Bitter Fight Over Women’s Rights Still Resonates Today

Just before triggering a bitter battle over gun rights this month, the Virginia legislature quietly passed a measure on women’s rights – the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The vote recalls a bitter battle in North Carolina over ERA more than 40 years ago. That battle presaged today’s polarized politics and culture wars. It raised concerns that persist today about gender and economic inequality.

With Virginia’s vote, ERA has passed in 38 states. That’s the three-fourths required for ratification. But Congress set a 1982 deadline for ratification, so the amendment is in legal limbo for now.

First proposed in 1923, ERA was passed by Congress in 1972. By 1977, it had passed in 35 states.

North Carolina became a crucial battleground. A bipartisan coalition of politically active women championed ratification. In 1973, 1,000 backers gathered in Durham to launch North Carolinians United for ERA. One of their leaders was Martha McKay, who got in politics with Governor Terry Sanford.

Opponents organized North Carolinians Against ERA. Their leader was Phyllis Schlafly of Illinois, who was campaigning around the country against ERA. They recruited two prominent Tar Heels: former Senator Sam Ervin and state Chief Justice Susie Sharp.

Before he famously chaired the Senate Watergate Committee, Ervin was best known as an outspoken opponent of civil rights legislation. Sharp was the first woman on the bench, but she was no supporter of ERA.

Sam Ervin opposed ERA

In 1977, Ervin and Schlafly spoke at a Dorton Arena rally jammed with 1,500 opponents, many from fundamentalist churches in rural parts of the state. They wore red “Stop ERA” stickers.

Supporters, who wore green ERA stickers, organized their own rallies around the state. Actor Alan Alda highlighted one event.

Supporters said ERA was needed to end discrimination against women in matters like divorce, property and employment. The amendment reads: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”

Opponents said the language was too open to interpretation by judges. They said unintended consequences would jeopardize women and rip apart the fabric of society. Women might have to serve in the military and share bathrooms with men.

The battle came to a head in 1979. Lobbying was intense at the legislature. One member hid in the legislative chapel to avoid Betty McCain, an ERA supporter and state Democratic Party chair. The irrepressible McCain found him crouching behind a pew.

Governor Jim Hunt endorsed ERA in his State of the State speech. House Speaker Carl Stewart, a progressive Democrat from Gastonia, supported it. ERA passed the House 66-51.

But the Senate was dominated by conservative men from rural areas, Democrats in those days. Crusty, chain-smoking Lt. Governor Jimmy Green, a Democrat, was against it; he was against most anything Hunt was for.

A crucial vote was Senator R.C. Soles, a Democrat from Tabor City. Hunt pushed for his support, and Soles said he would decide over the weekend.
When he came back to Raleigh Monday, he voted no. His excuse was that his mother opposed it.

ERA lost 26-24. Its momentum stalled nationally.

In the years after the setback, ERA supporters focused on changing laws one by one to ensure equal rights and protections for women on issues including divorce, equitable distribution of marital property and domestic violence. Always, a prime concern was the pay gap between men and women.

Whatever happens now with ERA, the issues it raised – and the battle lines it drew – aren’t going away.

Bloomberg Blooms in North Carolina

While the other Democratic presidential candidates slug it out and slog through snowy Iowa, Mike Bloomberg is busy planting seeds across the country – and in North Carolina.

His campaign is unlike any before: It has unlimited money. It’s taking an untried path. And it’s not just about electing Bloomberg.

Last week, Bloomberg gave a small group of North Carolinians a look behind the curtain. He and his campaign leaders hosted a conference call for about 30 political donors, fundraisers and business leaders from across the state.

One person who listened in on the call reported that Bloomberg said he won’t keep running if “my dear friend” Joe Biden is successful. But Bloomberg will run hard if “the old math” doesn’t work and Biden falters.

Why? Because the campaign’s polling says Trump would win reelection today “in a landslide.”

Bloomberg believes Democrats have to nominate a moderate, mainstream candidate to win in November.

He’s taking a road not taken before. He’s skipping the sacrosanct early states of Iowa and New Hampshire and going directly to the March 3 Super Tuesday prizes of California, Texas, North Carolina and 11 other states.

The people who every four years decry the outsized role of two small, snow-bound and nearly all-white states should celebrate that.

Since Bloomberg is targeting North Carolina, you see his strategy playing out here. You see it on TV – two or three Bloomberg ads every half-hour. You see it on Facebook – ubiquitous targeted Bloomberg ads. You see positive bio ads about Bloomberg (“Mike Will Get It Done”), and you see ads slamming President Trump on health care, jobs and economic insecurity. But not impeachment.

Nationally, Bloomberg has already spent $200 million on TV. It could end up being a billion-dollar campaign. But even that won’t dent Bloomberg’s $30 billion fortune. Which he made, one ad tells us, after he was fired at age 39.

You don’t see everything that Bloomberg’s money buys. Like the 80-100 staffers he’s putting on the ground in North Carolina. They’re being paid, I’m told, $6,000 a month. That’s two or three times what they’d make in other campaigns. And the checks don’t bounce.

You also don’t see – not directly, anyway – the millions of dollars the campaign spends on polling, focus groups, ad-testing, data analytics and voter targeting.

Bloomberg says he’s here through November, even if he’s not the nominee. “We won’t be returning our rental cars March 4,” one of his campaign people said on the call. Beating Trump is the big goal, but voter registration and turnout are important in the races for Governor, U.S. Senate, the legislature and down the ballot.

The campaign road-tested its operation last year in Kentucky, where a Democrat unseated the Republican governor, and Virginia, where Democrats took the legislature.

Bloomberg called North Carolina “the new Virginia,” likely to tip toward Democrats in the years ahead.

The person who described the call admitted to being a “jaded” veteran of campaign conference calls. But this one was different: “It was crisp, business-like and impressive.”

And there was no fundraising pitch. Because Bloomberg is paying for everything.

Which some Democrats don’t like. They don’t like rich guys “buying” the race. They blame the “billionaire class” for much of what’s wrong in America.

Wouldn’t it be the height of irony if billionaire-bashing Democrats were saved by a billionaire?

Could Bernie Sanders Win the Nomination?

Throughout 2019, few observers thought Bernie Sanders had a real chance to win the Democratic nomination. The media treated him more like a gadfly than a serious contender.

Then 2020 dawned, and it dawned on people that the “democratic socialist” who for years wasn’t even a Democrat might end up as the party’s candidate against President Trump.

Today, Sanders leads the Democratic field in the two ways we keep score in politics: money and polls.

He raised way more than any other candidate in the last quarter of 2019 – and more than anybody else has raised in any quarter. Sanders hauled in $34.5 million, compared to Pete Buttigieg, $24.7 million, Joe Biden, $22.7 million and Elizabeth Warren, $21.2 million.

Sanders leads in polls in Iowa and New Hampshire. A Des Moines Register/CNN poll has him ahead in Iowa with 20% to Warren’s 17, Buttigieg’s 16 and Biden’s 15. A CBS News/YouGov poll says Sanders leads in New Hampshire with 27%. Biden has 25, Warren 18, Buttigieg 13 and Amy Klobuchar 7.

If Sanders wins both states, he’ll take his money and momentum into Nevada and South Carolina in late February and to Super Tuesday March 3, when 14 states, including North Carolina, will pick 40 percent of the delegates.

The Democratic race could come down to Sanders, a moderate or two (Biden, Buttigieg or Klobuchar) and maybe a billionaire or two.

The billionaires, Mike Bloomberg and Tom Steyer, might be the only candidates who can keep up with Sanders’ money. It’s not just that Sanders has raised nearly $100 million total; it’s all from small-dollar donations. He’s received more than five million contributions, at an average donation of $18. He can go back to that bank again and again.

Sanders has other things going for him. In an increasingly liberal party, he and Warren are the most liberal candidates. In a time of possible war, he’s the most antiwar candidate.

Sanders has an air of authenticity. There’s no artifice to his irascible, grumpy-grandpa persona. And he’s familiar. He’s been saying the same things since he nearly beat Hillary Clinton in 2016.

His supporters are passionate. In Iowa, 67% of his voters said they “enthusiastically” support him. The only other candidate close is Warren; 61% of her voters said they’re enthusiastic; 52% of Buttigieg’s voters and 49% of Biden’s voters were.

Last year he addressed concerns that he’s long been an Independent by declaring that he is a Democrat.

Sanders has broadened his support, according to a Vox analysis. In 2016, his base was heavily white, male and young. Now he has more women and minority supporters, though not many older voters.

Many Democrats fear there’s a ceiling on his support. They worry he’s too liberal to win in November. A number of Democratic candidates and operatives in North Carolina have told me they don’t want Sanders heading the ticket.

