One of us

A lot of folks who came to this state from other places like to call ourselves North Carolinians. But what do you have to do to earn those bragging rights? I’ve devised a couple of proven ways to spot a real North Carolinian.

My first standard test question is always, “Did you study North Carolina history in the eighth grade?”

If you answer yes, then you probably learned enough to be a certified North Carolinian, wherever you were born.

Of course, even without the Tar Heel history course, some folks know and care enough about our state to qualify as bona fide North Carolinians. So the next question I ask is, “What does the May 20, 1775 date on our state flag stand for?”

If you say, “That’s the date of the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence, in which some North Carolinians proclaimed their break from England — more than a year before the rest of the colonies got on board,” you’re home free.

But if, on the other hand, you reply, “That’s the date of the alleged Mecklenburg Declaration, which most historians are convinced was conjured up from the creative memories of old men long after the supposed event,” you may actually know too much to qualify.

So much for my standard tests. But this week, I have a special question: Which of these news stories interests you more? (1) President Bush’s State of the Union address, or (2) the contest to select a speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives.

If you’re more interested in the saga of the speaker’s race, you’re almost certainly a genuine North Carolinian.

And what a tale it is! So full of Tar Heel history and politics and the current fight to determine the direction of our state that it could be the acid test for aspiring North Carolinians. Among other things, the contest illustrates the North Carolina tradition that the House speaker should be much more than a presiding officer. He or she has extraordinary powers to direct legislation; even when the speakership is handicapped by partisan wrangling, the job is still worth fighting for.

The fight also highlights the transition from Democratic dominance to parity between the two parties. More and more, this new arrangement is characterized by precisely the kind of brutal and unproductive wrangling we’re now witnessing.

The disenchantment of several black Democratic members with their party’s leadership illustrates the difficult position of minority legislators whose struggle for power is often frustrating — both for them and for their colleagues. When I asked some of them how they can risk the consequences of breaking with their party, they told me that such risks are minor compared to the ones they had to take to get through the days of segregation. How these legislators work out their dissatisfaction could have a big impact on their party’s future.

But it doesn’t end there. Buried deeply within the speaker’s struggle are the signs of a possible future collision of urban and rural differences in the legislature. Some political observers argue that the strongly partisan divisions of the parties make it possible for rural and eastern North Carolina lawmakers to “control” the legislature. The rural Easterners do retain considerable control, even though the mostly urban Piedmont region of North Carolina now claims the majority of legislators.

How does this happen? The Piedmont sends a divided delegation to the legislature — lots of Republicans and some Democrats. On the other hand, the rural East has remained largely Democratic. As a result, the easterners can dominate the Democratic caucus. So when the Democrats are in control, the eastern legislators wield more influence than the more numerous legislators from the Piedmont.

But some Piedmont legislators are chafing, making the familiar complaint that politicians from the East have more political savvy than they do.

Ironically, in the midst of this struggle, Jim Black, the Democratic nominee for speaker, is an urban Piedmont representative, while Republican nominee Leo Daughtry comes from the rural East.

Wait just a minute. I have one more test for identifying authentic North Carolinians — and you just passed it!

Yes, anyone who cares enough about our state’s politics to have made it all the way through this column is sure enough a real North Carolinian.

[D.G. Martin retired earlier this month as Carolinas Director of the Trust for Public Land. UNC-TV’s North Carolina Bookwatch, hosted by Martin, will return to the air soon.]

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