During an appearance at The Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C, a key center of power for the conservative movement, North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory portrayed himself as a business-minded policy wonk, earnestly extolling the benefits of infrastructure development and government-efficiency measures. He might as well have been describing someone else.
For the last year, McCrory has engineered a hard-right shift in North Carolina that has crippled millions in his state. His 2012 election gave Republicans control of all three branches of the state’s government for the first time since Reconstruction and they took advantage of it. In 2013 alone, North Carolina has said no to expanding Medicaid under Obamacare, approved a tax plan that redistributes wealth from poor to rich, cut education by half a billion dollars, instituted perhaps the toughest voting restrictions in the country, weakened campaign-finance laws, and passed its own version of Texas’ controversial abortion measure.
In short, the GOP has turned America’s 10th-largest state —traditionally known as a rare bastion of southern moderation—into a massive testing ground for pure conservative ideology. The hard-right lurch has already inflicted hardship on countless North Carolinians. And it has offered a real-world glimpse of the playbook that many conservatives—including McCrory’s hosts at Heritage—would like to use across the country.
For McCrory—and his audience at Heritage—his extreme red-state experiment was supposed to deliver a success story that conservatives could be proud of. Instead, a growing backlash against the overreach—laws affecting women, minorities and the poor—is starting to cause real pain for the governor and his allies. His approval ratings have declined sharply, as have those for his Republican legislators.
The pushback against McCrory’s harsh brand of governance began with home-grown progressive protests known as “Moral Monday” events. The campaign has been spearheaded not by state Democrats, but by a coalition of activist groups including the NAACP, labor unions, environmental groups, abortion-rights advocates.
A summer protest in Ashville, a lively college town in the state’s mountainous western region, drew a passionate, racially-diverse, overflow crowd heavy on teachers, students, volunteer activists, and young families.
“Don’t make any mistake, America,” William Barber III, the state’s NAACP president and Moral Monday’s most prominent spokesman, told the crowd. “This is no momentary hyperventilation and liberal screaming match. This is a movement. And we intend to win.”
“That’s why I go every Monday and fight”
For all the attention that the state’s regressive voting law has rightly received, it’s the cuts to the jobless benefits program that have had perhaps the greatest human impact so far—as Terry Johnson can attest.
Laid off last November from her customer-service job at Allstate, Johnson relied on the $320 a week she got in unemployment benefits to support herself and her two kids as she searched for work from her home in Rowan County, North Carolina. But on July 1st, the state cut off jobless benefits for nearly 70,000 struggling North Carolinians, including Johnson.
That left her unable to afford school supplies for her 10-year-old son, Coty, unsure if she’ll be able to pay the electric bill, and without even enough money for gas to get to job interviews, Johnson, a personable 41-year old with a round, open face and long brown hair, told MSNBC as she sat at a Charlotte Starbucks. She had just interviewed for a part-time Post Office position—only 13 hours a week, but better than nothing—a trip for which she’d borrowed the $9 from her sister to fill up the tank.
“It’s hard,” Johnson said, her upbeat demeanor cracking as her eyes welled with tears. “I know that I’m going to make it somehow, because I’m determined to. But it would make it a lot easier if they had not taken my benefits away.”
McCrory has said the cuts were needed to help pay back more than $2.5 billion that the system had borrowed from the federal government in order to cover benefits during the Great Recession, when the jobless rate went as high as 11.3% in North Carolina. But by making the cuts, the state was knowingly rejecting over $700 million in federal money meant to be used for extended jobless benefits, the only state in the country to reject the federal money. That’s because that aid is contingent on a pledge by states not to cut benefits too sharply.
Some 70,000, including Johnson, were cut off at the start of July. Another 100,000 jobless North Carolinians are likely to lose benefits by the end of the year thanks to the state’s rejection of the federal money, the U.S. Department of Labor has estimated. George Wentworth, a lawyer with the National Employment Law Project, has called the move “the harshest unemployment insurance program cuts in our nation’s history.”
Rather than despair, Johnson has fought back. Since her benefits were cut, she’s begun volunteering with Moral Monday—motivated in part by the impact on Coty.
