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Democrats are rejecting moderates in state politics

Colin Campbell

Colin Campbell is editor of the Insider State Government News Service.

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Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Not that long ago, North Carolina Democrats had the "big tent" party — an eclectic group that shared common values but disagreed on many individual issues.

Moderate — sometimes even conservative — rural Democrats in the legislature worked alongside big city liberals. The moderates occasionally voted with Republicans, particularly on social or religious issues, and most of their colleagues didn't hold it against them.

Not anymore. Only a few of the moderate rural Democrats are left in state politics, and they're finding targets on their backs — not from Republicans looking to take their seats, but from their own party.

The latest victim is Sen. Don Davis, an Air Force veteran and former small-town mayor who represents Greene and Pitt counties. He's under fire for voting to override Gov. Roy Cooper's veto of a largely inconsequential abortion bill designed to stir up an emotional issue.

Davis' views on abortion are likely shared by many in his district, but many Democrats now want him thrown out of office. Lillian's List and Planned Parenthood immediately announced plans to recruit a primary opponent to challenge him in 2020, and a liberal dark money group launched a website labeling him a "disloyal Democrat" and pledging to "ensure accountability for Democrats who fail to stand strong with Governor Cooper and their party."

The website only lists Davis for now, but the threat is clear for the other African-American rural Democrats in the House who'd also supported the abortion bill: Get in line, or we're coming after you.

It sounds a lot like the purity tests and personal allegiances that President Donald Trump requires of Republican politicians in Washington. You'd think the N.C. Democratic Party would be above such tactics, but the partisan operatives in Raleigh have vindictive tendencies that sometimes cloud their better judgment.

Replacing Davis with someone more liberal might seem appealing to people who have never visited Greene County. But his opponents don't realize that ousting him in the primary would likely mean a Republican wins his seat in November.

Democrats also made a tactical mistake last week when they fired the well-respected director of the State Board of Elections, Kim Strach. She'd just finished an impressive investigation of absentee ballot fraud that ultimately brought down a Republican candidate for Congress, but that wasn't good enough for Democrats who control the elections board.

They wanted someone from their own party in the role. And while the elections board chairman sounded almost apologetic about the move and praised Strach at length, N.C. Democratic Party chairman Wayne Goodwin attacked her for the sin of being married to an attorney who happens to represent Republican lawmakers.

Democrats argued her marriage is a conflict of interest, but none could point to any examples where it tainted her work. That's inherently sexist and just another example where the partisan "purity test" leads to questionable decisions.

There was no political advantage to replacing Strach. After a hard-fought legal battle, Democrats now have a majority of seats on the elections board, allowing them to control early voting schedules and make key decisions on campaign finance probes and disputed election results.

Keeping Strach, who was appointed by Republicans, in charge of agency operations would have given the board's actions more nonpartisan legitimacy. Firing her gives the GOP ammunition to attack any elections board decision that goes against Republicans.

That erodes trust in our democracy. The next time North Carolina has a close election like the 9th Congressional district, the losing party won't admit defeat after the elections board investigation — likely resulting in years of lawsuits.

It's Gov. Cooper's responsibility to restore Democrats' "big tent" approach. He needs to make it clear that independent-minded, successful leaders like Don Davis and Kim Strach are welcome in state government.

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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