A coalition of groups critical of the North Carolina general assembly stopped by the West Asheville Public Library as part of its statewide Out of Control tour. Sponsored by Democracy North Carolina, the Institute for Southern Studies, the North Carolina branch of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, N.C. Policy Watch and Progress North Carolina, the tour’s stated goal is to “stop out-of-control right wing extremist lawmakers from ruining North Carolina before it’s too late,” according to the event’s website.
Nearly 100 attendees filled the West Asheville library’s 75-person-capacity meeting room as MaryBe McMillian of the N.C. AFL-CIO set the tone for the night, “They want to divide and conquer us,” she said of the Republican-controlled N.C. assembly. “They want us to stay ignorant. They want to do things in the dark. Our answer is to join together, educate ourselves, and shine a light on their actions.”
Next up was N.C. Policy Watch Director Rob Schofield who presented five points for consideration. No. 1: The current general assembly’s majority is “reactionary,” he said. “They do not believe in public constructs or structures.” No. 2: “They totally believe the ends justify any means.” No. 3: They have brought forth a “dreadful budget which has reduced spending to dangerous levels.” No. 4: They continue to enact laws which have nothing to do with the real needs of people. No. 5: They have declared “open season on open government” with midnight sessions and major changes in the way business in the general assembly is conducted.
Robert Dawkins, Democracy N.C.‘s field organizer for Western North Carolina, claimed that his organization is nonpartisan. “Our agenda is simple,” he said. “We believe in one person, one vote. Anything that interferes with that we will oppose.” He highlighted the proposed voter-identification legislation in North Carolina as a “witch hunt” for statistically unimportant voter fraud that is being used to disenfranchise certain demographics of voters. He also highlighted several other proposed bills that would affect voter enforcement statewide and make major changes to the our ballot process.
Brian Blacklow, a third-grade teacher at Claxton Elementary in Asheville, spoke forcefully about what the cuts the general assembly has made to education mean to him and his students. “Speaker Tillis was overheard, on an open mic, saying he would ‘punish the teachers’ for criticizing his proposed cuts to educational programs, Blacklow said. “And he has done just that. I am proud to be a teacher, to be married to a teacher, the son of teachers. Without teachers, we have no future,” inspiring the largest applause of the night from the crowd.
Chris Kromm, of the Institute for Southern Studies, discussed the research the organization has been publishing on its website about Art Pope, a Raleigh businessman and political figure. Pope is president and chairman of the John William Pope Foundation, a North Carolina-based organization that contributes funds to the John Locke Foundation, a think tank and research organization. (Pope serves on the board of directors of the JLF as well.) Both organizations claim to be nonpartisan and promote free-market economics. According to the JLF website, “The John Locke Foundation believes in free markets, limited constitutional government, and personal responsibility. In the modern American political context, those principles are labeled conservative.” Many local and national media outlets have published research related to Art Pope’s political contributions in North Carolina, including the
New Yorker. “You can think of [Pope] as the puppet master, working behind the curtain, in the dark, behind people like Speaker Tills and your own Tim Moffitt,” Kromm said. “Whether it is privatizing public property, or requiring you to have an ID to vote, Art Pope is behind it,” said Kromm.
Questions from the audience ranged from the impact on health care (horrendous, said Kromm), the cost of the voter ID bill (about $20 million over 3 years, said Dawkins), to a demonstrations of how many in the room were “working class,” veterans, or union members.
Several elected officials were at the meeting, including Rep. Chuck McGrady, (R-Henderson) who quipped “I don’t know if I am brave or stupid, but thanks for the invitation.” McGrady has worked across the aisle to stop the gridlock, observing, “I used to work in summer camps. Some of the actions of these lawmakers rival that of 11-year-olds. When do you stop and move forward? There are legitimate issues we can work on together.”