Editor’s note: Every time I hear some Republican rewriting history to claim credit for making North Carolina an economic powerhouse, I’m writing one of these columns. I’m not giving in to fairy tales or lies.
Republicans claiming that they’ve made North Carolina an economic powerhouse reminds me of the saying “Some people were born on third base, but think they hit a triple.” North Carolina was already running up the score on our neighbors long before the GOP took power. We were a destination state for businesses, families, and vacationers long before 2010.
This myth that Republicans took North Carolina from a backwater and built our economic success from scratch is just so much bullshit that it’s hard to stand it. They like to pretend that time began in the midst of the worst recession since the Great Depression. They point out that the state was in a budget crisis and had to furlough teachers. Every state was in a crisis and making tough, politically difficult decisions. The whole country was reeling from a recession caused mainly by Republican economic policies that deregulated the financial and housing industries.
In fact, Republicans inherited the fully developed infrastructure of a modern state when they took over the legislature. When they won in the midst of a national political landslide in the 2010 midterm, North Carolina had one of the best community college and university systems in the nation. The state had made investments in k-12 education that improved test scores and graduation rates and paid teachers a respectable salary. Our highway system connected our interstates to secondary towns and cities so businesses could get goods to market.
The tough and sound decisions to fund this development happened long before Republicans got near control of the legislature. Terry Sanford made the politically unpopular decision to tax food and prescription drugs to build our community college system. It paid off and Republicans have benefitted from having that tool to build and attract businesses. They certainly wouldn’t have made the decision that Sanford made and they wouldn’t have had the vision anyhow.
The choices of Democrats, both conservative and liberal since we were a one-party state until about 1972, put the state on a road to economic power beginning in the 1960s. Business and government came together to create the Research Triangle Park, another decision Republicans today would not have made. Democrats liberalized state banking laws throughout the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s to make Charlotte a banking mecca. Bank of America moved to Charlotte when Jim Hunt was governor, not Pat McCrory.
Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, North Carolina’s economy was one of the most robust in the country. The state was consistently among the “Best state for business” lists, no matter what Republicans will tell you. North Carolina’s GDP and population grew faster under Democrats than it has under Republicans. But that’s not really the point I’m trying to make.
I don’t dispute that Republicans have kept our economy strong and I’m not going to argue that it would be stronger under Democrats. That’s just a what-if argument that has no real answer.
The point I’m making is that Republicans didn’t build much of anything. They inherited a state with the infrastructure and investments that had made it a top destination for business and families long before they took power. Then, they turned it into ground zero for the culture wars that have defined Republican governance around the country. They’ve led by dividing, not uniting. They’ve fought for exclusion, not inclusion. They’ve used heavy-handed government to maintain their power and embraced anti-democratic measures to influence elections. While our economy may thrive, our public institutions are suffering.
Since they’ve taken power, they introduced Amendment One and HB2 targeting the LGBT+ community. They tried to implement voting restrictions that “surgically targeted” African American voters. They politicized our university system, firing a respected president because they believed the system was theirs, not ours. They’ve starved our public schools leaving us with among the lowest per pupil spending in the nation, all in the name of privatizing our education system through “school choice” schemes that subsidize wealthy families at the expense of poor ones. They steadily cut taxes for the wealthiest North Carolinians while shifting the tax burden onto the shoulders of the lower and middle classes through sales taxes for services like car repair. Finally, they’ve helped make guns so prevalent that North Carolina children are more than 50% more likely to die from gun violence than children in the rest of the country.
And they are still at it. This spring, we’re probably going through abortion wars where Republicans restrict a woman’s right to choose. We’re watching bills float through the legislature to downplay the role race has played in our nation and state. They will pander to an ignorant base that suffers more from Republican policies than any other segment of the state just so they can own the libs.
If this breed of Republicans had been in control of North Carolina from the 1960s through the 1990s, we would look more like Mississippi or Alabama than the economic powerhouse we are today. They would not have made the investments to build our community college system. They would not have made the investments to build the Research Triangle Park. UNC-Wilmington would not be one of the leading marine biology schools in the nation. We would not even have the North Carolina School of the Arts, much the North Carolina School of Math and Science. Our road system would look like South Carolina’s did until recently, meandering and in disrepair. We would be playing the catch up game that our southern neighbor is playing right now.
Republicans like to rewrite history and replace it with convenient stories that are often tales of fiction. They’re currently playing the CRT card. They’ve been screaming about voter fraud ever since Obama got elected here because they can’t believe that the state would vote for a Black man. When voter fraud was uncovered, it was being perpetrated by White Republicans, even though their proposed “fixes” would limit access to the polls for young people and minorities.
Now, they’re trying to tell a story of an economically weak North Carolina that they rebuilt into an economic powerhouse. It never happened. They came to power when the state had already made the most important investments and hard choices. While the Great Recession had set us back, along with every other state in the nation, we had the infrastructure to recover and continue our economic and cultural dominance of the region.
The choices Republicans are making leave us without a less definable edge, what the Brookings Institute called “quality of life” factors. They’ve harmed our national reputation. While we celebrate the companies choosing to move here, we’ll never know about the ones who took a pass because of the GOP’s divisive tone and policies. They are slowly but surely reducing the factors that made us a destination state. Our GDP and population growth has already slowed.
It took fifty years to build the infrastructure and reputation they inherited and it will take more than a decade to tear it down. Maybe our GDP and population would have grown as fast as they did in the 1990s and first decade of the 2000s if Republicans had kept their culture warriors at bay. But, then, without race and sexuality issues, the GOP would probably be a minority party. It’s why even mainstream Republicans are making excuses for a guy like Mark Robinson.