D.G. Martin: Jim Leutze wants his state back

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, November 19, 2014

“I am mad as hell and I want my state back.”

Former UNC-Wilmington Chancellor Jim Leutze wanted to use this phrase as the title for his new book about modern North Carolina history and politics. Eventually, he settled on another provocative title, “Entering North Carolina: Set Clocks Back 100 Years,” which The Charlotte Observer book columnist Dannye Romine Powell has named “best book title of the year.”

Leutze ‘s first title idea reflects the views of many North Carolinians who would like to reverse the recent changes in direction brought about by the Republican-controlled government in Raleigh.

On the other hand, as this month’s elections indicated, more North Carolinians may approve or accept these changes.

What are the changes that concern Leutze so much?

In the introduction to his new book, he summarizes the changes that concern him. “For those who were born or came here in the last four decades of the 20th century, North Carolina seemed a relatively forward-looking state, with its emphasis on education, research, environment, good government and good roads. Then in 2010 and again in 2012, North Carolinians got a surprise. After 150 years of sporadic forward movement, North Carolina began a policy of astonishing deconstruction.

“A state that had slowly dug itself out of poverty and negative stereotypes began suddenly to go backward in time, with the election of committed conservatives in the governor’s office and conservatives as the ruling majority in the state legislature. What are businessmen in North Carolina thinking? What are business interests in the country thinking? Is this a state to which they wish to come? Is this a portent of the future?”

Leutze compares recent changes to those in the late 19th century when the so-called “Redeemers” took control of North Carolina government from progressive or populist forces in the post-Reconstruction era after the Civil War.

Although his history is admittedly partisan, Leutze’s storytelling ability and background as a popular history teacher at UNC Chapel Hill make his summary of North Carolina history good reading for both Republicans and Democrats.

In his history of the 60 years after 1950, Leutze credits governors of both parties with moving North Carolina so that it was viewed “as one of the up-and-coming states in the country and surely one of the most progressive in the South.”

Leutze characterizes the groups that brought about the Republican triumph as new “Redeemers” like those who took control of North Carolina government in the post-Reconstruction era. He summarizes the factors that led to their takeover: “The continuing traditionalist strain; the complacent Democratic Party; the Redeemer’s well-oiled, coordinated organization; out-of-state dark money, the Tea Party; the economy; the loss of business support for progressive policies; Obama; scandals and the lack of organization by public education leaders; and finally, the concept that it couldn’t happen here. When you put them all together, it is easy to understand how the battle was lost.”

Leutze mourns the transformation of the former Citizens for Business and Industry organization, which had provided strong support for the state’s public schools and higher education systems. It changed its name in 2007 into the North Carolina Chamber, which focuses on bottom line business issues.

He says that Barack Obama’s election turned out to be a “gift from an evil fairy” because it mobilized a racist backlash that contributed to the strength of the Redeemers in the 2010 elections.

Although Leutze’s political history is not a substitute for more objective political histories like those of Rob Christensen’s “The Paradox of Tar Heel Politics” and Tom Eamon’s “The Making of a Southern Democracy,” his passion, grounded in a love of North Carolina, make it important reading for those wish to understand our state.

Partisan Democrats might want the book just for the cover, a cartoon illustration by Dwane Powell with caricatures of Thom Tillis, Phil Berger, Pat McCrory, and Jesse Helms.

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D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV. Preview the upcoming program on UNC-MX digital channel  (Time Warner #1276) on Fridays at 9 p.m. Next week’s (November 23, 27) guest is Michael Parker, author of “All I have in this World.”

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