that we currently find ourselves. Now that he faces proper impeachment, likely by Thanksgiving if the process continues apace, some of the Republicans that are steadfast supporters of the president may find themselves with weak knees. A recent poll from Morning Consult found support for impeachment increase about 13 points just in the week that these Ukrainian revelations came out. Most striking, to me, is that the number among Republicans grew from 5 to 10 percent. 

What appears most likely is that the House of Representatives will impeach the president, in an almost strictly partisan vote (though one independent and one Republican seem to be interested as of today), and the Senate will vote against removing him from office. The question bandied about now is whether impeachment is worth it. I think it is. The Founders may not have foreseen this particular circumstance (and how could they?), but impeachment alone is a valuable enterprise. It allows for the facts to come out and for the people to fully understand who knew what and when they knew it. 

Many Republicans are crowing about this being Democrats’ attempt to reverse the outcome of the 2016 election, but that is ridiculous on its face. Democrats have had the majority for nearly a year now, with most moderates opposed to impeachment. Again, the reasoning presented flies in the face of logic: How can Democrats be reversing the outcome of 2016 if there is no chance the president will be removed by the Senate; and, if he were to be removed by the Senate, it only vindicates Speaker Pelosi’s impression that this was indeed a grave offense. You can’t have it both ways.

That’s why we’re at the point of distress. Supporters of the president should take stock in where things are and where they are liable to go. What’s best for the country is an honest assessment of merits and demerits to the case presented before the Senate, if impeachment proceeds. The media echo chamber on the right parrots talking points from the White House and is undermining the legitimacy of the investigation before it even takes place. That is bad for the country; the best thing to do is wait and see what happens, before arriving at a predestined notion of who is right and who is wrong.

The problem with bubbles, Niall Ferguson notes, is that “Time and again, this process has been accompanied by skullduggery, as unscrupulous insiders have sought to profit at the expense of naïve neophytes.” If voting in the Senate for removal were done via secret ballot, one insider noted, the president would likely be shaking in his boots. But because the votes are publicly recorded, and Republicans and Democrats alike have to run for reelection based on how they acted, there is a perverse incentive to do what is popular over what is right, whatever that may be at the time.

Revulsion

That leaves revulsion. This is the one piece of the puzzle yet to be seen, and one that we can hardly predict. It has two potential parts: One, Trump loses in 2020 or is otherwise removed from office, meaning that the requisite number of voters decided to be done with him or else their elected representatives in the House and Senate felt the same way; or two, Trump wins in 2020 and continues on with his rebranding of the Republican party, likely for a generation.

Revulsion would be the bursting of the bubble. It’s Trump losing because a majority of the country, including a number of Republicans, decide his politics and persona are unpalatable and something needs to change. It would mark quite a defeat for Trumpism, and it would also be a proper burst because it would take down far more than just the President. The entire modern GOP is indentured to Trump, with the RNC running as his mouthpiece and the NRCC parroting snide remarks and attacks against Democrats daily. The face of the party is Trump now, not Reagan. Only through his defeat in 2020 would that trend face a potential challenge; otherwise, it seems the Party of Reagan would complete its transformation into the Party of Trump.

Conclusion

So those are my thoughts on the Trump phenomenon, if it is a phenomenon. The most interesting part about politics and of this current era is that there is no simple answer. Nobody is right or wrong, in terms of prognosticating. Was Trump the teleological end to what the Tea Party birthed in 2009? Perhaps. The real tell will be whether candidates for president on the Republican ticket in 2024 align themselves tightly with Trump or if they run for the hills and the mere mention of his name. As always, time will tell.  

Entertaining Impeachment

Over the course of this current presidency, a lot of people on “my side of the aisle” have crowed about impeaching Donald Trump. I found it mostly counterproductive, to be honest, and borne more out of shock about losing the 2016 election than anything else. Plenty of folks in the pundit class were beating the drum as well; catch ten minutes of Morning Joe on MSNBC and you’ll hear more about impeachment than you have in any conversations with average people in the past three years.

The primary focus of the initial wave of impeachment calls were fixated on the Mueller investigation. Remember L’Affaire Russe? Everyone and their mother were telling you that, if we just waited for Mueller to testify, or release a statement, or tweet, or… I don’t know what, then this whole episode will be over. But Bob Mueller was no white knight, and even had he uncovered some damning information that merited the president’s removal from office, it wouldn’t have been his purview to do it. That rests with the Congress.

Quickly, because it’s pedantic and everyone knows this nowadays given the wall-to-wall coverage, but impeachment is the official process by which a government official is removed from office; in this case, we mean the president. It is a political process, not a legal one. The House of Representatives practically has carte blanche in deciding whether or not to move forward on impeachment proceedings; if you’ve got the votes, you’ve got your trial. The accused is impeached for “high crimes and misdemeanors,” which is a grandiose way of saying “whatever the Congress deems impeachable,” because that’s the practical implication. It isn’t hard and fast, and that’s one of the places where the arcane document governing our entire republic made room for us to wiggle: in terms of impeachable offenses, you’ll know it when you see it.

But up until now, the most noise from elected Democrats about impeachment was coming from 1) quite liberal members of Congress and 2) quite liberal candidates for president on the Democratic side. And this makes sense. Slow and steady, the number of Democrats in the House calling for impeachment has risen over the past few months. It’s reached a sort of crescendo in the last week. Somewhere north of 140 Democrats (as of today) support impeachment; there are 435 members total in the House.

The issue now raising their eyebrows — and the specter of impeachment — is one regarding the current frontrunner for the Democratic nomination: Vice President Joe Biden. The story goes (and I do emphasize here that as of today, the facts are not all available; this is obscenely speculative) that President Trump attempted to leverage money appropriated by Congress for Ukraine in a bid to solicit politically damning information on Biden. Joe Biden’s son has businesses dealings abroad, including in Ukraine.

It would certainly be a grotesque precedent to set if we allowed a sitting president to gather political dirt on an opponent in broad daylight – and with aid appropriated by Congress as a carrot. For the most part, I’ve seen the Trump presidency as a drag on institutions and multilateral cooperation, but if there is truth in the current allegations, it’s a bridge too far. At least Nixon was couth enough to dig up dirt within the United States, instead of looking abroad for oppo.

Speaker Pelosi has done well in holding her caucus together in what has been a difficult year since winning back the majority. With moderate, veteran legislators taking a stand on impeachment, we very well may be on the precipice. Republican lawmakers would have done well to check this presidency when they had the chance — remember the first two years of unified government? Now, he’s unchained, but with a Speaker who will actually check his worst impulses instead of abetting them.

Newt Gingrich moved to impeach Bill Clinton in 1998 for lying about an affair. President Trump has skated on far more than that, and with far less of a price to pay. Democrats will be put in a lot of difficult places over the course of the next year and a half, but if it comes to a point where the allegations move from speculation to fact, there is little left to do but move to impeach. To do otherwise would be a dereliction of separated powers and further empower the executive branch to do what it pleases with impunity.

Fear and Loathing in Iran

background

Over the past few months specifically, but across decades if not centuries, the international eye has focused on the Strait of Hormuz. The image below is from Tufts University.

The Strait occupies a key shipping route in the Persian Gulf. An enormous percentage of the world’s fuel travels through the Strait, carried by massive oil tankers. In recent weeks, the freedom of those ships to conduct their business has been stymied by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, an arm of the Iranian military and, recently designated a terrorist organization by the Trump administration.

The latest provocation came late last week. A British tanker was apprehended by the IRGC, a direct retaliation for an earlier move by the UK on July 4th, when the Royal Marines seized an Iranian tanker near Gilbratar. The Iranians had been threatening to act for weeks.

Video from an IRGC ship as they circle the British tanker last week.

Separate from the escalations between the UK and Iran, the United States has also faced off with the Iranians. Both parties have destroyed opposing drones coming too close for comfort. There is no doubt that the situation with Iran has ratcheted up in the past month.

Two topics of interest

Two topics come to mind; the first is freedom of navigation.

Conflict in the Strait of Hormuz is nothing new. In fact, the Fletcher School’s chapter on Freedom of Navigation cites the Strait (hence the above photo). Of varying degrees, Tufts says that, “There were 35 close encounters between U.S. and Iranian vessels in 2016, most of which occurred during the first half of the year, and 23 encounters in 2015.”

The United States operates Freedom of Navigation missions routinely. The Tufts site unpacks the rationale with far more specificity, but the gist of FoN is to ensure international waters remain international. It is one of many roles the United States plays in its capacity as the “world’s police,” but it is essential.

Rogue states, left unchecked, could easily block key economic and military chokepoints around the world. The Strait of Hormuz is one such chokepoint. In lieu of repeating an already apt description:

The Strait of Hormuz is one of the world’s key maritime chokepoints.

This narrow seaway connects the Indian Ocean with the Arabian/Persian Gulf. For all of recorded history, the seaway has connected Arab and Persian civilizations with the Indian subcontinent, Pacific Asia and the Americas. For example, before the rise of European seaborne empires in the 15th and 16th centuries, porcelain from China and spices from the Indochina peninsula often passed through the strait on their way to Central Asia and Europe.

Today the Strait of Hormuz separates the modern Iranian state from the countries of Oman and the United Arab Emirates, which have strong defense connections with the United States and Saudi Arabia.

All shipping traffic from energy-rich Gulf countries converges in the strait, including crude oil and liquefied natural gas exports from Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Twenty percent of the world’s crude oil flows through this 21-mile wide waterway.

This maritime chokepoint became an arena of conflict during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. Each side in the so-called “Tanker War” tried to sink the other’s energy exports. To avoid being targeted, Kuwaiti oil tankers were reflagged under the U.S. shipping registry. 

Although crude oil continued to flow, marine insurance rates for vessels operating in the strait spiked by as much as 400 percent. Those higher costs likely contributed to higher gasoline and diesel prices worldwide.

Dr. Rockford Weitz

The Brits, for what it’s worth, have stated that, “When it comes to freedom of navigation, there can be no compromise.”

Freedom of Navigation is an essential feature of the global economy. Without it, the international order devolves and shipping lanes become a free-for-all. Sympathetic nations will have to thread the needle, both reprimanding and punishing Iran enough to discourage this activity, but short of sustained kinetic engagements.

Which leads me to the second focus: Kahn’s Escalation Ladder.

I came across this model for the first time when reading a great, somewhat new book called Destined for War, which explores whether war between China and the United States is inevitable. One of the key topics the author engages is Kahn’s Escalation Ladder, basically a framework of escalations that take two parties from a seemingly small conflict to full-scale nuclear war.

Now, the Escalation Ladder is meant to demonstrate how two nuclear powers might escalate, and as of today the Iranian regime does not have nuclear weapons. But the actions taken by both the UK and USA in reaction to Iranian provocations are likely portents to how escalation could play out in the future, were Iran to weaponize uranium.

Below is the Escalation Ladder. The initial crises is at the bottom, working its way up to nuclear war. Notice that formal declaration of war is rather close to the top. There are a number of relatively minor steps before proper “war,” but taken in sum it becomes almost inevitable.

Another key feature is that the rungs are not necessarily linear. One reading of the ladder suggested to think of it as an elevator: A party involved in conflict could easily jump multiple “rungs” and escalate the situation quicker, particularly if an opportunity to capture some relative advantage presents itself.

upshot

It’s a bit too easy, in my opinion, to cast stones from the outside and suggest that the United States (or now the international community, since the UK is involved and remains a signatory and proponent of the Iran Deal) is belligerent and in pursuit of proper war with Iran. While I believe the incumbent administration has taken steps to destabilize the situation we face with Iran, there are also absolute commitments that nearly every nation supports. Freedom of Navigation is one such protection.

Allowing Iran to monopolize passage through the Strait of Hormuz has the potential to sink the world into economic malaise, not to mention requiring exponentially more force to resolve the issue.

Humble Beginnings

Over the past few years, certainly since senior year of college, I’ve become more and more interested in writing. Words I’ve cobbled together have appeared on a number of sites in the past, and, in fact, the first was a poorly constructed WordPress site, not unlike this one (for now.) Back and better, hopefully.

I still intend to write on PoliticsNC.com, where content more suited for a Tar Heel audience will appear, and on odd weeks in the Salisbury Post, where my opinion column has yet to be revoked.

So while this site in its nascent form has no specific purpose, maybe that’s half the point.

Salisbury Post Columns

Below are collected columns I wrote for the Salisbury Post between 2019 and 2020.


Rural NC could soon be distant memory

January 30, 2020

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of attending a panel discussion hosted by the University of North Carolina Institute of Politics titled Esse Quam Videri, our state’s motto: “To be, rather than to seem.”

Former Govs. Jim Hunt, Jim Martin and Pat McCrory sat in conversation, moderated by professor Anita Brown-Graham.

The event drew a diverse crowd of students, alumni and politicos, and the topics were wide-ranging. But one issue in particular stood out to me: Transportation.

Though two Republicans and one Democrat were present on the stage, they all agreed that the future of North Carolina would hinge on how committed we are to transportation.

Though it may be hard to notice as we go through our daily lives, North Carolina is growing rapidly. In the past decade alone, North Carolina has outpaced most of the nation in population growth. People are moving to the Tar Heel State from every part of the nation, and internationally, too.

Growth is inevitably coupled with growing pains. North Carolina is no exception.

The 2010 census put North Carolina at about 9.5 million people, and current projections anticipate the past decade of growth puts us on track to surpass 10.5 million by the end of the 2020 census.

Those people have to live somewhere, which raises issues of affordable housing and density in cities, but they also have to get to work, stores and appointments.

North Carolina has mixed results in terms of transportation. Road repairs and construction continue across the state, but increased wheels on the roads will only continue to deteriorate the existing infrastructure.

New technology will likely alleviate some concerns about transportation, like driverless vehicles optimizing commutes, or increased use of light rail in urban areas. Charlotte has led in the latter regard, while the Triangle region is fumbling its opportunity to connect Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill.

Michael Walden, a professor at North Carolina State University, has a book titled “North Carolina Beyond the Connected Age,” in which he makes predictions on where the state may arrive by mid-century.

In a section covering transportation, he predicts that the government will take less of a lead in the sector and that privatization will triumph. That may well be the case given his other prediction, which he lists as a corollary but is just as likely a driver itself: More people will begin living in planned communities.

This is already the case in some urbanizing areas.

Chapel Hill, for example, has a community that is almost self-contained: a small school, a church, a grocery store and apartments all housed together. Who needs highways if you can walk everywhere?

In areas that are already urban, new efforts are underway to increase the density of downtown areas and maximize the space we have; horizontal development has its limits, but buildings are continually reaching higher into the clouds.

Raleigh kicked out development-skeptic city councilors in favor of a younger set of leaders who understand the need to build up, not out.

Finally, the question of where these new people will live arises.

Most of the growth in North Carolina is in Wake and Mecklenburg Counties, but smaller population hubs are also picking up in growth.

The corridor to watch is I-85, from Charlotte to Raleigh. Experts predict the length of that interstate is poised to become a strip of growth in the state.

Couple that with high-speed rail connecting the two metropolitan hubs, and the N.C. of 2000 will be a rural memory compared to the interconnected vision of 2050.


In 2020, NC is wrong state for those who dislike politics

January 2, 2020

Ever since 2016 at least, politics seems to pervade daily life more than ever before. Tweets and articles and updates on the news are inescapable. Unless you dedicate yourself to the task, it’s nearly impossible to go a day without seeing the current president or one of the myriad Democrats hoping to replace him as commander-in-chief.

If you aren’t a fan of politics, you may live in the wrong state. A number of contests this year will shape North Carolina, and the nation, for the decade to come. The last few years have been an appetizer to 2020.

First, and most clearly, the presidential election. Of the 270 electoral college votes needed, North Carolina has thirteen. The Tar Heel state has been decided by a tight margin consistently in the last few cycles; 2020 points toward more of the same. On its own, President Trump can afford to lose North Carolina assuming he carries some of the unexpected midwestern states once again. However, if the Democratic nominee wins in North Carolina, it’s likely indicative of similar states flipping. The eventual winner may not have to carry North Carolina, but most likely will.

The presidential contest has coattails that will affect every other race on the ballot. The reelection of Republican Senator Thom Tillis likely hinges on how successful President Trump is in carrying North Carolina. Tillis consistently polled as one of, if not the, least popular incumbent senators in the nation. Expect a bevy of outside spending to maintain Tillis’ seat; control of the United States Senate will hinge on whether or not Tillis holds on.

At the state level, Governor Roy Cooper will seek a second term. His tenure has been marked by conflict with the legislature and a nasty partisan environment: Republican leaders in the General Assembly stripped the governor of a number of powers before he even took office.

Despite the strife between the executive and the legislature, Cooper’s polling numbers have him in a decent position and his most likely opponent, Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, consistently falls behind him in head-to-head matchups. Cooper won in 2016 by some 10,000 votes, one of the closest statewide races in the nation. The gubernatorial contest is easier to divorce from national politics than the US Senate race, but that shouldn’t discount effects of the presidential election.

Finally, the General Assembly presents a clear opportunity for North Carolina Democrats in the House to regain control after a decade as the minority party. Court decisions prompting fairer districts made it possible for Democrats to compete in districts that were heretofore drawn exclusively to elect Republicans. Shifting demographics and a changing electorate have continued moving some of the formerly safe-Republican districts into competitive races.

In each of these races, from the US Senate down to the smallest North Carolina House district, the presidential contest will loom large.  And while 2020 feels like it should be the denouement, after the rocky path since 2016, it’s just the beginning. The next decade will see North Carolina become more competitive, more expensive and more pivotal to American politics.


Walker, Tillis battle would be one for ages

December 8, 2019

On the heels of a court decision last week, North Carolina opened filing for congressional races. The decision ended what had been months of speculation about what districts the state would use for its 13-member congressional delegation.

For the past decade, North Carolina has been mired in litigation over the way the districts are drawn. No matter the party in power, those with the ability to draw maps inevitably lean them toward self-preservation. The previous map, drawn by Republicans, locked in an almost impenetrable majority: 10 Republican districts, three Democratic.

But the court decision last week changed that, approving a new plan which looks likely to yield eight Republicans and five Democrats.

That decision means two Republicans in previously safe seats now occupy districts sure to go for Democrats. Congressmen Mark Walker and George Holding, who announced he wasn’t running

for re-election on Friday, both need to find second acts. The latter will likely leave for the private sector, but Mark Walker is ambitious and highly favored by conservatives and President Donald Trump.

Walker has two clear options electorally, but neither is easy.

The first would be to run against another Republican incumbent, Rep. Ted Budd of Davie County, whose new district encompasses much of what was represented by Walker while still including parts of his old district, including Rowan County.

Walker has plenty of money, but a nasty fight with his neighboring congressman would be a lousy enterprise to regain a seat in the House. What’s more, the influential conservative group Club for Growth, which helped elect Budd in his first campaign in 2016, announced it would back Budd against a primary challenge, willing to spend $1 million or more.

But backing Budd isn’t a dig against Walker. The Club for Growth has backed Walker in the past and want him to challenge North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis in the primary. That just so happens to be Walker’s other option.

This week, a primary challenger to Thom Tillis left the race. That was Garland Tucker, a self-made millionaire who was seeking the nomination as a conservative ally to Trump. His bid fell flat, with the president and his allies piling up to support Tillis.

Walker would be a different candidate. Unlike Tucker, he never wavered in his support for candidate and then President Trump. It would be a battle, tooth and nail, with the fiery conservative Walker running against what many consider a flaky incumbent.

