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Parties must confront extreme members

Colin Campbell

Colin Campbell

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Tuesday, February 19, 2019

There's one in every family: The embarrassing relative who spouts off conspiracy theories or racist opinions at Thanksgiving.

If that relative was in your circle of friends, you'd make sure they didn't get invited ever again. But because they're family, you're stuck putting up with the crazy.

North Carolina's political parties apparently feel the same way about their most extreme elected officials. No matter how outlandish and offensive their statements and actions, party leaders are reluctant to call them out. And no one dares to seek their resignation or boot them out of the party organizations.

The latest example is Charlotte City Councilwoman LaWana Mayfield. The Democrat made headlines last year for posting a conspiracy theory about the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in which she questioned whether the fall of the Twin Towers was really caused by hijacked planes. She also tweeted that police officers are "homegrown terrorist (sic) wearing blue uniforms."

Surely, Democratic Party leaders would respond by insisting Mayfield quit the governing body of North Carolina's largest city? And they'd issue strong statements pointing out that her views aren't representative of party values?

Nope. The outcry was relatively muted, and a few months later, Gov. Roy Cooper appointed Mayfield to the state's Human Relations Commission, a board that deals with fair housing, employment practices and other equality issues.

Cooper reversed the decision a month later following criticism from state Senate Republicans and the Charlotte Observer editorial board. It's unclear whether he personally approved Mayfield's appointment, or if the task of filling state commissions fell to governor's office staffers who forgot to Google the appointees first. Mayfield still serves on the Charlotte City Council with no prominent calls to step down.

Republicans have a similar problem in the N.C. House with several extreme legislators who often generate headlines. Rep. Larry Pittman, R-Cabarrus, is perhaps best known for a 2017 Facebook post in which he argued that President Abraham Lincoln was a "tyrant" similar to Germany's Adolf Hitler. Last year, he suggested that school shootings were the work of "communist Democrats" seeking to drum up support for gun control.

Pittman works closely in the House with Rep. Michael Speciale, R-Craven, who in 2015 shared a Facebook post calling President Barack Obama an "Islamic son of a bitch." None of these incidents prompted House leaders to seek a resignation from Pittman or Speciale, or to remove them from the GOP caucus.

Both were re-elected last year (likely by straight-ticket voters who didn't closely research House candidates), and House Speaker Tim Moore gave them coveted committee chairmanships.

They've already sponsored an early contender for the most extreme, offensive bill of the new legislative session. House Bill 65 seeks to "declare null and void" the U.S. Supreme Court's decision allowing same-sex marriage. Apparently they think state legislatures should be able to overturn federal constitutional law.

And while plenty of people still hold religious views opposing gay marriage, HB 65 goes out of its way to insult the LGBT community, calling same-sex marriages "parody marriages." The bill argues that the government can't recognize same-sex marriages because doing so endorses the "religion" of "secular humanism."

That makes no sense, and the bill likely won't ever get a hearing. But House Republicans don't have the guts to speak out against it either.

Every time a politician like Mayfield, Pittman or Speciale does or says something outlandish, the opposing political party gets a free advertisement. Republicans can argue Mayfield represents the Democratic Party, and Democrats can argue Pittman and Speciale represent the GOP.

And when reasonable voters of either party see extremists going unchallenged in positions of power, they lose faith in politics and in their government. It's long overdue for party leaders to take on the bad actors in their own ranks with the same fervor they use against their political opponents.

Colin Campbell is editor of the Insider State Government News Service. Follow him at NCInsider.com or @RaleighReporter. Write to him at ccampbell@ncinsider.com.

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