N.C. political power grab … in 1875

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, April 2, 2013

“We could use your help in the Republican Party. We need more moderate voices.”
One of my longtime friends was tempting me, noting that his political party was in charge now. If I wanted to participate in the new regime in North Carolina, I should change my registration. “And,” he said, “we could use some more moderate voices in our party.”
“Well,” I said, “if you, as a moderate, are uncomfortable with the takeover of your party by the ‘non-moderates,’ why don’t you change your registration to Democrat? You might feel more at home there.”
“Maybe in 10 or 15 years,” he said. “But not until we settle some scores that the Democrats built up against my party over the past more than 100 years.”
If you wonder why the Republicans now in control are moving so fast to turn government upside down, you should remember that they have been waiting a long time and have a bag full of grievances to settle.
Turning out the boards of agencies and educational institutions, gutting popular programs that were pet projects of prior Democratic office holders and taking away powers from local government entities that are or could be controlled by Democrats,are all part of a political revolution.
At least there are no firing squads.
Not yet.

But, as my friend reminded me, there are grievances to settle and, perhaps, a limited time to take control away from political opponents who lead cities, airports and school boards.
Has there ever been anything like it?
Yes. Back in 1875 as post-Civil War Reconstruction was ending, Democrats (or Conservatives as they had been called) were taking back control of state government from Republicans.
They pushed through changes in the state Constitution that, according to William Powell in his classic “North Carolina Through Four Centuries,” “clearly increased the power of the legislative branch of government, giving it considerable authority over local affairs and enabling the Democratic Party to regain virtual control of the state. The party considered local control to be essential — especially in some of the eastern counties with large black populations and in western counties heavily populated by Republicans. The amendments also gave the legislature extensive authority in those counties with a relatively low number of blacks. In either case, insofar as local control of municipal and county government was concerned, this was a backward step.”
According to William Link in his “North Carolina: Change and Tradition in a Southern State,” “Using the power flowing from the constitutional amendments of 1875 — which were ratified in the elections of 1876 — the legislature enacted the Local Government Act of 1877, which eliminated elective home rule in local government. In order to ensure that white Democrats would dominate the black majority districts of eastern North Carolina, the law empowered the legislature to appoint justices of the peace who, in turn, would choose county commissioners.”
When the new Democratic governor, Zebulon Vance, took office in 1877, Link writes, he “fired nearly all of the state’s Republican officeholders, replacing them with loyal Democrats. The new regime instituted strict economy and retrenchment, drastically cutting the state services expanded under the Republicans.”
If the party labels were reversed, Powell’s and Link’s histories are a good description of what is happening again in North Carolina today.
History may not repeat itself, but it can remind us that when political factions gain power after having been long deprived, they can be expected to take radical and decisive steps to secure their position and deny their opponents a meaningful role in government at all levels.

D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV. More information: www.unctv.org/ncbookwatch