Tillis has a chameleon-like quality, seeming to change his political stripes based upon what suits his political goals at the time. That works well enough when you have the money and support to win a Republican primary, but it also makes it difficult when a proper conservative arises to challenge you.

Tea-party conservatives saw a slew of victories in the years after President Barack Obama won office, but Tillis isn’t a tea partier. He just plays one on TV.

Walker is the real deal and fits well with the current base of the Republican Party. If he challenges Tillis and gains serious support, the type of Republicans who vote in primaries are more aligned with Walker in style and substance.

It would be a fight for the ages.


Are Kentucky, Louisiana races signs for Cooper?

November 21, 2019

In the past few weeks, Democrats have seen a number of positive outcomes in elections where a typical Republican ought to run away with victory.

Louisiana, Mississippi and Kentucky each held their gubernatorial contests this year, and all three are states where Donald Trump won with relative ease. They’re firmly in the Republican column in terms of national elections.

But Democratic candidates in two of the three states were able to win. In Kentucky, terribly unpopular incumbent Republican Gov. Matt Bevin conceded defeat to his challenger, Democrat Andy Beshear. It continued a decades-long trend of one-term Republican governors in a reliably red state.

In no small part, the incumbent contributed to his own demise. Bevin conducted himself in a brash way, making more enemies than necessary and generally rubbing people the wrong way. He molded himself as a Trumpish figure, but the problem with running as Trump is that nobody but Trump can do it.

In Louisiana, the circumstances were flipped. Gov. John Bel Edwards faced re-election. A Democrat, he won in an upset race in 2015 and was considered by many a fluke governor.

But in last week’s contest, he put any doubts to rest, winning by three points over Republican challenger Eddie Rispone. Rispone benefited from a handful of visits from the president as well as a personal fortune to pour into the race.

Alas, he fell short.

In the days leading up to these elections, and certainly in the days following, there have been plenty of analyses and suggestions about why Beshear or Edwards were able to win. Unsurprisingly, most of the arguments you read about it in larger publications try to draw conclusions about how these results augur for the presidential contest in 2020.

Though they are certainly data points and possible indicators, the real upshot is for statewide contests next year, particularly Gov. Roy Cooper’s re-election bid.

All politics is local, or so said Tip O’Neill, longtime speaker of the House. Though a menagerie of variables affect races on a statewide scale, there are two in particular that warrant mention.

First, in Kentucky: Incumbent Gov. Matt Bevin made enemies of plenty people, but in particular the Kentucky teachers. All throughout the past year, teachers went on strike over proposed budgets that reduced public education funding. Bevin also made a number of somewhat snide remarks about the striking teachers, and the Republican-led Kentucky House of Representatives passed resolutions condemning his remarks.

In Louisiana, the incumbent had a positive record to run on. In his first term, Edwards accepted the Medicaid expansion provided by the federal government under the Affordable Care Act. Studies show that, while many states saw a slight uptick in the uninsured rate, Louisiana halved the number of people without coverage in the three years after expansion.

These issues are not unique to Louisiana or Kentucky. In fact, Cooper has been in the middle of the fight over both in North Carolina. The past few months, Cooper and the Republican leaders in the General Assembly have been at an impasse in budget negotiations. Neither side can agree on a middle ground for teacher pay raises. That’s resulted in a stalemate for now.

On Medicaid expansion, Cooper has also faced opposition. The governor wants a clean expansion, accepting the coverage for hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians.

As written, expansion would be cost-neutral for the state; the federal government covers 90% and health care providers pick up the rest. That’s on top of economic benefits from a healthier workforce, and thousands of new jobs created in and around the health care industry.

If the Kentucky and Louisiana gubernatorial contests are indicators, the winning side of these issues on both counts is Cooper. If he wins reelection, odds of success will rest more on whether he has an amenable legislature for once in his tenure.


Is Tim Moore likely to be UNC president?

November 7, 2019

Rumors are par for the course in politics. Often, they’re floated to unsuspecting couriers to sway opinion about this or that issue.

They may or may not be true, but the chatter around them gives credence to their message. One such rumor is now making its way around Raleigh and the rest of the state: Speaker Tim Moore is apparently interested in taking over as president of the University of North Carolina system, which encompasses 17 campuses across the state.

In no uncertain terms, political scandal has been the norm under Republican leadership of the UNC System. Decent leaders were forced out for no particular reason, except perhaps partisan affiliation. Tom Ross, system president from 2011-2016, was relieved from duty with the following statement from the Board of Governors: “The board believes President Ross has served with distinction, that his performance has been exemplary, and that he has devoted his full energy, intellect and passion to fulfilling the duties and responsibilities of his office. This decision has nothing to do with President Ross’ performance or ability to continue in the office.”

Then why fire him? It’s hard to conjure any reasonable explanation apart from party politics. Ross’ replacement on the board came in the form of Margaret Spellings, former Secretary of Education for George W. Bush — obviously, a Republican.

But the dysfunction continued even with a member of the party running the system.

Spellings lasted only three years, retiring before the end of her tenure earlier this year. Tensions rose between the Board of Governors and leaders of the various institutions, including the flagship in Chapel Hill. The tendency to micromanage university leadership, instead of allowing each institution to act in its own best interests, has hobbled the university system.

Enter Moore. With all of the questionable practices of the Board of Governors to this point, his appointment as university president would almost be fitting. It’s the logical conclusion of a years-long attempt to dismantle the higher education system in North Carolina that has for decades set us apart in the South.

For what it’s worth, Speaker Moore has discredited suggestions that he wants the job. That’s offset, somewhat, by remarks from Harry Smith. Smith just resigned as Board of Governors chairman this year and is now resigning from the board itself.

“In my opinion, I strongly feel like Tim is interested in the job,” he said.

Smith ought to have some idea of Moore’s intentions, since he helps to fund his ambitions.

Smith has made thousands of dollars in contributions both to Moore and Phil Berger, and he’s not alone in opening his wallet. Numerous members of the Board of Governors are prolific political donors, with thousands of dollars pouring into the coffers of familiar North Carolina politicos: Thom Tillis, Dan Forest, Pat McCrory, Tim Moore and Phil Berger. Political donations are free speech, but it does at least raise the question of patronage.

Who is more likely to be appointed to a prestigious Board of Governors seat: a qualified non-donor or someone that has cut checks worth thousands of dollars?

Given Moore’s history of ushering through donors and conservative ideologues onto the Board of Governors, we should question whether the same folks would be evenhanded in their efforts to fill the position if he were up for consideration.

North Carolina’s higher education system has been resilient even under duress from within, but sustained efforts to undermine it will prevail if the current trajectory persists.


NC’s Stein joins needed probe into Facebook

October 24, 2019

It was announced this week that North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein will be part of the leadership team of fellow attorneys general from across the nation that have joined together in a bipartisan investigation into Facebook.

It’s high time that Facebook is brought to account for the role it plays in the marketplace, both economically and in terms of electoral politics.

There has been no shortage of coverage on the role Facebook plays in our society, but now it seems to be receiving ample coverage in terms more familiar to those in history class than in contemporary conversation: a monopoly.

The difference between monopolies as we think of them historically and the ones arising today is in the actual good or service being monopolized.

To borrow a local example of monopolies, we can visit North Carolina’s own J.B. Duke — a humble university in Durham was named after his father. Duke was an industrialist and robber baron in the same vein as Rockefeller and Carnegie; he cornered the market on tobacco, buying out scores of competitors in the industry. By the early 20th century, his grip on the market compelled Theodore Roosevelt’s Justice Department to file an antitrust complaint, and the firm was forced to dissolve a decade later into multiple entities.

Early examples of monopolies are far easier to understand; there are tangible commodities and the effects are clear. With a producer of tobacco, it means there are no competitors to drive down costs. That’s bad for the consumer, and it’s a fundamental aspect of a free market that the government plays a role in upholding.

But now, when the commodity is data, or some other esoteric good, the effect is harder to see. Too often, we consider Facebook and other social media purely in the terms of what we get out of the service. But we forget that, yes, it is a business, and a quite large one at that. Using Facebook means giving your data to the company and being served a barrage of ads based upon what an algorithm thinks you might want to buy.

The business side of social media can be unnerving enough, but where we should really pause is the role those advertisers play when the content is around political communications.

Part of the position of Matt Stoller, author of the upcoming book “Goliath: The 100-Year War Between Monopoly Power and Democracy,” is that what used to be a decentralized advertising system, with thousands of newspapers, magazines, radios and televisions to choose from, is now distilled into basically two: Google and Facebook.

Stoller recently wrote about this in an op-ed published Oct. 17 in the New York Times (“Tech companies are destroying democracy and the free press”).

Many of the laws we operate under were written years, if not decades, before the internet was even a consideration. They’re far outdated, and technology innovates and recreates daily.

That’s why this bipartisan, nationwide effort by attorneys general is so important. It needs to be made clear that a monopolization of information is not a partisan issue.

The sharing of information online should not be in the vise grip of modern-day robber barons like Mark Zuckerberg.

All North Carolinians should be proud of the leadership exhibited by Attorney General Stein and the N.C. Department of Justice in this effort.


NC’s 2020 vote will be tight and, potentially, decisive for country

October 13, 2019

In what should come as a surprise to no one, North Carolina will once again be among the most competitive states in the 2020 election.

That holds true not only for the top of the ticket — President Donald Trump versus whoever claws through the Democratic primaries — but for races down ballot as well. 

Last week, Public Policy Polling of Raleigh released its latest results, testing various scenarios that may arise in next year’s contests. The clearest takeaway is how divided the state is. The president holds 46% to 47% of the electorate in any matchup, with Democrats ranging from Joe Biden at 51% down to Pete Buttigieg at 46%. Regardless of the nominee, as things stand just over a year out, it will be a nail-biter.

The true divide among North Carolinians is uncovered by asking whether they support or oppose impeaching Trump: 48% support it and the same number oppose it. An estimated 4% of the state’s voters are “not sure.” That is a telling number. The state remains just as divided on the question of President Trump as it was on the question of candidate Trump three years ago.