Above all, Democrats just want to beat Trump. Desperately so. Impeachment and Iran make them more determined.

Democrats, then, have two theories of the race.

Many believe Americans are ready to move on from Donald Trump and just want a safe, stable alternative.

Sanders supporters’ theory is that he’ll reach millions of Americans who don’t vote because they believe all politicians are crooked and don’t care about them. They believe that, just as an optimistic newcomer reached those voters in 2008 and a dystopian outsider reached them in 2016, Sanders can reach them with a radical departure from politics as usual.

Over the next two months, Democrats across the country – including in North Carolina – will decide which theory they’ll test in November.

OK Millennials

As a card-carrying (Social Security and Medicare) Baby Boomer, I’m ready for Millennials and Gen Z to take over.

“OK Boomer” is their all-purpose putdown for people my age who make clueless and/or condescending comments about “these young people today,” especially given the mess we’ve made of things: virulent racism, rampant intolerance, raging economic inequality, unrestrained immigrant-bashing, corrupt politics, and global climate catastrophe.

I’d say our work here is about done. How could the kids do any worse?

In fact – to a political liberal like me – it looks like they could do a lot better.

Polls show that Millennials (born 1981-1996) and Gen Z (1997-on) are more liberal, more tolerant of others and more determined to overcome social, political and economic problems than my generation.

They’re more negative about President Trump and Republicans. They’re more likely to register Independent, but they’re more likely to vote Democratic.

A Pew Research Center survey found that 64 percent of Millennials and 70 percent of Gen Z believe “government should do more to solve problems.” Only 49 percent of Boomers agree.

Only about three in 10 Millennials and Gen Z approve of Trump, compared to 43 percent of Boomers and 54 percent of the Silent Generation, the cohort born 1930-45.

Don’t be surprised. The younger generation is paying off college loans instead of making house payments, struggling to make it in a stagnant-wage gig economy, paying high premiums for health insurance (if they can get it) and…retirement? Did you say “retirement”? Don’t make them laugh.

Politically, the knock on young voters – always – is that they don’t vote. That may be changing.

Pew found that in the 2018 midterm elections, a good one for Democrats, “millennial turnout surged to 42 percent, a full 20 percentage points higher than the cohort’s rate in 2014.”

Boomers and the older Silent Generation still vote at higher rates than do younger voters. But the number of younger voters is growing. In 2018, for the first time ever, Millennial, Gen Z and Gen X (born 1965-1980) voters outnumbered Boomers and Silents.

The trend looks good for Democrats. Exit polls in 2018 showed that Democrats won 58 percent of voters aged 30-44 and 67 percent of those under 30. Democrats and Republicans tied among voters 45 and older.

The generation gap is obvious in the Democratic presidential race. Young voters turbocharge the campaign of Bernie Sanders, the oldest and most left-wing candidate. Elizabeth Warren has a strong following. A politically active young Democrat in Raleigh told me that his friends overwhelmingly support Warren.

This activist says Joe Biden leaves his peers cold. He represents the past to them. They’re no more enthused about the youngest candidate, Pete Buttigieg, who strikes them as an old person’s idea of what a young politician should be.

There are many divides in American politics today: racial, economic and religious versus secular. The two biggest divides could be age and education. That in turn contributes to an urban-rural divide, as educated young people gravitate to cities and rural areas are dominated by older and less-educated residents.

President Trump’s famous base is in small towns and rural areas, among angry whites in the South and in declining manufacturing areas and, of course, with the rich and the corporate elite.

The Democratic dilemma for 2020 is whether to contest Republicans for those maybe-Trump voters, especially women, or to mobilize what might be an emerging majority of younger, urban voters.

Here’s my vote: OK Millennials. OK Gen Z. Take the wheel. Set a new course.

Year Zero: It will be a watershed year in politics

As 2020 dawns, we should note that election years ending in zero have reshaped America in dramatic and lasting ways throughout our history.

Transformational leaders get elected. Profound social, economic, cultural and global changes follow. The consequences last decades.

Go back to the nation’s beginning. In 1800, Thomas Jefferson unseated President John Adams, the Democratic-Republicans upended the Federalists and what amounted to a second American revolution unfolded.

Then there was 1860: Abraham Lincoln and Civil War.

In 1900, President William McKinley was forced to take Theodore Roosevelt as his running mate. (Republican bosses in New York wanted Roosevelt out of the state). McKinley died, TR became President and the Progressive Era ensued.

