Right fast in Raleigh

With an aggressive GOP agenda quickly reshaping North Carolina, the press must explain how it happened and what it could mean

COLUMBIA, SC ― Maybe you’ve seen some of the eye-catching headlines bouncing out of North Carolina’s capitol over the last couple months. Stories about legislative measures like the one that would have made it possible to create an official state religion, or another that would mandate a two-year waiting period for a divorce.

It’s the first time in more than a century that Republicans have control of the governor’s mansion and both chambers of the legislature. And they haven’t wasted any time in trying to drastically reshape North Carolina’s political, social, and economic landscape, unfurling a wave of bills on matters ranging from the relatively mundane to the momentous. Legislation has been proposed that would dole out prison sentences to women who go topless in public, allow public high schools to offer Bible study as an elective, and restrict access to abortions. A dozen years after the industry was outlawed amid concerns over predatory practices, there’s a push to bring back payday lenders. Other measures would end teacher tenure, eliminate green energy rules, resume executions, and restrict the power of local government, especially in the state’s largest cities. Unemployment benefits have been cut amid persistent high joblessness, and there’s a proposal that would turn the state’s corporate income tax from the highest in the Southeast to the lowest. There’s a Voter ID bill, and another one that would penalize families whose college-age children register to vote at their campus location. There are proposals to allow hunting on Sundays―something that hasn’t been permitted since 1868―and to raise the maximum speed limit for school bus drivers, and a group of GOP lawmakers recently tried to make North Carolina’s state marsupial the Virginia opossum. Asheville Citizen-Times columnist John Boyle even did a gag bit in which he challenged passers-by on the street to “name the fake bill” (most folks could not distinguish the made-up measure from the real ones).

For North Carolina reporters, it has been a daunting story to cover, one that involves trying to keep up with the rapid pace of proposed legislation while deciding which measures merit devoted coverage and which to dismiss as hackery.

“I think the hard part about it is trying to balance,” says Laura Leslie, capitol bureau chief of WRAL in Raleigh, the state’s leading station for political coverage. “There are crazy bills that get filed in every session under every kind of leadership. How much attention do you devote to those versus the ones that are actually going to move in committee?”

Striking that balance is harder than usual this year; Republicans have streamlined the legislative process so a bill might have to clear only one panel before coming to a vote, sometimes with little debate. “You have to kind of move faster and keep a closer eye on what gets filed,” Leslie says, “because if it moves, you’re not going to have a lot of time to catch it.”

It’s a tension that John L. Robinson, former Greensboro News & Record editor and a journalist in the state for 37 years, has acknowledged in his influential blog―even as he has encouraged reporters to tackle a big story with big journalistic ambitions. From an April 3 item:

You know in Hollywood disaster movies there is always some lone person―usually ignored―who senses the early tremors of the earthquake or the distant sighting of the meteor or the readouts of the soon-to-be erupting volcano or the first wave of a tsunami? If I were a reporter in North Carolina―or a reporter for a national news organization―I would try to be that person. I would be pitching a story about what’s happening in Raleigh. With the GOP takeover of the legislature and the governor’s office, the world as we North Carolinians know it is up for grabs.

…As my friend Guy Lucas pointed out on Facebook, just because a bill has been introduced doesn’t mean it becomes law, which, of course, is true. Historically, the meat grinder that is the legislative process tends to throw off much of the fat and gristle. But North Carolina hasn’t seen this permutation of Republican-controlled government before. There is a sense that the GOP is trying to turn the clock back quickly and efficiently while they feel they have a legislative mandate.

And that’s where the journalists must come in. There are enough trees being planted and growing tall that a forest is forming. It’s time to help citizens see the forest.

I caught up with Robinson over the phone recently and asked him what, exactly, he’d like to see from media in his home state. “What I think reporters for newspapers and TV stations … could do―and really provide a valuable service to the citizens of the state―is pull it all together and sort through what bills really have legs and which ones don’t, and then explain why so many crackpot bills are being introduced,” he said.

“The residents of this state are just busy, and as the media becomes more and more fractured it’s harder to get a big picture issue of things that are going on in the state,” Robinson added. “The legislature is acting very quickly―and these are laws. This is changing the laws that before you know it will be passed, and my guess is a lot of people aren’t aware that they’re trying to double the a waiting period for divorce, for instance, or they might try to cut in half the early voting [time].”

In other words: don’t chase shiny objects or overhype bills that are dead on arrival. But stay on top of the legislature, because big changes may happen fast. Find a way to capture the attention of a distracted public to communicate what’s at stake, without going overboard. And figure out what’s going on within the GOP caucus, which includes many lawmakers new to the capital.

It’s a tall order, and parts of it are being met. Journalists―from alt-weekly writers to metro daily columnists to straight news reporters—are taking wide-angle looks at the full range of Republican proposals, and what their impact on the state might be. At the same time, the press corps is sifting through the GOP agenda, tracking what’s likely to move ahead and what will end up as legislative roadkill―a process that’s easier now that the deadline for filing bills has passed.