In 2016, polls showed a neck-and-neck race between Hillary Clinton and Trump. Days before the election, a New York Times/Siena poll reported a statistical tie and a 3.5-point margin of error. Trump would go on to win by 3.6% in one of the closest races in the nation. Despite what some folks may say, the concept of a swing voter is alive and well in American politics.

Recently, there have been various suggestions posited for how either party should rally the troops in anticipation of 2020. This is less true for Republicans, given their standard-bearer is static while Democrats sort out who should lead the ticket. There is a running debate among factions of the Democratic Party as to how victory will manifest itself next year. Is the strategy base mobilization, correcting for the lower turnout among three key states last time, or is it a moderate message that appeals to voters in the suburbs?

In some ways, that’s a false choice. As Yascha Mounk wrote in The Atlantic this month, a pivot leftward for Democrats isn’t a guaranteed strategy. Demographics as destiny is often touted as a long-term bulwark for Democrats: The idea that a population that continues to diversify will skew toward Democrats given past voting history. This is true insofar as new voters mirror old ones, but it’s also based on a sample of moderate Democratic candidacies and governance. 

Mounk writes: “After all, black and Latino Democrats are actually more likely to be moderate — or even conservative — than white Democrats.” If skin color alone determined partisanship, Texas would have two Democratic senators today. What matters is the message and the messenger. Exciting the most liberal faction within the Democratic Party is a clear strategy to win the primary but may yield less in a general election.

Whatever comes of the Democratic primaries, the conversation will have to reduce to a simple one: Trump or not.

Whether the Democratic candidate fights for a “return to normalcy” or for “big, structural change,” it all comes down to whether or not the American people — and, in our case, North Carolinians — prefer a different resident in the White House. Circling back to the 4% “not sure” on the impeachment question, despite being one of the largest states in the union, it all comes down to that group.

An estimated 48% of us would like to see the president impeached and 48% of us would not. Ultimately in 2020, the remaining 4% will be the deciders in the North Carolina vote, and our electoral votes could very well be the deciding factor nationwide. 


Republicans bring eyes of world back to NC with budget override

September 15, 2019

On Wednesday morning in the North Carolina General Assembly, most members of the House were not present.

Apparently, one of the Republican leaders told Democratic leaders that there would be no votes in the morning session. That’s what’s known as a skeletal session, where a few members of both parties are in attendance just to get the day started, without any legislation of consequence considered. Multiple reporters who cover the General Assembly were told the same, and there were no cameras on the House floor or any members of the press.

For all everyone knew, there was nothing to see.

That is, for everyone except the Republican leadership.

As they finished the prayer and the business of the day proceeded, a Republican legislator rose to bring the budget veto override to the floor for a vote.

Gov. Roy Cooper vetoed the budget proposal weeks ago, and Republicans have been looking for an opportunity to override it ever since. The rub for them, though, is that 2018 elections narrowed their majorities. Instead of an insurmountable supermajority, the Republicans have simple majorities in both houses, well below the two-thirds needed to override a gubernatorial veto.

But that is only true when every member is present, and on Wednesday barely a dozen Democrats were in the room. Fifty-five Republicans appeared, and before any of the Democrats knew what was occurring, the process was set in motion. Two months of stalemate — and a refusal to negotiate by the majority — ended in a single moment.

Rep. Deb Butler, from Wilmington, vocally opposed the maneuver, railing against the House speaker. But Speaker Tim Moore runs the process, and refused to acknowledge her motions.

He continued reading through her objections.

Rep. Sydney Batch, who has battled cancer and was present for previous overrides despite her frail state, could be seen behind Butler on the floor.

I wrote weeks ago about how unconscionable it was to pull these stunts when a few members were gone; this tactic far exceeds those before.

Democratic leader Darren Jackson told reporters that Rep. David Lewis communicated to him in-person that there would be no votes, and that story seems to be corroborated by a text Lewis exchanged with a WRAL reporter the night before, telling her there would be no votes at 8:30 a.m.

What may be just as likely is that Lewis acted in good faith, and Moore took advantage of an opportunity to sneak through a vote on the most important legislation our representatives consider.

Within hours the story went national. Rachel Maddow shared the News & Observer’s editorial, and the Washington Post had an article around midday.

A News & Observer reporter fielded a call from the BBC, where Brexit is roiling the United Kingdom, and yet they still have time to watch North Carolina mimic their chaos.

All told, two facts are clear: The Republicans were technically able to pull this stunt, based on the rules of the House, and they were entirely wrong to do it.

Legislative tricks like this were commonplace before Democrats broke the supermajority, but now that the minority party has a say, however small in scale, the tricks and underhanded maneuvers are magnified. Whatever good faith may have remained between both parties has surely evaporated now.

The eyes of the world are back upon North Carolina, and as is all too common these days, their gaze is drawn by legislative gimmicks and bad policy for North Carolinians.


With 9th District race, 2018 finally ends and 2020 elections get started

September 12, 2019

On Tuesday, our neighboring congressional district finally concluded a years-long campaign for the House of Representatives.

The race in North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District is at once the last election of 2018 and the first election of 2020.

Briefly, a recap: In 2018, Mark Harris, a pastor and the Republican candidate, won by a narrow margin of about 1,000 votes, or 0.4%. Dan McCready, an entrepreneur and retired Marine, ran as the Democrat, and hammered a message around health care and prescription drug costs. No Democrat has represented the 9th district since the 1960s.

But after the results showed a slim victory by Harris, a few signs of electoral discrepancy appeared.

A Republican operative orchestrated a ballot harvesting scheme, where people were paid to collect absentee ballots that are meant to be mailed in, offering to submit them for people. Some of those ballots were unsealed, and a number of votes exceeding the margin of victory were in question.

Ballot harvesting is illegal in North Carolina, and the North Carolina State Board of Elections refused to certify the results. Ultimately, a new election was scheduled, which finally saw its conclusion Tuesday.

Salisbury’s own Michael Bitzer played an essential role in explaining the discrepancies with his indispensable election analysis, demonstrating the statistical anomalies coming out of the counties where the scheme affected vote counts.

Dan McCready returned as the Democratic candidate, facing off against Dan Bishop, a Republican State Senator best known for his role in crafting House Bill 2, the bathroom bill.

The race saw national press coverage, millions in outside spending and, on election eve, a visit by President Donald Trump and his coterie in Fayetteville.

Bishop won the night, extending the margin of Harris’ tainted victory in 2018 and overtaking McCready by about 4,000 votes. In a district the president carried by 12 points in 2016, consecutive congressional races resulted in near ties. Much has and will be made about the outcome of this race.

Here, I will make more.

First, the political environment remains poor for Trump and the GOP as a whole. A win is a win, and I doubt Dan Bishop cares much about his margin of victory, but tight elections in ruby red districts does not augur well for 2020.

There is a danger in drawing too many conclusions from a single race, particularly when a district on the other side of the state, the 3rd, held a special election concurrently and the Republican, Greg Murphy, matched Trump’s performance in 2016. Extrapolating 2020 from one special election is reading a single tea leaf; that said, it’s a data point.

Second, Democrats should not expect anti-Trump sentiment to carry them to victory in congressional elections next year.

House candidates are constrained by the boundaries of their district. The 9th, for example, stretches from the suburbs of Charlotte, along the South Carolina border, and ends in Bladen County near Fayetteville.

While North Carolina has focused in the last week or two on a landmark gerrymandering decision that threw out our legislative districts, the congressional districts remain intact.

New districts will be drawn for North Carolina House and Senate races by 2020, but the 13 congressional districts are not affected by that decision. Gerrymandered districts prove their value to the party that drew them when a 10-point swing towards the opposition still protects the seat.

And finally, Democrats and Republicans will have to take a hard look at changing dynamics in different types of places. Southern Mecklenburg is historically a GOP stronghold, but Democrats have made inroads south as the suburbs of metropolitan areas become less Republican. The inverse is true in rural areas: Democrats have crumbled and that trend is only continuing. The rural-urban divide is only intensifying.

The results in this week’s special elections should be considered as single data points in a longer trend. Democrats and Republicans alike have their work cut out for them in the coming months before 2020. In fact, Bishop will barely be sworn in before he’ll need to file for reelection, starting in December. It’s about to be election season again in North Carolina’s 9th.


Abolish death penalty to prevent one from being wrongfully killed

August 29, 2019

Max Weber, a pre-eminent 19th-century political scientist, described the state as “a human community that successfully claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.”

In no way is that more clearly presented than in the exercise of capital punishment. The death penalty is an anachronism, a relic of the past that ought to be left in the past.

The United States stands alone in the West as the only nation to continue executing its own citizens. Many of the states within our nation have ended the practice, but those that continue it still execute inmates regularly.

But new revelations in separate cases last week in North Carolina should give us pause, as they are indicative of the inescapable flaw of the death penalty: innocent people die. In Raleigh, James Blackmon recently had all of his charges dismissed. He spent the past 30 years incarcerated for the 1979 murder of a college student. He didn’t do it.

The only evidence against him was his own confession, solicited while he sat as a mentally ill patient in a Raleigh hospital.

During interviews with police, “he was wearing a Superman cape,” while he “also spoke of being able to cause earthquakes and compared himself to Dracula.” The only thing James was guilty of was being “eager to please,” as his attorney put it.

In a similar case in Greenville, Dontae Sharpe was released after serving 24 years for a 1994 murder. A key witness in the trial recanted her testimony, throwing a wrench into the narrative of the crime. In these cases, the men were not slated for execution. It is a miracle that they weren’t.

In North Carolina, 142 people are on death row. Of them, 63% are minorities. That number alone should give us pause, but another questions arises: how did those convictions take place?

The Center for Death Penalty Litigation reports that an inordinate number of black jurors were struck than white jurors. That is to say, all things the same, if a juror was black, he was more likely removed than an equally qualified white juror.

