The American political system. Crafted by our Founding Fathers. Washington. Madison. Franklin, who famously said, when asked what the framers of the Constitution had wrought for us: “A republic. If you can keep it.” A construct so elegant, so checked and balanced, that not one single country anywhere else in the world has copied it.
What? Are we not the beacon of democracy? John Winthrop’s “City on a Hill,” with the eyes of every nation upon us? Well, yeah, they’re watching us all right–watching our aircraft carriers circle around their oilfields. But as for our electoral process, the rest of the world’s democracies use a party system, and we don’t. We use pick-up teams of men and women who can either “pay to play” out of their own pockets or, if not, can get the money to run for office from their well-heeled friends and special-interest groups.
Parties, and proportional representation, give the left-outs of capitalism–the laboring classes, that is–a chance to get in, either as an outright majority or else in a governing coalition.
Our pick-up team system, on the other hand, together with our “winner-take-all” districts, lets big-money candidates dominate while the masses watch from the sidelines.
I know, we’re not supposed to talk about “the masses.” As historian Howard Zinn says, “only Marxists do that.” Still, it was James Madison himself, the Father of the Constitution, who long before Marx came along declared that the fundamental conflict in any society is between those with property and those without it. The framers, of course, had lots of property.
With that as preamble, we’ll answer our e-mail on the following election-related subjects:
Why Don’t the Democrats Replace Jim Black?“Is our political soul for sale?” wonders Mac Whatley, president of the Progressive Democrats of N.C., along with co-writer Pete MacDowell, head of the group’s political action committee. If not, why is it that not a single elected Democrat has called for Black to step down as N.C. House Speaker? Black should resign now, they argue, and Democrats should seize the high ground on the ethics and campaign-corruption matters that brought him low. Corruption like buying an extra Democrat or two (namely, former Rep. Michael Decker, with former Rep. Steve Wood apparently also willing) from the ranks of elected Republicans so that he–Black–and his faux party could remain in power. Why, after all, would a real Democratic party give the Bush-burdened Republicans an issue to beat them about the head and shoulders with when–by the simple measure of replacing their selected leader with someone else who’s not up to his eyeballs in manure–they could be beating the Republicans with it? But while rank-and-file Democrats are clamoring for Black’s removal, clearly the big Democratic donors are not, or else you’d have heard by now from the elected ones. And I’m not talking about the video poker boys now, or even the optometrists. I’m talking about the large development interests, the highway pavers, the utility companies and the banks. If they gave the word, Black would be gone. But if the Dems lose and the Republicans win, what’s that to them? They’ve got their feet in both “parties.” So Joe Sinsheimer, longtime Democrat, had to invent www.JimBlackMustGo.com.
How can Chris Mintz, erstwhile Republican leader, be running in a Democratic primary for the N.C. House District 41 seat?So asks Dem activist Chris Telesca, among others. You might call it the “Bunkey Morgan strategy,” Chris. But again, who’s to say that Mintz, until December the president of the Wake Republican Men’s Club, isn’t just as much of a Democrat as you are? It’d be the same as saying that Bunkey, the rich Republican carwash owner who actually lived outside his district, couldn’t also be a Democrat with a second “home”–OK, address–in the district he represents. Which under our electoral system Bunkey absolutely could be, which allowed him to run for and win, in 2002, the Democratic nomination for a Chatham County Board of Commissioners seat held by actual Democrat and Commissioners Chair Gary Phillips. Bunkey thus knocked Phillips out of office and paved the way (I think that’s the right term) for the developers to take control in Chatham. Similarly, Ty Harrell, actual Democrat–with a long history of working in Democratic campaigns–started running in House District 41 a year ago. That’s Northwest Wake–the incumbent is far-right Republican Russell Capps. Mintz thought Capps wasn’t going to run again, and said he’d run for the GOP nomination if Capps didn’t. But when Capps did run, Mintz changed parties–pick-up teams, remember?–and declared for the Democratic nomination. He did so with the blessing of big-money Democrats like Smedes York, the developer and former mayor, and Roddy Jones, the developer. Do you start to see a pattern? Throw in the fact that Harrell is African American and Mintz is white (and has enough money to “lend” himself $100K for his campaign), and that it’s a predominantly white district, and bottom line, Mintz has a chance to win. That’s why actual Democrats invented www.WhoIsChrisMintz.com to try to head him off.