But there are also parts to this story that demand more attention. Here are some questions that might guide journalists’ attempts to, as Robinson puts it, “help citizens see the forest.”

What’s driving election outcomes in North Carolina?

Or more specifically, why has a state with a fairly centrist history that’s solidly purple in presidential elections―narrowly for Obama in 2008, narrowly for Romney in 2012―gone so deep red in state elections? North Carolina is not a Deep South state, literally or culturally. And yet the current legislature and the laws being drafted are making the Tar Heel State look much more like its downstate neighbor South Carolina than its neighbor to the north, Virginia.

This question is not so much unexplored as contested. In national media―among both left-leaning and mainstream outlets―the focus is on big money and gerrymandering. Back in 2011, Jane Mayer wrote a detailed New Yorker piece headlined “State for Sale” that portrayed wealthy and politically-connected businessman Art Pope as a kind of man-behind-the-curtain whose deep pocks supported a network of think tanks, policy groups, and electoral campaigns to advance a right-wing agenda in North Carolina. (Pope is now Gov. Pat McCrory’s budget director.) Writing this month in The Nation, Ari Berman identified Pope as a key funder behind the “takeover of the North Carolina legislature” who had backed candidates for office and also a post-2010 redistricting effort that tilted the map drastically in the GOP’s favor. Meanwhile, the investigative muckraking newsroom ProPublica has focused on the “dark money”―that is, undisclosed donors―who funded North Carolina’s gerrymandering effort.

When I asked Michael Bitzer, a Catawba College political scientist who’s often quoted in state media, if he thought Mayer’s piece on Pope had been overblown, he said only slightly. But Rob Christensen of the Raleigh News & Observer, one of the state’s leading politics writers, disagrees with the national take. “I think there’s very little evidence that Pope’s money had any kind of impact on the way legislative races turned out,” he told me. “What happened in 2010 was that there was a national Republican landslide, a backlash against Obama that didn’t just happen in North Carolina, but happened in every other state where there were not Art Popes.” And while Christensen does see the new district lines as important in entrenching the GOP advantage, “It wasn’t a question of whether the Republicans could come up with enough money to redraw the districts.”

That might be so—they would have gotten the money without Pope—but here’s what ProPublica wrote about Pope’s personal influence on the process:

Republican state legislators tasked with redistricting frequently visited and consulted with the mapping team, according to depositions. Even Art Pope, the most influential conservative donor in the state, was appointed “co-counsel” to the legislative leadership and allowed in the room to give direct instructions to the technician.

This seems too big an argument to remain unsettled, and I’d like to read more about it from journalists inside North Carolina.

What’s driving Republican actions at the capitol?

Based on my review of the coverage so far, this is one of the least well-explained elements of the story. For example, a generally solid April 13 article by Paul Woolverton in the Fayetteville Observer on the aggressive GOP push offered this explanation:

“What you’re seeing is a lot of pent-up frustration, demand over the years of watching Democrats have total control,” said Republican consultant Paul Shumaker of Strategic Partners Solutions. “That is natural. That is not anything new. That’s a natural reaction in the process.”

That explains why policy might move quickly to the right, especially on economic and regulatory issues, or on social issues like abortion that are at the center of the Republican program. But it doesn’t really explain why jail time for nipple exposure is on the agenda―or why, as John Frank of the Raleigh News & Observer wrote on the same day, the Republican leadership hasn’t been able to move those tax and regulatory measures along more quickly. While Frank’s piece is a partial exception, I’ve seen little reporting from the perspective of the GOP caucus, and especially its backbenchers and the activists who support them; instead, consultants like Shumaker or the policy folks at the John Locke Foundation get called in to explain what the party’s doing. A deeper dissection of the majority party would enrich the overall coverage and also inform the understanding of reporters―and readers and viewers―about which proposals to take seriously.

What’s going to happen over the rest of the session?

Now that the bill-filing period is over, it’s a time for reporters to try and find a general consensus about what legislation will get the most traction and eventually become law.

John Frank’s April 13 News & Observer piece offered a solid look at the state of play in the legislature’s halfway point. He talks about what has passed: “cuts to unemployment benefits, a decision not to add more people to Medicaid as allowed under the new federal health care law and a proposal to allow the state’s earned income tax credit, a break for low-income workers, to expire,” and promoting technical education. What’s dead: efforts to close some state colleges, the official state religion measure, and a bill that says employers can’t use gender to determine pay. And what’s still simmering:

Of the 1,660 bills filed since the session’s start, only 33 have passed both chambers. And the biggest promises—overhauling the tax system, cutting government regulations, restraining spending, requiring voter ID at the polls and expanding school choice—have yet to progress.

Republicans talked about introducing a voter ID measure in the first week. But facing significant pressure, lawmakers are still crafting the bill’s language as the session enters week 12. Likewise, cutting income taxes was a top priority, but the effort is proving more difficult than expected.

