When Republican legislators left town last summer there was an almost tangible sense of unapologetic and self-righteous fury still hanging in the air. Today, for a variety of reasons, the political atmosphere is far less triumphant. In venue after venue, the state’s conservative leaders have adopted a more conciliatory approach — at least in tone, if not in substance.
Consider the following recent examples:
A teacher pay raise proposal: After months of being pilloried for their repeated, painful and unnecessary assaults on public education, state leaders announced a plan last week to bump up the salaries of newer teachers and to alter their 2013 plan to deny extra pay to teachers with masters’ degrees.
Backing down from an unconstitutional abortion law: Just months after having blatantly reneged on a campaign promise by signing a far reaching proposal to limit reproductive freedom for women, Gov. McCrory urged Attorney General Roy Cooper not to appeal a federal court ruling striking down one of its key provisions, a recommendation that Cooper perversely declined to follow.
Contriteness at DHHS: After months in the limelight for her repeated incidents of bluster and blunder, State DHHS Secretary Aldona Wos seems intent on cutting her losses and softening her image — whether by allowing her high-priced communications wunderkind Ricky Diaz to depart, appearing at legislative hearings to endure mild criticism or admitting a need to improve performance.
Slowdown in Commerce privatization: Not that long ago, the state Commerce Secretary seemed intent on barging ahead with a controversial plan to privatize her agency’s already controversial industrial recruitment mission whether state legislators formally endorsed it or not. Now the plan is on hold till at least the fall.
If there’s an area of policy that best symbolizes the effort to present a kinder and gentler state leadership of late, however, it’s the environment. In 2013, state leaders couldn’t undermine state protections for the natural environment fast enough.
What a difference a couple of disasters and few bouts with extreme weather can make. Today, less than two months into 2014, both the Governor and state legislative leaders are singing a notably different tune — one that’s, on the surface at least — not easily distinguishable from the message advanced by the business Democrats who ran North Carolina for most of the past two decades.
Just months after guiding the Senate through an aggressive and unprecedented environmental rollback, Sen. Tom Apodaca, the chair of the body’s powerful Rules Committee announced that he would personally sponsor legislation to force Duke Energy to clean up its coal ash dumps. This announcement came close on the heels of a joint appearance by both Senate leader Phil Berger and Gov. Pat McCrory at the site of the Dan River disaster to publicly proclaim the need for swift action by Duke. And, of course, on Monday, the legislature’s Environmental Review Commission took extensive testimony from officials and advocates about both the coal ash disaster and a recent sewage spill in Haw River near Burlington.
Clearly, each of the altered stances listed above is badly flawed. The teacher pay proposal is absurdly inadequate. The abortion switch had no effect. Aldona Wos’ mostly disastrous tenure at DHHS continues uninterrupted. The Commerce privatization delay is just that — a delay.
And the environment? Well, the proof there will be in the pudding. Right now, it’s far too early to tell whether conservative leaders have genuinely been impacted enough by the Duke disaster to be inclined to force real sacrifice by the energy giant or if we’re simply witnesses to a cynical pose.
Still, for all of the enormous shortcomings of their actions, even the recent micro-steps of conservative leaders give testament to one very important reality: these men (and they are all men) believe that they needed to do something. Each of them understands that the overwhelming majority of North Carolinians wants real action to raise teacher pay, preserve reproductive freedom, rein in DHHS abuses, reform corporate giveaways and preserve the environment — and that advocates and activists for those causes are not going to let up.
Let’s hope progressive activists — having seen the cracks in the right-wing machine that a combination of their advocacy and recent events has brought about — will redouble their efforts.
The future climates of both the political and physical worlds likely depend on it.
Rob Schofield is the Director of Research and Policy Development for NC Policy Watch.