Why is Jessie Taliaferro fighting Charles Meeker on impact fees?Aren’t they both Democrats? This is the question my fellow WakeUp! Wake County members ask, especially if they don’t live in Raleigh. Yes, Mayor Meeker is a Democrat. So is City Councilor Taliaferro. But once more, and all together now: Not a real political party. Candidates self-selected. On development issues, sometimes hard to tell apart from Republicans. So, Democrat Meeker is overwhelmingly re-elected just five months ago, and his main issue is that Raleigh’s impact fees on new development (houses, stores, office buildings) are way too low. How much to raise them? While Meeker tries to forge consensus among the six (out of eight) supposed Democrats on the Council, Taliaferro strikes first–and she’s got two of the other Democrats with her, plus the two Republicans. Her plan: Raise fees 72 percent. Sounds good. But 72 percent more than what? By law, Raleigh could charge $3,404 per house, which is 50 percent of what it really costs to supply each new house with roads and parkland. (Park facilities aren’t covered. Nor schools–but that was last week’s topic.) But it charges just $682 per house. Adding 72 percent would raise it to $1,173, which is still less than half of the $2,593 per house that Cary gets. As for the homebuilders’ argument that higher fees discourage growth, Cary Mayor Ernie McAlister, a Republican, was just bragging the other day that Cary will bring in $14 million a year with its higher fees, while Raleigh–with three times the population–is collecting less than $5 million a year with its lower ones. Bottom line: Raleigh’s growth-related costs for new roads and parkland are $37.5 million, and even with the Taliaferro increase, the taxpayers would still be stuck with 83 percent of that, or $31.1 million. The two other Democrats, Russ Stephenson and Thomas Crowder, proposed to raise the fees gradually to Cary’s level, which is still well below the state average, and one-third the national average. They’d include breaks (“incentives”) for less-expensive and downtown housing, which the city needs, while levying the full amounts on the sprawl. That’s one reason www.WakeUpWakeCounty.com was invented (with my participation). The issue is scheduled for public hearing in Raleigh City Hall next Tuesday, April 4, 6:30 p.m.
Why do some Democrats take the developers’ side when voters support impact fees?This question is posed by Dean Debnam, president of Public Policy Polling Inc. of Raleigh. Debnam’s firm surveyed 450 likely voters statewide this month. Asked if they’d be more or less likely to vote for candidates who support impact fees, 70 percent said more likely, versus just 18 percent who said less. And by a whopping 82-6 percent margin, his respondents said they’d be less likely to back candidates “endorsed by developers and homebuilders.” The poll is available at www.publicpolicypolling.com. If you read it, you may decide the earlier questions drove the anti-developer positions just cited. Debnam’s point, though, is that if Democrats run hard on higher impact fees–that is, if they drive the same points home–they can beat a better-funded, developer-backed opponent. Which is how Stephenson got elected in Raleigh last year, not incidentally.
So how can you tell the Democrats apart? In the very few cases locally where there’s a primary for a General Assembly seat, the Conservation Council of North Carolina’s PAC writes to say that it is supporting: Ty Harrell in the District 41 Democratic primary (not Mintz); Rep. Deborah Ross, the incumbent, in the District 38 Democratic primary (not Demian Dellinger); and in Durham County’s District 29, Sandy Ogburn (not the other four candidates), in the Democratic primary. It endorsed nobody in the District 40 Republican primary between Rep. Rick Eddins and former Wake GOP Chair Marilyn Avila.
Coming soon: We don’t even have the pretend party labels anymore in the statewide judgeship races. How the #@*^ are we supposed to tell those candidates apart? Your take: email@example.com.
Correction (April 5, 2006): This column incorrectly said that Chatham County commissioner Bunkey Morgan lives in Wake County. He lives in Chatham County, but has been accused of not living in the district he represents.