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Durham legislators discuss progressive frustration, some local issues to P.A. crowd

There's a certain irony to the assembly of five Durham state legislators sitting in the Herald-Sun's community room, addressing local residents and members of the liberal People's Alliance political action committee.

On a night when Republicans are gathered in Minnesota, bringing forth family values, anti-abortion, and anti-immigration themes to television sets nationwide, five self-proclaimed progressives told their ideological stablemates that it's just not easy being liberal in the Old North State.

On topic after topic -- gay marriage, overturning the prohibition against collective bargaining, supporting public access TV, finding funding for transit -- the legislators brought back much the same answer to the audience's entreaties: you want us to vote for this, we want to vote for this, but we don't have the votes.

To hear longtime General Assembly vets like Rep. Mickey Michaux tell it, of course, there are many hardships to being a legislator.

The $13,000 salary, for instance, for what's these days really a nearly full-time job. The pittance reimbursement for gasoline. The $104 a day for lodging and meals when the legislature is in session, scarcely enough to cover food and lodging for representatives outside commuting distance from Raleigh.

But the toughest thing, the five said to man, was the rural versus urban breakdown of elected officials, with small-town representatives and state senators just not having the same picture of issues that matter to cities like Durham, whether these rural reps have a D or an R by their name.

One panel member noted that rural Democrats and Republicans alike typically opposed the policies that progressives like these five and most of the audience support.

Reminded that 80% of their colleagues from Charlotte, the Triangle, the Triad, Asheville and Wilmington supported a moderate to liberal agenda, Michaux cracked, "It's the 20% that's bothering me."

The five legislators -- State Sens. Floyd McKissick Jr. and Bob Atwater, and Reps. Larry Hall, Paul Luebke and Michaux -- were peppered largely with state-wide political issues, and less on matters of direct local concern.

Luebke did answer a question from Chapel Hill town councilman (and Durham County resident) Ed Harrison, who asked why the General Assembly had sidestepped addressing the issue of transportation -- an issue Atwater had described as critical, given that North Carolina would be projected to add 4 million residents by 2018, the equivalent of absorbing the population of South Carolina.

Luebke noted the likelihood of a $4 billion bond for transportation going before state voters in '09; the Watts-Hillandale resident and sociology professor called for his desire of seeing as much as a third of that going to urban transit systems, versus the 3% of state transportation revenues spent on transit these days.

But Luebke was pessimistic that the blue-ribbon transportation proposal before the legislature this spring could have passed muster given its call for a sales tax option going before voters, stating there'd be no support for such a measure in an election year among legislatures.

(We here at BCR wondered whether City Councilman Mike Woodard or County Commissioner Becky Heron, both in attendance, linked Luebke's realpolitik assessment to his requirement of a referendum for the prepared meals tax, a measure he opposed and may have doomed to a ballot-box failure.)

Development and environmental protection formed the first audience question, with South Durham activist Melissa Rooney posing questions on a wide range of issues, from the Jordan Lake clean-up rules to the state's compliance with the Federal Clean Water Act to the impervious surface limits in runoff-sensitive areas.

Michaux noted that the legislature allocated millions towards water quality and have this issue, along with run-off and pollution, on their agenda. "If you put us in the category [of neighboring states], I think we would be one of the leaders."

Luebke noted that the question of water quality and local government's responsibility for same had been a long-contentious issue between the state, cities and counties. He noted the City of Durham's administration "went bonkers" over the legislature's approach to requiring municipalities to clean up bodies of water like Jordan Lake, while noting the power of homebuilders to water down regulations on an administrative level.

McKissick reminded the crowd that he and Atwater represented -- there's that theme again -- some of the only strong environmentalist voices in the state senate. "You're talking about eight [senators] out of fifty," McKissick said. "If there are eight strong together [in the Democrative caucus], we can moderate or bring to the left" the remaining Democrats some of the time, but certainly not always, he warned.

Still, the crowd was generally receptive to a delegation acknowledged to be perhaps the most pro-urban, progressive in the state. The real key to advancing the progressive agenda, it seems, is making the rest of the state look a little bit more like our corner of North Carolina.


Bella Abzug's Easter Hat

Oh, I don't know -- I say forget making the rest of the state look a little bit more like our corner of North Carolina. I'd settle for making our legislative delegation look a little bit more like Durham. Because for a supposedly "progressive" group, I saw an awful lot of YY chromosomes up there.

In my opinion, the real irony of the night was that this forum was held on the very same evening that over a hundred people were gathering at the Hayti Heritage center for an event to benefit Lillian's List, a political action committee that finances the campaigns of pro-choice Democratic women running for the NC General Assembly. A lot of local politicos did double duty and appeared at both events, but I'm guessing none of them asked the question I'd most like to hear answered by our legislative delegation:

"If you guys are so progressive and, as you so often say, support more women in office -- then which one of you do you think should step aside to make room for a female legislator?"

Because, I'll tell you, this town should not be going around labeling itself as "progressive" with so much self-satisfaction when we've not had a woman representing us in Raleigh since when, Sharon Thompson in the late 80's?