The fundamental idea behind our criminal justice system, a jury of our peers, is often abridged.

The men recently released were not on death row, but plenty more are.

As a pure matter of statistics, there are people poised to be executed who did not commit a crime, and plenty more who have already died at the hands of the state.

The case for abolishing the death penalty is typically argued by liberal-leaning voices in American politics, but the tide seems to be changing in that regard.

In New Orleans, Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty is holding its first meeting. Criminal justice reform is becoming less of a third rail to discuss in both major parties. The thinking is clear: how can we execute someone with the prospect that he may be innocent?

For many, admission of guilt is enough to justify a sentence, but we see in the case of James Blackmon, for example, that these admissions are not always reliable. The primary concern of the state in this regard should be to protect its citizens.

Life behind bars keeps violent offenders out of communities, but it also gives technology time to advance and provides more ways to exonerate those imprisoned wrongfully.

One person wrongfully killed is one too many.


Fixing gerrymandering would aid in budget impasse

August 15, 2019

For over a month, the state of North Carolina has been mired in a budget impasse.

Gov. Roy Cooper stands firm for Medicaid expansion, while House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate Leader Phil Berger stand firm in, well, not Medicaid expansion.

The curious thing, at least in the North Carolina House, is that any Democratic member will tell you their Republican colleagues are interested in Medicaid expansion.

What matters more than the feelings of the members is the leadership. If Moore doesn’t want to bring Medicaid expansion to the floor, he has no obligation to.

But even if the leadership doesn’t want to address the issue, why do sympathetic Republican members stay silent, if some actually support a form of expansion?

Part of it, no doubt, is the political climate. Rigid adherence to the party line is all that matters in a primary, and winning the primary is everything for many members.

Right now, Common Cause v. Lewis is working its way through the North Carolina courts; the ultimate decision in that case will have longstanding implications for democracy in the Tar Heel State.

Common Cause challenges the gerrymandering epidemic in North Carolina, and it would make quite a difference in the way things run around here.

First, the aforementioned Republican members would still have to worry about losing elections, of course, but not to other Republicans. Introductory political science courses teach you an evergreen political maxim: politicians are single-minded seekers of re-election.

Apart from noble aspirations and legitimate concern for the well-being of their constituents, none of it matters if you lose your seat.

Gerrymandering relates to the budget impasse and every other issue in North Carolina, because it prevents the true majority of North Carolinians from electing the best possible representative for their district.

Just because you live in a Republican-leaning district doesn’t necessarily mean your representative ought to be a rigid, hardline conservative. The point of a representative democracy is to elect people to act in our stead so that we all don’t have to drop everything and vote on important issues all the time.

Ideally, the representatives would actually be representative; that is, they would reflect the sentiment of the majority in their district. If you live in a deeply Republican district, that may not be the case.

Primaries in those districts decide the victor, not the general election. Often, that means a race to the extremes.

Being the more moderate or reasonable candidate in a primary is a demerit, not a boon to your candidacy.

That sends to Raleigh people who are adamant in their positions and unwilling to compromise. And that leads you to a budget impasse more than 30 days after there should’ve been a deal.

Whether the leaders in the General Assembly like it or not (they don’t), North Carolinians elected Cooper in 2016 to balance what had been one-party rule.

While gerrymandered districts helped to maintain their majorities in the legislature, the supermajorities dissipated and now Democrats have leverage. That’s how government is supposed to work, even if it may inconvenience those accustomed to one-party governance.


Choose paper, not touchscreens, for NC voters

August 1, 2019

You might have noticed a trend in North Carolina politics: dysfunction.

That sense now pervades even those seemingly innocuous arms of the government. Just this week, the chairman of the Board of Elections, Bob Cordle, resigned after apparently telling some lengthy, crude joke at a conference of local elections boards. Why does it seem that those in positions of power take their roles less seriously than the rest of us?

Either way, the resignation could not have come at a worse time, since the Board of Elections is now embroiled in some new controversy over the voting systems we will use statewide. If you recall, the electronic systems we used were at the least unsafe and at the worst compromised by meddlers abroad.

For their part, Senate Intelligence Committee issued a report indicating a distressing number of vulnerabilities in our voting machines. Now is a crucial time for swift, decisive action, yet our Board of Elections is handcuffed because of crude jokes. Seriously.

Even before the controversy around Cordle, the board sought to reverse what was a sensible vote. The voting machines in North Carolina are outdated, and it’s time to update them substantially.

Even if no concerted effort to alter the actual results of the elections occurs, the issue is just as much about the perception of electoral integrity. We know that Russian actors, for example, orchestrated an online campaign to influence the results of the 2016 election. Whether their efforts had a tangible impact is immaterial; the fact is, we know they’re trying to influence the elections, and with a mounting concern about the integrity of our voting machines and how votes are counted, the suggestion of results as illegitimate could have as much of an impact politically and socially as an actual alteration of the votes. Perception is reality.

The Board of Elections was actually charting a course in the right direction. On Monday, the Board voted to require voting systems to produce a paper ballot reviewable by the voter. That means, instead of tapping away your votes or receiving a barcode you could not read with your own eyes, the state would mandate that you have a chance to ensure your ballot reflects the actual choices you made. Sounds good, right?

Yet suddenly, and without apparent cause, the Board issued a notice that they would be holding a meeting to rescind that vote. The status of voting machines in North Carolina is again unknown.

Regardless of the outcome, which will occur shortly after this column is printed, there is a solution we all should embrace: paper ballots.

In no way do I consider myself a luddite, but in the case of elections I make an exception. Voting machines with touch screens are bulky, cumbersome and outdated the second they leave the production facility. Imagine using an iPhone from 2009. Some of the voting machines still used in North Carolina are pushing 15 years.

Pen and paper are secure and familiar. It’s a far cheaper method than purchasing, servicing and learning to use a clunky touchscreen device, each costing thousands of dollars alone — all this while the state government starves localities for money to shore up election security.

Paper ballots may take a bit longer than digital machines to tally, but I can live with that. I’d rather know my vote is exactly what I wrote, rather than entrust the franchise to a robot older than any other technology I own.

I know I won’t be sleeping on election night in 2020. What’s another hour?


Medicaid expansion would benefit Rowan County

July 18, 2019

For weeks now, the North Carolina budget has been in the air as both sides entrench further into their corners.

GOP leadership is dangling special projects to Democratic legislators on the fence and there are even suggestions that the state Department of Health and Human Services be moved from Raleigh to Granville County. It seems like anything is on the table, if only a few Democrats buck the party.

Everything, that is, except Medicaid expansion. At a forum held by the News & Observer in Raleigh earlier this year, Director of Legislative Affairs for Gov. Roy Cooper, Lee Lilley, told the moderator that this session would end when Medicaid is expanded. Full stop.

So far, that has been borne out, as neither side seems ready to capitulate.

Though there are plenty of missives from the office of Senator Berger outlining his disdain for the program, almost all of the claims levied against expansion fall flat. Most people support Medicaid expansion, but conservative legislators, think tanks and advocacy groups in the Tar Heel state are bombarding the airwaves, pages of newspapers and social media decrying it as a detriment.

I disagree; in fact, expanding Medicaid would be a boon for the state, and not just for the most populated areas. Numerous studies have concluded the same.

For example, taking Rowan County alone, almost 5,000 would gain access to healthcare. This program is not meant to be a handout to those who refuse to work; in fact, the primary recipient of Medicaid expansion would be those who earn too much to qualify now, but not enough to afford their own insurance.

Expansion has also aided in the fight against the opioid crisis in other states. More people who fall victim to addiction will have access to care, and that means fewer deaths. Easier access to care will allow people to correct course before it’s too late.

Along those same lines, preventative care for other ailments will ensure that emergency rooms are a last resort and not a first stop.

Beyond the obvious benefits of having more North Carolinians insured, it comes at no additional cost to taxpayers. The cost is divided into two parts: 90% is paid by the federal government, and the remaining 10% falls to the state.

That 90% deal has existed since Medicaid expansion became an option in 2014. Of course, the federal government is paying for expansion through our tax dollars, which means that we’re already paying for the 37 other states to reap the benefits our state refuses. I think it’s about time that North Carolina’s tax dollars are brought home to help fund the health care of North Carolinians.

And then, there’s the 10%. Instead of raising taxes at the state level, the remainder will come from an assessment on hospitals and health care providers. If we expanded Medicaid today, the state wouldn’t need to raise an extra dime.

Expansion comes at no cost, but refusing it would cost us heavily.

Rural hospitals in the state are barely able to make ends meet, with five closing in the last decade and even more cutting services. Hospitals in rural areas are often the best employer, providing well-paying jobs to hundreds of residents.

If rural hospitals close, the repercussions will be felt by everyone, not just those without health insurance.


Gerrymandering only encourages division

July 4, 2019

Last week, the U. S. Supreme Court made its ruling in Rucho v. Common Cause, the case involving both the gerrymanders in North Carolina and in Maryland.

The pairing of both our states was not incidental; North Carolina is demonstrative of a Republican gerrymander, and Maryland is a Democratic one. Though often a flippant remark, in this case we truly have an example where “both sides” are at fault.

In its landmark decision, the court found that the question itself was not justiciable. The federal courts, they said, do not have a role to play in the inherently political process of gerrymandering. For the architects of the incongruous districts, it was a win; for the citizens within these unfair districts, it was a loss.

Although Chief Justice John Roberts nodded to the unfortunate nature of gerrymandering, he saw no role for the third branch to affect the process. And as an aside, Roberts is often considered to be interested in the appearance of the court as a nonpartisan entity above all else; to make the Supreme Court the final arbiter of every challenged district would no doubt increase the politicization of the courts, but, to be fair, it seems they already are.

