Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Sunday, November 19, 2017 10:10 am

Meet the candidate: Adam Coker, NC13, U.S. House

Friday night I met one of two announced Democratic candidates in 2018 for the U.S. House seat from North Carolina’s 13th Congressional District, Adam Coker, at a meet-and-greet at the home of the daughter and son-in-law of a friend. Summary: I think he’d be a great replacement for GOP incumbent Rep. Ted Budd, but 1) he has an uphill climb in a predominantly Republican district and 2) his message, although fundamentally sound, needs some polish and is even problematic in a few areas.

(Here’s my take on Budd, derived from a quasi-town-hall meeting he held here in Greensboro this past April. That post also includes some background on the district. If you look at a district map, the 13th looks kindof like a labradoodle, with the dog’s head being where most of the district’s Democrats are clustered: western Greensboro and Guilford County. The rest of the district is mostly moderate to deep red territory and mostly rural.)

Coker’s bio, which he summarized at the gathering, would seem to make him a pretty good fit for this hybrid district. He’s descended from farmers, mill workers and small-business owners but grew up in Greensboro and became one of the first two people in his family to graduate from college. He’s been a small business owner and has traveled the country extensively.

He talked most, and most powerfully, about the need for universal health care, a game in which he has some serious skin because his young son was born with a heart condition. Even if that weren’t the case, given that Virginia voters in last week’s gubernatorial and legislative elections there told exit pollsters that health care was their top priority, he’s politically smart to lead with this issue, especially because, as I write, Senate Republicans are trying to take away health insurance from 13 million Americans as part of their tax cut for the rich.

Given the nature of the district, Coker talked about the need to focus on issues that unite people rather than dividing them. I agree in principle, but this raised a caution flag for me. As I’ve written here many times, and as polling data show, the national media have made far too much of the economic concerns of the white working class and not nearly enough of the racial resentment that drove them to vote for Trump. I think it’s perfectly appropriate to make appeals to our commonality on issues like health care. But I also think it’s a waste of time and money to try to get many Trump supporters converted; those resources are better spent registering new voters, particularly women of color, and getting them to the polls next May and November.

In response to a question about unifying the voters of the district, Coker acknowledged that abortion remains a divisive hot-button issue. From my standpoint, unfortunately, he failed to grasp just how dishonest anti-abortion activists have been in their arguments and thereby weakened his own.

He seems to believe, as Bill Clinton did before him, that a platform of making abortion safe, legal and rare will win the hearts and minds of conservatives. That was a dubious proposition even in 1992. Today there’s not a shred of evidence to that effect; if there were, conservatives would want to give Planned Parenthood, which provides contraception and prenatal services and therefore helps reduce the need for abortion, more money rather than trying to cut it off entirely on the basis of fabricated video, as the Republican health care plan tried to do and as some conservative GOP activists would like their tax plan to do.

And Coker appears to fail to grasp that conservatives aren’t just against abortion, they also want to overturn the Supreme Court’s 1965 Griswold v. Connecticut decision, which legalized birth control nationwide. (Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore recently said, “By 1962, the United States Supreme Court took prayer out of school. Then they started to create new rights in 1965, and now, today, we’ve got a problem.” Most media observers initially thought Moore was talking about that year’s Voting Rights Act, but it seems more likely he was talking about Griswold — voting wasn’t a new right in 1965, but contraception was.)

My own take on abortion is straightforward: Women should have autonomy over their own bodies just as men do; accordingly, abortion is a decision to be made between a woman and her doctor, full stop. Not only do anti-abortion activists have no legal or moral standing to get involved, they are not arguing in good faith and therefore shouldn’t even be listened to. I’m just one person, but I believe that that needs to be Coker’s position and he needs to embrace it loudly and strongly for two reasons: First, he’s not going to win over any anti-abortion activists. It just is not going to happen. And, second, anything less than full support of reproductive rights will demotivate his own base, which he needs not only at the polls but also to do all the work of winning prospective voters’ hearts and minds and then getting them to the polls.

Given the House’s recent approval of the appalling GOP tax bill — which will greatly accelerate the upward transfer and concentration of wealth in this country by effectively raising taxes on almost all but the very wealthy — I asked Coker what his tax bill would look like. (Poor choice of words on my part: I meant not necessarily that he should write his own bill, but rather, what kind of bill he would support.) He took me literally and said he doesn’t have one yet but is working with tax and economic advisors to develop a tax and economics platform. (He named one economic advisor whom I won’t name here because I don’t know if this individual is ready for his involvement in Coker’s campaign to be public yet, but it’s someone I’ve known and respected for years.)

