BY MILTON READY
If you believe John Boehner, the Republican former speaker of the House of Representatives, Mark Meadows is “an idiot.” A great many in Washington, even in his own party, share that view and worse. Still, many people reading this will know him as North Carolina’s 11th District congressional representative, the leader of the conservative Freedom Caucus and one of Donald Trump’s closest allies. To others, however, he’s a status-anxious person who desperately wanted to replace John Kelly as White House chief of staff.
Yet in many ways, Meadows’ rise to power represents not only the Trumped up times in which we live but also the state of North Carolina today.
First and foremost, Meadows isn’t really from North Carolina but from Florida. He’s a businessman with little political experience and no public service before 2013, all hallmarks of a new class of politicians in American life. A lot of Floridians and retirees have moved to Western North Carolina since the 1980s, probably in larger numbers than Hispanics, and politically they are far more important, at least for now. He also represents the “greed is good” credo of Gordon Gekko in the 1987 movie Wall Street and the dominance of business values in American society.
Meadows opened Aunt D’s, a small restaurant in Highlands, later sold it, and subsequently founded a real estate and development company in the Tampa, Fla., area. In 2011, he moved to Glenville in Jackson County, just outside Cashiers, and then to South Asheville. You will find Meadows’ name associated with real estate and development businesses in and around Macon County.
Like many outsiders, Meadows quickly recognized the fragility and vulnerability of North Carolina’s political parties and structure, easily becoming the chair of Macon County’s Republican Party and a delegate to state and national Republican conventions. In 2012, he ran for office, seeking to represent North Carolina’s recently gerrymandered 11th Congressional District: the safest and reddest in the state. He was elected, and there he has remained.
Yet perhaps the most interesting detail about Mark Meadows’ rise can be found in his opportunistic nexus with the takeover of North Carolina by hard-right Republicans in 2010. The two are conjoined twins. At the heart of all the gerrymandering, voting suppression and outright fraud now prevalent in North Carolina lie the self-interest of people like Meadows and the self-deception of their supporters. Consider this:
Since 2010, Republican legislators have gradually ensured that, by hook or crook and despite an almost evenly divided electorate, Democrats will win only three of the state’s 13 congressional districts — the 1st, 4th and 12th — usually by overwhelming majorities. Meanwhile, the other 10 will be reliably won by Republicans, if with smaller margins. The 11th generally delivers approximately 60% of the vote to the Republican candidate, the largest percentage of any “safe” district in the state. North Carolina Republicans knew how to stop the 2018 blue wave and the inevitability of demographics, albeit with a slight hiccup in the 9th District. So egregious was the voter fraud there that the state Board of Elections overturned the results and ordered a new election.
Oddly enough, the future of the Republican stranglehold on North Carolina and the nation can be glimpsed through Meadows and the 11th District. Western North Carolina’s growth has largely been driven by an influx of Hispanics, second-home developments, tourism and older transplants, mostly around the Asheville/Hendersonville corridor. Surrounding mountain counties like Macon, Mitchell, Madison and Graham have either declining or stagnant populations and economies. As one wit observed, the only growth there is in cemeteries.
Without rural voters and the almost entirely white South Asheville suburbs, Republicanism in Western North Carolina dies a slow death. Currently, the 11th is approximately 90% white, 47% urban and 53% rural, all percentages sure to change as the region becomes more urbanized and Hispanics replace shrinking and aging white populations in counties like Mitchell. Factor in the looming 2020 census and an inevitable if delayed redrawing of congressional districts, and urban areas like Asheville, Raleigh, Charlotte and Durham-Chapel Hill, which are now effectively marginalized, will play a greater role in future elections while mountain counties like Macon and Mitchell will have lesser ones.
Yet Hispanics, the “shadow population,” might hold the key to both the 11th’s and the state’s future: Now you see them, now you don’t. North Carolina has the 11th largest Hispanic population in the nation, perhaps as much as 1 million overall. Roughly half are legal citizens, but less than 3% of the state’s registered voters are Hispanic, and although more than 35% of them cast ballots in the 2018 general election, they accounted for only about 1.8% of the total vote. Whites, meanwhile, accounted for more than 72% of last year’s votes.
With a collective purchasing power of approximately $385 million, Hispanics have substantially propelled the state’s recent economic growth. As of 2012, they owned 34,900 businesses, and that number has only increased since then; more than half of all new businesses launched in North Carolina since 2016 were Hispanic-owned. The demographics show that they tend to be younger, and in counties like Henderson, they account for perhaps 25% or more of the workforce. You can see similar impacts seasonally in counties like Macon.
Yet Hispanics have no representation either in the General Assembly or locally, making them the only sizable “voiceless” minority in the state. In many ways, they constitute a new, modern form of slavery brought on by an increasingly regionalized and globalized economy.
Mark Meadows will probably survive another election cycle or two as long as gerrymandered districts and voter suppression persist. Yet he’s likely to be remembered more as an anachronism, an artifact of the Tea Party’s dominance in North Carolina, than as someone who bettered residents’ lives overall.
Retired UNC Asheville history professor Milton Ready lives in the mountains of Western North Carolina.