Ultimately, the Court insists, we, the voters, are responsible for getting ourselves out of this mess. Never mind that the districts as they stand are basically impenetrable for the minority party. At a certain point, a race is unwinnable no matter the candidate. The districts are drawn in a way that ensures the letter after a name is more important than the name itself.

If you’re a Republican in North Carolina, or a Democrat in Maryland, the decision may come as a cause for celebration. Entrenched majorities allow one party to have their way with an entire state, even when their support barely exceeds half of the voting population. It sows political dysfunction because it removes any incentives to cooperate with, or even listen to, the other side.

Even if you’re comfortable having a reliably red or blue district, there should at least be some concern about the person holding the seat. To whom are they accountable? It certainly isn’t to the voter, since an entrenched incumbent wins somewhere close to 99% of the time. That raises the issue of unaccountable, and sometimes controversial, candidates.

A district gerrymandered to support guaranteed, one-party dominance encourages poor candidates. For the most part, a moderate won’t run in those districts because they have a vulnerability. Moderates in deep red or deep blue districts only fear a challenge from their own side of the aisle. That is to say, in a Republican district, the only direction for the representative to go is further right.

For someone who prefers an extreme candidate, gerrymandering may be OK. But I think that is an issue which makes our government less representative of the people it governs. While all voices should have some role in the public discourse, most people fall somewhere in the middle.

Deeply unfair districts will only continue to encourage division and brinksmanship — two things we should seek to diminish and on Independence Day more than ever.


Real test in 2020 Senate race may be fundraising

June 20, 2019

In my last column, I wrote about the entry of Garland Tucker into the Republican primary for U.S. Senate, where he will face off against incumbent Sen. Thom Tillis.

And while the Republicans have their own fractional politics, which lead to interesting primaries, there has been an update on that front: Rep. Mark Walker, who represents the 6th District, has officially decided against running.

While Garland Tucker will no doubt be a thorn in the side of Tillis during the primary, he remains a longshot candidate in the primary. His chief asset in terms of the campaign is wealth. Tucker can self-fund while the campaign ramps up, and already he seems to have convinced numerous high-profile Republican donors, who would otherwise likely back Tillis, to host an expensive fundraiser in Raleigh. If his momentum gains, it won’t be the last.

But Walker would have entered the primary, in some readings, as the frontrunner. Tillis and Tucker are of the same ilk, while Walker is a firebrand religious conservative. It would have provided stark contrast in the profiles of the contenders and, all things considered, could have given Republicans a candidate unable to win the seat in 2020.

Two weeks ago, Democrats were still in search of a top-tier candidate for the U.S. Senate seat, and this week picked up two: Cal Cunningham and Eric Mansfield.

Cunningham is a sort of native son for this area. He grew up in Lexington, went off to law school and served in the military. He was a one-term state senator. So was Eric Mansfield. In fact, the two have very similar profiles, but Mansfield became a physician instead of a lawyer.

With Cunningham and Mansfield in the race, the real test begins. At the end of June, they will have to file a fundraising report; that marks the first hurdle and the beginning of scrutiny. To be competitive in a statewide primary and run a sophisticated campaign, you need a lot of money.

Cunningham has already demonstrated his ability to raise money: prior to entering this race, he had announced for lieutenant governor. At the end of December last year, he had reported raising $300,000, no small sum that early and in a lesser-watched race. However, money for state races cannot be directly transferred for use in a federal race, so that money will not follow him into this new primary.

There are plenty of other variables as well, some more important than others. For example, Cunningham rolled out his new campaign with a few endorsements, such as former Sen. Kay Hagan, which could help to consolidate support from donors. Collecting donors is not necessarily zero-sum, but it’s certainly close.

And that probably explains why Eric Mansfield entered the race so quickly after Cunningham. Mansfield’s video announcing his run was already completed, so he definitely planned to announce. When Cunningham officially launched on Monday, Mansfield followed suit the next day.

Remember, if they only have until June 30 to post impressive fundraising numbers, every hour that Mansfield couldn’t dial for dollars put him behind.

To contextualize how much work should go into fundraising over the next two weeks, either would likely need to raise close to half a million dollars to truly stand out.


In US Senate primary, can Tillis overcome chaos and finish on top

June 6, 2019

Chaos is a ladder.

So said Petyr Baelish, or Littlefinger as he was known, a character in the massively popular Game of Thrones series on HBO.

Lord Baelish made use of chaos and disruption in the kingdom to advance his own interests. He saw chaos not as something to fear but something to leverage in his own pursuit of power.

That leads us, in a roundabout way, to the U.S. Senate primary unfolding now in North Carolina.

While it is too early to make claims of chaos in the primaries, on either side, the seeds are there. They need only to grow.

Start on the Republican side: Incumbent Sen. Thom Tillis is in a pickle. Tillis ran successfully in 2014 to be a rather moderate Republican, hailing from the Charlotte area and mirroring the country club tendencies popular in conservative circles in the Queen City.

But then came Trump, the ultimate agent of chaos. He shook up any rigid orthodoxy that may have required Republicans to comport themselves in a certain way, and the base of the party loved it. Born out of the unrest of the Tea Party, Trump eschewed the conservative tendencies of small government and free trade, instead doubling down on cultural battles and social issues that divide the country.

Now, since 2016, adherence to the Trump brand is as important in a Republican primary as any particular stance on issues. Tillis was skeptical of Trump in the past, but by and large supports him as a senator. Any instance where he may have disagreed with the president, including when he offered an op-ed in the Washington Post, is overshadowed by his quick acquiescence.

All things considered, Tillis seems to vote more in pursuit of self-preservation than toward any particular ideological end.

Tillis’ apparent discomfort with the Trump presidency has opened a clear path for a primary opponent to flank him from the right.

Enter Garland Tucker. Tucker is a wealthy businessman from the Raleigh area, who is deeply embedded in the conservative intellectual movement in North Carolina.

Though he also indicated doubt about a Trump presidency, Tucker now hopes to unseat Tillis by sticking as close to Trump as possible while depicting Tillis as hostile to the president.

Recent polls have shown Tillis barely securing half of his own party in North Carolina; consistently, he garners somewhere less than 60% Republican support, hardly reassuring to an incumbent.

Tillis’ weakness within his own party and Tucker’s lackluster bona fides with Trump supporters present another opportunity.

Mark Walker, a conservative firebrand and member of Congress from North Carolina, has been floated as another potential entry into the primary fray.

While the two current candidates have demerits with the Trump crowd, Walker has been a vocal proponent and is well-known and liked in the conservative movement, being a critical figure in the Freedom Caucus.

As things stand, Tillis will likely beat Garland Tucker in a primary. Voters like to say they prefer someone new, but at the end of the day it’s more likely they pull the lever for the guy they know already.

That said, if Walker were to jump into this race and make it a three-way battle for the nomination, I would become bullish on somebody other than Tillis to be on the ballot next November.

If chaos truly is a ladder, somebody has to come out on top.


Keep legislative antics out of abortion bill vote

May 23, 2019

Most people would tell you that they are tired of the political games, especially in Washington, D.C.

While the coverage of Congress and the White House fill cable news and Twitter feeds, the policies enacted at the state level have far more of an impact on the day-to-day lives of North Carolinians. That makes their legislation more consequential, and the games played in Raleigh more deserving of scrutiny.

Earlier this year, the North Carolina House and Senate both approved a contentious measure titled the “Born Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act,” which focuses on protections for babies that are born after a failed abortion attempt. Republicans argue that it’s a commonsense bill to protect newborns, while Democrats claim it makes no significant change to laws on the books already and that it’s a move to scare medical providers away for fear of prosecution. But the substance of the bill itself is not the subject of this column.

First, some background on the legislative process thus far. The bill passed both chambers and Governor Cooper vetoed it. That sends it back to the General Assembly to be overridden. While it only needed a majority of votes to pass, a veto override requires two-thirds of each house. Republicans had supermajorities – more than two-thirds of members — in both houses prior to the 2018 elections. While they maintain majorities, they cannot override vetoes without Democratic crossover.

In the Senate, one Democrat crossed party lines and sided with Republicans, reaching the two-thirds threshold. That put the onus on Speaker Tim Moore in the House to find enough votes. Republicans have fewer votes to spare in the House, and will need to peel away a number of Democrats to reach two-thirds.

Given that there is a ceiling on the number of members, with 120 in the House, Moore cannot conjure new Republicans to pad his majority. But he can win by attrition — the threshold for a supermajority lowers when members are absent. It’s not uncommon for members to miss votes, since a large number of bills pass pretty easily and, despite what shows up on headlines, most of it is bipartisan.

But on contentious issues every vote matters, particularly on a veto override.

One of the powers that the speaker wields is agenda setting. Moore can decide on a whim when certain legislation will come to a vote.

The agenda power is valuable because the majority gets to dictate what is heard and when; it allows them to prioritize legislation that they prefer and ignore what they dislike. The speaker is using that power to keep Democrats on notice and has rescheduled the vote half a dozen times, canceling votes once enough Democrats arrive to sink an override.

Legislative antics are always present in some capacity, but this round is downright cruel.

Remember, the legislators in Raleigh work part-time. They have jobs separate from legislating, don’t make much money from it and have to commute from all over the state. They also have personal lives and families.

One such legislator is Sydney Batch, who represents District 37 in Wake County. During her campaign last year, she was diagnosed with cancer. Despite that, she stayed in the race and defeated an incumbent in a district difficult for Democrats to win.

Batch is recovering from surgery for her cancer, but still made it to vote. Then Moore rescheduled it.

Another representative left her husband, who is currently in the hospital, to appear for the same vote. Moore rescheduled it.

How long can this go on? To bring legislators dealing with real, personal issues back and forth on a vote that may never occur is cruel and serves no purpose for North Carolinians.

This is a divisive issue. The people of this state elect representatives to act as their voice in the legislature.

Scheduling votes on consequential bills and intending to catch people when they’re with a spouse at the hospital or recovering from surgery is not morally sound.

