When the House sustained Roy Cooper’s veto on the so-called “Born Alive” bill, two Democrats voted with GOP majority. Still, supporters of the doomed bill were five votes shy of overriding the Governor. In other words, Democrats had room to spare—and room for a few more legislators like Charles Graham and Garland Pierce who voted to override.
Pierce and Graham are both from rural North Carolina and both represent at least a portion of Robeson County. Pierce is also a Baptist minister. He told his local newspaper, “It’s a vote of conscience.” Democrats need to respect Pierce and his beliefs. He’s in a deep minority in his views and no threat of turning the party more pro-life. Agree or disagree with his position, standing in opposition to more than 90% of his caucus takes a certain amount of courage.
Both Pierce and Graham are conservative Democrats but they are also staunch Democrats who vote with their party the vast majority of the time even if they break with the leadership occasionally on social issues. They are also both minorities. Pierce is African-American and Graham is Lumbee Indian. The handful of other social conservatives in the Democratic caucuses in the Senate and House are all minorities from rural districts.
The pro-choice advocates calling for primaries for Pierce and Graham should think twice. Both legislators know their districts better than the activists. They are solidly Democratic districts as much because they are anti-Republican as for any adherence to progressive litmus tests. They have large African-American and Indian populations with a lot of evangelical Christians. Primarying Graham or Pierce for their pro-life views risks alienating voters Democrats need to hold the Governor’s mansion, challenge Tillis and support the Democratic nominee for president.
In addition, if Democrats want to win control of either chamber of the legislature, they’re going to need to figure out how to appeal to more rural voters in the state. Strict adherence to litmus tests whether on matters of choice, taxes, the death penalty, etc., will prevent Democrats from winning the districts they need to govern. They need to win six districts to take control of the House and, even without gerrymandered districts, they must appeal to voters whose views are closer to Pierce and Garland than the legislators from Wake or Durham Counties.
Finally, Hispanic voters are key to Democrats building a sustainable majority in the state. The largely Catholic population has a lot of pro-life, socially conservative voters. Like the rural African-American voters, large majorities of Hispanics are voting Democratic as much because of GOP policies and biases as anything Democrats offer them. The party should be more welcoming even if the activists aren’t.
As the veto vote showed, Democrats have room for divergent views within their caucus. Had the vote been closer, Graham or Pierce may have taken a walk to ensure a similar outcome. A decade or so ago, Democrats kept an anti-gay marriage amendment off of the ballot with help from members who supported it. That’s how politics and leadership works. Democrats have plenty of room for a bigger tent without risking the positions that have defined them for the past 25 years.
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 >