Contrary To Party Doctrine, State Republicans Fiddle With Local Control

May 20, 2015

Wake County, Stanley County, the city of Greensboro and Rockingham County are just a few local governments affected by local legislation this year.
Credit North Carolina Government

Wednesday, the North Carolina Senate voted to shrink the Rockingham County School Board and redraw their districts.  

This is just the latest move by the Republican controlled General Assembly which seems to contradict a core belief of their party: Local Control is best.  

That core belief rose to national prominence in 1964. The speech was dubbed, “A Time For Choosing.” The speaker, Ronald Reagan.

"Whether we believe in our capacity for self government or whether we abandon the American Revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far distant capital can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves."

At the time Reagan was speaking about the Federal government. But over time, the idea of local rule is best expanded. Michael Bitzer is a political scientist from Cawtaba College. Now, he says, the Republican Party broadly believes "that people in local communities know what is best for them and do not need the heavy hand of either Washington or Raleigh to tell them what to do."

In 2012, Republican Pat McCrory was elected governor. His fellow Republicans already controlled both houses of the General Assembly. At first, says Bitzer, "They really focused on statewide issues. Tax reform, the voting issue." Controversial issues to some, common sense reforms to others. Either way issues that easily squared with established Republican doctrine. Bitzer thinks they were "kind of moving down their checklist." There were a smattering of bills that nibbled away at local control, think the fight over who controls Charlotte’s airport.  That’s nothing compared to this legislative session.

Proposals to make some or all school board elections partisan. A measure to allow the recall of school board members in Stanley county. Bills to shrink the number of city council members of two cities, including Greensboro, and redraw their districts. The same was done to the Wake County Commission just months after Democrats won control of the body.

Michael Bitzer believes if any or all of this was done in a single session by a Democratic General Assembly, "the hue and cry out of the Republican Party would just go through the roof."

But this edition of Raleigh knows best is brought to you by Republicans. Seemingly in contradiction to that core GOP belief. Republican Larry Shaheen laughs as he cant' help but agree. "You know you have a point. You have a very, very valid point. You’re right." Then Shaheen adds, "They’re interpreting their version of how government should be on the local municipalities that happen to disagree with them."

Which leads us to the question of why.

Let’s start with ideology. Before Republicans took control of Raleigh, Democrats had run North Carolina government for more than 100 years. The Democrats, Shaheen says, had policies that unfairly favored cities. They were allowed to expand their borders through annexation, and their influence over residents. That time has passed says Shaheen. "We now have an administration who honestly believes that cities have for years and years and years abused their power and taken over more control of individual’s lives." So, he argues, Republicans have put their belief in local government on the shelf, in favor of another Republican belief - small government. "I think that they're trying to follow their core message of limited government by forcing the cities to acknowledge that they have and should have a much smaller role to play."

A second reason, says Shaheen, precedent.

Democrats also meddled in local governance. Take 1993, when a Democratically controlled General Assembly changed the makeup of both the Mecklenburg county commission and the school board. "When I say that the Republicans have learned this type of governance I’m not kidding," says Shaheen, "It’s actually been done in the past."

There’s a third reason, one which both Larry Shaheen and Michael Bitzer agree on but for slightly different reasons. It all has to do with elections and maps.

Bitzer believes these Republican moves into local government are all about bettering their chances to win more elections. "Now Republicans can come in and redraw those districts for local officials and be able to, at least, give Republicans a fighting chance in these majority Democratic urban areas." Shaheen believes it’s at least partially about winning elections as well. But not just local. The electoral districts for the General Assembly are drawn in such a way they heavily favor one party or the other. "That’s really the core of it," says Shaheen, "now have these safe harbor Republican districts where the only person they’re concerned about is a Republican primary challenger." If a lawmaker helps get other Republicans elected locally, they bolster their local support and make a primary challenge less likely. It's the same political tactic Democrats used in the past.

Whatever the motive, and no matter the party, city and county governments as well as school boards have no recourse when the General Assembly decides on change. North Carolina is one of 40 states based on some form of what’s known as Dillon’s Rule. This means the legislature has the power to create, destroy or modify any form of local government whenever they like.