The Supreme Court has issued a ruling in favor of independent redistricting commissions in Arizona.
In a 5-4, ruling the United States Supreme Court ruled citizens in Arizona did not remove power from state lawmakers by voting to establish an independent redistricting commission, according to Jane Pinsky – Director of the North Carolina Coalition for Lobbying and Government Reform.
“The people of Arizona have the right to set up an independent redistricting commission,” she says. “The commission in Arizona was created by citizen initiative, and it was a clear sign that the people of Arizona wanted a fair and impartial process.
“And they didn’t think they were getting that through their legislature.”
Pinsky adds citizens organized a grassroots effort to gain signatures in favor of the referendum’s placement on the ballot. For any North Carolinians with that idea, Pinsky has some bad news.
“We don’t have the right to do a ballot initiative,” Pinksy says of the organizational structure in North Carolina.
Pinsky says since residents of the Tar Heel state do not have the option of placing a citizen-driven referendum on the ballot, the next step for North Carolinians is to lobby elected representatives.
Pinsky adds gerrymandering is an overt way of disenfranchising voters.
“One of the things that we see that has happened as all of this redistricting and all the gerrymandering is that citizens feel like their votes don’t count,” she says. “And, unfortunately, in [about] 40-some percent of the legislative races in this state, that’s absolutely true.
“There was only one person on the ballot.”
For decades Democrats controlled North Carolina politics and could draw the state and congressional districts as they pleased. Now Republicans are in charge and don’t seem apt to giving up the power that comes with their partisan pen.
Local Democratic House Representative Verla Insko says changing demographics may play a large role in the upcoming elections.
“The Republicans that gerrymandered your districts are not all as safe as they used to be,” she says. “House districts are more vulnerable to moving back and forth between Republicans and Democrats.
“The challengers in the House may have an easier path, but that’s also true for the Senate that the population shifts are going to put some pressure on the current Republicans to look seriously at a commission.”
A bill passed the state House in 2011 to create an independent redistricting commission before dying in the Senate. Earlier this year, a large number of bipartisan lawmakers again called for an independent commission. Democratic House Representative Graig Meyer says support in the House is overwhelming from both sides of the aisle.
“There’s broad bipartisan support for this in House,” he says. “There are more than 61 cosponsors of the House bill, so that indicates that it would pass the House easily. The Senate has blocked this type of effort for several years. And it’s pretty clear to me that the Senate is blocking it because the Republicans who lead the Senate are doing everything that they can to hold on to the power that they have.
“That would include blocking [an independent commission] as well as all of the voting restrictions that they have put into place.”
Pinsky says a particular note in the Supreme Court ruling drew her attention.
“There’s a line that says that ‘the Constitution has an animating principle that people themselves are the originating source of all powers of government,’” she says. “In other words, the power doesn’t come from the legislators. The power comes from us.
“Anything that, I think, impedes our ability to freely exercise that power is wrong and undermines our democracy.”
While the Supreme Court ruling does not have a direct impact on North Carolina, it does support the momentum behind independent redistricting commissions that have been established in states including Arizona, Iowa, and Ohio.
It seems the biggest impediment to an independent commission in North Carolina is Republican Senate President Phil Berger.
Senator Berger’s office has not responded to repeated request for comment.http://chapelboro.com/news/state-government/gerrymandering-north-carolina/
Democracy North Carolina says 454 voters who would have had their ballots counted under 2012 election rules were not able to vote in the May Primary thanks to two key changes made by the General Assembly.
North Carolina’s sweeping election reform bill was signed into law by Governor Pat McCrory in 2013. Among the many changes to voting rules, the new law did away with same-day registration during Early Voting and no longer allowed voters to cast a provisional ballot if they show up to vote outside their assigned precinct.
Democracy North Carolina says new analysis shows the laws are disproportionately affecting minority and Democratic voters.
Black voters, who make up 22 percent of the state’s registered voters, counted for 39 percent of those whose ballots were rejected. Democrats are 42 percent of all registered voters, but were 57 percent of those disenfranchised by the new rules.
The data was released one month before the deadline to register to vote in the November general election. Voting advocates say it’s important to double-check voting status now because the October 10 deadline is your last chance to register.
To check your registration status and see a sample ballot, go to NCvoter.org.
You can find the full report from Democracy North Carolina here.http://chapelboro.com/news/state-government/400-disenfranchised-new-voting-rules/
Pat McCrory is unpopular and the North Carolina General Assembly is extremely unpopular – but it doesn’t look like there will be much of a shakeup in Raleigh when North Carolinians go to vote this November.
That’s the upshot of the latest survey from Public Policy Polling, released last week.
