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Opinion: Is It Too Early for North Carolina Democrats to Get Their Hopes Up, Again?

After years of dashed dreams, progressives are back to seeing blue

The Rev. William Barber hosts a “Moral Monday” in Raleigh in 2016. With efforts like Barber’s Poor People’s Campaign gaining steam in North Carolina, progressives are once again seeing blue at the end of the tunnel, Mary C. Curtis writes. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call file photo)
The Rev. William Barber hosts a “Moral Monday” in Raleigh in 2016. With efforts like Barber’s Poor People’s Campaign gaining steam in North Carolina, progressives are once again seeing blue at the end of the tunnel, Mary C. Curtis writes. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call file photo)

In 2008, Barack Obama’s slim North Carolina victory in his first presidential run had Democrats in the state celebrating in the present and dreaming of a blue future in what had been considered a (relatively) progressive Southern state. Boy, were those dreams premature.

But 10 years later — after new redistricting and voting rules solidified GOP control in both the state and U.S. House delegations and a bill on LGBT rights made the state a poster child for conservative social policies — Democrats are again seeing light at the end of a deep-red tunnel.

Is there a reason?

Those voting rules and gerrymandered lines ran into trouble in the courts, to start, which could change the political landscape. It would not be a Pennsylvania-style transformation, though the GOP in North Carolina resisted those decisions as fervently as their counterparts in the Keystone State.

Another sign of change in the state, despite the overwhelmingly Republican congressional delegation, is the success that voters in cities and urban areas are having electing more progressive slates of candidates, a show of energy that could continue into the fall.

And on Wednesday, schools in many districts closed in support of teachers gathering in Raleigh for a March for Students and Rally for Respect. (Never mind that a Republican legislator called the whole thing the work of “Teacher Union thugs.”)

This week, the state capital also saw many take part in the Poor People’s Campaign, the start of a national movement retooled from Dr. Martin Luther King’s unfinished effort to expand the civil rights agenda. “We know that 62 million people work everyday without a living wage, and we’re standing together, we’re coming together,” said the Rev. Dr. William Barber, co-leader of the campaign and former head of the North Carolina NAACP, speaking onstage in Washington.

Barber’s earlier Moral Monday protests in North Carolina drew in diverse groups and served as a model for activists looking to build coalitions in other states. The movement joined with white Republicans to try to keep a rural hospital open, an effort that ultimately failed in a state that chose not to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.

From his North Carolina base, Barber has established a national and international voice for causes that echo King’s and encompass everything from environmental activism to voting rights to Medicaid reform. The goals of the Poor People’s Campaign are perhaps ambitious, but certainly inclusive. Will that movement be another push for progressive politics in the state?

Watch: There’s Been a Dramatic Rise in Female Campaign Donors This Cycle

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Taking it to the teachers

Wednesday’s one-day teacher march — strategically taking place on the first day of the legislature’s short session considering the budget and other issues — was about teacher compensation, school upkeep and classrooms with too many students and too few resources.

Of course, it was also political, with GOP state Rep. Mark Brody making the “thug” comment that others in the party softened. Though the North Carolina Association of Educators organized the march, they have no bargaining power in a right-to-work state. Still, the organization has favored “electing more pro-public education leaders in North Carolina.”

In a show that Republican leaders are anxious about losing supermajorities that easily stymie the actions of Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, the legislature is touting teacher raises that have been steady, though not enough to keep up with inflation or prevent some teachers from moving away for a better deal. It’s a sign that even in a traditionally anti-union state, thousands of teachers make a sympathetic case.

Dreams undeterred

Last week’s North Carolina primary results also yielded some surprises, as well as alliances forged and broken.

In Mecklenburg County, home of Charlotte, the state’s largest city, it was a case of the issues driving voters, who are paying attention even when the disagreements are within the party. All the candidates for sheriff were Democrats, with the winner facing no Republican challenger in the fall.

A coalition of African-American, Latino and white voters elected former homicide detective Garry McFadden, who had promised to end the county’s participation in the federal 287(g) program, which cooperated with federal immigration authorities by identifying prisoners in the U.S. illegally and holding them for possible deportation. Incumbent sheriff Irwin Carmichael defended the policy and came in third in a three-way race, proving the issue of immigration can be a motivator on both sides.

Intraparty politics played out in a surprise result for Republicans in the 9th District, where incumbent Rep. Robert Pittenger was defeated in his primary race by Mark Harris, a former Baptist pastor. As both candidates competed over who was closest to Trump, voters will have a clear choice between Harris and the easy winner of the Democratic primary, Dan McCready, a businessman and veteran the party is casting in the Conor Lamb mold, trying to replicate the Pennsylvania congressman’s recent success. Democrats also cautiously hope for change in other contested districts.

Is North Carolina about to become the toss-up Democrats crave and Republicans fear? The only thing certain is that this battlefield will be awash in money and opportunities for — if not a blue wave — a blue splash that could revive the dashed hopes of a decade ago.

Or will it all turn out to be another case of Lucy snatching the football away from Charlie Brown?

Roll Call columnist Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

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