Gov. Bev Perdue of North Carolina won’t have that title much longer, but she is making the most of her last few days in office. To end 2012, Perdue issued a full pardon of innocence for the Wilmington 10, nine black men and one white woman accused of firebombing a white-owned grocery store in Wilmington, N.C., in 1971, a time of racial unrest in the region.
“The legitimacy of our criminal justice system hinges on it operating in a fair and equitable manner with justice being dispensed based on innocence or guilt – not based on race or other forms of prejudice,” Perdue said in a statement. “That did not happen here. Instead, these convictions were tainted by naked racism and represent an ugly stain on North Carolina’s criminal justice system that cannot be allowed to stand any longer.”
Though the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the convictions in 1980, citing prosecutorial misconduct and denials of due process, no governor in the intervening years had stepped in to issue the pardon. “We are tremendously grateful to Gov. Perdue for her courage,” said Benjamin Chavis, the former national NAACP executive director who was among the Wilmington 10 and was imprisoned for about five years before his release. Six of the 10 accused survive. Chavis told the Associated Press, “This is a historic day for North Carolina and the United States.”
Perdue, a Democrat, made history when she was elected North Carolina’s first female governor in the Obama 2008 wave. But she saw her popularity drop and Republicans gain control of the state legislature in the 2010 mid-term elections. She decided in early 2012 not to run for a second term, and former Charlotte mayor Pat McCrory, the Republican opponent Perdue narrowly defeated in 2008, handily defeated Democrat Walter Dalton in November to win the governorship. President Obama also lost North Carolina in November, a state he won by 14,000 votes in 2008.
While Democrats celebrated a national win in this election cycle, including a strengthened Senate majority and pickups in the GOP-controlled House, North Carolina trended from purple to red, with Perdue’s one term being emblematic of the shift. She was described by MSNBC hosts as a “thin blue line” against the conservative trend for her governorship during an embattled four years.
In 2011, she vetoed a bill that would require voters to present a government-issued photo ID, saying it would “unnecessarily and unfairly disenfranchise many eligible and legitimate voters.” The legislature failed to override that decision but was able to garner enough votes to override her veto of a restrictive abortion bill requiring women to undergo an ultrasound and a 24-hour waiting period, during which they would be given information on risks and alternatives to terminating pregnancy.
Perdue spoke out against a measure to amend the state constitution to define marriage between one man and one woman as the only domestic legal union recognized in the state, which nonetheless went on to pass the legislature overwhelmingly.
At the Charlotte-Mecklenburg 2012 Women’s Summit, she said, “Women have to be very vigilant, and demand the very best in public schools, health care and pay, those things that men and women of this state value are at risk.” She criticized state budget cuts to education and said of her decision not to run that “the words that I say against the decisions made, against the investments cut, the diminishing of resources at all levels of education are much more powerful as a non-candidate.”
Now Gov.-elect McCrory will guide a strengthened GOP majority, after he is sworn in during a private ceremony Jan. 5 and has a public inauguration on Jan. 12 at the state Capitol in Raleigh.
McCrory has already drawn criticism from Democrats, liberal groups and campaign finance watchdogs with his selection of Art Pope as his top budget writer. The multimillionaire owner of a discount retail chain was the subject of a lengthy 2011 New Yorker profile that detailed his political organizations’ funding of candidates who support his limited-government positions. Though Pope, a power broker seen as North Carolina’s answer to the Koch brothers, said he would take a leave from his business, family foundation and public and nonprofit boards, many Republicans in the state legislature benefited from generous campaign contributions.
Progress NC, an organization that says it is proud of a “legacy as a southern state capable of adapting to change and embracing new opportunities” said it tied its year-end donor appeals to efforts to hold the right wing accountable in 2013. The group’s petition (with more than 7,500 signatures) is fighting the naming of a federal building in Raleigh after the late U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms because of his racially and socially divisive rhetoric and policies.
Will Helms’s rehabilitation and the conservative stands of the statehouse majority stick? Or will North Carolina progressives make a dent in the politics of a Southern state that has taken a right turn despite a reputation for forward motion? Changing demographics and an influx of newcomers point to a more diverse North Carolina, politically closer to Virginia than its next-door neighbor, conservative South Carolina.
But as Gov. Bev Perdue makes way for Republican control in Raleigh, it’s clear that her blue line was thinner than many thought — for now, anyway.
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3