Governor McCrory’s approval rating is only 39 percent and his disapproval rating is 45 percent – marking the 12th month in a row that McCrory has been in negative territory. PPP director Tom Jensen says that may be because voters see McCrory as a weak governor: only 27 percent believe he’s calling the shots in Raleigh, while 43 percent think the General Assembly is in control. (And voters don’t see that as a good thing: only 18 percent of North Carolinians approve of the job the NCGA is doing.)
But voters disapprove of Democrats in the NCGA as much as they disapprove of Republicans – so even though the NCGA is in Republican hands, there doesn’t appear to be a groundswell of support for Democrats yet. Republicans actually lead a generic legislative ballot 43-41, which Jensen says would give the GOP essentially the same majority for the next two years that it enjoys today. (That’s in spite of the fact that most of the policies being passed in the House and Senate are themselves unpopular as well.)
Tom Jensen joined Aaron Keck on the Tuesday afternoon news to discuss the poll.
As for the 2016 election, Jensen says to expect some close races: McCrory currently holds a 44-42 lead over attorney general Roy Cooper, the presumptive Democratic challenger (owing partly to Cooper’s low name recognition, Jensen says), while Hillary Clinton leads the most likely Republican candidates in the presidential race by equally narrow margins.http://chapelboro.com/news/election/nc-gop-unpopular-danger/
Former Carrboro mayor Mark Chilton confirmed today that if he’s elected as Orange County Register of Deeds, he will sign same-sex marriage licenses, in defiance of the North Carolina state constitution.
Listen to Chilton’s conversation with WCHL’s Aaron Keck.
In a statement on Facebook, Chilton said that his primary duty as an elected official is to uphold the U.S. Constitution above any state or local statutes that may contradict it – and that North Carolina’s ban on same-sex marriage and civil unions is “clearly contrary” to the federal Constitution, especially in the context of recent Supreme Court and lower-court decisions. (The Supreme Court has not yet weighed in directly on the question of whether the U.S. Constitution guarantees same-sex couples the right to marry, but lower courts in recent months have struck down state-level bans in Virginia, Texas, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Ohio, and Utah, all on constitutional grounds.)
Prior to today, Chilton had declined to say whether or not he’d issue same-sex marriage licenses – saying he preferred to focus on his other qualifications for the job, including an extensive background in real estate. But in an earlier interview, he told WCHL that he would give precedence to the U.S. Constitution above all other laws in his role in the office. “To my way of thinking,” he said last week, “the number one responsibility of all elected officials in North Carolina is to uphold the federal Constitution, above and beyond all other purported laws or constitutions.”
Chilton is one of three candidates for the position; the other two are former deputy Register of Deeds Sara Stephens and current incumbent Deborah B. Brooks. All three are Democrats, so the winner of the Democratic primary on May 6 will be the presumptive winner in the November general election. (Neither Brooks nor Stephens have weighed in definitively yet on the same-sex marriage issue, but Stephens told WCHL, “As Register, I feel it would be my responsibility to take actions within my power to ensure that our office is a friendly and welcoming place to all people.” Brooks has not issued same-sex marriage licenses in her tenure as Register of Deeds.)
Chilton’s full statement is below:
I’ll sign same sex marriage licenses if I am elected Orange County Register of Deeds.
I wasn’t really trying to talk about this issue at first in the Chilton for Register of Deeds race, because my campaign and qualifications for the office run much deeper. But the media keeps asking, so let me say it loud and clear: “Amendment One” is clearly contrary to the United States Constitution.
The Supreme Court’s decision in the Windsor case last year does not answer every remaining question about same sex marriage, but when read in the context of Roemer v. Evans, Perry v. Arnold Schwarzenegger etc., no one can seriously believe that that portion of our state constitution complies with the United States Constitution.
Some will no doubt argue that it is somehow not within the power of a county Register of Deeds to make decisions about the constitutionality of such matters. But let me remind them that the oath of office for all elected officials in North Carolina calls upon the officials to support and maintain the Constitution and laws of the United States, and the Constitution and laws of the State of North Carolina not inconsistent therewith. This oath means three important things in this context:
1. The United States Constitution is the supreme law of the land and no act, statute, ordinance, state constitution, public school rule, city parking ordinance or any other rule or act of any level of government in this country may operate in derogation of the Constitution of the United States of America. That is, we support and maintain the state constitution but only to the extent that it is consistent with the Federal constitution.
2. Because it is a part of the oath of office for all elected officials in North Carolina, it is clear that we all understand that there will continually be moments where an elected official must interpret and apply the United States Constitution – drawing out the distinction between the state and federal constitution actually goes to the very heart of the oath of office.
3. Thus, it is not merely within the power of the Orange County Register of Deeds to interpret the constitutionality of Amendment One, it is the obligation and solemn duty of the Register of Deeds to do so.
