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Bumbling Democrats, diabolical Republicans

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Let's face it. If you're a Republican in North Carolina right now, you may not want to gloat, but could your prospects be any sweeter?

Returning to Raleigh this week for the General Assembly's short session, the GOP is in total control of the agenda with solid majorities in both chambers. And the gerrymandered redistricting plan you passed last year bids to keep you in charge through the 2020 census.

And your base is delirious: The anti-gay Amendment 1, adding a ban on legal recognition of same-sex unions to the state constitution, was a huge hit with Republican voters, (Wedge issue! Have a drink!) while dividing the Democrats. It passed easily.

Meanwhile, your candidate for governor, handsome Pat McCrory, was mayor of Charlotte in the good times, before the financial meltdown, and he never offended anybody. (Especially Duke Energy, his employer.) Unbelievably, the tea party and country-club wings of the GOP were united behind him, and McCrory won the nomination virtually unopposed. There was no fight over Romney, either.

So, as a Republican, your goal for this short session is: Don't mess it up.

Six weeks maximum, says Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, and we'll be out of here. Tweak the 2012–13 budget—using whatever additional revenues are on hand from an improving economy—but there will be no tax increase. Try again for a Voter ID law to gum up the Democratic turnout in November. Then adjourn before July 4 and get back to the real work, which is to win the General Assembly again while installing our guy McCrory as governor.

Oh, and it's best not to be too smug about the Democrats. Sure, they look dead now. But, you never ...

Fine. Treat yourself to a smirk.

Gov. Bev Perdue is a lame duck by choice. She's not running for re-election even though—now this is funny—the Democratic National Convention is coming to Charlotte in September. So Perdue, the sitting governor, can't be center stage. Instead, it will be Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton, who won the party's nomination for governor last week.

But no sooner was Dalton nominated than the state Democratic Party chairman, David Parker, put his thumb in Dalton's eye and twisted it, telling Dalton one thing on Saturday in Greensboro while doing another right in front of several hundred members of the party's executive committee. And guess who the rank-and-file supported?

Parker, of course!

Hey, you could go on all day about Parker, how he mishandled a case of alleged sexual harassment on the Democratic staff, but insisted he did everything right, but promised to step aside anyway for the good of the party, but then he didn't. He resigned on Saturday, listened to Dalton salute his selflessness, but then he didn't actually resign, and by a 269–203 vote, the committee let him stay. While Dalton was forced to admit to reporters that, yes, Parker disrespected him big-time.

The bottom line is, the state Democratic organization is useless. While that may pose only a minor headache for Democratic candidates, Dalton's failure to take charge and get someone he could trust elected chairman makes the lite governor look mighty lightweight. In short, Parker won in a vacuum that Dalton created when he failed to endorse somebody else.

And if Dalton is defeated at the top of the state ticket, look out below: Your next state auditor could be Debra Goldman of Wake school board fame. Her board buddy, John Tedesco (who's sorry he called Goldman a prom queen), might be the next superintendent of public instruction. Talk about your last laugh.

At the risk of belaboring the point about the Democrats, not only is Perdue a lame duck, so is the respected House Minority Leader Joe Hackney, who's retiring to Orange County at the end of the year. Hackney's departure leaves a much bigger void at the top of the party's ranks than Parker's mulish continuance.

The GOP's gerrymander, meanwhile, made lame ducks of several other strong Democrats in the House, including Wake County Reps. Grier Martin and Jennifer Weiss. A handful of up-and-comers remain, led by Rep. Deborah Ross, also D-Wake.

On the Senate side, Minority Leader Martin Nesbitt soldiers on, but Democratic voters, in their wisdom, failed to promote a potential star in Sen. Eric Mansfield, the Fayetteville physician who lost his primary race for lieutenant governor to Linda Coleman. Mansfield, too, is out of office at year's end and, until then, lame. Sen. Dan Blue, D-Wake, who passed up the governor's race, is entering the phase of senior statesman. That leaves another Wake Democrat, Sen. Josh Stein, in the role of "most promising."

But it also means that Dalton is left virtually alone to make the Democrats' case against the Republican agenda and in favor of progress.

The biggest issue in the short session is how much to spend on public schools, including K–12 and prekindergarten. Perdue has proposed a $20.9 billion budget with an additional $790 million for the schools to be paid for with a 3/4-cent sales tax increase. The sales tax money would help offset the loss of $258 million a year in federal "edu-jobs" aid that expires next month.

The Republicans are adamant: No tax increase, period.

The GOP majorities are not quite veto-proof, but close: At 68-52, they're just four votes shy of the needed three-fifths in the House; their 31-19 Senate majority is veto-proof. Last year, the Republicans passed a budget over Perdue's veto with the help of five conservative House Democrats. That could happen again this year, or a Perdue veto might result in the Republicans simply going home and leaving the $19.9 billion budget they enacted last year—as part of a two-year budget plan—unchanged. Disdain for Perdue is on the front page of the GOP playbook.

Without additional funds for the schools, State Board of Education Chairman Bill Harrison predicted that 5,400 teaching and teacher assistant jobs would be eliminated at the local level next year from the loss of federal edu-jobs money alone.

Berger has succeeded in fogging the debate over school funding with a so-called reform plan that would add money for reading teachers in grades 1–3 and for adding five days to the school year—for a total of 185—by siphoning it from other education aid.

It now falls to Dalton to explain why North Carolina voters should reach in their pockets for a few dollars more a year to keep the public schools healthy and, indeed, improve them. And while they're at it, to conserve our natural resources today (e.g., no fracking) so future generations can enjoy them too.

If this becomes a debate about dollar signs and raising taxes to keep the same old people on the public dole, the Democrats will lose.

But it needn't be that way. This week I listened to Sig Hutchinson, who's running for a state Senate seat in northern Wake County against Republican incumbent Neal Hunt. Hutchinson exudes optimism. "Have you heard that we're broke?" Hutchinson asked supporters at his campaign kickoff. "We're not," he said. "We don't have a budget deficit. We have a vision deficit."

For 10 minutes, Hutchinson waxed almost poetic about the U.S. as the country the whole world wants to live in, and about North Carolina as the state that the whole country wants to live in. We have the greatest natural resources, he said, the best minds, the best schools and a 200-year history of stable democracy that's enabled us to expand our bounty and share it ever more widely. Hutchinson, who's known as a greenways and transit advocate in Raleigh and as someone who never met a stranger, is a wonderful speaker, and quoting an excerpt here or there can't do justice to his eloquence.

But here's the deal: Hutchinson may or may not be right about the ever-forward progress of our democracy. But without optimism, politics is empty and our future bleak. The Republican vision reduces to some people doing well while others don't, and there's nothing to be done about it. That kind of pessimism strikes many of those who are doing well as merely being realistic. It strikes anyone with a progressive heart as self-fulfilling defeatism.

The Democratic vision of a rising tide lifting all the boats is a tough sell in hard times like these. But hard times are when the vision is needed most. It's not about three-fourths of a penny. It's about raising your aim. "Don't dwell on the bottom line," as Hutchinson said. "Focus on the finish line."

This article appeared in print with the headline "That's state politics."

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