Interview with Leslie Winner and John Hood

Leslie Winner, a Democrat and former NC state senator, was the former executive director of the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation and past recipient of the Governor’s Order of Long Leaf Pine award for outstanding service. John Hood, a Conservative and founder of the John Locke Foundation, is president of the John William Pope Foundation and serves as a weekly panelist on the political talk show “NC SPIN.” These leaders co-chair the North Carolina Leadership Forum (NCLF), which brings together NC civic, business, and political leaders from across the political spectrum to engage in thoughtful dialogue and attempt to find common ground on political issues. 

Ms. Winner and Mr. Hood have spent the past week at Duke in the Sanford School of Public Policy. Their residency culminates in an event today, NC Politics: Finding Common Ground in a Polarized World, at 12:00 pm at the East Duke Parlors. Earlier this week, Ms. Winner and Mr. Hood sat down with DPR’s Zach Fuchs to talk about polarization and current events in North Carolina politics.

DPR: Can you tell me more about the North Carolina Leadership Forum?

Winner: The Leadership Forum was created because John and I agreed that it was a problem that there weren’t very many opportunities for people in policy positions who disagreed with each other to talk to each other. And in general, people who are concerned about public affairs don’t read or avail themselves of access to the same news sources. Everybody reads their own news sources, their own opinion steam, and we end up with a pretty different view of the world based on not even having shared facts. So we decided to try to create a low-threat place that North Carolina leaders who disagreed with each other could get together and talk about an issue of importance to them candidly.

Hood: There were a couple of different goals that we specified that we knew going in we would have. And they were related, but they were distinguishable. And the first goal is what Leslie was talking about, which is simply to foster and to model civil dialogue across political difference. The other goal was to delve deeply into a difficult issue, and see where we agreed and disagreed and see if there weren’t some things, some areas of common interest or even specific ideas that most or all of us would agree to. We chose the topic, “How do we help more North Carolinians earn enough to support their families,” which is a broad statement that encompasses workforce and regulatory matters, minimum wages, business creation and occupational access, training, and all sorts of things. So we chose that topic because if you’re going to have a civil dialogue, it has to be about something. You’re not just going to sit down and say, “Let’s rap about our differences.” You have to have a focus for the conversation, and so we chose this particular, fairly broad topic that pretty much everybody sees as topical and important. Perhaps contrary to our expectations, there really wasn’t a blowup or a deep fissure that was created between two people or two factions or anything of that sort, so it was a very civil conversation with a bunch of Southerners who can get along fine with each other politely. But we’re not sure that we got deep enough into the dialogue across differences part. So we feel pretty good about the initial year, but we think there’s a lot of room for improvement as we go forward.

DPR: Is working on dialogue across differences what you’ve been working on in your residency here at Duke?

Hood: It’s a big part of what we’re working on here. Talking about the leadership forum as an example of an attempt to address the problem, but also talking more generally about the problem, about our thoughts. I mean, we’re hardly experts in the field [of fostering civil dialogue across political difference]. But to the extent that we’ve learned something, we’re trying to pass that along to faculty and students and others, but we’re also trying to learn from them. We that there are some insights about group dynamics, about the source of political difference, insights about the relationship between our emotional responses and our sort-of political rhetoric that academicians have insights about. We know that there’s some knowledge out there that will help us, so we’re trying to take knowledge in and put knowledge out over the course of the week.

“I’ve stopped saying that we’re a purple state and started saying that we’re a red-and-blue striped state.” – Leslie Winner

DPR: Your event tomorrow is “Finding Common Ground in a Polarized World.” I was thinking about the name for the event and the flyer that’s all over campus with the map of North Carolina. Do you think that North Carolina is more polarized than other places, especially after the contentious transition of gubernatorial power in January? Is polarization a bigger problem here than elsewhere?

Winner: I don’t know that I’m an expert in the whole United States, but I think things are pretty polarized throughout. I think North Carolina has an interesting problem that is not just a year old. And that is that we have a history of being a very politically diverse state. So you’ll recall that we had Jesse Helms and Terry Sanford in the U.S. Senate at the same time elected from North Carolina. So we have a deep history of having conservatives and liberals, or progressives, and a big, pragmatic middle. As the things that have caused the country to become more polarized have also impacted North Carolina, we have a political population that is ripe for polarization.