Let the vote be held when members can reasonably expect to be present.

North Carolinians may be divided on the substance of the bill, but I think we agree that the vote should take place when everyone is represented.

Taking advantage of illness for political gain should be a bridge too far.


School shootings are part of American ‘normal’

May 9, 2019

The Greeks were obsessed with heroes.

Ancient Greeks believed that heroes were a special race of men and women, somehow infused with character and attributes far exceeding the ability of the common man.

But those are myths, not based in the lived experiences endured by real human beings.

Howell was a hero. It’s a word we toss around with little thought about what it really means. When a fellow student in his UNC Charlotte classroom began to shoot at others, Riley took action. In the end, he was shot three times, the final bullet entering his brain and killing him.

Riley is a hero because his actions prevented the deaths of untold numbers of his peers. He is a hero because he put the safety of himself second to the safety of those around him. He is a hero because he acted in a way that many of us hope that we might, but pray that we never have to. The tragedy at UNC Charlotte is, sadly, far too common. Our shock is not from it occurring, but because it finally happened close to home.

Many of my friends went to UNC Charlotte, and plenty more still do.

To think something so devastating happened on their campus is difficult to fathom.

Just Tuesday, another school shooting took place in Colorado. This time, it was not college students who could try to protect themselves; it was a shooting at a STEM school that included children so young they barely knew what was happening. The New York Times article about the shooting quotes Makai Dixon who is 8 years old and in the second grade: “I heard a gunshot,” Makai said. “I’d never heard it before.”

The article noted that, though only in the second grade, Makai had been training for active shooter drills since kindergarten. This is our normal, and it isn’t new. Colorado was also home to Columbine, a turning point 20 years ago. Those who lived through it had to acclimate themselves to a new America; those like Makai who are just beginning their education have never known otherwise.

There will be arguments made, mostly fruitless, about policy prescriptions and why this is a uniquely American phenomenon. What we can do, though, what I can do, is emphasize the humanity of these events.

Too often, stories about shootings fixate on numbers: the dead, the injured, the guns, the bullets. But numbers mean nothing without their proper context.

These are events that affect so many people, and end the lives of others. The only way to take any solace in tragedy is to highlight the lives lost, not just the final seconds of their time here but the entirety of their existence.

On Sunday, friends, families and everyday people gathered at a sanctuary in Lake Junaluska to remember the life that Riley lived.

He was given the full treatment a hero deserves. Riley was a cadet in the ROTC while at UNC Charlotte, and he was buried with full military honors. It was a fitting sendoff and well-deserved honor.


Action heats up as legislative session comes to close

April 25, 2019

There have been a small number of contentious issues so far in the North Carolina General Assembly, but now that we are quickly approaching crossover and the budget, expect things to heat up.

First,  let’s talk about crossover.

The General Assembly basically mirrors the same legislative process as the United States House, the process we learn in high school civics.

A bill goes through committees, receives a vote on the floor of either the House or Senate and then goes to the other body to be considered. A bill approved by the House has to be approved — word for word — by the Senate.

Crossover is a deadline that the legislature imposes on itself to ensure that it actually finishes legislating. After the crossover deadline, only bills that have already been approved by one house of the legislature are considered in the other house. Otherwise, there would be no limit to how much legislation needs to be addressed, or at least voted on, before they finish for the session.

This year, it will likely fall in the early days of May.

Crossover will see a flurry of votes, as legislators attempt to get their bills across to the other chamber.

Beyond simply wrapping up unfinished business in each chamber, crossover also provides an opportunity to quickly introduce and vote on controversial legislation. Before crossover, legislators have ample time to consider and debate legislation on its merits.

As crossover approaches, the process becomes hurried. Leadership throws around its weight to have legislation introduced and fast-tracked. Debate falls off, and legislators vote on proposals about which they know very little. Controversial legislation will inevitably appear and, unfortunately, the bills most discussed by the public will likely be the least discussed by the legislators.

Crossover allows potentially unpopular legislation to appear out of nowhere, with little time for press coverage and public discourse. Additionally, legislators are often reading, considering and voting on legislation in a marathon setting, with new bills conjured out of thin air.

The process alone is not negative, because the legislature has to transition from writing new bills to refining existing drafts at some point, but the way it occurs in practice should make the public and media focus in on crossover week specifically.

Also, it isn’t necessarily an indictment of the legislators. Unlike members of Congress in Washington, D.C., this is not their full-time job. The North Carolina General Assembly is a part-time body, and many of the members commute to Raleigh from all every corner of our quite large state.

The environment isn’t always conducive to reasoned consideration of complex issues.

The most important legislation that the General Assembly undertakes is the budget.

While our state continues to grow rapidly, the resources available for the budgeting process are shrinking. Since 2013 and the Republican takeover of Raleigh, the revenues taken in by the state have decreased about 14%, or just over $4 billion.

Every budget is a challenge, and this year will be no different.

What will be different, though, is the makeup of the General Assembly. In Gov. Roy Cooper’s first two years, the Republicans wielded a supermajority in both houses, allowing them to override his vetoes. Now, though majorities remain, they aren’t super and Republicans will have to play ball in negotiations.

Budgets show the priorities of their authors, and the Governor has already released his.

What remains to be seen are the priorities of Senate Leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore.


Lindberg case gives credence to political suspicions

April 11, 2019

News in recent weeks has laid bare what many people probably suspected was the way politics actually works — big checks, back-scratching and bad decisions.

At the center of this story is Greg Lindberg, a Durham billionaire who was relatively unknown until recently in the N.C. political scene. In 2016, he began throwing around his weight, contributing eye-popping sums to politicians of multiple partisan persuasions, though the lion’s share of money went to Republicans.

On its face, what Lindberg did prior to recent allegations was on the up and up. In North Carolina, you can give right around $5,000, give or take, to a candidate as an individual. That’s more money than most of us would dream of giving away, let alone to a politician. For people like Lindberg, that is a prohibitively small sum.

Enter Robin Hayes. Hayes is or was the North Carolina Republican Party chairman. He shares the honor of appearing alongside Lindberg on an indictment for, among other things, bribery of a public official.

To understand why Hayes is involved with the scandal, readers need to grasp how easy it is to basically launder money in politics. I say “launder money” as if it were a crime, but it depends on how you do it.

Remember: Lindberg was legally limited to donating $5,400 or so to an individual candidate, which hardly curries enough favor to be worth the trouble. But, because of Citizens United, and the concept that spending money in politics is free speech, Lindberg and others like him can circumvent the $5,400 cap.

Lindberg can donate an unlimited amount of money to political parties such as Hayes’ N.C. Republican Party and political action committees. He couldn’t give more than $5,400 to an official whom he intended to bribe, but he could give $1 million to Hayes’ GOP, who could act as a middle-man. That’s the scheme that Hayes and Lindberg allegedly hatched, according to court documents.

A sizable portion of Lindberg’s wealth is derived from insurance companies that he owns. This provides a motive for his alleged bribery, as he allegedly tried to convince incumbent Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey to move around staff so as to avoid further scrutiny of Lindberg businesses, according to court documents.

Causey, a Republican, contacted the FBI and the rest, as they say, is history.

Campaign finance law allows you to pour unlimited amounts of money into a state party, but it is illegal to earmark that money for certain candidates. The only reason we know about this scandal is because of Causey, a public official that actually acted in the best interests of his constituents.

Given the sheer volume of money that Lindberg was moving around in politics, it seems unlikely that the final story has been written about his efforts to game the system. Changing the way we spend money in politics is admirable, but quixotic in the short term. The only bulwark against corrupt politics is to elect incorruptible politicians.

As voters, we have that option. What we have less control over is the machinery behind the scenes. Most people don’t know Hayes or Democratic Party Chairman Wayne Goodwin, but what you don’t know can still hurt you and our state politics.

After months of public dereliction, and years of crony, behind-the-scenes operations, the leadership of the state Republican Party should move on and let fresh faces right their wrongs.


Now is the time to right the wrongs of gerrymandering

March 28, 2019

Once and for all, the U.S. Supreme Court is poised to alter the way that legislative districts are drawn.

North Carolina and Maryland are in the spotlight this week over their heavily gerrymandered congressional districts, the former in favor of Republicans and the latter in favor of Democrats. Regardless of the party benefiting, the problem is severe and needs to be addressed.

Lawyers on both sides of the argument began presenting their case to the highest court, with justices probing the attorneys about how a uniform standard could be applied nationwide. Justice Brett Kavanaugh pointed to initiatives in other states that curb runaway legislatures, but North Carolina has no similar recourse. Our lawsuits run through the courts over and over, and the state does not allow for a citizen-driven ballot initiative. Simply put, North Carolinians have no recourse to correct for rampant gerrymandering in the state.

A January survey from Public Policy Polling, based in Raleigh, indicated that 59 percent of North Carolinians support redistricting in a nonpartisan fashion, and only 15 percent outright opposed it. Good luck finding something else that Tar Heels agree on so emphatically.

But good luck, also, finding a sympathetic ear from Republican leadership in Raleigh. Rep. David Lewis infamously said in 2016, “I propose that we draw the maps to give a partisan advantage to 10 Republicans and 3 Democrats, because I do not believe it’s possible to draw a map with 11 Republicans and 2 Democrats.”

Instead of a mea culpa over such an outlandish statement, Lewis and fellow Republican Ralph Hise actually penned an explainer in The Atlantic this week. In it, they doubled down, giving context to the statement but ultimately showing their hand; in lieu of a few hundred words, they could have briefly written “we did it because we could.”

In North Carolina congressional races last year, Republicans won 51 percent of the vote and Democrats captured 49 percent. Furthermore, an Associated Press analysis found that Republicans won two or three more seats more than they might have otherwise because of the way they drew districts. Nationwide, the GOP won about 16 seats more than would be expected with fairer districts.

