All Roads Lead to Raleigh, Part I

If you weren’t paying close attention, you might have missed that North Carolina has quietly become the center of the political universe. While simultaneous international crises in Ukraine and Gaza have dominated headlines, here at home, several intersecting storylines have converged on the Tar Heel State and elevated it as the most important battleground in the upcoming election.

The news cycle on all things North Carolina is moving at such a rapid clip that you can’t be blamed for struggling to keep it all straight. Democrats are determined to put North Carolina in play for President Biden; he’s been campaigning hard in the state, which he lost by just a single point in 2020. Unions are declaring their intention to expand in the South amid a decisive victory for the UAW at Daimler Truck, despite North Carolina having the second-lowest union membership rate in the country. And even as Oxfam named North Carolina the “Worst State to Work” last year, the state was given the dubious distinction of being named by CNBC as the single best state for business. In the past few months, WalletHub and Forbes both cited North Carolina among their respective top places to start a business, adding to a confusing morass of conflicting signals.

What gives? Why are Democrats, Republicans, unions, businesses and Patriotic Millionaires so fixated on North Carolina? The short answer is that the state’s fundamentals make it the battleground for this year’s political fights. Significant segments of the state’s economy are struggling to revive and modernize after globalization wreaked havoc on the state’s manufacturing sector. At the exact same time, North Carolina has become Mecca For Green Energy Investments “[after] the CHIPS Act, Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, and the Inflation Reduction Act have driven multiple high-dollar deals in North Carolina — investments worth at least $1 billion and 1,000 jobs each.”

Meanwhile, despite recent economic investments by business interests and the federal government, workers in the Tar Heel State are struggling to get by. They can’t afford to live on North Carolina’s pathetic minimum wage, which has sat at the federal minimum of $7.25 an hour since 2009. Labor protections are nearly non-existent, with sometimes deadly consequences. And by one measure, nearly 13% of North Carolinians live in poverty (including one in six children), but crucially, the federal poverty formula is so antiquated that we know 13% is a gross underestimate.

Just look at Columbus County, one of the poorest regions in North Carolina and, not coincidentally, the location of the Patriotic Millionaires’ first cohort of the Great Economy Project. In Columbus, the cost of living for an individual without children is $17.90 an hour, or roughly $37,000 annually. For an individual with one child, it’s even higher: $31.26 an hour, or roughly $65,000 a year. And yet, working full time on the minimum wage in North Carolina will net an individual a grand total of only $15,080 a year.

The state’s electoral divide further highlights this tension. While Democrats have controlled the governor’s mansion for nearly eight years, Republicans ruthlessly gerrymandered a super majority into the state and federal legislative maps. Up until recently, left-of-center justices held a majority of seats on the state’s Supreme Court. President Barack Obama won North Carolina in 2008 and every subsequent presidential race has targeted the state, keeping the margin competitive.

And no conversation about North Carolina would be complete without noting the state’s demographics are changing fast. As George Chidi points out in a Guardian piece tracking emerging political battlefronts in the Wilmington region:

“North Carolina’s political map is a pointillist portrait of post-pandemic population change, with cities such as Charlotte, Durham and Wilmington booming from domestic migration while other communities bleed residents to places with economic vibrancy. Two-thirds of North Carolina’s population growth between 2010 and 2020 was non-white. About 400,000 people have moved to North Carolina since 2020. Trump’s margin in 2020 was less than 75,000 votes.”

North Carolina has become something of a pressure cooker. The state’s political economy is fitfully modernizing against a backdrop of a more assertive labor movement and a rigged system that prioritizes corporate profit over working families.

What happens in North Carolina over the next six months – from unionization drives to the election of a new governor and to which Presidential candidate Tar Heel voters give their electoral votes – will determine the shape of our economy and our politics for years to come.

How We Got Here

It’s hard to know where to start when telling the story of how North Carolina ended up at the center of our political universe. We could begin with the devastating long-term consequences of the Reagan Revolution, which ushered in an era of so-called “trickle-down economics” wherein tax cuts for the wealthy would supposedly enrich everyone else (spoiler alert: no wealth ever trickled down). We could start with the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which many workers in North Carolina blame – rightly or wrongly – for costing them their jobs or severely depressing their wages.

But for the sake of time, we’re going to start in 2010. Just the year before, the federal minimum wage had been raised to $7.25, but a right-wing populist backlash in the form of the Tea Party cost Democrats control of both chambers of the North Carolina legislature. The timing of the Republican sweep would prove enormously consequential: the decennial redistricting process would be led by the newly elected Republican leadership, which quickly moved to cement their power by gerrymandering the congressional and state legislative maps. They have controlled the North Carolina legislature ever since.

For fifteen years, through the long tail of the 2008 financial crisis, the pandemic, and the inflation that followed it, the minimum wage has remained at just $7.25. Because of that  inflation – and the general rise of prices since 2009 – the minimum wage has actually lost value over time. That’s right: the minimum wage isn’t just stagnant. It is actually worth almost 15% less now than it was in 2009. It’s no wonder then that workers in North Carolina continued to fall further and further behind.

It’s tempting to think that those of us who support raising the minimum wage should circumvent the state legislature and take our case directly to Congress. But here, too, we find that all roads take us back to North Carolina. Minimum wage issues are handled in the House of Representatives by the Committee on Education and the Workforce. That Committee is currently chaired by none other than Representative Virginia Foxx, who represents North Carolina’s fifth congressional district.

Foxx, a rabidly anti-worker Republican who stripped the word “labor” from her Committee’s name because she claims it sounds “marxist”, described raising the minimum wage as “radical.” She bizarrely argued that doing so would “not help workers make ends meet” which is such a baffling failure of logic that we won’t bother trying to make a counterargument beyond: yes, it will.

And so, back in Raleigh, Republicans with super majorities in the state legislature refuse to allow so much as a hearing on raising the minimum wage, while Rep. Foxx blocks it in the House. All the while, their constituents continue to fall further and further behind…

What It Means

Fast forward to 2024. We are just six months from the November elections. Joe Biden and Donald Trump are vying to put North Carolina in their respective electoral college columns, while unions declare the South a new front in their bid to revitalize the organized labor movement. North Carolina’s economy is facing dynamic challenges with huge investments in green energy but devastating economic stagnation in rural areas. And if Democrats can manage to win working class voters with the right message on minimum wage, it could just be the motivation legislators need to take action and pay workers what they’re due.

Next week, in Part II of All Roads Lead to Raleigh, we’ll dive into what’s happening on the ground in North Carolina today, talk about the critical race for governor, and explore how the Patriotic Millionaires and the Great Economy Project are teaming up with working class people in the Tar Heel State to unrig the economy, pay the people, and spread the power.