In light of all of the above, if I am elected Register of Deeds of Orange County, I will not enforce the federally unconstitutional parts of the North Carolina state statutes and constitutional provisions which purport to prohibit the issuance of same sex marriage certificates.
CHAPEL HILL – In a press release Tuesday evening, Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools board member Mia Burroughs confirmed she’ll be running for a seat on the Orange County Board of Commissioners.
Burroughs will run for the Democratic nomination for the seat currently held by Alice Gordon, who’s stepping down at the end of her term. That seat represents District 1, which essentially covers Chapel Hill and Carrboro. Burroughs is the first Democrat to announce her candidacy for that seat.
Burroughs is in her second term on the school board, where she’s served as both chair and vice-chair.
The filing period begins next week for those interested in running for local and state office. Burroughs says she’ll officially file on Tuesday, February 11.http://chapelboro.com/news/election/burroughs-run-bocc/
Working for WCHL, I get paid* to keep my attention focused on Orange County—but every time I happen to look outside, I find myself reminded just how good we have it here.
Case in point: campaign spending.
Every election cycle, it seems, we always have the prerequisite bit of handwringing over the insidious creep of money into our little democracy. Four years ago it was Matt Czajkowski outspending Mark Kleinschmidt; two years ago it was Lee Storrow pulling donations from non-Chapel Hillians or Jon DeHart taking money from developers; this year it was the NCGA cancelling “voter-owned elections.” Campaign spending was lower in 2013 than 2011, but even so you still ended up with one candidate, George Cianciolo, who raised around $10,000. Ten thousand dollars was sort of a magic hand-wringy number back in 2011, when three Council candidates topped it. Less handwringing this year, but that only goes to prove that $10,000 is becoming the norm.
Money money money money money money money!
Well, maybe. Ten thousand dollars sure is a lot to drop on a Council seat. Chapel Hill’s an affluent town, but even so, there aren’t many of us with that much loose change. Sure, it’s mostly donations, but that still means you need the free time to go around soliciting donors—and you also need to be well-connected enough to know the donors first. Once it starts costing $10,000 to run for Council, that rules out most everybody in town. You’ll end up with the power elite.
That’s concerning—but it’s not all bad either. If you have to raise $10,000 for a Council seat, it does severely limit the pool of possible candidates—but then again, raising ten grand also signals that you’re a committed candidate who’s good enough to draw support from a wide range of people. (Provided there are loophole-free limits on individual donations, of course. Little things.)
But all that aside—
Is ten thousand really that big a deal?
Take Lansing. Lansing, Michigan, is my hometown, with a population of about 110,000 and a mayor named Virg Bernero. You may know Virg if you listen to Ed Schultz on WCHL; he’s the go-to guest when Ed wants to rip on Michigan’s union-busting Republican governor.
But here’s the upshot. Bernero just ran for reelection in 2013. His only opponent on the ballot was a former City Councilman named Harold Leeman, a nice guy whose primary motivation for running was simply to give voters a viable choice. Leeman campaigned lightly: in an interview with the local paper just before the election, he even admitted (in so many words) that he had no real chance of winning.
This was Virg Bernero’s only opponent.
And Virg Bernero went out and raised A HUNDRED THOUSAND DOLLARS.
More than $110,000, in fact. (Here’s the data.) $110,000 equates to one dollar for each Lansing resident. To put it in Chapel Hill terms, that’d be the equivalent of Mark Kleinschmidt raising $60,000 to beat Tom Henkel.
And what did Virg Bernero get for his trouble?
Less than ten thousand votes.
9,863 votes, to be precise. (Here’s the data.) Leeman finished exactly six thousand votes behind. Turnout was extremely low in Lansing too, as it turned out–so when all was said and done, Bernero raised about ten dollars for every vote he got. Meanwhile in Chapel Hill, Kleinschmidt received 4,165 votes, almost half Bernero’s total, spending almost no money at all. (I can’t be sure, but I think Henkel’s supporters may have actually outspent him.)
And Bernero’s fundraising bonanza is only the tip of the iceberg. Down in Alabama they just spent millions—millions!—to choose the Republican candidate for a U.S. House seat. That’s just a primary, mind you; the general election is still a month away. And while that race was an outlier—it was a Tea Partier taking on a traditional business conservative, so money came pouring in from all over—it’s still a good illustration of just how pricey these things can get.
So whenever we lament the rising cost of electoral politics in Orange County, it’s well to remember (if only to feel a little better about the way things are) that we still have it pretty good around here, all things considered.
Relatively, at least.
* No footnote. I just felt like that needed an asterisk.http://chapelboro.com/columns/aaron-keck/money-makes-the-vote-go-round-but-less-so-in-chapel-hill/
CHAPEL HILL- Board of Elections Director Tracy Reams came before Orange County Commissioners last week to update officials on the many recent changes to state election law.
