Two of North Carolina’s most outspoken political pundits matched wits Wednesday night in a debate hosted by The News & Observer that drew a standing-room-only crowd at the N.C. Museum of History.
Conservative writer J. Peder Zane and liberal lawyer Gene Nichol spoke about what nearly a decade of Republican control has meant for North Carolina. They sometimes agreed — but more often disagreed — about politics, race relations, taxes, gerrymandering and the courts in a debate that lasted more than 90 minutes in front of the packed crowd at the museum’s auditorium.
But mostly they stayed focused on the topic at hand: What Republican control of the state legislature, since 2011, has meant for North Carolina.
Said Zane: “Since their policies kicked in, our economy has done better than the country as a whole.”
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Said Nichol: “I wonder who we’re trying to draw to North Carolina by being the most extreme in questions of race and transgender rights and LGBT issues .... or being repeatedly sued by the federal government, which we do like this is Mississippi in 1962.”
Their debate was the latest in a regular series of “Community Voices” events hosted by The News & Observer’s editorial board, and the most popular to date.
“We’ve had over a dozen of these forums so far and this is the first to sell out,” Ned Barnett, the N&O’s associate opinion editor, told the crowd.
Past events have focused on climate change, education policy and how to fix college sports, among other topics. Attendees also got the chance to ask Zane and Nichol questions of their own, which touched on everything from President Donald Trump to a recent N&O article about potential conflicts of interest involving NC House Speaker Tim Moore.
Zane is a former book reviewer for The N&O, was chairman of the journalism program at Saint Augustine’s University in Raleigh, and now works for the conservative website RealClearInvestigations. Nichol was the dean of the law schools at UNC-Chapel Hill and the University of Colorado, was the president of the College of William & Mary, and is now a law professor at UNC. Both write regular political commentary for The N&O.
Nichol and Zane had a few points of agreement Wednesday night. Both questioned the way students and protesters at UNC-Chapel Hill tore down Silent Sam.
However, while many Republican leaders want to put the statue back up at Chapel Hill, neither Zane nor Nichol expressed too much sadness at the loss of the controversial Confederate statue. Before being toppled it stood at a main entrance to UNC since the early 1900s, when it was erected during the start of the Jim Crow era following the end of Reconstruction.
Nichol: “I’m not sure the way that Silent Sam came down would’ve been my first choice. But it’s been long overdue. And it would be a great wound to the university if we were forced to replace it.”
Zane: “I don’t think we need monuments to history. I think we need monuments to things we admire. And when we stop admiring it, I think we need to rethink” what to do with those monuments.
In North Carolina the legislature gets to draw the districts used to elect its own members as well as the state’s members of the U.S. House of Representatives.
The Democrats engaged in gerrymandering for political gain while they were in power, and so have Republicans in recent years. However, the GOP redistricting plans as a whole have held up worse in court — with dozens of districts in multiple GOP plans ruled unconstitutional in court since 2011, over lawmakers’ use of race as well as pure partisan politics.
Nichol: The Republican-led legislature has undertaken “an almost decade-long effort to diminish the voting and political power of African-Americans,” and one of their unconstitutional plans was even declared in court to be “the most pervasive racial gerrymandering, the judges ruled, ever presented.”
Zane: “Yes, gerrymandering is a problem. But it is also a fact that Republicans have earned more votes across the state than Democrats.”
Zane took issue with people calling Republican politicians racist, saying, “in this day and age that is about the worst thing you can call somebody.”
Nichol said that when politicians infringe on the rights of minorities, no matter what their initial intentions, the outcome is still racist and needs to be called out.
“Making life more difficult and challenging for African-Americans is unacceptable,” he said.
But Zane said calling Republican politicians racist doesn’t help Democrats who are trying to persuade moderate Republican voters to listen to them.
“You can’t condemn the people in power without condemning the people who put them there,” Zane said.
Zane said he voted for Barack Obama in 2008 because he didn’t like John McCain and thought George W. Bush had been “a war criminal,” but he believes Obama and his fellow Democrats didn’t do enough to heal the country either economically or socially, hence the rise of Donald Trump.
“People were still dissatisfied with Democrats in general,” he said. “I know Hillary got more votes, but Trump is still our president.”
He criticized Moral Monday protests locally, as well as anti-Trump protests nationally, characterizing Democratic protesters as sore losers. But Nichol said there’s no more American way to object to poor governance than by directly and unsparingly letting those in power know about complaints.
“There’s something called the right to petition in the First Amendment,” Nichol said. “I think it’s meant to be pretty close-up.”
Taxes and the economy
While Zane had some criticisms of his party for its handling of social issues like HB2 — the short-lived law that dealt with transgender access to public bathrooms — he had only praise for the tax cuts instituted by Republican leaders in the last few years, as well as their broader work to stabilize the state budget following the Great Recession.
“The assertion that the tax cuts are just for the wealthy — they have doubled the standard deduction, which everybody enjoys,” he said.
“They came in and we had a deficit,” Zane said of Republican legislators. “We now have a surplus which can protect us from the terrible cuts we had to have last time (that there was a recession).”
Nichol said he is glad North Carolina has a budget surplus, but that he doesn’t understand why it’s not being used to lift up those who need help, since 40 percent of the children of color in North Carolina are living in poverty, and the state as a whole has one of the nation’s worst poverty rates.
“In the richest nation on earth — and the most unequal nation on earth — it diminishes us,” Nichol said.
The two men also disagreed on the benefits of government spending. Nichol said that for as good as the state’s economic recovery has been since the recession, it could have been even better and more equally shared if the state had accepted the federal government’s offer of a free expansion of Medicaid, which he said “would’ve put billions of dollars into this economy, created thousands of jobs.”
But Zane said he has not seen many studies showing that government spending is cost-effective. He said that’s especially true in public education, which is an area many in the state have accused Republican leaders of neglecting.
“Per-pupil spending in America’s public schools has more than tripled, in inflation adjusted dollars, since the 1970s,” Zane said. “Test scores have remained flat.”
Reasons to move to North Carolina
In the end, Zane defended the state’s reputation under GOP leadership. Nichol said it has been tarnished in most circles.
Nichol said there has been too much “old-school, traditional race discrimination. 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education.”
“Are we trying to get more Klansmen?” he asked. “What’s the theory for attracting more people to this state?”
But North Carolina and all of its neighbors are growing, Zane said, both in terms of population and wealth. He said that’s due at least in part to small-government policies enacted by Republicans.
“The Southeast has boomed during the last four decades precisely because it has lower taxes and regulation than the North. Just look who is moving here,” he said.