This week, one of my Tea Partier tro…um, “friends” on Facebook asked me, “What good has the Democratic Party done for North Carolina in the past fifty years?” I ignored his question because, after months of his dominating my Facebook page with ideological gibberish, I knew there was no answer I could give that would satisfy him or even lead to an intelligent discussion. But his question did get me thinking about what’s been done right and what hasn’t.
Fifty years ago, the country was in the throes of the Civil Rights movement. In North Carolina, under the guidance of Democratic Governor Terry Sanford, we avoided the violence that marred neighboring states and moved toward integration of our society with much less rancor than the rest of the South. While we had our own struggles, like the Charlotte busing episode, our leaders realized that the world was changing and North Carolina had better prepare to change with it.
To meet those changes, we made a conscious decision to compete at the top of the economic food chain instead of the bottom. Instead of focusing on low taxes, low wages and no unions, we would attract industry by offering state-of-the-art research and development facilities, modern infrastructure and a well-trained workforce. We would keep them here by offering a high quality of life that included good schools, modern entertainment venues and well-preserved vacation destinations.
We created the Research Triangle Park that became an economic engine that is still the driving force behind much of North Carolina’s economy. We built a world class university system so we could attract top scientists, doctors, engineers and, yes, even writers, artists and musicians. We developed one of the nation’s top community college systems to make sure we had one of best trained workforces in the country.
In addition, the Democratic-controlled legislature, in conjunction with other Southern states and at the direction of a government-funded think tank, liberalized banking laws, making it possible to own and merge banks across state lines. The legislation resulted in North Carolina becoming a national banking powerhouse and set Charlotte on a path of unprecedented growth.
In the mountains and at the coast, we made smart decisions about regulating development to preserve their natural beauty and environmental stability. In the process, we made tourism our largest industry, allowing us to collect tax revenue from people from out of state. We made North Carolina a destination.
Under Jim Hunt II, we turned our attention to public education. We built Smart Start, a nationally recognized program that prepares children from underprivileged backgrounds for school. We raised teacher pay to the national average and we cut class sizes. While schools vary greatly, as they do in almost every state, overall we’ve seen clear and steady progress, including public schools ranked among the best in the nation.
I’m sure I’ve left some things out, but that, in a nutshell, is what Democrats have done in the past fifty years. As a result, North Carolina has been one of the fastest growing states in the nation. We’re consistently ranked as one of the best places to do business and live in the country.
But we’ve certainly had our failings, too. Our tax code is woefully out of date and we suffered more during the recession as a result. We let cronyism run rampant, creating the scandals that plagued the Easley and Perdue administrations. Protecting political insiders and their turf discouraged new ideas and new ways of thinking about government.
Most significantly, we failed to adequately respond to the decimation of our manufacturing and tobacco industries, leaving rural North Carolina in dire straits. Since 2010, 47 of our 100 counties, all rural, are losing population. Our unemployment rate, the fifth highest in the nation, is driven by a lack of jobs in the rural sector, not urban ones.
And that’s the opportunity Republicans had. They could come in and clean out the deadwood, offer new ideas about jump starting the rural economy and fix our out-of-date tax code.
Instead, they fell back on the same tired ideas and pandered to their right-wing, Tea Party base. They’ve talked abortion, guns and religion instead of economic development. Instead of finding a way to reform our tax system while maintaining it’s progressivity, they’ve focused on giving tax cuts to the rich and corporations while shifting the tax burden onto the middle-class.
They’ve schemed to preserve power for power’s sake. They’ve stripped away the authority of municipalities run by Democrats and searched for ways to disenfranchise unfriendly voters. They’ve essentially launched an assault on our democracy.
Finally, instead of building on the institutions that led North Carolina out of poverty, they’ve worked to tear them down. They will cut our public schools, our early education programs and even our much-lauded university system. Instead of viewing them as part of our economic engine, they view them as glorified welfare programs and they have unabashed disdain for anyone who needs public assistance unless they’ve got “Inc.” behind their name.
And therein lies the fundamental difference between North Carolina Democrats and the current breed of Republicans running our state. Democrats believe that if we invest in people, infrastructure and institutions of learning, that businesses will come. We believe that wise management of our natural resources creates as much opportunity as exploiting them. We believe that government can work in partnership with business to create a high quality of life and sustainable jobs. We believe that because that’s what we’ve done.
Republicans, in contrast, believe that government should get out of the business of economic development altogether. They see public education, at all levels, as expenditures, instead of investments. They believe that private companies and individuals should be able to exploit our land and natural resources with few or no regulations. And they believe that low wages, low taxes and less regulation are the keys to economic growth.
In short, Democrats want to compete with Silicon Valley, Rt. 128 in Boston and in the global economy at the top of the economic food chain. Republicans want to compete with Mississippi and South Carolina. I grew up 10 miles north of the South Carolina line. I don’t want to live there.