Hood: A way to think about that is that polarization is simply a national phenomenon. Really, it’s an international phenomenon if you look at what’s happening in European and Latin American politics. So polarization is present in the state of Oregon, polarization is present in the state of Alabama. What makes North Carolina and a few other states interesting, as Leslie’s getting at, is the polarization is happening, but the two poles are not radically different in their size. So if you look at North Carolina, Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Florida—these are all places where polarization exists in varying levels. I mean, there’s differences in the various ways polarization presents itself and the causes. But those are all states that are highly competitive. So that’s what makes North Carolina and a few other states the sort-of cockpit of the conversation because they exemplify the polarization trend, which is national, but the stakes are very high because of competitive elections and margins are obvious.

Winner: I’ve stopped saying that we’re a purple state and started saying that we’re a red-and-blue striped state.

DPR: What do you make of the report from a few months ago by the Electoral Integrity Project at Harvard, which essentially said that if North Carolina were a nation-state, it wouldn’t be a democratic one. I know that the methodology of that study has been under a lot of scrutiny, but do you think that maybe the contentiousness of North Carolina politics, especially at the state level, is more extreme than those other “cockpits” you’re talking about?

Winner: I’m going to start one way and then let John give his lecture on it. Regardless of this article, I’m worried about the strength of democracy in North Carolina and in the whole country. I deeply am worried about the influence of money in politics, particularly the non-transparent money. I am worried about efforts to make voting harder instead of easier. And I’m worried about how the way districts are drawn puts too many people in seats that are not competitive on a partisan basis. I think all of those things cause a fragility of democracy that I worry about. I’m not prepared to talk about the methodology of that study. It was very eye catching. So John will tell you why he doesn’t think the study was worth anything. My point of view is that, whether the study is worth anything or not, I think we have something to worry about.

Hood: Very simply, not a single person involved in that study ever compared North Carolina to any other system that they knew about. It’s not the way the study was done. Each of the jurisdictions, whether it was international or states, they asked a group of political scientists, primarily in each state, to rate things according to their own subjective standards. So the people who were asked North Carolina to Tennessee may have no knowledge of Tennessee whatsoever. They simply were in North Carolina. No one was asked to compare North Carolina to Cuba or North Korea ever, so that should tell you something right there about the goofiness of this. I mean, this is junk science that embarrassed people involved, and they don’t understand that. But more importantly, it was a piece of junk science that was then misrepresented. North Carolina was hardly the lowest state in this system. In fact, New York and North Carolina were very close together. So New York under this system is roughly similar to autocratic countries in democracy. You can believe that if you want to, but most people with common sense would recognize that you are freer in New York or North Carolina politically than you are in Venezuela. This is the kind of thing that embarrasses academia, it pushes it away from the actual mainstream conversation in the United States, it’s one of the reasons why professors have lost status and higher education institutions look from the outside like they are living in a complete fantasy world.

But that having been said, there are clear challenges to the democratic process, to freedom of speech, freedom of organization. These threats are not coming from just one side. This particular set of issues is something where you have a lot of disagreement. On some matters, like voting laws or voter ID requirements and so forth, we should also have a general sense in the public that something is amiss. Leaders aren’t acting like adults. They’re not engaging with each other in a respectful way. And there’s a tremendous hunger for that. I think that’s what the public wants, and a representative government can’t long succeed if it denies what the public wants.

DPR: That’s a good segue to my next set of questions, which are about HB2. That’s something that’s been in the news nationally and it’s an issue that’s hard to understand because of a gap between what politicians say and the public seems to want. I saw an AP report last week that if HB2 were law for the next dozen years, North Carolina would lose over $3 billion. Considering that and all of the pushback against HB2, why has it taken over a year for the law to be repealed?

Hood: The first thing to know about this set of issues is that they’re not limited to North Carolina. North Carolina was a consciously chosen flashpoint by both sides. The LGBT community, having seen [the defeat of an earlier ordinance in Houston] as a loss, began to look for places where they could advance what they truly believed to be the appropriate treatment of transgender individuals. And they succeed in a number of other places, and Charlotte was one of those places. But at the same time, the folks who didn’t want that standard were also looking for a battle that they could win on the policy. And Charlotte was one of the places they decided to fight in. And that fight in Charlotte was about a yearlong fight, with the legislature warning them all along, “Don’t do it, we’ll stop you. We’ll overturn you.” So everybody knew that once the Charlotte ordinance was enacted, it would be overturned. It’s important to understand that. So the HB2 comes along, very quickly put together. Well, lawmakers didn’t have much time to look at it. It was put together over a long period of time, but not in the legislature—

Winner: And not in the public.

