Tea Time in Raleigh

Tea Time in Raleigh

- in Fitzsimon File

Just after noon on Wednesday, as members of the state House sat with their families on the chamber floor preparing to take the oath of office and elect their leaders, a few dozen members of various fringe tea party groups began a small rally behind the Legislative Building.

Speakers claimed that the state and nation were close to ruin and that all the planks of the Communist Manifesto were already enshrined into our law.

They called on state lawmakers to uphold their oath to the Constitution through “nullification” by simply refusing to obey federal laws that they believe violate the constitution—a new twist on the old and reactionary practice of state’s rights that marked much of the South’s resistance to the civil rights movement.

This time, most of the talk was about the Affordable Care Act, the health care law that the U.S. Supreme Court, controlled by conservatives, ruled last June was indeed constitutional. The speakers were demanding that state lawmakers somehow nullify the federal law and were circulating petitions about it among the small crowd.

A few reporters were there but the rally didn’t attract much media coverage as most of the cameras were inside for the swearing-in of their hometown lawmakers and the acceptance speeches by legislative leaders.

It would be easy to write off the event as an irrelevant sideshow by the radical right. But that would be a mistake. The rhetoric outside the building was much harsher than the platitudes offered inside by House Speaker Thom Tillis and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, but much of the underlying philosophy was the same.

Both Tillis and Berger promised more of what we saw in the General Assembly in the last two years under their leadership, more attacks on public schools, more dismantling of environmental regulations, more cuts to important public institutions.

The first bill passed in the last session was an absurd effort to exempt North Carolina from the Affordable Care Act, music to the Tea Partiers’ heart.

There are new plans for this year too, a radical rewrite of the state tax code to favor the wealthy over the middle class and low income families, a voucher scheme to fund private schools with public money, and even more weakening of the regulations that protect our air, land and water that were devastated in the last two years.

Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger asked Senators to think of the “families out there struggling to make ends meet” when they cast their votes. Berger didn’t mention that a powerful legislative committee voted Tuesday to make massive cuts to unemployment benefits to laid off workers.

The timing of the tea party rally made it hard for House members to attend, though several were listed as scheduled speakers. Some of the crowd at the event wore t-shirts printed for previous rallies held by Americans for Prosperity, the most well-known and well-funded of the tea party groups.

One of the handful of national board members of the Americans for Prosperity is Art Pope, the polarizing financier of right-wing causes and Republican political campaigns who is now Governor Pat McCrory’s state budget director.

Maybe there is still a question about which McCrory is now governor, the moderate former mayor of Charlotte or the candidate who spoke at tea party rallies and made robocalls for Americans for Prosperity. But moderate Pat hasn’t made much of an appearance lately.

McCrory’s new Secretary of Environment and Natural Resources, John Skvarla, made headlines recently for suggesting that he thinks that oil may be a renewable resource.

The Independent Weekly pointed out that Skvarla is listed as an “expert” on the website of the far-right group Wake Up America. That’s who is now in charge of state environmental policy.

Lieutenant Governor Dan Forest attends his first meeting as a member of the State Board of Education this week. Forest, a strong proponent of vouchers, has said that he’s excited about being on the State Board and hopes to encourage more parents to homeschool their children.

McCrory endorsed Forest of course and has said repeatedly he wants to work closely with him in his new administration.

The Tea Party rally outside the Legislative Building Wednesday may not have been very well attended for a reason. There was another tea partyish going event going on inside the building.

The rhetoric may have been a little softer, but the core ideology and the potential damage to North Carolina that it can do is much the same.

Welcome to tea time in Raleigh.

About the author

Chris Fitzsimon, Founder and Executive Director of N.C. Policy Watch, writes the Fitzsimon File, delivers a radio commentary broadcast on WRAL-FM and hosts "News and Views," a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina.