North Carolina's Republican legislature continues to clash with local activists

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CHARLOTTE – North Carolina’s Republican Gov. Pat McCrory was a rock star to the crowd gathered at the party’s 2013 state convention over the weekend at the Charlotte Convention Center. But as the conservative agenda led by GOP super-majorities in both the state House and Senate in Raleigh continues to advance, disapproval is mounting, with an increasing amount of national attention.

How did a Republican wave overtake a Southern state long thought of as moderate, even progressive, one that gave Barack Obama a narrow win in 2008 and where the vote was close as Mitt Romney took it in 2012?

And will a growing and diverse group of protesters gathering weekly at the state legislative building in Raleigh for what they call Moral Mondays, speaking up and being arrested, be able to turn back a tide of legislation North Carolina NAACP president Rev. Dr. William Barber calls “extreme and immoral”?

Repealing racial justice

The list of conservative proposals undertaken by McCrory and the North Carolina general assembly is long, including the decision to reject federal funds to expand Medicaid – money pursued by other conservative governors such as Florida’s Rick Scott and Arizona’s Jan Brewer — the reduction of state unemployment benefits, proposals that would cut funding from public education and provide vouchers for private schools, requirements for a photo ID and other voter restrictions, and just last week, the repeal of North Carolina’s Racial Justice Act, which allows death-row inmates to appeal their sentences and have them converted to life in prison without parole if they can prove racial bias affected their cases.

The New York Times on Saturday called that last decision “Racial Injustice in North Carolina” in an editorial that said despite the repeal “the state cannot erase the detailed and irrefutable proof of ugly racial bias that led a state trial judge to re-sentence four death row inmates to life without parole because of this statute.”

At the convention on Friday, McCrory told me he would sign it. “I promised that when I was a candidate and I was elected,” he said. “It was a bad bill to begin with and it’s been a bad bill in implementation.”

Tax code is the next target

Next up is a Republican-led overhaul of the state’s tax code, initially approved by the House, which would lower personal and corporate income tax rates while making more services subject to a sales tax. Democratic lawmakers have said it would shift the tax burden to those who can least afford it, but they are outnumbered.

“What we’re saying, it’s not democratic, it’s not republican, it’s not liberal, it’s not conservative,” Barber told me on Friday. “It’s about the deep moral foundation in our constitution and our faith. We see them being violated in some very disturbing ways.”

Last week’s Monday protest led to 151 arrests, the most in weeks of demonstrations, with more than 1,000 others showing support.

Barber and the NAACP initiated the protests, which recall those of the civil rights movement, whose history in North Carolina includes the historic 1960 sit-in by four college students at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro. As in the movement, the ranks of protesters are swelling to include a group diverse in race, age and circumstance.

Is the Republican legislature ‘overreaching’?

In a conference call on Friday, Dr. Charles Vander Hoff, an AIDS researcher at UNC Chapel Hill, explained why he joined. “More and more North Carolinians are realizing the legislature is completely overreaching.” He said when a picture of his May 6 arrest made the front pages, he received hundreds of emails and Facebook postings from people who voted for McCrory, based on his 14 years as a moderate Charlotte mayor, but are now “appalled.” He said he “couldn’t stay quiet anymore” because “they’re harming my patients.” They are attacking the middle class, he said, and it makes no economic sense.

McCrory upset protesters when he said he was pleased that authorities had handled arrests in a “non-violent” manner, when the protesters themselves have not been violent and have included the wheelchair-bound. On Friday, when I asked about the protests, McCrory said, “We both have different opinions and I respect their opinions, but I don’t think that one group is moral and the other group is immoral, either.”

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“We have the fifth highest unemployment rate in the country,” McCrory said. “We’re changing our tax system; we’re reducing regulations and working with businesses. … These people want to do exactly what we’ve always done and it isn’t working.”

Barber said, “We offered to meet with the governor,” with ideas on health care for all, for protecting voting rights. “We wrote him a letter, explained how moderate Republicans in the past had been critical to the civil rights movement.” Instead, said Barber, “he’s chosen to follow the ultra-conservative line, kind of acting like George Wallace of the 21st century, standing in the door of opportunity.” Barber asked why McCrory won’t meet with the “92-year-old white woman and 80-year-old black woman holding hands, the teachers, mother, parents student, black, white, Latino. … They’re not acting like leaders of a state.”