- NC Policy Watch - http://www.ncpolicywatch.com -

A disturbing lack of competition

An email late last week from Senate Minority Leader Phil Berger was a pretty good clue that when the filing period for candidates seeking election to the General Assembly closed Tuesday, there would be a lot of races with only one candidate.

Berger’s letter encouraged his fellow Republicans to help find candidates to run for the Senate against incumbent Democrats. Officials at the Democratic Party could have easily written the same letter about the Senate and the House.

As political pundits begin to analyze the filings and the upcoming election season, most of the attention has gone to the high number of state lawmakers who are running unopposed.

There are plenty, almost a third in the 50-member Senate and close to half of the 120-member House.  Add in the races that are expected to be runaways and the elections for well more than half of the 170 seats in the General Assembly have already been decided.

Most observers blame redistricting for the lack of competitive races and that’s a big part of it.  Districts are drawn not only to give the party in power a competitive advantage, but also to protect many incumbents of the opposition party, in this case Republicans, by packing their supporters in friendly districts so it’s easier to draw Democratic districts elsewhere.

The solution to that problem is obvious, the creation of an independent redistricting commission to draw the lines, and it is supported by advocates and some lawmakers on both ends of the philosophical spectrum.  But legislative leaders don’t like the idea, it is one of the ways they believe they can stay in power.

But there’s more to the lack of competition than just gerrymandered districts, most notably money. In many legislative races, it now cost several hundred thousand dollars to run a credible campaign, restricting the field to people with individual wealth or the ability to raise it. 

Once elected, the current system forces legislators to remain loyal and vote with party leaders to ensure that they have money to run for re-election in two years.

Then there are the requirements of the job itself. Members of the General Assembly earn just over $13,000 a year plus a per diem for expenses, with the expectation that members will continue to work at their other jobs.

That means realistically, that it is difficult for anyone to serve who is not wealthy or retired or part of a business that is willing to allow the legislator the time off. Making the job full time with full time pay would allow many more people to serve.

Ethics scandals in Raleigh and Washington not only lead to lower voter turnout on Election Day, but increase the general cynicism about the legislative process itself. People have to ask themselves if they want to be part of what is often a dysfunctional system.

Finally, there is the absurd nature of what passes for public debate. Senator Berger said in his letter to Republicans that his party has the issues on their side and pointed to the scandals involving House Speaker Jim Black, five years of tax increases and failure of Democrats to allow a vote on a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.

The activities of Black may be a legitimate issue, but it is hard to imagine that gay marriage is the most important issue to people in North Carolina whatever their political philosophy.

Democrats are not much better, most of them talking cautiously, using bullet points vetted by focus groups to make sure that everything they say is safe. 

People in North Carolina might be more interested in participating in politics if politicians and parties talked about issues that affect people’s lives, child care, affordable housing, mental health services, the dropout rate, the overcrowded court system, and health care, among others.

The system needs reforms to make it possible for more people to run for office. The scandals need to end and the policy debate needs to be relevant to our lives to make people want to run.