Opinion: When your governing philosophy becomes a political liability

Republican leaders in Raleigh have taken unprecedented steps to pass this year’s budget behind closed doors. They will likely finish that up Friday, and they don’t plan to do much else this session so they can get back to fundraising from lobbyists and glad-handing in their districts. It is clear they have been forced to limit the amount of time they spend doing the jobs they were elected to do because Republican priorities have proven so deeply unpopular that even members once in safely gerrymandered districts face real challengers.

Seven years ago, shortly after historic wins brought Republicans into control of both chambers of the legislature for the first time in a decade, Thom Tillis, then the newly elected House Speaker laid out their agenda in a candid moment caught on camera. Tillis said that their philosophy was one to “divide and conquer” North Carolinians. Nearly a decade into Republican control we can see Tillis’s philosophy has been implemented with almost surgical precision.

They started with literal divisions of North Carolinians into districts so extremely gerrymandered that North Carolina, a state that regularly has some of the closest statewide elections in the country, elected a legislature where two-thirds of the seats were controlled by a party that had only one-third of registered voters. Those districts have now been ruled unconstitutional racial gerrymanders so severe that even a Donald Trump appointee to the Supreme Court agreed. 

In our public schools Republican leaders’ failure to meaningfully fund education on a per student basis since the recession further divided North Carolinians along both economic and racial lines. The opportunity gap between students from wealthy backgrounds and those from low-income backgrounds has become the worst in the nation. After decades of progress, studies show that racial segregation of North Carolina schools is on the rise. The legislature’s failure to prioritize education in any meaningful way outside of election years has begun to take its toll, not just on teachers, but on the outcomes of our students.

While our economy has begun to improve, it is only people at the top that seem to be bouncing back quickly while most North Carolina families are still struggling to get by. General Assembly policies have further divided North Carolinians by income. Again that is not by accident, as our legislative leaders have prioritized tax cuts for the wealthy and big out-of-state corporations in another effort to divide. Despite their stated goal to make our state more attractive to employers through tax changes, Republicans decided that writing discrimination into law was more important than our state’s reputation. Despite HB2’s, albeit incomplete, repeal, the stain left on our state’s brand continues to impact our ability to recruit major employers that no tax cut can overcome.

Republicans’ failure to provide any substantive reforms to our health care systems have had their intended effect to divide our state as well. Health outcomes by county are staggeringly disparate. The rate of premature death in Scotland county, which has the second lowest median income in the state, is nearly three times higher than in our wealthiest county of Wake.

All of these divisions, as now Senator Tillis admitted, were driven by Republican design in the legislature. Now their divisive actions have become such a political liability that the best way they can think of to hold on to their jobs is to leave town and stop doing their jobs and hope no one notices.