In 1920, the first of three Republican Presidents in a row was elected. Americans wanted a return to “normalcy” after World War I and Woodrow Wilson. They got Prohibition, the Roaring 20s and the Great Depression.

In 1940, FDR became the first three-term President. America climbed out of the Depression, won World War II and became a world power. Then came the Cold War, Truman and Eisenhower.

In 1960, JFK promised to get America moving again. We got Camelot, Dallas, Vietnam, the civil rights revolution, more assassinations, riots and deep social and cultural divisions that live on today. Which led to Nixon, Watergate, Ford, Carter, gas lines, recession and malaise.

1980 brought the Reagan Revolution. Then Clinton Triangulation.

2000 – and the Supreme Court – produced “compassionate conservative” George W. Bush. Also, Dick Cheney, Neocons, 9/11 and wars that still go on. Then came a financial meltdown, deep recession and the first black President. And President Trump.

Brace yourself for 2020.

The year begins with Trump’s impeachment and trial. It will end with the most consequential election of our lifetimes.

Assuming the Senate acquits Trump, he’ll be the first President to run for reelection after being impeached. Some Republicans say Trump is a greater President than Lincoln. He may be the most polarizing President since Lincoln. Trump has even warned of civil war if he loses.

As if politics isn’t bitter enough already.

In 2020 Democrats will make a fundamental decision about their identity: a center-left party or a sharply left party. Will they offer a return to normalcy or a political revolution?

In North Carolina, voters will choose between two starkly different political visions, which trace directly back to another zero-year election that looms large in our state’s history.

That was 1960 and the battle for Governor between Democrats Terry Sanford, a progressive, and I. Beverly Lake, a conservative. (Republicans didn’t matter much back then. That changed in the ‘60s.)

Lake bitterly opposed desegregation; Sanford was a moderate on race.

JFK and Terry Sanford

Lake supported establishing segregated private schools; Sanford put public schools first.

On economic development, Sanford broke from conservative Democrats, like then-Governor Luther Hodges. Hodges wanted tax breaks to attract business. Sanford said the state should invest in education, especially teacher pay.

Sanford won in 1960, but the same battles have raged ever since – over race, public versus private schools and tax breaks versus education.

Governors Jim Hunt and Roy Cooper came out of the Sanford tradition. Senator Jesse Helms and today’s Republican legislative leaders came out of the Lake tradition.

In 2020, the battle will be rejoined. Plus, redistricting for the next decade is at stake.

Purists say the next decade doesn’t begin until 2021. In politics, the decade begins now. 2020 will set the direction of North Carolina and the nation for the next 10, 20 and 50 years.

No pressure.

Happy New Year.

Why the Governor can’t veto redistricting

As North Carolina’s endless redistricting battles rage on, people ask why the Governor can’t veto redistricting bills.

Well, up until 20 years ago, North Carolina governors couldn’t veto anything – bills, budgets or anything else. Ours was the only governor in all 50 states who didn’t have veto power.

What’s more, up until 20 years before that, our governors couldn’t run for a second successive term. They were limited to one four-year term.

North Carolina governors were weaker than zero-alcohol beer.

The veto was passed in 1996 through an unlikely coalition and an unexpected election outcome.

The coalition was between then-Governor Jim Hunt, a Democrat, and state House Republicans.

For years, Republicans had supported veto power for the Governor. They even put it in their party platform. They resented how the Democratic-majority legislature dismissed, disregarded and disrespected Republican Governors Jim Holshouser (1973-77) and Jim Martin (1985-93).

Legend has it that, when Governor Martin sent over his biennial budget proposals, Democratic legislative leaders would hold a little ceremony and dump the document into a trash can.

Jim Hunt and me, 1977

Governor Hunt, who had served two terms from 1977-85, won a third term in 1993. He supported the veto. Senate Democrats, led by Senator Marc Basnight and including then-Senator Roy Cooper, also supported it. But the House Democratic leadership strongly opposed it. They wouldn’t even let the issue come to the floor for a vote.

Then came 1994 and President Bill Clinton’s first mid-term election. Republicans led by Newt Gingrich and his “Contract With America” won a nationwide landslide.

In North Carolina, for the first time in the 20th Century, Republicans seized the House. And Governor Hunt seized the opportunity. Veto was part of the GOP’s “Contract With North Carolina.” Hunt asked the legislature to pass it.

Some Republicans had second thoughts: “We’re going to give Jim Hunt the power to veto our bills?” But they kept their commitment.