Other efforts that are designed to help create jobs—such as energy bills and legislation to streamline regulation of businesses—are also moving slowly.

This fulcrum point in the session is a time for reporters to really drill down and get legislative leaders on the record about their agenda rather than quoting outside policy observers and political consultants not directly involved. I’d also like to know more about what’s being done by the leadership to address what Frank refers to as “peripheral issues” that “caused a distraction” as they move forward.

House Speaker Thom Tillis, for instance, killed that measure about an official state religion, and one of its sponsors apologized for the “poorly written” resolution and the embarrassment it caused the state. Was that all? Is there an effort—tacitly or publicly—to cut down on this stuff, or is this the new normal in North Carolina?

What’s the trajectory of state politics?

This one might be the most important. However North Carolina got here, it appears the current political class running Raleigh isn’t representative of the state as a whole. And it remains to be seen whether that gap will close as you might expect, or whether rules changes and the new district lines will entrench an emboldened GOP.

From Woolverton’s article for the Fayetteville Observer:

The number of Republicans in state office can be misleading about the true political nature of the voters, said Ferrel Guillory, director of the Program on Public Life at the University of North Carolina.

Guillory analyzed the 2012 election results. Neither major political party has a majority of voters, and no ideology does either, he found.

“The principal finding is that, even as Republicans seized control of state government, North Carolina retained a narrowly divided, highly competitive presidential-year electorate,” Guillory wrote. “In its governance, Republican ‘red’ dominates. In its body politic, the state shows up as distinctly ‘purple,’ a blend of red and blue partisans, along with a growing segment of voters who consider themselves independents.”

Christensen of the News & Observer shared a similar view with me when we talked about this over the phone recently. North Carolina is a fairly centrist state, he said, and “voter attitudes today are no different from what they were in 2008 when the state went for Barack Obama and elected Kay Hagan.”

But, he said, “what’s happening is that Republicans have made temporary strategic advantages to push their agenda because of a redrawing of the district lines, and also being in power gives them a lot of advantages in terms of political money raising.”

In a recent column, Christensen wrote that even against that favorable backdrop, the GOP political class might encounter pitfalls by moving too fast:

Just as you could see Republican anger building toward the 2010 elections, you can see the Democratic anger building toward the 2014 election. If that were to continue it could have an impact on the 2014 U.S. Senate race, in which both Tillis and Senate leader Phil Berger are weighing a challenge against Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan.

While the Republicans would seem to have a lock on the legislature because of gerrymandering, they could lose seats in 2014 if there is a wave of voter discontent—and if the state’s high unemployment continues to drag on.

But some observers—particularly those in left-leaning media—see Tar Heel Republicans moving to insulate themselves from public opinion. Writing in The Nation on April 5, Ari Berman put the case this way:

North Carolina Republicans have introduced a series of bills in the legislature that would require state-issued photo ID to cast a ballot, drastically cut early voting, eliminate same-day voter registration, end straight-ticket voting, penalize families of students who register to vote where they go to college, rescind the automatic restoration of voting rights for ex-felons, and ban ‘incompetent’ voters from the polls.

The legislation has been dubbed the “Screw the Voter Act of 2013” and “The Longer Lines to Vote Bill.” The goal is to make this racially integrated swing state a solidly red bastion for the next decade and beyond.”

So here’s what I think is the bottom line: there is this massive shift in partisan power that could significantly change for decades the political, cultural and social structure of North Carolina beyond what the average voter might want or expect. Reporters need to explain the context of how it happened and what it will mean very clearly. A lot of money has been spent on the right to get North Carolina where it is. And there could be a long game at play with these new rules being proposed. One might argue that a mix of gerrymandering on the front end, and restricting voting on the back end, could lead to calcifying an unrepresentative political class. If that’s what’s happening, readers, viewers and voters need to know.

But figuring all that out might mean cutting through some serious spin.

As the News & Record reported recently, GOP lawmakers brought in none other than the nationally renowned conservative message man Frank Luntz for a pep talk.

Rep. Ruth Samuelson, House Republican conference leader, [said] the session was about communicating more effectively with constituents.

In other words, how to sell the voters on the new North Carolina. While the political class tries to do that selling, it will be increasingly important for reporters to make sure their readers and viewers understand the context of the transaction.

Update: This post has been updated to include a link in the 12th paragraph to an April 17 INDYWeek story.

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Corey Hutchins is CJR's correspondent based in Colorado, where he is also a journalist for The Colorado Independent. A former alt-weekly reporter in South Carolina, he was twice named journalist of the year in the weekly division by the SC Press Association. Hutchins recently worked on the State Integrity Investigation at the Center for Public Integrity and he has contributed to Slate, The Nation, The Washington Post, and others. Follow him on Twitter @coreyhutchins or email him at coreyhutchins@gmail.com.