All voters must provide photo ID by 2016, Reams said, but the process of educating voters about the new law will start next year.
“We will be required to ask people ‘Do you have ID?’” said Reams. “They won’t be required to provide it in 2014, but we have to ask if they have it. And if they do not they will have to sign a declaration to let us know they do not have it.”
While the voter ID law has received much attention both locally and nationally, Reams says other, less publicized provisions of House Bill 589 will have a significant impact on local voters.
Beginning in January of 2014, a new rule prohibits voters who go to the wrong precinct from casting provisional ballots. Reams said all voters who ask will be handed provisional ballots, but the votes won’t be counted.
“If a voter went to another precinct and they were not assigned that precinct, they were allowed to vote a provisional ballot,” said Reams. “With the enactment of House Bill 589, if anyone votes outside their correct precinct we cannot count that ballot for any contest at all.”
And Reams said the timing of North Carolina’s presidential primary is now wholly dependent on when South Carolinians go to the polls.
“We will now be required to follow what South Carolina does. If they hold their primary prior to the first Monday in May, then we have to hold our primary the Tuesday following them,” said Reams. “The past four to six primaries at least, they’ve held their primary in January or February. That tells us that more than likely we’re going to have a primary in February or March. So we will probably be early voting over the Christmas holidays.”
Though it’s too early to say how much that will cost, she told commissioners the expense will be significant.
“It will be an additional cost for the county, because we’ll have to hold a presidential primary in addition to all the other primaries that will be held, as traditionally, in May.”
In addition, the option to vote a straight party ticket has now been removed from ballots, and the process for requesting and filling out absentee ballots has changed.
Commissioner Mark Dorosin called the new rules an effort by the Republican-led General Assembly to disenfranchise voters.
“Clearly what’s happening here is an attempt to suppress voter turnout,” said Dorosin. “We had a very high turnout in early voting in the last two presidential elections, so that’s been cut. We had a tremendous amount of same-day registrations, so that’s been cut.”
Board Chair Barry Jacobs thanked the Orange County Board of Elections for what he called their bi-partisan spirit of cooperation. Currently the three-member board is comprised of one Democrat and two Republicans, as appointed by the state Board of Elections.
In light of the many changes that will impact local voters, Jacobs encouraged the board to seek extra funding for voter outreach.
“If you need more assistance, if the Board of Elections thinks of ways you would like to be more creative to try and reach voters, please tell Miss Reams and have her ask it as part of the budget process,” said Jacobs. “There is nothing more important in a democracy than people having the opportunity to cast their ballot.”
You can read the full text of House Bill 598 here:
And the report presented to the Board of Commissioners here:
Orange County Board of Elections website: http://www.co.orange.nc.us/elect/index.asphttp://chapelboro.com/news/election/oc-board-of-elections-director-lays-out-voting-changes/
This piece took me a flippin’ month to write and it’s awfully long. So here’s an abstract, by way of summary.
ABSTRACT: We’re all thinking about the Kinnaird/Foushee Senate/House appointment process as some kind of strange aberration, but it’s not. “Democracy,” even in Orange County, is always elite-driven, far more so than we like to admit. This Senate/House thing isn’t an exception to the rule—it IS the rule, with all the pretense stripped away. (Is that bad, though? Not necessarily. Because, after all–well, read on.)
“Marvelous thing, democracy. Look at Manchester: population, 60,000; electoral roll, 3.”
Election Day was last week, y’all!
(No worries if you missed it. Only three people got to vote.)
There’s the great irony of this whole State Senate kerfuffle: Ellie Kinnaird resigns so she can launch a crusade to make sure everyone in North Carolina is able to vote—but lo, legislative vacancies are filled by appointment. So Ellie’s resignation means our next State Senator was chosen by a committee of three—it was supposed to have been four, but fittingly, one of them was ruled ineligible at the last minute—and everyone else in the district had no say at all. That’s about 200,000 people effectively disenfranchised. (200,001, if you count that last guy.)
And then the committee chose Valerie Foushee, already a sitting member of the State House—so now the process begins anew to fill her seat, with all the power imbued in another itty bitty committee, and another 80,000 or so left out.
(You know the folks at ALEC have gotta be kicking themselves they didn’t think of this first.)
Still, for a few weeks there we saw a pretty faithful simulacrum of a real election, with all the campaignin’ and politickin’ that entails. Facebook pages for this or that candidate, long online debates—heck, just about everything short of yard signs down 15-501. There was even a poll—who commissioned it?—with Foushee running second behind Mark Chilton, 23-16. Alice Bordsen, Ellie’s handpicked would-be successor, ran third with 14 percent; and then there were four other candidates as well, with little to no sizable public support.