“My son gets locked out of a lot of things because I don’t have a job, and it’s not for lack of trying or qualifications,” she said. “That’s why I go every Monday and fight.”
“Will take women’s health over cookies”
To have a real chance of reversing the Republican agenda, the Moral Monday movement will need to unseat McCrory and the GOP legislature. That’s a long-term goal, but already the protesters have done more damage than many expected.
Approval ratings for McCrory, who faces re-election in 2016, have tumbled: One poll earlier this month put him at 39%—up from 35% two months earlier, but still a decline of 8 points over the last eight months. Tom Jensen, who runs Public Policy Polling, a Democratic polling firm based in the state, said the Moral Monday protesters have played a big role in that decline.
“I think they have really had an impact on the governor,” Jensen told msnbc. “What the protesters have done is really draw attention to the fact that, yes what the legislature’s doing is bad, but also the governor is very much complicit in it.”Republican lawmakers, too, have taken a major hit. A year before legislative elections, PPP shows Democratic candidates with a 2-point edge—a massive swing from 2010 when the GOP retook both the Assembly and Senate by a ten-point margin.
The state Democratic party hasn’t been at the forefront of the Moral Monday protests—in part by design—but even they say they’re seeing a spike in enthusiasm from their supporters.
“We have activists calling up the party wanting to know how they can get involved,” Robert Dempsey, the state party’s executive director, told MSNBC. “This is normally the downtime, when we’re making our plans and coming up with our strategy. People are engaged and they’re enraged.”
Nowhere has Moral Monday been more effective at tarnishing McCrory’s image as a reasonable guy than on the issue of abortion.
In July, pro-choice protesters angry about the strict abortion bill McCrory had signed the day before gathered outside the governor’s mansion demanding a meeting. The bill, quietly inserted into a motorcycle safety measure, was as far-reaching as the Texas law that prompted Wendy Davis’ 13-hour filibuster in June.
It mandated that health officials come up with new rules to more strictly regulate abortion clinics. Pro-choice advocates fear that could result in the closure of all but one of the clinics operating before the law was passed, or force them to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to meet the new standards, something few will be able to do. It also eliminated healthcare coverage for abortions for city and county employees—affecting tens of thousands of women, advocates say—and from North Carolina’s health insurance exchange under Obamacare.
McCrory’s signature on the bill violated a clear campaign pledge not to support further restrictions on abortion. But instead of sitting down with the heavily-female group of protesters, he sent them cookies—which were promptly returned untouched with a note that read: “Will take women’s health over cookies.”
“An overwhelming majority of voters in the state thought McCrory’s actions were inappropriate,” said Jensen, who polled on the incident. “Even Republicans thought he was disrespectful.”
A war on voting
The movement also has done major damage to voting rights. This summer, the GOP took advantage of the Supreme Court ruling that invalidated Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act—which had covered about half of the state’s counties—to pass a “voting reform” measure that is breathtakingly restrictive, even by the standards of the party’s recent all-out effort to create barriers to the ballot box.
It requires voters to show a state-issued photo ID—despite the state’s own numbers showing that 316,000 registered voters lack such an ID—significantly cuts back early voting, ends same-day voter registration, and eliminates a popular program that encouraged high-school students to pre-register to vote. The law is so strict that it could disenfranchise a 92-year old African-American woman who outsmarted literacy tests and braved cross-burnings to vote in North Carolina during Jim Crow, according to a lawsuit filed by the NAACP challenging the measure. The U.S. Justice Department has also filed suit.
Republicans tried hard to keep the focus on the law’s voter ID requirement, which, in North Carolina as in much of the rest of the country, is broadly popular. But the protesters quickly turned people against the bill by highlighting the cutbacks to early voting and the obstacles to registration, provisions which lacked even the fig-leaf justification of stopping voter fraud. Barber called the law “the most comprehensive attack on the right to vote that this state has enacted since the institution of Jim Crow.”
“What the protesters did was sort of create a greater level of awareness that they’re going well beyond voter ID now,” said Jensen. “You might think [voter ID] is a good idea, but do you really like all this other stuff?”
