When The Independent published its first issue in the spring of 1983, North Carolina's Democrats were a comfortable lot. Jim Hunt was in his second term as governor, preparing to run in 1984 for the U.S. Senate seat held by that Republican naysayer, Jesse Helms. Democratic politicians and Raleigh-based journalists alike seemed certain that Hunt was unbeatable. The Washington Post's editorial section ran a story in 1983 by a former political writer for The News & Observer with the cocksure title: "Jesse Helms Has a Problem: He's Destined to Lose in '84."
Republicans held about 20 percent of the seats in both the state House and state Senate during the long session of 1983. Democratic House Speaker Liston Ramsey could pass any bill he wanted, as could his Senate counterpart, Democratic Lt. Gov. Jimmy Green. Republicans had not come close to controlling either chamber at any point in the 20th century.
The Democrats of 1983 were proud to be Southern Democrats. They were bothered by the likes of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who promoted a left-of-center biracial agenda that was light-years away from the comfortable pro-big business ideology that prevailed in the General Assembly and in Gov. Hunt's office. They regretted that Northern liberal Democrats like George McGovern had headed the ticket in 1972 and they worried that another Northern liberal might be the Democratic presidential nominee in 1984.
North Carolina politics in 1983 still fit the 1949 title that political scientist V.O. Key in his Southern Politics had assigned to the state: a progressive plutocracy. Of course, Democrats were proud that Key had viewed North Carolina as the most progressive Southern state. They simply ignored the fact that plutocracy means a "government of the wealthy."
Tar Heel Democrats in 1983 had desegregated the party, but African Americans were primarily on the back bench and badly underrepresented. In 1982, the Democrat-dominated state Senate had failed to support the Equal Rights Amendment. North Carolina's defeat of the amendment, led by Senate Democrats, was a serious blow to the ultimately unsuccessful national effort to pass an Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Finally, North Carolina Democrats in 1983 considered the 4 percent state and local sales tax on groceries to be non-debatable. An effort by a few Democratic senators and representatives in the late 1970s to repeal the food tax was not supported by Hunt and failed to win a majority in either the Senate or the House. Most Tar Heel Democrats in the early 1980s viewed the food tax pragmatically as a lucrative source of tax dollars, so it made no sense to repeal it. A few traditional Democrats, holding on to pre-civil rights era notions of blacks and politics, actually praised the food tax because they believed, inaccurately, that the food tax was "the only tax they paid." Everyone in politics knew that those white Democrats using the "they" term were referring to the alleged non-tax-paying of African Americans. Those who invoked the "only tax they pay" line of thinking also were prone to see African Americans as overusing and abusing state and local government's social-service sector.
The biggest change of the past two decades has been the rise of the Republican Party in North Carolina. In 1994, Georgia Congressman Newt Gingrich led the successful national Republican effort to win a Congressional majority for the first time in 40 years. But an even greater political revolution occurred in North Carolina. With a net gain of 26 seats in that 1994 election, Tar Heel Republicans in January 1995 elected the first Republican speaker in 96 years, Harold Brubaker of Asheboro. Senate Republicans in 1994 ended up only two seats shy of gaining control of the North Carolina Senate. With Brubaker as speaker, the House remained in Republican hands until 1999. Tar Heel Democrats, from Gov. Hunt in the 1970s to Gov. Mike Easley today, retain their penchant for taxes that fall disproportionately on the middle and low-income majority. Both the food tax (now at 2 percent for local government) and the general sales tax (7 percent statewide) are good examples of a regressive tax. A constant of the past two decades in state politics is the large number of corporate lobbyists who roam the halls of the General Assembly, pushing the interests of their clients. One interest of all corporations is to keep their taxes as low as possible. Easley, like his predecessor Jim Hunt, has always remained sensitive to the corporate agenda, including this year.
The ideological debate between Tar Heel Democrats and Republicans is a limited one. What has not changed since Jim Hunt was governor in the 1970s is the willingness of North Carolina's Democratic leaders to rely on the sales tax as the cornerstone of revenue-raising. The voice of the economic populist, to place a greater burden on big corporations and the wealthy, is weak among the North Carolina Democratic elite of 2003. As one Democratic leader told me, "A regressive tax is OK because it's the poor who benefit from government spending." While a convenient myth, it is no more true in 2003 than it was in 1983.
Paul Luebke, author of Tar Heel Politics 2000 (UNC Press), has represented Durham in the state house since 1991. He has taught sociology at UNC-Greensboro since 1996. His previous article in The Independent, an open letter to Sen. Helms and to Gov. Hunt, appeared in the Aug. 31, 1984, issue.