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Entries for January 2011

31
A friend who is knowledgeable about the state budget gave me this factoid:
 
Extending the “temporary” one-cent sales-tax increase would get North Carolina through the budget crisis without laying off one teacher or teacher assistant.
 
No cuts in the classroom.
 
For Governor Perdue, that could be a fight worth fighting.
 
Yes, there would be cuts in education: assistant principals, guidance counselors, janitors, security officers, etc.
 
But no classroom cuts.
 
And there will inevitably be cuts in health care and human services.
 
But no classroom cuts.
 
If she proposes that, no doubt, the legislature will reject it. Fine. Let them make the classroom cuts – and take the heat.
 
As I blogged last week, this could be her best path to reelection.

 

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28
President Obama’s speech and Speaker Thom Tillis’s remark define the chasm between Democrats and Republicans – and the opening for Governor Perdue in 2012.
 
Obama talked Tuesday about “investments” that will “win the future.”
 
Tillis said Wednesday: "I believe government needs to be as small as possible to provide for people's safety, to provide for education and to provide for infrastructure – and not much else."
 
When the inevitable question came – what about health care and human services? – Tillis backtracked: That comes under public safety, he explained. But his point remained: Balance the budget with spending cuts alone.
 
Republicans say “investments” is government-speak for “spending.” Democrats say Republicans cut too much.
 
Swing voters, essentially, believe both critiques are right. They think Democrats spend too much and Republicans cut too much.
 
In 2010, they punished Democrats for spending too much. In 2012, they may punish Republicans for cutting too much – especially after Republicans in Raleigh cut $3 billion-plus and Republicans in Washington try to cut $500 billion.
 
Right now, those huge numbers mean nothing to people. We have no concept of what they mean.
 
Soon, we’ll know exactly what they mean. And therein lies Perdue’s opportunity.
 
If she draws a bright line against draconian cuts – especially in education – she can appeal to voters’ natural instinct to provide checks and balances in government.
 
She can say: “If you want a governor who’ll rubber-stamp a legislature that guts education, vote for somebody else. If you want a governor who’ll stand up to them, vote for me.”
 
Taking that bold stand will be uncomfortable for a governor who came out of the legislature. But it could be her only road to reelection.

 

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27
After I posted the blog below on the N&O’s legislative-leaders gallery, I received the following from Dan Kane:
 
“I'd like to clarify what Mary said about Rep. Julia Howard. As a finance chairman, she definitely has clout in the legislature, much more than the average member. I did not include her among the three from the House in our Sunday report because I did not hear as much talk about her as I spoke with Republicans in researching this story and I had not seen her as heavily involved in moving legislation.
 
“Thanks for giving me an opportunity to respond.”

 

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27
Were you struck, like I was, by the big, close-up photos of Republican legislative leaders in the N&O last Sunday? Here’s the take of one longtime legislative observer (who’s not aligned with either party):
 
“It occurred to me that the N&O’s Sunday front-page spread was deliberate by the N&O to underscore a lack of GOP diversity. Why else would they photo a buncha white guys in identical poses? Why else would the N&O exclude a photo and bio of Danny McComas, a long-time prominent Hispanic GOP House member, or Julia Howard, a female GOPer who’s been there for decades and now is a leader. I think the N&O was not-so-subtly reminding its few remaining readers that these guys are the ones who’ll be guilty of slicing education and services to the poor.”
 
So I asked the N&O. Here’s the response I received from Mary Cornatzer, who oversees the paper’s coverage of state government:
 
“John Drescher asked me to respond to your query on how we picked the power brokers pictured as part of our legislative preview.
 
“Those six men as well as the five men and three women in the "others to watch" category were picked based on interviews, the votes for leadership positions and the considerable experience and knowledge of our legislative team, including Dan Kane, who led the effort.
 
“Obviously, when you limit your top picks (this time to six) there will be some who disagree with the choices. I think the mini-profiles explained why we chose the people we did.
 
“As for the two representatives your correspondent suggested, I asked Dan if he had considered them. His reply was that Rep. McComas is chairing the House commerce committee and that while it is important, it is not as powerful as finance, budget or rules.  He disagreed with the idea that Rep. Howard had much power.
 
“Finally, for your correspondent who is worried about the lack of diversity, I would suggest they look to the 'who serves' graphic we ran: There are 132 men in the House and Senate and 38 women; 143 members are white, 25 are black, 1 is Hispanic and 1 is a Native American.
 
“Thank you for giving me the chance to respond.”
 

 

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26
Because I’ve written so many speeches, I can’t help being a speech critic. And I think President Obama missed the mark last night.
 
Normally, Obama is a powerful speaker – and a great writer. And his State of the Union speech had its moments.
 
He probably got the politics right. Even Speaker Boehner clapped some. And members were on their best behavior, it being Congressional Date Night.
 
But the speech read like a committee wrote it. And Obama buried his lead. His best line – and what would have been his best theme – was lost at the end: “We do big things.”
 