Another popular argument —  takes the culpability away from incumbent legislators and foists it onto the Founding Fathers. N.C. House Speaker Tim Moore was quoted recently in the News & Observer as saying, “I like the position that the legislature sits in of drawing those districts and being directly accountable to the voters.” He went on to say establishing an independent commission is “really taking that power away from the voters.” This is called projection. Moore is taking the actual, known tactics of his leadership team and suggesting that it would be the modus operandi of an independent commission if one were created. He takes the stance that it would be a bad thing and that it would disenfranchise the people of this state by stripping them of the power to choose who represents them.

Moore is not outlining a possible future; he’s describing the facts as they stand today.

The founders did not have complex computing devices or software that could divide people street by street, nor did they have millions of data points showing exactly where Democrats and Republicans lived and behaved. Gerrymandering will not subside without action, and its pernicious effects are growing rapidly and unchecked.

As technology continues to improve, so will the intricacies of maps that divide communities for partisan gain.

The Supreme Court has a weighty decision to make. Whatever they decide, the implications will be far-reaching. If the court chooses not to correct the wrongs in North Carolina, the practical effect will be to legitimize and vindicate the proponents of gerrymandering nationwide.

With the next census just a year away, now is the time for the Supreme Court to act and right this wrong before another decade of skewed maps are drawn and litigated.


Folwell, hospitals face off over health plan changes

March 14, 2019

One of the most fascinating stories simmering in the background for the past few months is the ongoing battle between Republican State Treasurer Dale Folwell and the North Carolina Healthcare Association over how the State Health Plan works.

Though it hasn’t been a sexy topic to cover, it may soon come to a head.

As Folwell is responsible for managing, among other things, the State Health Plan, which amounts to $3.3 billion annually and covers 700,000 North Carolinians. As it works today, the state does not actually know how much certain visits to the doctor or hospital costs. To correct for that lack of transparency, Folwell is proposing that hospitals are paid 177 percent of what Medicare would have paid for the same trip.

The hospitals, of course, are outraged. The North Carolina Healthcare Association has been the lead opposition to Folwell’s proposal. They posit that Medicare has traditionally underpaid and that hospitals are not able to negotiate prices with the federal government. They have a point.

And pushback has not only come from NCHA, but from some of Folwell’s party members in the General Assembly. Numerous Republicans are openly concerned about the way Folwell is approaching negotiations, or, more correctly, how he isn’t negotiating at all. The proposed changes to the State Health Plan would cost North Carolina hospitals around $450 million per year, according to NCHA. What Folwell does not seem as interested in is where those cuts are being transferred.

There are a number of negative ramifications to Folwell’s plan. One, the higher costs hospitals face will not only affect the companies running them, but the countless North Carolinians that are not covered by the State Health Plan. Costs will undoubtedly rise for others as hospitals try to correct for less money coming in from the state.

Another effect will be an increased burden shouldered by rural hospitals, especially in the eastern half of the state. Our rural hospitals are closing at an alarming rate, creating a vacuum of coverage that leaves thousands without easy access to caretakers. Even those lucky enough to have insurance will be force to drive untold miles and hours to get simple procedures and appointments fulfilled.

All told, both sides have valid points, and legislators have acknowledged as much. Folwell is right to seek transparency in the way that our State Health Plan is administered, and hospitals are right to want a seat at the table in hashing out a compromise.

The problem for Republicans and for the hospitals is that Folwell does not have any interest in reaching a compromise. He’s known for his no-nonsense personality, and it doesn’t seem like he would bow down to the biggest fight of his career at its peak.

Republicans in the legislature have introduced a bill that would create a study committee with a number of relevant parties to work through differences and find a viable solution.

It all sounds nice and reasonable, but its real purpose is to snatch the power to do the negotiating away from Folwell and give it to the legislature. It would also push back any sort of changes to the State Health Plan until 2022, whereas Folwell wants to update it the first day of 2020. Folwell has the backing of the State Employees Association, SEANC, whereas NCHA is allied with opponents of Folwell’s plan as-written.

While all of this jockeying takes place, Republican leaders in the General Assembly have wisely taken a hands-off approach.

It appears they will allow Folwell to hash it out with the hospitals without injecting the legislature into the fight, at least for now. If it appears that he is willing to sink us all for a Pyrrhic victory, they ought to step in.


Ruling’s reaction shows legislative leaders’ hypocrisy

February 28, 2019

Last Friday, a Wake County Superior Judge threw out two recent state constitutional amendments — voter ID and the income tax cap. A lot of hoopla surrounds this case, and I would contest that most of it is disingenuous political posturing coming from the losing side.

Briefly, the decision rendered by Judge Bryan Collins said that an illegitimate North Carolina General Assembly had no standing to put the constitutional amendments onto the ballot last November. The first half of that logic is pretty well-established — multiple court cases have determined that North Carolina districts, both for state legislature and at the congressional level, are gerrymandered to a point that makes them unrepresentative of the state and its political makeup. So that is the first phase of his logic. The N.C. Constitution, if they have not amended it again since I wrote this, says that “all political power is vested in and derived from the people only.”

With unrepresentative districts, that is hard to achieve.

Next, the big question swirling after the decision was its scope. If the amendments placed on the ballot were unconstitutional because an illegitimate body put them there, would it not follow that all statutes enacted by this same body would face a similar fate? Not exactly.

The defendants cited a 1963 court case, Dawson v. Bomar, where a man argued that he could not be executed because the law making his crime a capital offense was enacted by a malapportioned Tennessee General Assembly. The Tennessee Supreme Court didn’t bite.

In cases where there is a question about the legitimacy of a legislative body, the “de-facto” members and statutes they pass are as valid as “de-jure” members. To suggest otherwise would necessarily dissolve state government, and the Tennessee Supreme Court decided that it would not find legislative acts unconstitutional “where the result would be to create chaos and confusion in government.”

Chaos and confusion are the guiding principles of the North Carolina General Assembly; one decision by Collins does not inject any more of either into Raleigh.

But the scope of his decision was narrow, in the sense that it only applied to constitutional amendments. In short, the NCGA needs three-fifths of both chambers to pass a ballot amendment to put it before the voters. Constituted as they are, the number of illegally gerrymandered districts makes it such that the NCGA could not reach a “legitimate” three-fifths majority.

Moreover, rescinding legislation that has an active impact on our daily lives is different than rescinding two amendments which have no practical effect yet.

The income tax cap is well above the current income tax rate, and the voter ID law has yet to take effect in any election. Former NC Supreme Court Justice Barbara Jackson noted that constitutional amendments have additional validity because they were voted for by the people, even if their introduction was somehow tainted. That is a compelling argument, and will no doubt factor into considerations when this decision is appealed.

The fact that this decision is going to be appealed is a good thing. It shows that our system is working — that North Carolina government isn’t dissolving or in a state of chaos and confusion.

If anything, the focus of this kerfuffle should be on the naked hypocrisy of legislative leaders in Raleigh, who have the gall to target and denounce a single court decision they dislike while they continue to sit in seats that they haven’t fully earned. This General Assembly has been tainted from the onset by gerrymandering and it should be telling that cases like this are the new norm.

Collins’ decision seems outlandish because it sets a new precedent, but that precedent is just as likely to be overturned. A higher court will review his decision and so on until it either stands or reverses.

What should really give us pause is the fact that we are habituated to accept as normal a General Assembly made up of representatives that don’t really represent our state.

Fair districts would have mitigated these expensive court cases and endless litigation long ago, but Senate Leader Phil Berger and Speaker Tim Moore would much prefer to spend your tax dollars fighting to keep their own power intact.


In Raleigh, politics takes break from usual division

February 14, 2019

To read most of the stories coming out of Raleigh, let alone Washington, D.C., you would think that Republicans and Democrats never agree on anything.

You would be mostly correct, especially on some of the more polarizing and divisive issues that we face as a state and nation. One reason for this is a simple fact of politics, or at least its coverage — division attracts more eyeballs than unity.

Would you not be more likely to watch a fight on the street than two people having a reasonable discussion?

But division and strife are not all that exist in our political conversation. One recent proposal that has received some press coverage, but surely not enough, is the Survivor Act.

In North Carolina, more than 10,000 untested rape kits are sitting in storage. Irrespective of why or how so many have been left to languish, now is the time to act. Both Democrats and Republicans are doing so. The Survivor Act was introduced this session by an array of bipartisan legislators. Its goals are clear and admirable — an act to require testing of all sexual assault examination kits.

Sexual assault is not a partisan issue, and I applaud the efforts that both parties in Raleigh have made to address this issue.

More so than many crimes, the evidence collection process in cases of sexual assault is rigorous and difficult for the victim. What can often become a multi-hour process yields a box full of evidence, but in North Carolina much of that evidence has gone unused for far too long.

The Survivor Act would provide $6 million in new money to help cut into the thousands of untested kits across the state.

Fayetteville police Lt. John Somerindyke, at a press conference rolling out the bill, cited a recent instance where a kit tested after 30 years on the shelf produced a DNA match, and the police were able to make an arrest.

While the price tag may seem large in the abstract, thinking about the potential benefits of this measure should outweigh the cost.

Each tested kit that results in the apprehension and incarceration of violent offenders is worth every penny. Clearing the backlog does more than rectify the injustice of unused evidence — it provides peace of mind to those who survived attacks, and possibly prevents future attacks by stopping offenders before they can strike again.

Absent the clear benefits of this legislation, it is also indicative of an appetite for bipartisanship in the state capital. The calculus in Raleigh has changed, with new members ascending and the balance of powers shifting. In the early days of the 2019 session, it is good to see members of both parties joining to make progress on this issue.

It transcends partisan disagreements and gets to one of the core reasons we elect representatives: to protect our citizens.

In his press release, Attorney General Josh Stein said, “The Survivor Act will go a long way in making North Carolina safer from serial rapists and bringing justice to survivors of these heinous crimes.”

Though much still divides us, Stein and the supporters of the Survivor Act have proposed one policy we all can and should support.