Not that any of that mattered on Election Day itself, when the Gang of Four (sorry, Three) met in Pittsboro to cast the only votes that counted. Chilton, the public frontrunner, was never a factor; Bordsen, third in the polls, failed to impress; and Foushee’s strongest challenger turned out to be one of those “other” candidates—Amy Tiemann, whom 81 percent of voters said they’d never even heard of. Tiemann actually tied Foushee on the first ballot, 1-1, with the third voter splitting his vote between them; if that third voter had gone for Tiemann instead, we’d have had the upset of the century.
(That third voter was Don Knowles, by the way. You probably haven’t heard of him, but he has way more power than you.)
As it is, the Upset of the Century honor still rests with Alabama Avenue’s 2012 defeat of Family Dollar. (Marking the only time this century that an Alabama victory has been considered an upset of any kind whatsoever.)
Did the committee make the right decision? Sure. Maybe. Each of the major candidates took a unique stance on how the NC Democratic Party should react to the state’s rightward lurch, so it was a pretty fascinating debate. Chilton (and to a lesser extent Tiemann) cast themselves as firebrands who’d use the seat as a bully pulpit to grow the progressive movement and take back the General Assembly in some golden future time; Foushee cast herself as someone who could work with the GOP to make sure Orange and Chatham don’t get shafted too badly today. (“Small wins,” as James Barrett put it.) Every social movement in history has faced that same dilemma—do you accept minor gains now at the expense of complete victory down the road, or do you sacrifice your immediate interests to put all your efforts into winning the big prize in the future? The Chilton-Foushee debate mirrors Karl Kautsky versus Eduard Bernstein, W.E.B. DuBois versus Booker T. Washington, Barry Goldwater versus Nelson Rockefeller. Hindsight’s 20/20 in all those cases, but the same side isn’t right every time—so it’s always a very difficult choice you have to make.
Sorry, I was saying “you” there for a second. As if you had a choice. Peh!
You had the choice made for you last Sunday, like all the rest of us plebes.
Not that I’m complaining, really. Frankly, I’m glad I wasn’t on that committee. For one thing, imagine the overage charges from all the calls I’d have gotten from voters trying to sway me this way or that. (I’m a total introvert anyway. I already talk to enough people as it is.)
More than that, though, I’m just relieved not to have had to make that hard choice. Oh, it’s straight-up democratic despotism, I know: this is exactly what Tocqueville meant when he warned that even a democracy could turn tyrannical, simply by making people so comfortable that they’d just sink into their sofas and stop caring about politics.
Or sink into their sofas and start caring about politics of a different kind.
So yeah, I know the risks. But I’m still content. I liked all the candidates, more or less. So whatevs. Leave it to the Gang of Four. (Sorry. Gang of Three.)
And in any event, whew, at least this non-democratic fiddle-faddle is a rare occurrence, right? We do have a real election coming up in November, with candidates and voting booths and yard signs and everything. (I just saw my first yard sign earlier this week. Congrats, Paul Neebe! You were the first robin of spring.)
Plus, man, we live in Orange County, where we got civil society coming out our ears! That was Tocqueville’s prescribed remedy, after all—regular folks getting involved in groups and organizations, working together to improve the community—and good Lord, do we have that here. Nonprofits number in the hundreds, there’s a public demonstration every other week, and so many people show up to address the Town Council that they’re actively brainstorming ways to keep the meetings shorter. Heck, Laurin Easthom may have just concluded it’s less of a time commitment to be a State Rep than a Town Council member. And I’m pretty sure she’d be right.
And goodness, Moral Mondays! Enough said, am I right? Now there’s a real populist grassroots movement, seizing the spotlight away from those suited Tea Party elites and moving our state in a new direction! Risking arrest! Stepping on toes! Stickin’ it to The Man!
Democracy in Chapel Hill: safe and sound. Sure and true.
Pause. Let’s rewind. Take a look at that State Senate kerfuffle again.
How much of an aberration is this, really?
For starters, this is hardly the first time in recent memory we’ve had a legislative seat filled by appointment. It’s not even the first time this year! Just this winter, the Chapel Hill Town Council got to appoint Penny Rich’s replacement, no pesky election required. (Nor even a lot of thought. We all went through the hoo-ha of pretending it was some sort of open question, but let’s face it, we all knew it was going to be Sally Greene the second she threw her hat in the ring.) And that’s only the most recent example. In 2009 the Council appointed Donna Bell to replace Bill Strom; Dan Coleman became a Carrboro Alderman by appointment in 2005; and the most egregious case is in NC House District 56—where Verla Insko has been serving since 1997, when she was appointed to replace Anne Barnes, who was herself appointed in 1981.
(All those appointees did have to defend their seats in actual elections later, of course—but we know enough about the value of incumbency to know that’s not much of a rejoinder.)