A good editor – or adviser – should have told him: Work that line. Make it the main message – and the headline tomorrow. Use “we do big things” to frame your agenda – and draw a contrast with both the past and the Republicans.
 
My take: For all his bounceback in the polls, Obama is still unsure how to navigate this new landscape.

 

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26
I’m frequently asked what Governor Hunt would do in Governor Perdue’s situation – since he faced the first Republican House majority 16 years ago.
 
Here’s what he did: Got what he could. Then picked a fight.
 
Of course, much was different then. Democrats still held the Senate. Hunt’s approval ratings were in the 60s. The economy – and budget – were strong.
 
Also, Hunt had been at odds with House Democrats on two big issues: crime and gubernatorial veto. So he cozied up to Republicans, who agreed with him on both, and got them passed. (Republicans may live to regret the veto.)
 
Hunt even talked then-Speaker Harold Brubaker into cosponsoring his Good Schools Act – including higher pay for teachers.
 
Then Hunt picked a couple of strategic fights. Smart Start was one. The other came in the summer of 1996 – when Hunt was up for reelection. His opponent was then-state Rep. Robin Hayes.
 
When budget talks broke down late that summer, the House adjourned. “We’re out of here,” Hayes famously said.
 
So Hunt began travelling around the state. He held hearings on how the lack of a budget was hurting schools, community colleges, law enforcement, human services and on and on.
 
The Republicans caved. And Hunt cruised to reelection.
 
Take what lesson you will.

 

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25
For Republican legislators, these are the best of times.
 
Thoughtful-looking, chin-in-hand, close-up photos on the front page. Admiring newspaper profiles. Crowded news conferences. Lobbyists lined up to see you. Donors lined up to give to you. Big offices to move into. Gavels to wield.
 
Then, at noon tomorrow, boom! The big gavel comes down. And the fun starts.
 
Suddenly, political platitudes give way to real votes and real choices. And real people – and their lobbyists and advocates – who might get mad. And reporters who persist in asking nettlesome questions.
 
It’s a great opportunity for Republicans: the first time they’ve run the legislature since the 19th Century.
 
And a great risk: the worst budget crisis the state has ever had.
 
No problem, they proclaim: The voters sent us here to cut spending.
 
So what’s their first move? Apparently, they’ll instruct Governor Perdue to cut spending this year.
 
In other words, let’s get to work – passing the buck. Literally.

 

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24
Looking back, President Obama made a huge strategic error in 2010: He let voters think he was spending too much time reforming health-care and not enough time creating jobs.
 
He learned a lesson. He now promises to focus on jobs, beginning with his State of the Union speech.
 
But did Washington Republicans miss that class?
 
Their first order of business is to repeal or reform Obama’s reform. Then they’re focusing on cutting spending.
 
You can see where the White House – and Obama’s already-forming campaign team – want this to go: We’re focused like a laser beam, as Bill Clinton said, on jobs. They’re playing politics.
 
Meanwhile, Obama’s poll numbers are rising. No strong Republican challenger has emerged.
 
Unceasing change is always the rule in politics. As is politicians’ inability to see and act on it.

 

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21
Call it Colbert World versus Fox World.
 
That’s where the WakeCounty schools debate is happening today.
 
This kind of division is nothing new in North Carolina politics. Go back to 1950: It’s been a 60-year war between conservatives (“racists,” as their opponents call them) and progressives (“socialists,” as their opponents call them.)
 
They’ve always had their competing views – and even their competing media.
 
For years, the conservatives had WRAL-TV and its nightly commentator, Jesse Helms. The progressives had the N&O and its editors, Jonathan Daniels and Claude Sitton.
 
But there’s a difference today.
 
At least both sides watched and read both WRAL and the N&O. Now each side has its own echo chamber, where they dismiss and ridicule the other side.
 
In the media universe, they exist in parallel words that never meet.
 
Not all supporters of the school board majority are racists who want to resegregate schools. There are parents genuinely upset by rolling school reassignments – and not sure whether that’s because of growth or social policy.
 
Not all opponents of the current board are liberal social engineers bent on diversity over education. They genuinely fear that WakeCounty may lose a treasure that helped make it a good place to live.
 
There seems to be no place – and no one – able to bridge the divide.

 

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20
Republicans who denounced corruption and pay-for-play in Raleigh are now racing to the trough.
 
Like locusts, newly minted lobbyists and would-be influence-peddlers are descending on Raleigh. They brag of their access to the new legislative leaders, and they promise to deliver anything and everything to their clients.
 
How many of them will still be standing once this session ends?
 
I’ve never lobbied. But I know lobbyists, and I’ve worked with a lot of them.
 
The good ones work hard. They’ve spent years learning how the legislature works. They’ve built relationships – on both sides of the aisle – based on respect. Democrat or Republican, they will survive this wave, too.
 
A few of the newbies will learn to swim – and stay in the pool. A lot of them will find out it’s tougher than they think, or they’ll fail to deliver on their promises, and they’ll be out of the business by next year. A few of them may get enmeshed in scandal.
 
This, too, shall pass.

 

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