Uncontested elections, gay enlightenment and the demise of Freedom Fries

by Kirk Ross

Race to the bottom

We are less than three months from knowing how ethics scandals state and federal and the declining stock of the president’s Coalition of the Willing played out at the ballot boxes. With all the heat and light being generated you might think there will be a battle royale ahead. Maybe so if the media dutifully trots out for the debut for every candidate’s 30-second corruption commercial as it did this week.

But my money is on the election of ’06 not shaping up to be seismic by any means, especially for the state legislature, where you can already take half the races off the table. A total of 86 legislative seats are uncontested – a number that is not all that unusual, but still speaks volumes about the high entry cost of public office as well as the abundance of apathy, disengagement and cynicism. Voter turnout has been on a decline in North Carolina for the past 30 years. In the ’70s, 60 percent or more of the registered voters showed up on Election Day. Now turnout rates are in the low 40-percent range. The election of 1994, a non-presidential year, saw both the biggest change (the GOP took over the NC and the US House) and the lowest turnout (42 percent). This year, a blue moon year with only a handful of judicial races atop the ballot, turnout may dip even further.

In addition, both parties are employing strategies aimed at getting the other’s supporters to stay home. Republicans will be blaring ads about scandals and incomplete checks aimed in part at outraging their base, but mostly at embarrassing Dems into sitting out. The Dems, on the other hand, have already dealt GOP turnout efforts a blow by keeping a gay marriage amendment off the ballot (see next item). While they may be on the attack in a handful of congressional races, Democrats are playing defense. Evidently, this includes engaging in a little demagoguery-on-a-tightrope – trying to out-tough the GOP on immigration by singing the praises of new laws on drivers licenses and state employment while at the same time wooing Hispanic voters. The result: muy desifinado.

Gay pride

It’s a sad statement that all you’ve got to do to win some praise in the arena of gay rights these days is not give in to craven political interest and hate mongering. So let’s hope legislators aren’t patting themselves on the back too hard for the thumbs up from Equality NC, which noted with pride that North Carolina is the only southern state not to take up an anti-gay marriage constitutional amendment. The amendment that’s been floating around for the past few years never seems to make it out of committee. This year, all three of our neighboring states have constitutional amendments – vehicles designed exclusively for driving up Christian conservative turnout – on the November ballot.

Bon Appetite

Though he later wished he hadn’t, Rep. Walter Jones, Jr. became the father of Freedom Fries in March 2003 when in an act of “light-hearted” protest against France’s opposition to the Iraq war he demanded that the three congressional cafeterias start serving “Freedom fries” and “Freedom toast.”

Now that apparently all is well again in the Franco-American alliance, last week the cafeterias’ menus returned to the more common nomenclature and news reports underlined that Jones has also come to regret something else he threw his support behind in ’03 – the war itself.

New day dawning

The golden age of North Carolina politics was launched sometime last Friday when Governor Mike Easley signed into law new ethics legislation. But as Chris Fitzsimon at NC Policy Watch noted, many legislators couldn’t wait for the governor and celebrated their newfound ethics early by inviting lobbyists to dozens of fund-raisers. Fitzsimon says the first mass e-mail seeking contributions went out 15 hours after the legislature adjourned and that by last Friday one senior lobbyist had already received 31 letters and 19 phone calls soliciting contributions. Breathe deep the air of reform, friends.

Ye Olde Economic Development

It should be noted that among the state’s newest employers, lured like the rest of ’em with generous tax incentives, are Indian Motorcycles and boat builder Chris Craft – two of the finest names in early 20th Century transportation. So far there’s no confirmation of rumors the state is also in negotiations with the Packard Motor Car Company or that a Victrola plant is in the works.