Thomas Mills is the founder and publisher of PoliticsNC.com. Before beginning PoliticsNC, Thomas spent twenty years as a political and public affairs consultant. Learn more >
How about Congressman Robert L. Doughton? Served in the House of Representatives from western NC, home turf of the Republicans, for 42 years and still holds the record as longest serving chairman of the House’s Ways and Means committee.
John Wayne gacy
So many notable Dems….
Thomas. There is also a large difference in the way the people run the legislature. 50 years ago one legislator would share a secretary with 4 others legislators. Now the typical legislator has 2 1/1 employeees. It ids apparent from any committee meeting that the legislators who bother to attend are unprepared. It seems to be a standing joke that they do not read the legislation, much less write it. A lobbyist will maintain a pet legislator. The lobbyist will give his man the bill written and prepared, and the pet will, in robot fashion, tell a committee chairman what the bill is supposed to be about, and that is the scope of preparation. From tghe mouth of a veteran Republican legislator, 2/3rds of his own caucus are in Raleigh “for the fun of it,..to enjoy free liquor..and to get away from home.”
The big difference is that 50 years ago..the average legislator “cared”.
Robert, you’re splitting hairs. 50 years ago, in 1963, NC was still part of the “Solid South”, Democrat to the core. And the “progressive” reforms of the ’60s were formulated by racist Democrats to instill a culture of dependency among blacks and other minorities. The holier-than-thou moralizing of Democrats is, as I said above, intended to “manage” the minority populations, not help them to raise themselves up by their own bootstraps. (None of which is a justification for the Republican putsch currently underway.)
In order to make NC a two-party state in the first place, you have to have a second party. A big government Republican differs not one jot from a big government Democrat. Each seeks power and control, not service to the people.
LibTarHeel, Thomas is talking about the last 50 years, not the time before that, when Democrats were indeed corrupt and racist. The main difference now is that the old Democratic Party is the new Republican Party. But I do believe modern Democrats let the Republican takeover of NC happen due to a mix of cronyism, hubris, and disorganization. The question is: what are we going to do to make NC a two-party state again?
The party of slavery
The party that founded the KKK
The party that wrote the Jim Crow laws
The party that opposed anti-lynching efforts
The party that “stood in the schoolhouse door”
The party of the axe handles.
The party that belatedly took the side of blacks in the ’60s, with the insulting intent of “managing” black populations
There is credible evidence that Martin Luther King was a Republican (as were many blacks of his day because of the longstanding oppression they’d suffered at the hands of the Democrats)
A pox on both their (Republican and Democrat) houses, I say!
I think you left off one important point, though you do hint at it. The Republicans, concentrating on religious extremism, low taxes, low wages and trying to control access by minorities to the vote are really espousing values from a century ago. The states that held on to these ideas after the Great Depression have been at the bottom of the ladder in economic progress ever since.
The South already tried what the Republicans in Raleigh are trying to do. It didn’t work then and it won’t work now.
You left out China. We want to compete with China. Low wages, pollution be damned.
Brilliantly spoken. We need another Terry Sanford!
If only North Carolina would use the old tobacco fields and barns to grow hemp or medical marijuana, we as a state would rise to the top once more. We have a jump on other states as the former “tobacco state”. SOMEONE PLEASE MAKE THIS HAPPEN!!!
Good one, Thomas. I was an observer to the troll incident, and I thought about the same issues. Your list was a bit more comprehensive than mine: I came up with the Research Triangle, a world class university system, environmental protection, a powerhouse community college system, and a solidly pro-business climate, especially for banking. But I think there’s a whole that is larger than the sum of its parts: my generation grew up with a government that was competent, engaged, and forward looking, a government that tried to be fair, and embodied a respect for tradition, due process, and civility.
I think there’s little doubt that the old guard (Easley, Phipps, Perdue, et al) let us down by becoming venal and corrupt, so some housekeeping was due. What the current clownshow in Raleigh will leave us is dubious as best, which is why we need to end their Reign of Error sooner, not later.
This is a fine article. Your words have captured the ‘essence’ of the North Carolina I was born and raised in. Keep up the good work!
This is one of the greatest posts ever. I hope everyone shares this with all their friends and family. Even though I am leaving the state soon, I will continue to follow NC politics and hope these dark days pass sooner rather than later.
Sharing in Walter Dalton’s hometown. Our state’s loss is Isothermal Community College’s gain.
Thank you Thomas, I will be sharing this. Great points to be made on the progress of NC Democrats.
Thomas, you have succinctly written the best essay I have read about the differences between the Republican and Democratic Parties. Thank you for the insight–I shall share with the Democrats in District 10., Your friends in Cleveland County miss you and wish you were back!! Betsy Wells, Chair, District 10
Thanks, Betsy. Miss you folks, too.