"Because, I'll tell you, this town should not be going around labeling itself as "progressive" with so much self-satisfaction when we've not had a woman representing us in Raleigh since when, Sharon Thompson in the late 80's?"

Four words dear... Senator Jeanne Hopkins Lucas

Myers Sugg

According to Wikipedia, Sen. Lucas served 4 terms.


Chris R.

Who cares if your city councilman's pro-choice or pro-life? It's not like we're electing them to the Supreme Court, who has the real say on the issue.


Well, we are talking about our state legislative delegation, which does have some say over matters affecting choice. Especially when it comes to funding actual programs with our tax dollars.

Tar Heelz

YY chromosomal legislators? Yikes!


Two quick points:

1) The problem is not an urban-rural divide. 80% of the assembly should be able to pass legislation. The problem is that the urban senators and reps vote no on issues that progressives support. Durham's delegation is comparatively better, but they need to do a better job of organizing their urban colleagues, and we need to make sure they take principled stands.

2) The best thing that could happen for progressives in NC would be the legalization of collective bargaining for public employees. In addition to being the right thing to do, it creates an instant, readily-organizable group of state and municipal workers that--if other states offer any indication--will hit the pavement to campaign for a wide range of progressive issues, including key social services like health care and education. If Durham's senators and reps want more support in the legislature, they need to push this key law through.


I'm getting pretty freakin' sick of Paul Luebke moaning over the fact that he can't find money for transportation, when he gets his undies in a bunch every time anyone mentions the word "sales tax."

Guys -- you have some of the safest seats in the legislature. At this point, you're on some pretty high level committees. If you're any good as a legislator, you should be able to throw your weight around on policy issues and cut some deals. Yeah, it's not pretty, but come on. I'm tired of our delegation acting like they're a bunch of weaklings who can't do anything.


Actually Max, there is a urban-rural divide when it comes to getting our fair share of transportation funding. The rural legislators seem think that getting funds for loops and bypasses around towns that are declining in population will magically create new jobs and reverse the trend. Other than generating more demand for fast food restaurants and gas stations, sending scarce transporation funding to areas that don't generate reciprocal revenues to pay for them is a big problem.

There is an equity formula in NC that is supposed to determine who gets what in terms of transportation priorities. If the urban, progresive legislators would act as a bloc to enforce or change the equity formula, we would all be getting our share based on our overwhelmingly positive economic contribution, and our resulting need. Being urban doesn't mean the legislator is going to bat for road projects, however.

The problem with being too "progressive" is that liberals tend to wait until traffic is so bad on the roadways so they can justify promoting expensive public transportation projects that most people don't want. Most people around here (who don't have the fortune to live downtown) don't want to get on a bus, to get on a train, to wait for another bus, and then bike to work if it takes an hour longer to get to RTP. Progressives tend to try and force these lifestyle choices on the wrong crowd, i.e. the MAJORITY. With such diverging social views amoung the legislature as a whole, it's not hard to see how ineffective our progressive urban legislators can be some times.


If they really want to help with water quality as a symptom of growth, they might want to start passing stricter controls on buffers. It seems every time I see a new housing development, they start with around 50-75 feet of "Protected Area", then they move the orange fence back another 25 feet to build a sidewalk to nowhere, then they move the fence back another 25 feet to put in cables/lines/drainage. What's left is about 10 feet of scraggly pine trees and freshly-planted ditches with no hope of abating runoff. The developer is never punished or fined.

If the buffer is 50 feet, it needs to stay 50 feet throughout completion of the project, including any sidewalk, drainage, and service structures. I think that's something legislators, both urban and rural, can agree upon.


Thank God for the NC Legislature.

Your idea of what the state government should be doing has been given a full test in New York, Michigan, and Connecticut. Those states are dying.

Outside of Duke Hospital and Coach K's basketball team, the rest of North Carolina thinks of Durham as an excellent example of exactly what they DON'T want to become!

Bert the Merry-Go-Round Man

Jeanne Lucas does not absolve Durham from a dismal record of having a more representative delegation to the General Assembly -- especially with the disgraceful and corrupt way her successor muscled his way into her seat.

One woman legislator in the past 16 years (especially a dead one) only points out the hypocrisy of a progressive community that blahs blahs blahs about equality but won't endorse or fund a female candidate.

David Rollins

Do transgendered women count? Pre-op or post-op? If I thought it would help me get elected I would be willing to at least dress like a woman (and I'm running for Jeanne's old seat, to boot).

On a serious note, GreenLantern makes an excellent point about public transportation choices. The way forward for progressives is to demand an end to corporate welfare for the sprawl constituencies: big box developers, fickle companies angling for relocation subsidies, and road builders on the government teat.

It is only by putting mass transit on an equal footing with highways that we will ever have an equitable transportation system. Yes, this means more toll roads, but if you cut the gas tax it will make up the difference (since the highway trust fund has been raided by the general assembly and used for god-knows-what purposes -- see the recent article in the N&O).

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