When President Obama visits North Carolina in a planned stop in the Research Triangle on Wednesday, it won’t be the first time a trip to the state coincided with his State of the Union address. Last year, a visit to the Asheville area followed the event; Wednesday, the president is expected to preview economic policy at N.C. State University in Raleigh before his Jan. 28 speech. Are there politics involved? The answer, as always, would be yes.
Obama is no stranger to the state that favored him in 2008, went for his opponent Mitt Romney in 2012 — despite a Democratic National Convention set in Charlotte – and is now embroiled in disagreements over conservative legislation passed by a Republican-controlled general assembly last year. This time he will be touching down while several political debates are in progress, many with direct lines to Washington.
There’s the matter of extending federal unemployment benefits and what that would mean in North Carolina, which already had cut the amount and duration of state benefits. U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) – who faces a tough re-election race this year and is already the subject of a barrage of negative ads by conservative groups, emphasizing ties to the Affordable Care Act – has supported legislation that would reinstate North Carolina’s eligibility for unemployment benefits.
While the president was pleased to finally get Senate approval for Mel Watt to head the Federal Housing Finance Agency, it left the North Carolina constituents in the former congressman’s 12th district without representation. GOP Gov. Pat McCrory’s decision not to hold a special election means Watt’s replacement won’t be chosen until November. McCrory’s office released a statement that said “it was determined the most efficient process would be to roll the special election into the already established primary and general election dates.” It also cited cost as a factor: “A stand-alone primary, runoff primary and general election would cost taxpayers in excess of $1 million, according to the State Board of Elections.”
Rep. Mike McIntyre, a Democratic House member from North Carolina who won his last race by a slim margin, has announced he will not run again, giving Republicans an almost certain chance to win his 7th district seat in November.
Some have speculated that Watt’s heavily Democratic majority-minority district is not a priority for state Republican leaders. On Friday, the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, president of the North Carolina NAACP state conference, said in a statement, “While the Congress debates the Farm Bill, budget issues, immigration reform, historic national security issues, and the future of Section 4 and 5 of the Voting Rights Act itself, the 12th District – comprised of citizens of North Carolina from all walks of life: black, Latino, white, poor and rich; hard-working Democrats, Republicans, and Independents – will be without a voice.”
A diverse coalition of groups and North Carolina citizens made up Moral Mondays, as participants called weeks of Raleigh protests during the legislature’s last session. Led by Barber and the state NAACP – with one planned for Feb. 8 in Raleigh — the gatherings were quickly joined by many who objected to a long list of conservative laws being passed, with voting restrictions at the top of the list.
On Thursday, Barber and senior attorney Denise Lieberman from the Advancement Project, a national civil rights group fighting the state’s voting law on behalf of Barber’s group, discussed amendments to their legal challenge to the lengthy bill, passed by the legislature in its last session. Besides requiring strict photo ID, it shortens early voting by a week, eliminates same-day voter registration, Sunday voting and straight-ticket voting, prohibits university students from using their college IDs and increases the number of poll watchers who can challenge a voter’s eligibility, among other provisions.
In a phone conversation with reporters, Barber and Lieberman said the amended suit additionally challenges the provision of the law that eliminates the pre-registration of 16- and 17-year-olds and makes explicit that the law has a disparate impact on Latinos as well as African Americans.
“It’s strange to us that this governor and this legislature would want to dampen the hopes and the dreams and the participation of young people,” Barber said.
The law would have a “devastating” effect on the state’s Latino voters, “an increasingly growing and vibrant part of the state’s electorate,” Lieberman said.
Obama will be visiting as the U.S. Justice Department, led by his appointee Attorney General Eric Holder, is also challenging North Carolina’s voting law in court. “I am not going to be the attorney general who allowed the unraveling of the progress we’ve made under the 1965 Voting Rights Act—that is not going to happen,” Holder said in a recent interview.
McCrory and the president could share stories of how bureaucratic bungles have tarnished their administrations. Obama has the Affordable Care Act roll-out and criticism of his Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius’s role in its implementation.
McCrory has supported his Health and Human Services Secretary, Aldona Wos. Many Democratic lawmakers have called for her resignation after a series of missteps in her department, which recently mailed the personal information of nearly tens of thousands of children receiving Medicaid to the wrong addresses.
Because of delays in handing out food benefits, North Carolina is in danger of losing federal administrative funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. A December letter from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services warned the state “to fix these system issues as quickly as possible and deliver benefits to eligible clients in a timely fashion.”
As in the case of the health-care reform problems, computer software problems shared the blame.
Politics may be unpredictable in North Carolina, but the confusion isn’t stopping both parties from paying close attention to the ever-changing battleground state. There is the upcoming presidential visit and — following Democrats’ lead — Charlotte has been included on the list of cities invited to bid to host the 2016 Republican National Convention.