After a long slog, the NC General Assembly passed a budget with supermajority support, including bipartisan support in the state House. Democrat Gov. Roy Cooper even said he’d rest his itchy veto finger and allow the bill to become law. Cooper, who has double the vetoes of all previous governors combined, decided not to add to this record largely because the budget includes Medicaid expansion, one of his top agenda items.
But the budget agreement got even friendlier treatment from five House Democrats, who voted with Republicans in favor of it. Those members are Reps. Carla Cunningham, D-Mecklenburg; Shelly Willingham, D-Edgecombe; Garland Pierce, D-Scotland; Cecil Brockman, D-Guilford; and Michael Wray, D-Northampton.
Anger has bubbled up frequently in recent years at “disloyal Democrats,” evident even in a website of that name targeting those who strayed on too many votes. The furor around Rep. Tricia Cotham of Mecklenburg, who switched parties entirely, may have received the most publicity, but Cooper was personally involved in getting state Sen. Kirk deViere ousted in his Democratic primary for disloyalty.
But then deViere’s replacement, Sen. Val Applewhite, also refused to toe the line 100% of the time. After she voted with Republicans to block males from female sports, she said she received “frightening messages” from angry progressives, and there were calls to primary her too.
But in this latest case, the anger from progressives focused not just on party disloyalty but also racial disloyalty, since four of the five Democrats who voted with Republicans on the budget are black.
The Young Democrats of NC, College Democrats of NC, and NC Association of Teen Democrats released a statement saying they were “outraged to hear that several Democrats in the NC General Assembly joined with Republicans today in a massive assault on reproductive rights, Black representation in our Courts, public education, and access to health care.”
They said this was the most “brazenly anti-Black legislation we’ve seen in years.” The three signatories, who say they are the first three black men to have served in these three positions at the same time, stated that they were “particularly sad to see several of our Black elected officials” among those signing onto this allegedly anti-black budget.
It was clear from the statement that they were angry and sad, but how exactly this budget was “brazenly anti-Black” was harder to decipher. They blasted the budget for not supporting public schools — likely a reference to the expansion of vouchers. But polling shows 70% of black North Carolinians support school-choice programs.
They also denounced the budget for a lack of access to health care (odd, since the budget funded an expansion of Medicaid) and bullying black judges off the court (also odd, because the situation with Justice Anita Earls is a matter before the NC Judicial Standards Commission, not the legislature or connected to the budget).
One of the black legislators who was named (and threatened with a primary) in the letter, Cecil Brockman, released a statement of his own returning fire.
Brockman said since he is on the budget conference committee, working across the aisle on these matters is a key part of his job. He said he was able to secure $29 million that would benefit his district, including the funding of 25 local non-profits. Brockman rejected the idea that the budget was anti-black or harmful to his majority-black district.
After laying out his reasoning, Brockman finished by telling the various young Democrat groups to “grow up” and that “when you’re an adult” you have to learn to work with those with whom you don’t always agree. He also didn’t seem too worried about any primary threats, suggesting that all the resources he secured for his district would be well received.
There is, of course, always some disagreement and infighting within both major parties. But demanding 100% consensus and loyalty on all issues from party members may end up backfiring, as was seen with Cotham.
And basing the expectation of loyalty on the person’s race, not just their party, seems particularly risky (and inappropriate). This attitude goes straight to the top though in the Democratic Party. President Joe Biden is notorious for leveraging race, including painful elements of history, to pressure black voters. During 2021 discussion of voter rules proposed by Republicans, Biden said it would be Jim Crow 2.0 and would “make Jim Crow look like Jim Eagle.”
When he was running for re-election as vice president, at one stop in South Carolina, Biden told a heavily black crowd that Mitt Romney would “put y’all back in chains.” Maybe the most egregious was before the 2020 election, when popular black radio host Charlamagne the God said he wanted to ask him some more questions another time, Biden seemed offended he hadn’t earned his vote yet and said, “If you have a problem figuring out if you’re for me or President Trump, then you ain’t black.”
There was blowback to each of these incidents, but Republicans have not been able to present themselves as a viable alternative, as black voters continue to overwhelmingly favor the Democrats.
Times may be changing some, though, as black legislators are increasingly becoming a more moderate swing vote within the party that doesn’t always see eye-to-eye with white progressives. And if party leaders continue to bully dissenters and demand loyalty based on race, this rift may only grow.