9 Local Political Scientists: “Our Entire Democracy Is Now At Risk.”

June 2, 2021: Talking to you, Joe Manchin + Cooper reminds the General Assembly that he exists + how Durham and Raleigh approach development + the big money behind the NHJ debacle


1. 100 Democracy Scholars: Ditch the Filibuster, Save the Country

Yesterday, 100 of the country’s most eminent scholars of democracy—included seven from Duke and two from UNC-Chapel Hill—signed a “Statement of Concern” imploring Congress to protect elections from the Republican legislatures bent on suppressing the vote.

We, the undersigned, are scholars of democracy who have watched the recent deterioration of U.S. elections and liberal democracy with growing alarm. Specifically, we have watched with deep concern as Republican-led state legislatures across the country have in recent months proposed or implemented what we consider radical changes to core electoral procedures in response to unproven and intentionally destructive allegations of a stolen election. Collectively, these initiatives are transforming several states into political systems that no longer meet the minimum conditions for free and fair elections. Hence, our entire democracy is now at risk. …

Statutory changes in large key electoral battleground states are dangerously politicizing the process of electoral administration, with Republican-controlled legislatures giving themselves the power to override electoral outcomes on unproven allegations should Democrats win more votes. They are seeking to restrict access to the ballot, the most basic principle underlying the right of all adult American citizens to participate in our democracy. They are also putting in place criminal sentences and fines meant to intimidate and scare away poll workers and nonpartisan administrators. State legislatures have advanced initiatives that curtail voting methods now preferred by Democratic-leaning constituencies, such as early voting and mail voting. Republican lawmakers have openly talked about ensuring the “purity” and “quality” of the vote, echoing arguments widely used across the Jim Crow South as reasons for restricting the Black vote.

What’s needed, they write, are federal laws to curb state actions. The John Lewis Voting Rights Act would be a start but is not sufficient.

True electoral integrity demands a comprehensive set of national standards that ensure the sanctity and independence of election administration, guarantee that all voters can freely exercise their right to vote, prevent partisan gerrymandering from giving dominant parties in the states an unfair advantage in the process of drawing congressional districts, and regulate ethics and money in politics.

While it would be preferable for election reforms to be bipartisan, they write, Republicans are unlikely to play ball.

Elected Republican leaders have had numerous opportunities to repudiate Trump and his “Stop the Steal” crusade, which led to the violent attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6. Each time, they have sidestepped the truth and enabled the lie to spread.

The only choice, then, is to suspend the filibuster and do what is necessary “to pass national voting and election administration standards that both guarantee the vote to all Americans equally, and prevent state legislatures from manipulating the rules in order to manufacture the result they want.”

Our democracy is fundamentally at stake. History will judge what we do at this moment.

  • From Duke, the signers are: John Aldrich, Joel L. Fleishman, Kristin Goss, Bruce W. Jentleson, Dirk Philipsen, Deondra Rose, and David Schanzer.

  • From UNC: Frank R. Baumgartner and Virginia Gray (professor emeritus).

So far this year, 14 states have passed 22 laws curtailing the right to vote. More restrictions are likely on the way.

  • Texas Democrats temporarily thwarted a GOP voter suppression bill by walking out on Sunday night, depriving Republicans of a quorum before the session expired.

  • “Portions of the bill were specifically written to target voting initiatives Harris County used in the last election—such as a day of 24-hour early voting, drive-thru voting, and an effort to proactively distribute applications to vote by mail—that were heavily used by voters of color. But under SB 7, those options will be banned across the state.”

  • State Rep. Colin Allred: “Every American needs to be watching what’s happening in Texas right now. And we have to have a federal response to this because this has gone way too far. This isn’t legislation. This is discrimination.”

The federal response is stalled in the Senate, where Republicans can filibuster legislation to prevent voter suppression in Republican-run states, just as they filibustered a commission to investigate the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection.

  • At least two Democratic senators, Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, have refused to budge on their support for the filibuster regardless of the consequences.

  • Their refusal—ostensibly to protect America’s institutions—is imperiling the institutions they claim to protect.

As Tom Nichols writes in The Atlantic:

Today’s Republicans exist only to stay in power, not least so that their elected officials can avoid what they dread most: being sent home to live among their constituents. The conservative writer George Will is right that the Republican Party in 2021 has become “something new in American history,” a “political party defined by the terror it feels for its own voters.”

Republican legislators should be scared. Their base is an angry white minority that cares nothing about government; its members want their elected officials to rule by hook or by crook, the Constitution and democracy itself be damned, and they don’t want any guff about namby-pamby ideas or policies. They want the elections controlled, the institutions captured, and the libs owned. The rest, to them, is just noise.

Speaking at an event to mark the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa massacre, President Biden said VP Kamala Harris will “lead the administration’s work to protect voting rights and assailed the Republican-led efforts to restrict voting rights in states across the country.”

  • I’m not sure what that entails.

  • Biden also rolled out plans to shrink the wealth gap: funneling money into Black-owned businesses and enforcing the Fair Housing Act, among others.

