Who will be North Carolina’s governor?

November 22, 2016

North Carolina's incumbent Republican governor is fighting tooth-and-nail to maintain his grip on state government, explains Williams Parker.

NORTH CAROLINA'S incumbent Republican Gov. Pat McCrory is attempting to overturn the November 8 election results, which still have him trailing Democratic challenger Roy Cooper by 6,187 votes out of a total 4.7 million cast two weeks after the election. His call for a recount became official on November 22.

The governor's race was widely seen as a referendum on McCrory's vigorous support for House Bill 2 (HB2), known popularly as the "bathroom bill," which requires transgender people to use the bathroom corresponding to the gender they were assigned at birth. As a result of HB2's passage, several large corporations, including Paypal, the National Basketball Association and the National Collegiate Athletic Association, and performers such as Bruce Springsteen and Itzhak Perlman canceled business deals and moved events out of state to protest the attack on transgender rights.

If Cooper, who ran for governor on the basis of his reputation as a principled defender of civil rights during his time as the state's Attorney General, prevails in the recount, North Carolina will stand out as an exception during the 2016 election cycle in which Republicans dominated Democrats at every level of government. Anger at McCrory's overreach--combined with massive protests organized by the Moral Mondays Movement--played no small part in tipping the scale against him.

North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory
North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory

But McCrory isn't giving up yet.

McCrory asserts that Cooper's tally may be inflated--alleging an epidemic of voter fraud, including votes by dead people, people who voted twice or felons ineligible to cast ballots.

Such charges are hardly surprising coming from McCrory, an arch reactionary known for targeting vulnerable populations to advance his political career. In 52 of the state's 100 counties, McCrory filed challenges to the election result, but the sweeping rejections by county officials of his charges of fraud demonstrate what most North Carolina political observers already believe--whatever irregularities may have occurred were not sufficient to change the outcome, even though Cooper's victory is razor thin. All of the state's county elections boards are controlled by Republicans.

But McCrory may have another agenda--namely, trying to delegitimize the election results sufficiently that he can trigger the "nuclear option" of calling on the Republican-dominated state legislature to step in and declare him the winner anyway. North Carolina law empowers the legislature to declare the winner of a "contested election," and such a decision, under the terms of the law, is not even reviewable by state courts.

How did this situation arise within the state that once prided itself as "the most progressive in the South"? And how should socialists respond to this rapidly deteriorating political landscape?

NORTH CAROLINA has long been a single-party state dominated by the North Carolina Democratic Party. After the Democrats violently took power during the election of 1898, they have reigned unchallenged for more than 100 years. There have been two Republican governors, including the incumbent.

Yet with the rise of the Republican's "Southern strategy," rampant political scandals, and the national backlash against Obama's party in the 2010 midterm election, the Democrats lost control of the state legislature.

As soon as the new Republican legislature was sworn in, they began to dismantle the state's fragile social safety nets. 2010 was also a census year, thus allowing Republicans to redraw district lines to minimize the impact of Black and Latinx votes across the state. State legislators also passed voter ID laws that federal judges have said "targeted African Americans with almost surgical precision," delivering a one-two punch to the electoral influence of the state's Black and Latinx communities.

This broad assault against traditional Democratic demographics and institutions continued in 2016 with the passage of HB2. Not only did the bill strip away local protections for the transgender community, it also permitted discrimination by private companies based on sexual preference and blocked efforts to raise the state's paltry $7.25 minimum wage.

The frontal assault on low-wage workers, Blacks and Latinxs, and low-wage workers helped sparked the Moral Monday Movement, which organized weekly mass mobilizations to protest the Republican's reactionary agenda. This movement, spearheaded by the North Carolina NAACP, attracted tens of thousands of workers, activists and socialists, who carried out hundreds of acts of civil disobedience that became front-page news across the country.

The Democratic Party, however, saw the movement as an opportunity--and pushed to shift the focus from escalating protests and building a mass movement to electioneering in order to take back state government. But the failure to stand competitive candidates coupled with deprioritizing the building of a self-sustaining progressive movement led to the total defeat of their party ticket in 2012.

ONE OF the few Democrats not turned out of office that year was Attorney General Roy Cooper, whose popularity grew dramatically when he refused to defend HB2 from legal challenges, saying the bill was discriminatory and would hurt North Carolina's economy.