But hey, that’s just an occasional appointment every few years. Not that big of a deal, really, not when there are so many contested elections out there. “A small chink in the armor of democracy,” Ruby Sinreich called it on Orange Politics. She’s right.
But we’re not done.
What about those elections?
Try this: imagine if there really had been a public election last week, to replace Ellie Kinnaird.
Who would have won? Chilton, probably, or maybe Foushee.
Simple: name recognition. Look again at that poll I mentioned earlier. Slightly more than half the voters in Senate District 23 recognized the names “Mark Chilton” and “Valerie Foushee”—not great, but far greater than the other five candidates. (Only 24 percent of voters recognized the name “Alice Bordsen,” and everyone else was even more unknown than that.) Name recognition is everything in electoral politics; without it, you ain’t winning a thing. This is why incumbents tend to get reelected. It’s why we’re doomed to spend the next two months staring at all those bleedin’ yard signs on 15-501. “PAUL NEEBE!” “GEORGE CIANCIOLO!” “AMY RYAN!” Those signs say nothing! Nothing! Why do they even exist? They exist so when you enter the voting booth and look at that ballot, those will be the first names you notice. (Heck, I’ve just given three candidates a slight-but-very-real advantage by mentioning them in all caps just now. My apologies, MARIA PALMER.)
Name recognition: that’s what it’s all about.
But what does that suggest?
It suggests one very important thing: that in democracy—yes, even in democracy—the winners are almost always the elites. We vote for the names we recognize, and the names we recognize are the names we hear in the news, the names we read in the paper, the names of folks who have the cash to litter their town with yard signs and the free time to hop around town littering. In that hypothetical election, Mark Chilton and Valerie Foushee would have finished one-two—not because they were the best candidates (though they may well have been) but simply because their names were the most recognizable. Why was that? Because they were already the powers that be. Taking the choice away from voters and handing it to the Gang of Three actually made it more possible, not less, for a truly grassroots candidate to win that Senate seat: you only had to get in good with three people, rather than two hundred thousand. Would Amy Tiemann have had a chance otherwise? No. Nor would Lynette Hartsell, or Jim Porto, or Heidi Chapman, or anyone else who wasn’t already a big shot.
And let’s take a step back further. Are we really calling Amy Tiemann a “grassroots candidate”? How about Hartsell? Chapman? Bull. Forget the fact that elites always win in democracy: the cost of entry is so high (in money and time) that elites are the only ones who even get to run. This too is by design. James Madison said it straight out in Federalist 10—arguing that a large republic would make it “more difficult for unworthy candidates” to win, and easier for “men who possess the most attractive merit and the most diffuse and established characters.” He really is just trying to talk about strong character there—beyond his obsolete eighteenth-century views on race and gender, Madison sincerely was one of the good guys—but even so, “merit” for Madison is at least partly synonymous with “money” and “status.” And so it goes. Even in local politics. Check out those seven folks who ran for State Senate: the mayor of Carrboro, a former mayor of Carrboro, a State Representative, a former State Representative, two lawyers and a wealthy business owner. Not one grassroots candidate in the bunch, and it cost literally nothing to run.
True, there are exceptions to this—especially in local politics, where the cost of entry is lower. (I’m thinking of Tim Sookram, who ran for mayor in 2011 because it cost only five bucks to do—or Mark Chilton, for that matter, back when he was just getting started.) The general rule, though, still applies: even when we do get to choose, most of our candidates—and almost all of the ones who actually win—are already insiders and elites. The system is set up that way.
And we’re not done!
Because not only do the insiders tend to win all the elections—they also control who wins the elections, from behind the scenes. And it’s not just about big Koch Brother-y donations. Take endorsements. What is an endorsement, after all, but “You don’t know me, but you do know this elite insider, and he’ll vouch for me”? Or “Hi, I’m Bigshot McPower, and I’m here to tell you to vote for this guy”? It’s name recognition by proxy. Voters find this convincing. Nothing inherently wrong with that—but it’s also just another way of saying we let elites tell us how to vote. (I fall for this myself. I got a Cianciolo-for-Council mailing the other day, prominently featuring a long list of endorsements. I found it convincing. I might just vote for that guy.)
And I’ll go one step further.
Because democracy isn’t just about elections.
This includes social movements too.
Okay, okay, don’t all jump down my throat at once. Let me explain.
When it comes to politics, we tend to be Manicheans—we think of political conflicts as Good Versus Evil, and we think of political questions as Either/Or propositions, where there are only two possible answers and you’re either all one thing or all the other. In the case of social movements, we tend to assume there are only two kinds: good, “grassroots” social movements, springing organically from the masses and driven from the ground up; and evil, “Astroturf” movements—fake grass, get it?—secretly orchestrated by elite puppet-masters from behind some sinister curtain.