Still, some Democrats were needed. As an amendment to the state Constitution, the change required a three-fourths majority of both the House and Senate – and had to be passed in a statewide referendum.

Governor Hunt put his allies and lobbyists to work in the House. One day they came to his Capitol office with good news and bad news: They had enough Democrats, but only if the veto didn’t cover redistricting and local bills.

Hunt wasn’t happy, but he agreed to the compromise. Veto passed the legislature and was approved in a statewide referendum in 1996. The same year, Hunt was reelected to his fourth and final term.

Almost 20 years earlier, in 1977, his first year as Governor, Hunt got gubernatorial succession through.

Most every Governor had supported succession. But Hunt thought they had all made a mistake by saying, in effect, “Do it for the state, for future governors, but not for me.”

That sounded noble. But it never worked.

Hunt figured that if succession applied to him, people in the deep and broad statewide organization that he had built in his 1976 campaign would have a reason to work hard for the issue. After all, they’d have a friend in the Governor’s Office for four more years.

Succession required a constitutional amendment, and there was tough opposition. Lt. Governor Jimmy Green, a conservative Democrat who wanted to run for Governor in 1980, opposed it. Senator Sam Ervin spoke out against it. But Hunt got it through the legislature.

During the referendum campaign that fall, Senator Jesse Helms’ political organization, the Congressional Club, ran ads against succession. But the amendment passed narrowly.

Succession and veto made the Governor a stronger executive and a much-needed check on the legislature.

Just not on redistricting.

Democrats Debate: Revolution or Restoration

The Democratic presidential race is ultimately a debate about whether to promise America a revolution or a restoration.

For much of 2019, revolution seemed to be winning. But then, in late November, a Quinnipiac University poll showed Elizabeth Warren losing half her support in just one month and Joe Biden retaking the lead.

Restoration now seems ascendant.

In October, Quinnipiac’s nationwide poll showed Warren leading with 28 percent, Biden at 21, Bernie Sanders 15 and Pete Buttigieg 10. In the November poll, Warren dropped 14 points. It was Biden 24, Buttigieg 16, Warren 14 and Sanders 13.

Warren’s drop was attributed to questions about and criticism of her Medicare For All plan, including how to pay for it and how people would react to losing their current insurance.

Biden and Warren

But there may be more to it.

Warren got the tough scrutiny at precisely the same time Democrats were watching the Trump impeachment hearings. The hearings reinforced their fear and loathing of Trump. They were reminded that, above all, they don’t want him reelected.

They might then have said: “Do we risk Trump winning if we nominate somebody who’s proposing big government programs?”

They might also have said: “Since Trump wanted Ukraine to investigate Biden, maybe he’s scared of Biden and Biden is our best bet to win.”

Look at the poll another way. Combine the numbers for the two “revolution” candidates: Warren, whose slogan is “Dream Big. Fight Hard,” and Sanders, who calls for a “Political Revolution.” Then combine the numbers for the two “restoration” candidates: Biden and Buttigieg, who propose more incremental change and promise a return to civility, normalcy and even bipartisanship.

In October, “revolution” led 43-31. In November, “restoration” led 40-27. That’s a 25-point swing.

The November poll showed how much electability matters: 35 percent of voters said it’s their top consideration. Tied for second, with 19 percent each, were “honesty” and “cares about people like you.”

Almost half the voters, 46 percent, said Biden is the candidate “who has the best chance of winning against Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election.” Ten percent each said Warren and Sanders, and six percent said Buttigieg.

Still, even Biden’s supporters feel shaky about his sometimes-shaky performances in debates and campaign events.

If Biden falters, does Buttigieg inherit the Restoration mantle? Or is there an opening for, say, Amy Klobuchar, Cory Booker or Michael Bloomberg?

Bloomberg’s $30 million-a-week TV blitz aims right at Medicare For All. He says he’d see that “everyone without health insurance can get it, and everyone who likes theirs can keep it.”

The Revolution/Restoration debate is fueled by ideological and generational tensions among Democrats. Liberals like big promises: Medicare For All, a wealth tax, free college tuition and Green New Deal. Moderates don’t argue with big goals but are more cautious about how to reach them.

Millennials and Generation Z voters are more willing than Baby Boomers and Silent Generation voters to embrace big changes. Younger voters are more economically stressed and more concerned about the coming climate catastrophe.

The Democrats’ debate over “Dream Big” or “Just Win” is far from resolved. But, for now, Just Win is winning.