  • He did not say anything about wiping out student debt, which made the NAACP unhappy.

Meanwhile, the former president remains delusional.

RELATED: Remember when a bunch of Georgia companies condemned the state’s legislature for passing a voter suppression law? The brave cancel culture warriors in Surry County, North Carolina, have struck back.

Per the Carolina Journal:

Surry County commissioners are pushing back against major corporations for what they describe as a “bigoted, left-wing divisive political agenda.”

The first step: Removing all Coca-Cola machines from government buildings. The Board of County Commissioners voted to remove roughly 12 of them from county property earlier this month.

“I don’t think that the taxpayers and citizens of this county want us to spend their money on anything that is associated with the social justice, woke, Critical Race Theory, intolerant, bigoted, Democrat mob that is so prevalent in our country today,” said commissioner Eddie Harris shortly before the vote. “It’s 12 drink machines. But you know what, it will send a little bitty message that we’re not going to take it here in Surry County, and you can take your Coke machines and take them back to the house.” 

I’m sure the C-suite at Coca-Cola is terrified, Eddie.

The board also plans to consider a measure that would prevent Surry County tax dollars from going to companies that participate in “cultural re-education” training policies or other left-wing partisan political activity. Companies would need to disclose any such affiliations before receiving money. 

So—if I’m reading this right—the board plans to deny contracts to any company that engages in equity training. That might not send the message they want it to.

  • Or, come to think of it, perhaps it sends precisely the message they want it to.

2. Cooper to NCGA: I Exist

The state budget is (as per usual, lately) behind schedule, with Republicans in the state House and Senate unable to agree among themselves—let alone Governor Cooper—on even the topline number, let alone the details, with the new fiscal year now less than a month away.

He also revealed their negotiating positions:

  • The House: $26.4 billion.

  • The Senate: $25.5 billion.

  • Cooper: $26.6 billion.

  • The House has since come down to $26 billion.

  • “I want to remind both chambers that [my recommended] budget was $26.6 billion, and that this is a three-way street in order to be able to get a budget.”

From WRAL:

If the state doesn't hit that target, the current budget simply stays in place, avoiding any sort of a government shutdown. New building projects, employee raises and other increases in spending—including school funding tied to any expected change in the number of students—depends on new budgeting, though, raising the prospect that lawmakers will again turn to “mini budgets” to fund priorities they can agree on and leave the rest for later.

3. How Durham and Raleigh Approach Development

Yesterday afternoon, Raleigh’s city council eliminated parking minimums for new developments and moved closer to adding missing middle housing to the unified development ordinance, two goals of the smart-density crowd.

In the night session, the council took up a more contentious matter: the East End Market, a proposed 350,000 square-foot mixed-use development near Five Points that will eventually have bars, restaurants, office and medical space, and 500 condos/apartments.

  • The planning commission recommended rejecting the development, finding it inconsistent with the comp plan and the future use land map.

  • The city’s staff, however, thought it was consistent with the comp plan (the future land use map isn’t that big a deal).

  • Residents in Five Points worried about the usual stuff—traffic, tall buildings overshadowing existing homes and businesses, etc.—that might have bothered that last city council, but haven’t given the current one much pause.

  • Throughout most of the development, the height is limited to seven stories. On the southern corner, however, plans call for 11 stories, down from the original 15.

  • The developer also added some concessions regarding rooftop vegetation, “pervious pavers,” and lighting for the parking structures.

Last night, the council—minus Mayor Baldwin, who bowed out of the discussion—asked the developer to formally introduce its new concessions to the neighbors and return in two weeks.

  • I get where the Five Point residents are coming from, and while I’m not terribly bothered by the project itself, some accommodations might be worthwhile.

I think it’s useful to look at how Durham approaches potentially problematic developments, however. Raleigh, being much bigger and more expensive, obviously has more complications.

  • But Durham and Raleigh are both targets for luxury developers, and both have similar goals: density that makes mass transit feasible and moves away from antiquated, racist ideas of single-family-only housing.

With that said, let’s look at The Vega, a six-story condo development planned to go next door to Durham Central Park and the skate park.

The city has already extracted concessions, per the N&O:

If the City Council grants Lambert’s request, the developer will include some upgrades to the skate park and Durham Central Park.

The skate park would get a concrete and brick seating area, similar to bleachers, with some extra trees for shade.

An American Disabilities Act-compliant sidewalk would border the skate park and connect Hunt Street to the looping pathway on the park’s grassy slope.

On the western side of the Vega building, another ADA-compliant sidewalk would bring Hunt Street to the park’s pathway, with additional shrubs or trees planted along the property’s edge.

But the developer needs construction and fire safety easements to build the building. Not much, but enough to give the city leverage. Right now, the developer, Lambert, has offered $57,000 toward the city’s affordable housing fund. Mayor Steve Schewel said that if they want the easements, $285,000 sounds like a more reasonable number.

  • If the city doesn’t grant the easement, the developer will make the building smaller. But they won’t have to make the improvements to DCP or the skate park, either.