Hood: Right. There was a variety of other interests and lawyers representing those organizations that worked hard on the bill, but it was very quickly run through the general assembly. And then the Obama Administration responded with their own policy, which was in the form of a letter supposedly advising colleges and universities, but was really a regulation that was not put through the normal regulatory process. I think the Obama statement is the most extreme and absurd of the [different responses]. So, politics got into it, the gubernatorial race. It’s a very complicated subject because it’s not just about the bathroom piece—it’s about anti-discrimination ordinances, it’s about the living wage piece—

Winner: That’s a really good example of why you shouldn’t pass legislation in 24 hours that nobody’s read.

Hood: That’s true. So anyway, the bill that was enacted last week, House Bill 142, is about the shortest controversial bill that you will ever read. It simply repeals House Bill 2. And it says the state will make the decision about standards for access for multiple occupancy facilities—

DPR: That’s not exactly that it says.

Winner: What it says is local governments can’t make any regulation.

DPR: Do you mean the moratorium until 2020?

Winner: No, that’s a separate matter. So it preempts local governments and divisions of the states from making any regulations, which, as I read it, means that they basically can’t regulate it. The people in those institutons—UNC for example—have their own individual choice about which bathroom to use and UNC can’t regulate it.

Hood: That is the ambiguity. Basically, it does say that this is the state’s prerogative, but the state doesn’t then exercise prerogative in the bill.

DPR: So doesn’t it prevent state institutions from protecting the LGBTQ community?

Winner: But it also prevents them from hurting them too. In that part of it, what it really does is it takes away the requirement that you have to use the restroom or changing facility that’s on your birth certificate. It prohibits the state entities like UNC and the local entities—school systems, cities, etcetera—from making any regulation. So they can’t tell anybody where to go one way or the other. But what it does is it takes away from the cities and counties the ability to tell private businesses what to do. So that part of the bill is actually fairly clear.

Hood: It is.

Winner: In my view, [HB 142] is a big step forward from HB2. I find the most troubling part of the [new] bill to be the moratorium section, which basically leaves LGBT people without any protection against just standard employment discrimination that has nothing to do with changing rooms or bathrooms, but really identity-based employment discrimination and also public accommodation discrimination. 

Hood: Until 2020.

DPR: That’s the part that the ACLU and Human Rights Campaign have criticized already?

Winner: They don’t like the preemption part of it either.

Hood: They want the local governments to be able to specify bathrooms.

Winner: So it’s a very difficult situation. There’s a long history of economic boycotts in the United States and they’ve been very effective over the years for various purposes. But when you use the tactic of an economic boycott, then you are linking yourself to the judgment of those economic players about how much progress is acceptable to lift the boycott. So the state found itself in a very difficult place for a year. And it’s still in a difficult place.

“HB2 and the gubernatorial race was just the last act of a multi-act drama. It has put North Carolina politically as one of the big stories in the country.” – John Hood

DPR: One last question. For the past year, from the 2016 election to the HB2 debate, North Carolina has been under a microscope. Has anything positive for the state come from all this attention?

Hood: I think that the premise of the question is a little mistaken because the focus on North Carolina from the national media is not a year old—it’s five yeas old. Remember in 2013 the rise in the Moral Monday movement, the changes North Carolina and only North Carolina made to unemployment insurance that led to massive coverage in the New York Times and all the news networks, to the fights about taxes and education spending to the Senate race in 2014, which was the most-watched Senate race in the country. So it’s several years of focus, of which HB2 and the gubernatorial race was just the last act of a multi-act drama. It has put North Carolina politically as one of the big stories in the country. The HB2 controversy, on balance, obviously damaged the state’s reputation. But on many of the other issues, the reputation depends on who you ask. Conservatives around the country think North Carolina’s a leader. They think North Carolina’s a great place. They’re hoping to emulate North Carolina on a variety of subjects. Conservatives see North Carolina positively. Progressives don’t.

Winner: So I’ll just say the other side of that. I think North Carolina got a lot of attention a long time before any of that because people like Governor Jim Hunt and Terry Sanford, since we’re sitting here in the Sanford School, led North Carolina into being seen as an exception in the South because of its generally progressive policies. And I think that was really good for North Carolina, both because of the policies themselves about education and etcetera, and because it made us a very favorable business climate, so it let us transition out of agriculture and some of the standard Deep South kind of industries and businesses and into the 20th century and towards the 21st century better than most of the other states were able to do. So I think the reason we got this attention is not that we’re so much different now from what South Carolina or Alabama are doing. It’s because before we were different. And that is what is what has made it newsworthy, combined with our red-and-blue stripedness, which always will make us an interesting place in national and statewide elections.


This interview has been edited and condensed.

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