Both of these assumptions are complete BS.
The truth is that social movements—successful ones, anyway—incorporate both elite power and organic mass support. Elites can’t just make a movement happen by tossing money around—they do have to appeal to something that’s already stirring in the people—but on the flip side, a mass movement will go nowhere unless it has elites to fund it, organize it, direct it, and (most importantly) legitimize it by publicly endorsing it.
Remember all that stuff about endorsements from before? What’s true for candidates is true for movements too—perhaps especially true for movements, because let’s face it, you’re talking about thousands of agitated people waving signs and yelling really, really loud. It’s not exactly confidence-inspiring. Not unless you have some good respectable folks standing there with you, reassuring onlookers that all these crazy-looking people have the right idea.
Or to put it another way: successful social movements are neither grassroots nor Astroturf—they are grass, rooted in Astroturf. If we have to use that word.
(This is not a criticism, by the way. This is just the way it is.)
William Barber figured it out. He made sure to get the respectable progressives on his side. Teachers. Ministers. Elected officials. That’s how you sell a left-wing social movement in America. (This video–posted by Barber–captures it nicely: Moral Monday as collaboration between elite progressives and the masses.) Two years ago those same elites patted Occupy on the head and marveled at what a smart young man it was—and stayed the hell away. Back in 2012 you had local leaders clapping themselves on the back just for allowing Occupy to camp out on Franklin Street. You never actually saw them there, of course; that would have been gauche. But now those same people are on the front lines, taking a stand, even getting themselves arrested for the cause! Now that’s an endorsement with teeth.
You want to know the difference between Moral Monday and Occupy? There are a few, but here’s the big one in a nutshell:
Mark Chilton stood up to Occupy in 2012. He stood up with Moral Monday in 2013.
The tale of two movements. (Pics originally from the Daily Tarheel and the N&O, respectively.) The CVS occupiers were on the far fringes of Occupy, of course, but the contrast is still noteworthy. Also noteworthy: local progressives cheered him, nearly unanimously, both times.
I don’t know if Moral Monday is going to succeed. It hasn’t accomplished anything just yet. The GOP hasn’t slowed down, and there won’t be an election till 2014. This isn’t a knock on the movement, mind you. It usually takes years for social movements to make real tangible gains. That’s how it is. But if it succeeds, it will be due in large part to the support it got from insiders and elites. Say what you will about Astroturf—it sure can make the grass grow.
By Way Of Conclusion (Finally)
So that’s the thing about elite power: it’s pretty flippin’ powerful.
We kid ourselves into thinking democracy in Orange County is refreshingly populistic, even anti-elitist, and so we get our knickers in a bunch whenever something comes along like this State Senate/State House affair.
Truth is, the State Senate affair is just another iteration of the same old thing.
It is not the exception to the rule—it IS the rule, with all the pretense stripped away.
Way back when I started this long essay, I used the word “simulacrum” to describe the State Senate race.
What is a simulacrum, anyway?
Literally, it just means “an image or representation of someone or something.” A portrait of George Washington, for instance, is a simulacrum of the real George Washington.
But the cool thing about a simulacrum is this: because it’s not the real thing, because it’s just a representation, it’s capable of being refined and tweaked—so it can actually end up being more revealing about the real thing than the real thing itself.
The portrait shows Washington as calm, fatherly, friendly but authoritative, clearly in control—not the sort of image you get from looking at his disgusting teeth. Of course his teeth are themselves a simulacrum. The real Washington is long gone—not that it matters. Now that we have all these cool representations, it’s almost irrelevant whether he even existed in the first place.
In this case, the “campaign” we saw for State Senate in the last few weeks bore a remarkably close resemblance to an actual election campaign. It wasn’t the real thing, of course—just a simulacrum. But it was a simulacrum that stripped away the fluff, and in so doing revealed a great truth about democracy, a truth that’s always there but usually hidden:
Insiders and elites kinda run the show, y’all.
Not just with this State Senate affair—all the darn time.
In elections, they run the show.
In social movements, they run the show.
(And by the way, folks, if we single out this State Senate affair for special criticism while giving a free pass to everything else—all we’re doing is reinforcing and re-legitimizing their power the rest of the time.)
But here’s the million-dollar question:
The philosopher Aristotle, thousands of years ago, argued that the best government was a “mixed” government that combined elite and popular control. The eighteenth-century writer Montesquieu (who inspired America’s Founders) said the same thing. Alexander Hamilton and James Madison, writing the Federalist Papers in defense of the Constitution, weren’t in lockstep with Montesquieu on everything—but they too kept that ideal of a government where public opinion was filtered into policy through the experienced wisdom of insiders and elites.
