Give us the change we need

Give us the change we need

- in Weekly Briefing

An open letter to the Governor-elect

Dear Governor-elect Perdue:

It's been pretty crazy around here the last three weeks. What with the economic meltdown, the dramatic change in Washington and then the state budget shortfall and all of the news surrounding your soon-to-be administration here in Raleigh, some of us progressives have forgotten our manners.

We launched right into a series of critiques of your campaign and your initial statements and actions after the election without even taking a step back and saying some basic things that need to be said. Sorry about that. This can happen when you care a lot – or as one conservative Republican lawmaker told us the other day in a rather strange email, "have such hatred in your heart." (We don't actually, and will try to take the attack as a compliment).

Anyway, we never congratulated you on your victory. You beat two formidable and accomplished politicians in a pair of tough, hard fought campaigns. In a year that everyone agreed was about "change" you figured out a way to win as a familiar figure running on a statewide ballot for the third consecutive election.

You bridged many of the gaps between women and men, natives and newcomers, whites and people of color, young people and seniors, gays and straights, good ol' boys and latte-sipping urbanites. To top it all off, you shattered the glass ceiling that has unjustly constrained half of our population for centuries. For this you deserve high praise. It was an impressive accomplishment. Congratulations.

And congratulations as well on a lot of the things you've done during your many years in Raleigh. As someone who was merely inhabiting one of170 seats in the General Assembly and one relatively powerless seat as Lt. Governor, most of your policy accomplishments have been as a part of group efforts. But you have clearly had a significant impact and you deserve recognition for applying yourself to your jobs, working hard and making a difference in a number of important areas. We may have disagreed on more than one occasion through the years, but there's no disputing that you believe in public service and in the government's role as a force for the creation of a healthier and wealthier society.

And congratulations also for promising some changes from the diffident, camera-shy style of your soon-to-be predecessor. If ever there was a time in which North Carolina needed a visible Governor who was ready to be out front all of the time, stirring the pot and using the bully pulpit to inspire and mobilize the people, it is now. Our state desperately needs a visible and coherent vision for the future and it is simply beyond the capacity of General Assembly to provide it.

(At the risk of using the dreaded sports analogy, House Speaker Joe Hackney and Senate President Pro Tem Marc Basnight are your offensive and defensive coordinators. You are the head coach. You are the one who needs to come up with a winning game plan and turn them loose to execute it.)

And yet we have concerns

Having said all of this, we progressives have to admit to some unease about your impending governorship. We hope fervently that we're wrong, but we've watched closely through the years as you've kept many of us and our causes at a distance and maintained close relationships with the moneyed establishment figures (almost exclusively rich and powerful white businessmen). The persistent connections to the corrupt DOT establishment have not helped.

And so we're concerned.

We've watched with disappointment as you have consistently banged the "get tough on crime" drum even as our prisons have been bursting at the seams with non-violent offenders and the associated costs have skyrocketed to unsustainable levels.

We pounded our desks in frustration as you blithely cast the tie-breaking vote during a rump session of the state Senate to usher in North Carolina's ill-conceived and regressive lottery tax.

And we were downright disgusted at your willingness to out-demagogue Pat McCrory when it came to bad-mouthing immigrants and slamming the door of education in the face of innocent children who are, for all practical purposes, as American as any of us.

And so pardon us if we're concerned that an historic governorship at a critical crossroads in state history could be frittered away on "business as usual" politics. In this period of profound state, national and global challenges, North Carolina will not be served well by a Governor whose main objective is to do whatever it takes to win re-election in 2012.

North Carolina desperately needs a Governor who is willing to push us, to demand broad-based sacrifice (especially from those with much to give), to help us to see the big picture and unleash the better angels of our nature. We are no longer a smallish, out-of-the-way state. North Carolina will be the seventh largest state in the nation in the relatively near future. We're in the big time now and we need big, ambitious, out-of-the-box ideas to move us forward.

So where do we go from here?

The word to progressives from those who know you and who have worked for you in recent years has always been something like this:

"Relax. Bev is with you in more ways than you know. But she's also an incredibly savvy and pragmatic politician who knows what it takes to get elected and to get things done in an ideologically divided state. Have patience."

Okay. We're ready to be patient and to be pragmatic. We understand that North Carolina isn't Massachusetts or Hawaii. The General Assembly's Democratic majorities cannot mask the actual ideological majority held by conservatives or the millions spent by big business on campaigns and lobbyists and think tanks. We know that it will be tough work.

But we also know that even rich businessmen and conservatives (with the possible exception of a few groups that you can probably name) do not want to live in a state that is standing still or looking to the past. And we also know that even a weak or low energy Governor will get most of what he or she wants. The General Assembly includes many talented and powerful people, but it is mostly a non-professional, citizen legislature.

A tough and determined Governor who puts smart people to work developing a coherent and digestible set of ambitious recommendations and who is then willing to fight with energy and passion can accomplish many things – even great things that a few narrow-minded ideologues and curmudgeons will deride as "liberal."                 

This is especially true today. Like most of their fellow Americans, North Carolinians of all persuasions hunger for real solutions – not just gussied up trickledown ideas like business incentives and more sprawling interstate loops, but fundamental change like guaranteed health care for all children, criminal justice reform, real reductions in carbon emissions, new and momentous investments in K-12 education, mass transit, infrastructure, and affordable housing, and the comprehensive, progressive tax reform that would make it doable. In short, now is the time to rock the boat, to bring in new faces and bold ideas and to make a clean break with the clubby network of insiders and interests who've traditionally called the shots.

If you develop such ambitious, even audacious, ideas and really devote your governorship to their success, you will not only allay the concerns of your reluctant progressive supporters, you'll do something much greater. You'll set yourself on the path to a legacy as not just the first woman Governor, but as the first truly great, modern Governor – a prototype for all 21st Century state leaders who will follow.

With your inauguration only six weeks away, there's little time to waste. We in the progressive community ask you with all the sincerity we can muster to act now to disprove our skepticism and to show all North Carolinians that you are the battling reformer and ceiling buster that you often portrayed yourself to be during the campaign.

Now is the time to act. We stand ready to help. Give us the change we need.


Your progressive base    

About the author

Rob Schofield, Director of NC Policy Watch, has three decades of experience as a lawyer, lobbyist, writer and commentator. At Policy Watch, Rob writes and edits daily online commentaries and handles numerous public speaking and electronic media appearances. He also delivers a radio commentary that’s broadcast weekdays on WRAL-FM and WCHL and hosts News and Views, a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina.