For much of my Kentucky youth, our North Carolina neighbors had our number.
On the hardwood, between Goose’s Greatest Game and Rick’s Resurrection, the Wildcats struggled mightily: from Joe B.’s impossible mission to match Rupp’s legend, to the scandal-plagued, whiskey-soaked Sutton era. Meanwhile, Carolina teams didn’t merely capture five NCAA titles between 1982-1993; they dominated the game, showcasing some of the most iconic moments in the history of the sport: Michael’s clinching corner jumper, Valvano’s victory dance, and…ugh…The Shot.
In the world of policy as well, the Tarheel State outshined our old Kentucky home. While a lawsuit was necessary to fix our public schools, and our state colleges and universities (pre-Paul Patton’s reform) foundered under parochialism and political turf battles; North Carolina was being steered by visionary leaders like Governor Jim Hunt, who focused laser-like on pursuing economic growth through raising educational standards. It worked: As the state dramatically improved its national rankings from kindergarten through college, North Carolina’s economy boomed, and Charlotte and the Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill Golden Triangle exploded into dynamic epicenters of financial innovation in the new economy.
These days, however, North Carolina is emerging as the epitome of what’s wrong about this new era.
Duke guard Grayson Allen’s opponent-tripping epidemic (did he do it again last night?) could serve as Exhibit A of entitled elites rigging the system for their own advantage. But I’m less bothered by this obviously troubled kid than I am by Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s outrageous flip-flop: declaring after one game (a conference loss, natch) that Allen’s “indefinite” suspension was over. Honor, ethics and youth role modeling took a way-back seat to preserving the Blue Devils’ seed in the NCAA tourney.
Worse, I’m horrified by the very fact that the University of North Carolina is even playing hoops this season. It’s been more than two years since an internal investigation revealed a pernicious 18-year institutional scheme to rob student-athletes of a legitimate education — razing the very foundation of collegiate sports. As I have elaborated here and here, there’s never been a more worthy candidate for a death penalty sanction; and yet, as the school just received its third notice of allegations from the NCAA, the team continues to play, with only Kris Jenkins’ buzzer-beater last year saving UNC the future disgrace of vacating a national championship.
Still, none of this compares to the ignominy of what’s transpiring down the road at Raleigh’s State Capitol. With Governor Hunt long retired, the new sheriffs in town have so eroded the state’s governmental institutions that a much-publicized Electoral Impact Project (EIP) report declared that North Carolina could no longer be considered a functioning democracy. The state was awarded an “electoral integrity score” equivalent to the Communist dictatorship in Cuba. (Contrary to some Trump fanboys and gals, I still think Communism sucks.)
The headlines generated by the EIP Report were a bit too fake-newsy for my taste. But the underlying political situation is a legitimate source of great alarm. Much national attention has focused on House Bill 2, the grotesque “bathroom bill,” in which legislators tried to win political points on the backs of vulnerable bullied teens, but instead provoked the ire of the business community, leading to the flight of jobs and treasured sporting events in protest. In fact, there’s a whole lot more to complain about: from audaciously partisan legislative redistricting to civil rights-defying efforts to suppress votes. When voters rebelled against the extremism by throwing out the offending Governor, the legislature unprecedentedly stripped his successor of long-held powers and then welched on a widely-popular deal to repeal HB2.
North Carolina’s sports and political scandals are inextricably linked by a common theme: the hubris of power.
Coaches K and Roy Williams know that they can circumvent moral judgment lapses that would sink lesser teams because they generate so much money for their institutions and the NCAA. Carolina legislators ignore the long-term economic and reputational state impact because, well, they have the super-majorities to do what they want to help get themselves re-elected. That certainly doesn’t make it right. And as voters demonstrated by electing a Democratic reformer to the Governor’s Mansion in the midst of a GOP southern wave, you can’t get away with this kind of arrogance in the long run.
As Kentucky Republicans revel in their first week of total power in Frankfort, they’d be wise to learn the lessons of Carolina’s experience. Power, when used appropriately, can be a very positive force for meaningful societal change. While I strongly disagree with some of the bills rushed by GOP leaders though the General Assembly last week — especially the 20-week abortion ban which could allow rapists to sue their victims, if it weren’t so brazenly unconstitutional — I do respect their electoral mandate and their desire to enact conservative measures that have been bottled up by Democrats for decades.
In the immediate future, I’d advise Kentucky Republicans to remember that the most prized value of good leadership is the very opposite of hubris: It’s humility. Democracies cannot survive if they are winner-take-all. While duly elected bodies have every right to enact their priority agendas, humble leaders recognize that there are large segments of constituents, sometimes even majorities, that disagree strongly with particular policies. And they are Kentuckians too.
Fortunately, the General Assembly is led by two men who’ve modeled humility and bipartisan comity for decades. Senate President Robert Stivers was a critical partner of Democratic Governor Steve Beshear on issues that transcended politics. New House Speaker Jeff Hoover, the longest-serving minority leader in state history, understands what it means to be silenced by power, and early on took some very admirable steps to involve Democrats in his transition.
In today’s polarized and paralyzed political climate, however, both men will find themselves under constant pressure to take measures that might elicit some short-term political advantage, but yet reap long-term economic detriment to the state. I’m most nervous about a bathroom bill, which unfortunately has already been introduced … by a Democrat, yikes. And while pension reform is vital, it can’t be at the cost of reversing decades of educational progress. Hoover and Stivers will need the support of their caucuses to resist partisan temptation and understand their role at stewards for Kentucky’s future.
Of course, these might appear to be the hypocritical rantings of an out-of-power has-been whose party controlled the House for 95 years. Guilty as charged. But for two decades, this has-been lived through the entitlement-fueled, hubristic misuse of power by both parties in Frankfort, and understands that Democratic failures of humility helped land us on the sidelines.
That leads to my final point, to my fellow left-wingers: There is one North Carolina example that’s worth emulating. As explored here, “Moral Monday” has emerged as a successful role model for grounding the articulation of public policy and political protest in the language of faith. This diverse, grassroots movement helped make the case that the enactment of policies which serve the poor, the disabled, the very young and the old were actually an extension of the moral values taught in the holy books of all great religions, centered around the admonition to “love your neighbor as yourself.” The effort undoubtedly laid the groundwork for last fall’s success. And it was the right thing to do.
Ultimately, being the loyal opposition requires the humility to accept a political loss. But it also merits speaking truth to power, responding directly and forcefully to hubristic actions that divert the Commonwealth from our shared values.