Though in some ways an understandable reaction – especially given the flubs of some of the current incumbents in North Carolina – the “change for the sake of change” approach to elections can be extremely shortsighted and counter-productive.
Consider, for example the 1994 election. Conservative majorities seized control of Congress and a number of state legislatures. In North Carolina, the state House of Representatives went Republican for the first time since Reconstruction and the Senate stayed Democratic by only a 26-24 majority.
The election results were especially striking because they were sudden and unexpected – so unexpected that Republicans really didn’t have a plan for how they would govern. Once the 1995 session began, the leaders of the new majority in the House of Representatives quickly discovered that they some enormous problems in simply keeping the wheels of government running.
Not only did they have serious dearth of experienced members capable of running committees and handling complex legislation in a competent fashion, they were also handicapped by the fact that several of their new members were, to put it politely, somewhat unprepared for leadership.
This was due to the fact that several had been elected with essentially zero relevant experience. Essentially, many of these men and women were elected for one reason only: they were not incumbents. Somehow, they had managed to get their names on the ballot and survive or avoid a primary. They could have been serial killers for all the voters knew. Now, however, as a result of a “throw the bums out” landslide, they were state lawmakers. In some cases, it was as if people had been plucked randomly off of the street.
The list of incompetents and hopeless ideologues (or both) was long and included such memorable figures as:
Rep. Ken Miller of Alamance County. Miller was a certifiably strange person who favored walking the halls of the General Assembly wearing a baseball cap adorned with badges and buttons. He was eventually forced out of the House after being investigated for making sexual overtures toward a teenaged page, a lobbyist and a legislative employee.
Rep. Henry Aldridge of Pitt County. Aldridge was a dentist and anti-choice zealot who lives in infamy for his offensive statements in which he attempted to explain in debate how a victim of rape could not become pregnant because “the juices don’t flow.”
Rep. Larry Linney of Buncombe County. Linney was a lawyer who was jailed at one point and eventually disbarred after being convicted of embezzling client funds.
Rep. Donald Davis of Harnett County. Davis was conspiracy theorizing ideologue of the kind that so heavily populates the tea party crowd. One of his main objectives during his first year in office was to pass a resolution that purported to repeal a pre-World War II resolution that had called for the establishment of some kind of new League of Nations as a bulwark against world war.
Will 2010 amount to a replay of 1994? Will North Carolinians wake up next January to find a cadre of anti-government zealots and conspiracy theorists in positions of legislative power? Right now, it’s hard to say.
On the positive side, of course, is the fact that we know somewhat more about the candidates in 2010 than we did in 1994. The internet makes it a bit harder for true extremists to fly “under the radar” and cruise to victory without their actual beliefs coming to light. Combine this with the way in which mainstream voters have generally rejected the absurdities of the tea party crowd and the likelihood of an ultra-right-wing sweep seems fairly remote.
Still, even with the light provided by modern communications, there is no shortage of rather scary characters out there on the ballot. Numerous candidates wear their ultra-conservative religious beliefs on their sleeves and tout abortion and guns as their top issues. Some promise radical constitutional overhauls. There’s also a host of conservative candidates who remain so anonymous that web searches fail to produce any information. One Wake County candidate appears to be an undergraduate student at N.C. State.
While few expect the far right to seize control of the General Assembly this fall, nothing is impossible. If it does happen, experience indicates that 2011 could be a wild and wacky year in the state Legislative Building.
Rob Schofield is the Director of Research and Policy Development at N.C. Policy Watch