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Ballot Box Blues

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September 10 was a bad day for progressive politics in North Carolina. Triangle-area residents, in particular, witnessed three races providing an ominous barometer of the way political winds are blowing.In the Democratic primary to pick a nominee to replace U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms, the message was simple: Money wins.

Erskine Bowles--despite having absolutely no platform, and operating under the taint of being a Clinton confidant while the latter was spending his days groping interns--won largely on the basis of his ability to saturate the media, notably with TV ads featuring him at a bowling alley. Reporters peered over to their advertising departments, got the hint and went along, colluding to convince voters that Bowles was the only legitimate candidate.

Dan Blue gave it a fighting shot, but couldn't overcome the Bowles juggernaut--and his own reputation for being something less than politically principled (remember the aborted "Blue Coup"?).

But here's a silver lining: Bowles got 43 percent of the vote. The combined tally of candidates to Erskine's left--Blue, Elaine Marshall and Cynthia Brown--came to 48 percent. Brown's 4 percent, given her solid progressive positions, the media black-out of her candidacy, and the silence from liberal endorsement groups, was very respectable. Blue likely would have gained another percentage point or two if voting problems hadn't turned voters away, like the 75 percent of voting machines that malfunctioned in Robeson County.

All of which is to say, the numbers suggest an openness to progressive messages. But it's also a lesson in why not to split the vote.

Republicans were no doubt eyeing with diabolical glee the primary to pick a Democratic candidate to represent state Senate District 23, watching two of the state Senate's more powerful Democrats--Ellie Kinnaird and Howard Lee--pitted against each other thanks to new districts crafted by Judge "Gerrymander" Jenkins.

Kinnaird was, of course, the more progressive of the two, so her razor-thin victory (which Lee is contesting) was, on balance, a positive development.

The contest to be a Chatham County commissioner between progressive populist Gary Phillips and car wash king and occasional legal candidate Bunkey Morgan really hurt. Phillips was just the sort of barnstormer Chatham County needed to ward off the corporate development vultures--the likely backers of Bunkey's transparently corrupt campaign.

But all the liberal support in the Triangle couldn't overcome the push-polls, false rumors, and kindred gutter politics Bunkey employed in southern and western Chatham (not to mention his shady alliance with Howard Lee).

To give you just a taste of what Phillips was up against: While staffing phones for the Voting Rights Project of the Institute for Southern Studies, I personally fielded a call from one Chatham voter who reported that a Morgan representative stopped him before entering a precinct. Upon learning that he favored Phillips, the Morgan thug menacingly warned the voter that he belonged "in an insane asylum" and "should leave Chatham County." Other irregularities abounded.

Lesson here: Every progressive step forward will eventually bring the forces of reaction out of the woodwork. Only time will reveal the range of powerful interests who made Bunkey's bizarre campaign happen. But it's clear we can never be complacent once we have someone good in office--the bad guys will always be plotting their return to power.

(The author is executive director of the Institute for Southern Studies in Durham.)

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