Ethan Hyman/The News & Observer/AP
Rachel Jordan protests outside a special session of the North Carolina General Assembly at the Legislative Building in Raleigh, N.C., on Dec. 16. Republicans at the session stripped the incoming Democratic governor of some of his authority.

As North Carolina continues its sharp right turn, some feel abandoned

North Carolina attracted legions of new workers on the promise of a progressive lifestyle in the New South. But they feel betrayed by a dramatic political shift.

At first, Melody Moezzi felt welcomed – wanted, even. There was the Research Triangle, with a thriving biotech industry, or Charlotte, emerging as a global banking hub, or Asheville, with its sense of counterculture cool.

North Carolina was going to be the Pole Star in the constellation of a New South – a place where sweet tea and progressive politics would lead to a bright future. President Obama winning the state in 2008 was just the beginning.

Now, she just feels betrayed.

“Both personally and politically, it’s a feeling of intense helplessness – like no matter how loudly I yell, no one hears me,” says Ms. Moezzi, who moved to North Carolina in 2012, in an email. “It’s like being real and knowing that you’re real, but being told by everyone in power that you’re merely a hallucination.”

What Moezzi has seen is a dramatic political about-face. Since Republicans took over the state legislature in 2010, critics say, they have essentially instituted one-party rule through dramatic gerrymandering and staked a claim as a leading opponent to the Obama administration in America’s culture wars.

To historians, the shift can be as seen as another ripple in North Carolina’s partisan history, in which Republicans are paying Democrats back in kind for decades of political skullduggery.

But for Moezzi and other relative newcomers, it feels like the ultimate bait-and-switch. The state that only a few years ago seemed to them a beacon of fresh center-left thinking now has been rated by the nonpartisan Election Integrity Project as roughly equal to Sierra Leone and Iran when it comes to government doing the public’s bidding.

In that way, North Carolina offers a unique portrait of America’s hyperpartisan divide – a state shot through with large patches of deep blue voters who feel increasingly disenfranchised by a deeply red legislature. Those frustrations continue to simmer with a steady stream of peaceful protests and arrests, often connected with the progressive Moral Monday movement.

A broader backlash?

The question is whether that discontent kindles more broadly. There are signs that it might. Last month, Gov. Pat McCrory (R) lost his reelection bid, with many blaming his support for the “bathroom bill” that, in addition to mandating that transgender people use the restroom that matches the sex on their birth certificate, prevented cities from offering lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender citizens equal rights.

Yet since that loss, Republicans have gone further in two legislative special sessions. In the first, they revoked key powers form the governorship before the Democratic governor-elect takes over. And in the second, they failed to repeal the bathroom bill despite calling the special session explicitly to do so.

“It’s not as if anything going on in North Carolina has not happened in the US before, and it’s really not about what’s happening but how it’s happening, and the way it’s being talked about,” says Kevin Rogers, a political scientist at William Peace University in Raleigh. “But there are a lot of folks, including conservatives, who are paying attention and wondering: Is this really the way we want things to go?”

While only one-third of North Carolinians are registered Republicans (fewer than are registered Democrats), the party now holds nearly 3 of every 4 state legislative seats. A federal court has ordered the state to redraw 28 legislative districts by spring, to be followed by new elections next fall.

The state had the lowest score (7 out of 100) in the history of the Election Integrity Project when it came to having uncompetitive political districts.

"That North Carolina can no longer call its elections democratic is shocking enough, but our democratic decline goes beyond what happens at election time," wrote Andrew Reynolds, a University of North Carolina political scientist in a controversial  opinion article in the Charlotte News & Observer, assessing the degree to which the exercise of power depends on the will of the people. "The extent to which North Carolina now breaches these principles means our state government can no longer be classified as a full democracy."

University of North Carolina political scientist Pamela Conover has seen anecdotal evidence – in her own home – of the growing concern.

“My mother is outraged because what’s happening doesn’t seem like fair play. And I think for people who are not rabid partisans, there’s a sense that Republicans have jumped the shark in terms of taking partisan activities to an extreme,” she says.

'False advertising'

Those concerns are even greater among many who came to North Carolina based on its image a decade ago. With the help of corporations like IBM and SAS, the historically agricultural state sold itself as an emerging Southern dynamo. Workers flooded in from around the country and the world.

“I do feel like we were victims of false advertising when we moved to North Carolina,” says Moezzi, who came to Raleigh via Atlanta. “We knew that Obama had won North Carolina in 2008, and we considered that an indication that we were headed to a more progressive state, part of a moderate New South where people like me could feel welcome. We were also encouraged by all the universities – especially the biotech sector.”

To Dr. Reynolds, the British-born UNC professor, North Carolina can serve as an “early warning system” for the entire country.

“If this trajectory continues, we are going to be in more and more trouble,” he says.

The answer, he adds, is to look inward. “We’re going to look into our own souls and start addressing our own problems before we reach a point where we can’t call ourselves a vibrant democracy.”

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