This year, we confess, we have no idea who won the elections. We're still trying to figure out how incumbent Insurance Commissioner Jim Long got 17 insurance companies to mail out $400 million worth of auto-insurance refunds at election time with a note crediting the commissioner himself--three times in a single paragraph. This is the same guy whose department hotline is 1-800-JIM-LONG. And we complained about Mike Easley's state-financed "consumer ads?" Seems to be some confusion in Raleigh about public office and the public trust.
Now that you know who won, consider what else happened this year--and, equally important, what didn't happen.
Where was the presidential campaign?
In North Carolina, we just flat got skipped. The Republicans had a few primaries, the Democrats only one (New Hampshire), before the big-money candidates, George W. and Al Gore, were conceded their nominations. It was all over way before North Carolina "voted." In the fall, Ralph Nader couldn't get on the North Carolina ballot, and Gore conceded the state to Bush. Exciting, huh?
Where was the gubernatorial campaign?
In the primaries, the two leading Democrats agreed on everything, and all three Republicans agreed on everything. Once nominated, Democrat Mike Easley and Republican Richard Vinroot disappeared except for those 30-second moments when they'd pop out on TV to say what a bum the other guy was. Somehow, they spent $20 million (probably more, when the final numbers are in) for that?
Where was the media?
If a candidate falls in the woods, does she make a sound? There were candidates out there toiling--Jennifer Weiss comes to mind, did she hold onto her House seat?--but you couldn't tell it because the media absolutely ignored them. On the other hand, why not use the John Carrington strategy? Sen. Carrington never campaigns, or talks even. But his "efforts" get the same few paragraphs, the same lonely newspaper story, as Weiss'. Since he's rich, he runs commercials--and wins (presumably).
If Gore was elected (and if he was, thank Nader for pulling out young voters who, though they vowed they never would, gave in finally to their fear of Bush), he's got a mandate to get prescription drugs for seniors, which come to think of it, so does Bush if he won. Otherwise, they're so caught in their lockboxes and tax cuts that progressive programs are impossible.
What now? (part two)
If Easley won, and especially if South Carolina voters approved a lottery, we'll be talkin' lottery too. True, he never mentioned it. He didn't want to give it away, apparently. It was fascinating how Easley's ads were all about "working people" when, consumed as he was by fundraising, he rarely met any. Asked what he thought about the living-wage idea--a minimum wage that would lift every worker out of poverty--he'd never heard of it. Easley's campaign was reducible to this: He'll try to reduce class sizes in grades K-3, and offer a preschool program of some kind to low-income 4-year olds, but he won't raise taxes to do it. If Vinroot won, he has no mandate for anything. Do people really want less spending? If so, then surely the $3.1 billion bond issue for higher education failed. But it didn't, did it?
UNC-TV General Manager Tom Howe asked us to let him know what we thought about public television's coverage of the $3.1 billion bond. OK. It was disgraceful. UNC-TV stood to get $65 million from the bond if it passed. Plus, UNC-TV is part of--and controlled by--the UNC system, which stood to get $2.5 billion. So UNC-TV should have been extra careful about its coverage, perhaps to the point of only running stories produced by other stations. Instead, it put together two hour-long specials, A Building Crisis and A Growing Crisis, that looked like they came from UNC's public-relations department--and ran them, in prime time, over and over and over. That's the kind of thing that undermines trust in public television, Tom.
The real outcome
Two weeks before the election, Wake County Superior Court Judge Howard Manning Jr. issued a key ruling in the long-running Leandro lawsuit, which has already been to the state Supreme Court once and may get there again. The upshot: The state must make sure at-risk 4-year olds--poor kids, basically--get some kind of pre-schooling so they're ready for kindergarten. What kind of pre-schooling remains to be seen. And whether it will be enough to lift up the one-third of students--and one-half of minority students--who don't perform at grade level once they're in school is also a question. But Manning' s decision reflects a consensus among the state's political leaders that this is the thing to try. You didn't hear about it during the campaign? Sorry, voters are always the last to know.
How did Jim Hightower ever get elected agriculture commissioner in Texas? "Twice. They're still laughing about that," he said when he was in Raleigh just before the elections. In North Carolina, though, progressive candidates like Hightower don't exist--or don't run, anyway. And since we don't have the initiative-and-referendum process, progressive issues don't get on the ballot either. Living wage? Universal health care? Death-penalty moratorium (or repeal)? Medical marijuana? No way they can get past the General Assembly. The reason: Big-business folks here are still Democrats. Unlike a lot of other Southern states, where the conservative money has shifted to the GOP, here it maintains control of the Democratic party, trusting the Republicans to remain reliably right-wing without their largess. The rules that kept Nader off the ballot, allow unlimited soft-money contributions, postpone contribution reports until the election's over, and make independent candidacies and third-party bids all but impossible? Thank the Democrats.
The wealth primary
Big money's grip on state politics was also argued this month in Judge Manning's courtroom (again, not in the campaign). The question raised by progressive groups was whether money is so central to our elections that democracy itself--as promised by the state constitution--is violated. The progressives said it was. The Attorney General's office said it wasn't. Manning said the issue is whether we have a new "property qualification" to hold office. We had one 200 years ago--you had to own 300 acres to be in the Senate, for example--but the Civil War-era constitution abolished it. Nonetheless, the leading candidates for governor in both parties--and the long, long list of party nominees for all the other executive offices and most legislative seats--ran their campaigns with money contributed by a tiny group of wealthy backers. Half of what they spent came from less than 1,000 people, according to the reform group Democracy South. There were other Democratic candidates besides the "leading" two. Ken Rogers, who's crusaded against the hog industry for a decade, comes to mind. He runs every four years. But he can't get by the wealth primary so you've never heard of him.
What's the remedy?
If Manning finds a constitutional violation, he can order the General Assembly to enact a remedy--to fix it, in other words. One way would be to offer public financing to candidates. That wouldn't put Ken Rogers on an equal footing with Mike Easley, certainly, but it would give Rogers enough money to reach the voters by means other than waiting for the media to return his calls.
William Greider, the progressive author-journalist, suggests empowering every voter with, say, $100 worth of tax credits. Voters could give all $100 to one candidate or split it up among a dozen. That way, while the "leading" candidates are getting $1,000 each from 100 contributors, a progressive candidate might pack a hall with 1,000 people who'll give him $100--of public money.
If that's too radical, how about giving the League of Women Voters enough money to put candidates' debates on television, radio and the Internet. If a candidate won't show up--a la Mike Easley--put an empty chair there and give the time to the ones who will. And, please, not just one debate run by the Your Voice, Your Vote cartel, but a series of debates that give the campaign some life. We could give money to public television, too--maybe.