By August, when McCrory signed the bill into law, just 39% of voters backed it, PPP found. In his Heritage Foundation appearance, McCrory blamed the media for the law’s unpopularity, saying its impact had been exaggerated.
In the latest sign of backlash generated by the measure, the man charged with defending the law in court, Attorney General Roy Cooper, a Democrat, joined the chorus of criticism. In an op-ed Cooper, a potential challenger to McCrory in 2016, called the law part of a GOP effort to “systematically undo 50 years of progress.”
It didn’t help the law’s cause when a local Republican official was forced last month to resign after saying of the measure, in an interview on The Daily Show: “If it hurts a bunch of lazy blacks that want the government to give them everything, so be it.”
The state’s anti-Obamacare stance, and its deep cuts to education, have been additional spurs to action for some of those left out in the cold.
Earlier this year, McCrory announced that North Carolina, like 23 other states, would reject the expansion of Medicaid created under the law. He cited budget concerns, though the federal government would pay the full cost of the program for the first three years, and more than 90% of the cost through 2020.
Bethany Dalton, an unemployed single mother of two from Asheville, was one of 387,000 currently uninsured North Carolinians who would have been eligible for the expansion. Because of child support payments, Dalton makes a little over the $544-a-month limit—or just $6,528 a year—that North Carolina currently deems too rich for Medicaid, she told msnbc. The expansion would essentially have raised that eligibility threshold. Without it, she’ll continue to go uninsured as she tries to improve her prospects by going back to school. Like Terry Johnson, Dalton is now active with the Moral Monday movement.
The state’s public school teachers, too, have been mobilized. The budget passed by Republicans this summer contained over $500 million in cuts to public education, on top of even bigger cuts that came in 2011, the GOP’s first year in control of the legislature.
Advocates for public education say it will mean layoffs for as many as 5,000 teachers, bigger classes, less money for school supplies and teacher assistant jobs, and no more supplemental pay for teachers to pursue advanced degrees.
Paula Dinga, a teacher in Asheville who attended the protest, was one of several educators who told msnbc they’re forced to buy school supplies for their students.
“I always spend money out of my own pocket,” Dinga said. “Everybody I know spends money out of their pocket. I provide crayons, markers, notebooks, folders—anything a child needs.”
“The fire’s going to grow and grow”
Despite the success that the protesters have had in damaging Republicans, no one expects the GOP to lose control of either house in next year’s election. The party’s 2010 victory allowed it to control the state’s redistricting process the following year. The result: In 2012, North Carolina Republicans won 54% of votes cast for state Senate candidates, but over 64% of state Senate seats, giving them super-majorities in both houses.
“This is one of the most severely gerrymandered states in the country,” Chris Fitzsimon, the executive director of NC Policy Watch, a progressive group based in Raleigh, told msnbc. “So they’re taking what is a small electoral mandate and, because of the gerrymandering, turning it into a radical restructuring of North Carolina.”
Conservatives also have flooded the airwaves with outside money.
Three quarters of the spending by outside groups in state races in 2010 could be traced back to Art Pope, the multi-millionaire owner of a discount-score conglomerate who has forged a reputation as a kind of state-level Koch Brother. Backed by Pope—who now serves as McCrory’s top budget adviser—the GOP won both houses of the legislature in that year’s Tea Party wave.
But North Carolinians have had enough.
“A big part of what this movement is doing that’s different from last time is there’s an outlet to continue that beating down on McCrory and the legislature in a way that there wasn’t two years ago,” Jensen said—and compared the campaign to another recent grassroots protest movement.
“The protesters are serving kind of a similar function for Democrats in North Carolina to what the Tea Party did nationally for Republicans in 2009 and 2010,” said Jensen. “Giving people a structure outside the Democratic party to express their unhappiness with what’s going on.”
Barber, of the NAACP, seems to understand that the challenge will be maintaining the current intensity into next fall and beyond.
“They say the fire’s going to go out by 2014,” he told the crowd in Asheville. “But I don’t believe that. I believe the fire’s going to grow and grow.”