This is why the U.S. government has multiple branches, each with varying levels of elite and popular control: a House that’s directly accountable to the people every two years, a Senate with a little more distance, a President who’s technically elected by an Electoral College, and a Supreme Court with no public accountability at all.
And we call the whole system a “republic,” a word derived from the Latin res publica, or “public thing.” “Public thing” can have two meanings: it’s a government of the people, accountable to public opinion—but it’s also a government for the people, promoting the public good.
So it’s not just about how our institutions are structured, in other words—it’s also about what they produce. It’s about consequences.
So how about those consequences?
Let’s be honest: when the Town Council appointed Sally Greene earlier this year, that was the ultimate insider choice. It was elites picking one of their own, and making no attempt to hide it. She’ll probably get reelected in November too; incumbents almost always do. But is that bad? How has Sally Greene been, as a representative? How has she voted? What has she done?
Will Valerie Foushee not be a strong voice for Orange and Chatham County in the State Senate?
Has Verla Insko not been a strong voice in the State House?
When Mark Chilton and our other elected officials got themselves arrested this summer, they were throwing their elite/insider weight behind Moral Monday. Was that not a good thing for the movement? Is a little Astroturf all bad, if it makes the grass grow faster? Does it taint the grass?
Was Chilton wrong in 2012, that night he stood up to the occupiers at CVS?
These are all open questions. Personally, I think these folks have been doing quite well—and no offense intended by referring to them as elites. (Besides, I’ve been quoting Aristotle and Montesquieu, so I’d be quite the hypocrite if I used the word “elite” as an insult right now.)
But here’s the takeaway, if there is any: attention must be paid, yes, when political decisions (like the State Senate choice) are made without the people having their say—but we also need to recognize that this is not a rare thing, even in hyper-democratic Orange County. Nor is it necessarily a bad thing, provided we don’t go too far in that direction and fall off the tightrope altogether.
Now. Who wants to go watch another Gang of Four pick our next State Representative?
Wait. Sorry. Gang of Three.
Forgot about Graig Meyer.http://chapelboro.com/columns/aaron-keck/democracy-the-power-elite-and-the-state-senate-race/
Photo by Angie Newsome
CHAPEL HILL – Lynette Hartsell, an attorney for 30 years, announced Friday that she filed for Ellie Kinnaird’s seat in the NC Senate.
Hartsell says she thinks she could represent some of the ideas that Kinnaird fought for during her time.
“I think the reason she is stepping down is telling about the process that is taking place there, but I believe that she and I are on the same page in regard to issues that she has fought for” Hartsell stated.
Recently, the NC Congress has passes a number of laws that Kinnaird argued against, like the Voter I.D. bill and the Motorcycle bill that restricted abortion in the state. Hartsell says she sees many issues with the NC General Assembly and wants to change some of what has happened.
“Well I think that obviously, the main issue has to do with a lot of the redistricting that’s taking place, and a lot of the voter ids that are attempting to be passed an enforced, but I think most importantly too are the economic issues that involve all the citizens of the state” Hartsell said.
Kinnaird’s open seat will only be a temporary appointment until elections in 2014. Many of the people who have filed for this seat have many years of experience holding office, like Carrboro Mayor Mark Chilton, former N.C. House member, Alice Bordsen, and current N.C. House member, Valerie Foushee. Hartsell says she has many years of experience in law, but has little when it comes to holding office.
“No I haven’t, in terms of holding an office not at all, I’ve always just been involved in various grassroots efforts to get people elected” Hartsell commented.
Hartsell is among seven candidates looking for the appointment, all ranging in experience.
For more information on Lynette Hartsell click here.
Full interview is belowhttp://chapelboro.com/news/state-government/lynette-hartsell-files-for-senate-seat/
ORANGE COUNTY – You have three new choices for this year’s municipal and school board elections with less than a day for last minute filings.
In Carrboro, vice chair of the Transportation Advisory Board, Kurt Stolka, filed to run for one of the three Board of Aldermen positions. All three board members whose terms are up this year are running for reelection.
In Chapel Hill, Amy Ryan, a former member of the Planning Board who worked on reviewing the Chapel Hill 2020 Plan, filed to run for the Chapel Hill Town Council. That race has four seats available, with two of the incumbent board members not running for re-election.
Ryan applied for Penny Rich’s seat which she left vacant for a Board of Commissioners seat in Orange County. Sally Greene was appointed to fill that spot.
On the Chapel Hill Carrboro School Board, Ignacio Tzoumas filed to run to be one of its new board members. There are three seats open there, with two of the incumbents, including chair Michelle Brownstein, running for re-election.
The deadline to file for the municipal and school board elections is Friday at noon; Election Day is November 5th.http://chapelboro.com/news/election/less-than-24-hours-remain-for-2013-election-filings-three-add-to-list/