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.