  • Chances are, though, a few feet of easement—seriously, it’s like eight feet—will score the city 200K for affordable housing. That’s better than nothing. Which is what Raleigh got in terms of affordable housing for a $30 million project in Five Points.

  • Worst case, the (probably) ugly condo development abutting DCP will be smaller.

The biggest issue in Durham isn’t going away:

  • Rich yuppies—these things will start at $400,000—are moving into an urban space and will probably call the cops or complain to the city council about kids playing drums or making noise after dark.

  • There are more rich-folks developments going in nearby; enough of them, and you’ve got a constituency that will only tolerate so much “urban” in its urban living.

4. Read Me: The Big Money Behind the Nikole Hannah-Jones Debacle

Writing for The Assembly, former N&O executive editor John Drescher dropped the scoop of the weekend on Sunday, revealing how Walter Hussman Jr.—the namesake of UNC-Chapel Hill’s j-school—how worked behind the scenes to quash to Nikole Hannah Jones’s appointment to the faculty. Hussman, who is white and old school and sanctimoniously in love with his own version of white, old-school journalism, does not think much of Hannah-Jones and the “agenda” she is pushing.

Last summer, Hussman learned of the university’s interest in hiring Nikole Hannah-Jones, a Pulitzer Prize-winning essayist, former News & Observer reporter, and current New York Times reporter, best known for her work on the 1619 Project. 

Earlier this month, NC Policy Watch broke the news that Hannah-Jones, who is Black, had not been offered tenure by UNC-CH as part of her hiring as the prestigious Knight Chair in Race and Investigative Journalism. Previous Knight Chairs, who also did not have doctoral degrees, were offered tenure at Carolina. The report quickly became national news, in part as a proxy war around questions of systemic racism and cancel culture.

Hannah-Jones has been widely supported at UNC and across academia since the news went public. But long before the debate entered the public arena, opposition to her appointment had been quietly growing, led in part by Hussman himself.

Hussman had doubts about whether having her on the faculty would distract from teaching the school’s core values, according to emails and four university sources who spoke on the condition of anonymity. 

He relayed his concerns to the university’s top leaders, including at least one member of the UNC-CH Board of Trustees. The Assembly obtained copies of emails in which Hussman expressed his concerns about Hannah-Jones to David Routh, vice chancellor for university development; Susan King, the dean of the Hussman School of Journalism and Media; and chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz.

“I worry about the controversy of tying the UNC journalism school to the 1619 project,” Hussman wrote in a late December email to King, copying in Guskiewicz and Routh. “I find myself more in agreement with Pulitzer prize winning historians like James McPherson and Gordon Wood than I do Nikole Hannah-Jones. 

“These historians appear to me to be pushing to find the true historical facts. Based on her own words, many will conclude she is trying to push an agenda, and they will assume she is manipulating historical facts to support it. If asked about it, I will have to be honest in saying I agree with the historians.” 

While some historians have criticized Hannah-Jones’ essay that introduced the 1619 Project, other historians have supported it. The Society of American Historians inducted Hannah-Jones as a fellow following the project’s publication by the New York Times

Hussman said he feared King and the school would get embroiled in an all-consuming controversy.

“My hope and vision was that the journalism school would be the champion of objective, impartial reporting and separating news and opinion, and that would add so much to its reputation and would benefit both the school and the University,” he wrote. “Instead, I fear this possible and needless controversy will overshadow it.”

In a September email, Hussman, who is white, took issue with a section of Hannah-Jones’ 1619 essay on the country’s post-World War II struggle for civil rights, in which she wrote, “For the most part, black Americans fought back alone.” 

Hussman wrote: “I think this claim denigrates the courageous efforts of many white Americans to address the sin of slavery and the racial injustices that resulted after the Civil War.” He listed white Freedom Riders and other whites who had fought for equality, including journalists across the South. The email was sent to Routh and copied to Guskiewicz and King.

“Long before Nikole Hannah Jones won her Pulitzer Prize,” Hussman wrote, “courageous white southerners risking their lives standing up for the rights of blacks were winning Pulitzer prizes, too.”

Wait, what?

Read the whole thing here.

If you read my Durham story at The Assembly earlier this month, you’ll need a subscription. But you should really get one. Few outlets in this state are putting out journalism at this level—because few outlets are paying for it. Keep the good ones in business.

RELATED: My column this week discusses the Hannah-Jones saga and other ways the First Amendment is losing to authoritarianism.

This hasn’t been a great month for the First Amendment. It hasn’t been a great year or decade either, to be honest.

As authoritarianism swept the Republican Party, its leaders turned the stale “liberal media” complaint into a frontal assault on reality. Meanwhile, as newspapers’ revenues collapsed, once-mighty journalism operations became shells of their former selves, unable to pierce the feedback loops of right-wing propaganda networks.

The evidence of the intellectual and civic rot is abundant. More than half of Republicans say Donald Trump is still president, a quarter think the Q-Anon conspiracy is legit, and 28% believe “true American patriots may have to resort to violence” to save the country.