BY SIDNEY R. FINKEL
North Carolina’s last several elections have produced a state government that has centralized all power — including those issues that have traditionally been under local jurisdiction. In order to reclaim our rights, the time has come for the people of Western North Carolina to secede from Raleigh and seek admission as the 51st state.
Part of what leads me to this conclusion is the Legislature’s recent passage of HB2. Extending far beyond the question of bathroom use, the new law takes away local governments’ ability to enact laws and regulations pertaining to daily life in their communities and provide basic protections for residents.
Over the last several years, state lawmakers have repeatedly intervened in local governments’ affairs. And going forward, it appears that if any local governmental unit in WNC enacts laws that don’t reflect the political positions held by a majority in the Legislature, it will not only void those laws but will impose the desired view in place of what local residents actually want.
The state’s varied geography and cultures clearly demonstrate that there’s no logical reason why Western North Carolina should be joined in political union with the Piedmont and coastal areas. If the WNC counties weren’t already part of the state, there would be no movement for them to join North Carolina. The fact that they are is a happenstance of history, not a deliberate plan for effective democratic governance.
In every western county, the median household income is below the national level. Meanwhile, the men and women who passed HB2 — and the governor who signed it into law late in the evening of the specially convened, one-day legislative session back in March — are among the economic winners in North Carolina. Their opportunities, their income and their lives really aren’t much affected by a law that prohibits localities from raising the minimum wage or prohibiting certain forms of discrimination.
But the same cannot be said for the men and women of Ashe, Avery, Cherokee and all the other WNC counties. Simply put, Western North Carolina cannot afford to remain a part of North Carolina.
The new state of West Carolina would logically include the mountain counties along the Tennessee border, the more populated, centrally located areas and everything in between. West Carolina would have a population just under 1 million and would cover an area of just over 8,000 square miles. It would be entitled to two U.S. senators and one member of the House of Representatives.
Currently, there are seven states that have a single House member; of those, only Montana would have a larger population than West Carolina. The new state would be comparable in size to Vermont, which it might resemble in many ways. West Carolina would be Republican-leaning, even though its largest city, Asheville, is strongly Democratic. So Republicans would be the favorites to win a majority of the statewide elections.
But if Democrats nominated well-known local figures, they’d be competitive and should prevail in a fair share of races. In many cases, the deciding factor would be not party affiliation but how well the candidates identified with voters’ needs and concerns — which, of course, is the way it’s supposed to be.
There is one major educational investment that West Carolina would need to make: a medical school. In fact, WNC needs such a school anyway, regardless of its statehood status. But that won’t happen as long as this area is ruled by Raleigh.
It’s obvious that the state of West Carolina would be far stronger economically than the western region is today. Creating a new state capital would, in and of itself, stimulate growth. It’s not difficult to envision the Asheville metro area as a budding Austin or Portland.
One word distinguishes WNC’s economy from its counterpart in the eastern portion of the state: potential. Increased tourism heads the list of reasons why. To open up the far western regions, a way needs to be found to build a parkway through or around Nantahala Gorge while still preserving the area’s beauty and wildness. The Carl Sandburg Home and the wonderful regional theater in Flat Rock, along with Hendersonville’s farms, orchards and historic downtown, offer vast untapped opportunities. With increased visibility, easier access and more accommodations, the craft, hobby and arts schools in places like Brasstown and Penland could help them become growth centers.
The isolated, sparsely populated rural counties to the north, along the Tennessee border, would pose the biggest economic challenge. But given their distance from Raleigh and lack of political influence, those residents would still have better economic prospects as part of West Carolina.
The new entity’s motto could be “The Environmental State.” And while West Carolinians would still develop their environment for economic purposes, it would be based on preservation, not destruction. By increasing prosperity and quality of life while preserving local governments’ autonomy, this would clearly benefit all of the region’s inhabitants.
Asked about the idea, City Council member Brian Haynes had this to say: “I don’t know about the feasibility of Mr. Finkel’s proposal, but I certainly could support such a plan. He makes a valid argument for the creation of a new state. Asheville the capital of the 51st state — I love it!”
Retired professor Sidney R. Finkel has a doctorate in economics from UNC Chapel Hill and has taught at various colleges and universities. The Fairview resident’s bucket list includes becoming the first person registered to vote as a West Carolinian.