Former N.C. Gov. Pat McCrory, left, shakes hands with now-Gov. Roy Cooper last summer. Will having a Democrat as governor widen or shrink the partisan gap in North Carolina? Chuck Burton AP
Former N.C. Gov. Pat McCrory, left, shakes hands with now-Gov. Roy Cooper last summer. Will having a Democrat as governor widen or shrink the partisan gap in North Carolina? Chuck Burton AP

Taylor Batten


Editorial Page Editor

January 20, 2017 5:32 PM

Is purple possible?

It’s the question of our times, made more urgent by a presidential inaugural address Friday that did nothing to heal wounds from a divisive campaign. It’s an especially pressing question in North Carolina, where a population almost perfectly balanced between Democratic blue and Republican red lives in a political environment that is anything but purple.

North Carolinians elected a Democrat to be governor but returned Republican supermajorities to both the N.C. House and Senate. President Donald Trump and a Republican Congress will lead a nation in which more people voted for Democrat Hillary Clinton. With those new realities playing out against a backdrop of polarization that has been building for decades, we embark on a four-year journey in which either the gap widens or we finally take steps to find some common ground.

Duke University, in recognition of all this, has kicked off its “Purple Project.” On Friday, a bipartisan panel met to discuss “Is Purple Possible? Bridging the Partisan Divide in North Carolina.” On the dais were, from the left, Sen. Dan Blue and former Rep. Rick Glazier, and, from the right, Pope Foundation President John Hood and Sen. Tamara Barringer.

Because you and I weren’t there, I asked the four panelists to share with me their thoughts on the topic. Blue, Glazier and Hood, in emails and telephone interviews, did so.

Let’s start at the beginning: Is purple possible in North Carolina?

Blue: I think some shade of purple is possible. I think we can move away from the rigid red-ness of the discussions that have been ongoing for the last several years. We can get to somewhere between the 40-yard lines instead of somewhere down in the Red Zone.

Hood: I continue to be optimistic about building useful bridges. It has taken time for everyone to adjust (to GOP victories in 2010). Roy Cooper’s narrow victory in 2016 could hasten that adjustment – by reminding Republicans that North Carolina is a highly competitive state in which they have little room for error, and reminding Democrats that the gigantic wave of popular disgust they expected to surf back into power in Raleigh does not really exist.

You all sound more optimistic than I am. Why is that?

Blue: I believe if I’m reading some of these signals correctly, there is a desire within some of the Senate leadership and Republican caucus to have a more open dialogue with Democrats. I see possibilities for openings, looking at some of the replacements of major committee chairs. The departure of Bob Rucho from the Senate leadership leaves a little bit more room for folks to have a fair exchange of ideas. There’s a new Rules Committee chair in the Senate [Bill Rabon]; he’s not as much of a flame thrower as you might think.

Glazier: I remain optimistic as human beings we have great capacity to learn and change. While the leadership has had some significant success, they’ve also had significant defeats where the process has harmed their capacity to govern. Second, we have a changed dynamic, a bit of a check and balance with a Democratic governor and Supreme Court. Third, there’s increasing public commitment to (good governance) and I’m not sure what’s taken place will be allowed to take place (in the future).

How much is gerrymandering to blame for our current state of affairs?

Blue: I cannot overstate the impact gerrymandering has had on real representative democracy. It’s essential we fix that if we’re going to save democracy. The courts will force that, there’s no question about that. I’m convinced that at the Supreme Court level there will be some relief from this very biased and discriminatory redistricting.

Glazier: The next year is pretty crucial in that debate. There are enough questions about demographics and what the court is going to do … this ought to be the time we think through nonpartisan redistricting.

Hood: I’m all for redistricting reform, but don’t assume that gerrymandering is the only or even the dominant story here. It isn’t. Republicans have won lots of statewide elections lately. Democrats haven’t, although that could change.

Does having Roy Cooper, a Democrat, in the governor’s office, make things better or worse in efforts to bridge the partisan divide?

Blue: It helps immensely. Having a governor who understands the process and has played leadership roles in the legislative process will make a big difference. Gov. McCrory simply never got it. He’s a nice enough guy but he was never able to get a feel of how you exercise full power of the governor to put the legislature in check. If you’re constantly fighting back, you back them off from some of the more extreme ideas they want to pursue. The governor has a statewide constituency. He sets the agenda.

Glazier: He has sent signals saying, “You might ultimately prevail, but it’ll be inch by inch and foot by foot. I think he’s going to use every weapon at his disposal. The hope is after a while of this, everyone will realize this is a silly, costly way to govern and we need to find more common ground.

Any final thoughts?

Hood: When it comes to building more bridges, I have two engineering suggestions. First, understand your task. You are not trying to put hooks on each bank of the river and then yank them together. That’s impossible. You are not Paul Bunyan. You are building a bridge across a divide that will continue to exist, because we have different opinions and an electoral system that inevitably pushes opinionated people into roughly two competing coalitions. Second: While you have every right to believe that the right bank of the river is better than the left bank, or vice versa, try not to be so obnoxious about it. Understand that others probably see things differently from you not because they are evil or stupid, but because they possess a different set of facts, experiences, assumptions, and values.

There is a natural temptation to define bipartisanship as “when those ignorant fools in the other party finally did the right thing.” Resist that temptation.

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