By Joe Klein
September 21, 2014

Raleigh, North Carolina

I love North Carolina. In my mind, the state will always be associated with my friend, the cartoonist and author Doug Marlette, who lived in Hillsborough and dragooned me into rooting for the Tar Heels basketball team. He died in a car crash–driven into a loblolly pine by a UMiss student, a classic southern way to go–a few years ago. Doug was a stone iconoclast, in the driest and most insidious way possible. I miss him every day and especially yesterday. What would Doug have made of this scene:

About 200 people had gathered to talk politics in the auditorium at the Galloway Ridge retirement community. I’ve watched politicians work rooms like this for 45 years, and I’d always seen the seniors as another country, a place I was visiting briefly and wanted to get away from as quickly as possible, with their walkers and oxygen machines and rambly minds. But I’m now age eligible to live in Galloway Ridge, if a bit on the young side–most of the audience had about ten years on me. And I realized this was the first time I’d covered a senior citizen meeting as a senior citizen. (Doug would have had something to say about that.) And there was another thing I had in common with the crowd. None of them were North Carolinians either.

I asked them how many had been born in North Carolina…about a dozen raised their hands. I asked how many were from New York? About 50. Most of the rest were from elsewhere in the north or from nearby states, lured by the pleasant conditions, sophistication–there are more retired PhDs in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area than any other place in the country, according to John Drescher, editor of the Raleigh News and Observer–and history of political and cultural moderation. (Doug might have drawn a cartoon of competing grits and bagel vendors.)

Folks like those I met at Galloway Ridge–snowbirds, they’re called down here–were one historic source of the moderation, but so was a brilliant strain of moderate politicians, mostly Democrats, who placed their bets on education. This has been true for fifty years, since governors like Terry Sanford and Jim Hunt ran things; both men were nationally recognized education experts. They believed that if you built a world-class educational system, especially at the university level, prosperity would follow. They were right–although, as in most other places, elementary and high schools never quite made the grade.

Kay Hagan, the incumbent Democratic Senator, calls education a “sacred priority” in the state, one that was trashed by a new breed of extreme Republicans when they took over the state legislature in 2010. And the first half dozen questions at Calloway Ridge were about education. “I feel we’re going backwards,” said Joan Lipshitz. “In just a few years, the Republicans have trashed 50 years of progress.”

Others agreed. “This used to be the vanguard of enlightened southern politics,” said Mike Zbailey. “That’s why we moved here. Now it’s in danger of becoming Alabama.” (Hey Alabama: I await your response. I’ll be there next week.)

But a real challenge came from a fellow named Tom Houk–hope I’ve spelled that right–who said that school system was busted. “Only 14% of African-American students pass their year-end tests; only 15% of Hispanics do. We need to provide them with better schools. Charter Schools.”

No one questioned the gentleman’s numbers, and I hope Tessa Berenson–this year’s trip wrangler, as Katy Steinmetz has gone on to writing cover stories and being an all-around terrific journalist for Time–will check them out. But Joan Lipsitz fired back that the schools needed more money to succeed. The Republicans were cutting budgets, skimping on teacher pay. “We need to support public education,” she said. (Charter schools are public schools, although some are run by profit-making ventures.)

There is where the conversation usually ends. Liberals want to spend more money. Conservatives want to see more accountability. (As a flaming moderate, I favor both.) And I tried to nudge the conversation forward, without much luck, asking this mostly liberal audience if they could see the point of more accountability. They weren’t giving much ground.

Earlier yesterday, I visited the Raleigh News and Observer, and one of the of the smart young reporters–an endangered species–raised the same question as Joan Lipsitz, “Are we going backwards?” Again, she was referring to the Republican legislature and education spending. But it was larger than that.

It’s a big question, a national question, one I’ll explore over the next few weeks on the road. In North Carolina, it’s the biggest question this year. Indeed, the Democrat Kay Hagan’s omnipresent radio ads focus on Republican Thom Tillis’s record on education spending in the state legislature–of course, it’s better for her to focus on North Carolina, rather than Washington, where the President whose name dare not be mentioned is still in charge.

I wonder what “going backwards” really means. It runs crosswise to the American spirit. Progress is our most important product. But is progress always more? Might it sometimes mean different, more effective, more efficient? Democrats are the conservatives on this issue: they don’t want to change the inspired obsession of Hunt and Sanford. Republicans are both progressive and reactionary–some legitimately believe that the old assembly-line system of public education needs to be customized for the information age and a competitive system of charter schools is the way to do it. Others just don’t want to spend the money (especially on black kids).

Tomorrow I’ll take a closer look at the Republican candidates in North Carolina.

And I’d like to thank Dr. Richard Merwarth for setting up the meeting at Galloway Ridge, one of the largest groups I’ve met with on these road trips.

 

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