He also refused to prosecute the state's voter ID laws and brought several cases on behalf of homeowners swindled by shady real-estate companies. Cooper had been called on by the state party to run for a variety of state and federal positions, but he never agreed to do so until the 2016 gubernatorial race.

His reluctance to run in competitive races reveals much more about the state of the North Carolina Democratic Party leadership than Cooper's ability to win. In May 2012, voters passed Amendment 1, which made any form of homosexual union illegal in the state of North Carolina, by a wide margin. The Republicans chose to place the referendum during a primary election in which the Democratic race was essentially uncontested, effectively ensuring its passage. The lopsided vote showed the people of North Carolina and the Democrats that reactionary forces were completely in control of the state's political agenda.

With these bitter partisan struggles raising the temperature, the 2016 gubernatorial race between McCrory and Cooper was transformed into a contest between two divergent visions for North Carolina's future. McCrory courted conservatives by supporting HB2, his "Carolina Comeback" and a continued commitment to gutting social services and lower taxes on the rich.

Cooper openly attacked McCrory's attempts to blame him for the political crisis created by HB2 and vocally supported public school teachers who are now among the most lowest paid teachers in the country. Like many down-ballot elections, McCrory, the incumbent, started with a strong lead, but the recoil that followed the economic fallout from HB2 eventually cratered his popularity, especially with his base of suburban, educated whites that made up a large portion of his initial supporters in 2012.

But two events took place just weeks before the election that ate away at Coopers' healthy lead until the governor's race was down to a dead heat: Hurricane Matthew and the Charlotte Uprising.

McCRORY SKILLFULLY used humanitarian sentiments and open racism to capitalize on both of these events, which should have derailed his campaign. McCrory portrayed himself as the state's savior as he led the state's recovery efforts after historic flooding devastated some of the poorest regions in the state. Somehow, he managed to do this while deflecting attention from the fact that he and the GOP had plundered $500,000 from North Carolina's disaster fund to pay legal costs associated with keeping HB2 on the books.

McCrory also resolutely defended the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Metropolitan Police Department after a cop murdered Keith Lamont Scott, supporting passage of a "No Public Records Law" that requires a court order to view any video captured by police through body or dash cameras. McCrory cynically swept under the rug this blatant example of police violence and extrajudicial killing to pump up his appeal to the law-and-order crowd just before a major election.

Despite McCrory's attempts to galvanize conservative support around his campaign, the state's sluggish economic recovery and the marked loss in tourism and business revenue created an opening that allowed Cooper to best McCrory by the narrowest of margins.

If Cooper ultimately prevails, which seems likely, he and Attorney General Josh Stein will hold the only two major offices controlled by the Democratic Party in North Carolina. The Democrat's fragile hold on state political power will be tested by the GOP-dominated General Assembly, which enjoys a super-majority with the necessary votes to override any vetoes by the governor.

In the face of such resistance in the past, the Democrats have used a simple strategy--stand by as federal judges tear apart conservative legislation and amendments when they violate the U.S. Constitution. But this strategy is only effective if judicial intervention is taken--which is not likely to reverse the privatization of public schools, right-to-work legislation, or attacks on abortion access. And under a Trump-appointed U.S. Attorney General, such challenges are even less likely.

Even if Cooper wins the right to sit in the North Carolina Executive Mansion, challenging the GOP's political agenda will require returning to the strategies used by the Moral Monday Movement. That movement was able to reach beyond the state boundaries and place the reactionary agenda of the Republican Party before the entire American public, while simultaneously galvanizing support within the state.

As part of this strategy, the left must recognize that failure to maintain complete political independence from the state's Democratic Party will marginalize the effort to forge an alternative to the Democratic Party's commitment to corporate interests. As Trump's election demonstrated, you can't fight the right from the center. Repeated and sustained protests that grow over time have the power to shift even the most reactionary legislature. As the left-wing historian Howard Zinn famously put it, "the really critical thing isn't who is sitting in the White House [or Governor's Mansion], but who is sitting in--in the streets, in the cafeterias, in the halls of government, in the factories. Who is protesting, who is occupying offices and demonstrating--those are the things that determine what happens."

Though the building of a movement is not an immediate solution to Republican dominance of North Carolina politics, the solutions offered by the two parties offer us nothing but a stay of execution--or at best a guarantee that we will continue on the slow rightward march that has characterized the last few decades.

We must join together to defend our rights and let our elected representatives know that we will not stop until North Carolina reflects the will of the people, not the will of corporate power that both parties serve.

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