Coker didn’t do a lot of Trump-bashing, but he also didn’t demur when some audience members did it for him. And he did say two things that resonated with me: First, that the system must be made to work for everybody, not just the hyperwealthy (my word) elites, and, second, that the current system is bullying the less powerful and that he, and we, must stand up to the bullying. The first point seems self-evident. The second point resonates with me because of what I have observed to be driving Trump policy in particular and GOP policy in general.

Trump’s decisions seem to be driven, to the extent he has any motivation, by three things:

  • Inurement — he’s cashing in, plain and simple. His serial violations of the Emoluments Clause will be studied by students of political science and law for decades to come and with any luck will lead directly to some legislative reform, such as requiring presidential candidates to make tax returns public and divest themselves of all assets before taking office.
  • His desire to undo the accomplishments of his predecessor, Barack Obama.
  • And finally, his desire to do things just to piss his political opponents off, a desire shared by Congressional Republicans and even by the GOP leadership in the N.C. General Assembly. That, in a word, is the bullying that Coker describes.

One example is the GOP willingness to end health insurance for millions of Americans to give the wealthy a massive and unneeded tax cut. As another example, I would point to the Trump administration’s announcement earlier this week that it would lift an Obama-era ban on importation of elephant parts, a ban intended to reduce poaching pressure on the animals. The ban would benefit Trump’s sons, who have proudly posed for photos after having killed elephants, it would undo part of Obama’s legacy, and it would piss off people working to protect elephants in particular and endangered species in general. Granted, late in the week Trump appeared to bow to political and media pressure and announce that the decision would be on hold pending a review. But the case neatly illustrates how Trump and the GOP think — and that’s something Coker appears determined to fight.

If in fact he is determined to fight it, then we can use him and many more like him.

Coker faces at least one other announced candidate for the Democratic nomination in the 13th District, Beniah McMiller. I hope to meet him and report on him soon.

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Friday, April 14, 2017 3:07 pm

Report of sorts on the town hall held this morning by my congresscritter, U.S. Rep. Ted Budd, R-NC13

First, a bit of background for those who aren’t from ’round here.

The congresscritter: Freshman GOP Rep. Ted Budd of the newly redrawn 13th CD of North Carolina. Ran a gun shop before getting elected. In a GOP-leaning district, the political newcomer emerged almost literally out of nowhere from a crowded GOP primary field mainly because he got a boatload of Club for Growth money. Club for Growth is a 501c4 that represents the tax-cuts-for-the-rich-and-steal-middle-class-wealth-by-any-means-necessary wing of the GOP, which is to say the party mainstream.

The district (into which I was placed recently after having spent almost 30 years in NC06): Encompasses about the southwestern third of Guilford County, along with Davie and Davidson counties and most of Iredell County. All but Guilford are heavily Republican (and I cut my reporting teeth in Iredell almost 35 years ago writing about Ku Klux Klan activities there); Guilford was the only part of the district Budd didn’t carry. N.C. districts were redrawn after the 4th Circuit threw out the pre-existing congressional districts on the grounds that they’d been racially gerrymandered, targeting African American voters “with almost surgical precision.” The districts redrawn since still gerrymander to the enormous benefit of Republicans; their constitutionality is in question, too.

The venue: 9 a.m.-noon today in a conference or dining room in the Marriott Hotel on North Greene Street in downtown Greensboro. (If you’re interested, Budd just opened a district office in Greensboro, at 4400 Piedmont Parkway.) For most of that time, between 100 and 200 people were in the room at once. Some came and some went, so I have no idea what total attendance was.

The town hall format: Other than the fact that there was decent free coffee, a fustercluck. More on this below.

# # #

First, let’s give Ted Budd credit for even showing up. That’s a low bar, but it’s one a significant percentage of his GOP House colleagues so far haven’t cleared.

Second, let’s give him credit for being in the moment. He already had started talking to people when I arrived about 8:45, and he was still going (although he’d been warned by an aide that time was up) when I left at 12:10. During all that time, he was on his feet and talking to people without so much as 3-minute bathroom break. He shook hands, looked people in the eye, really seemed to be listening attentively, didn’t interrupt anyone at all that I recall, referred people to staffers if the issues they were raising were ones with which staff reasonably could be expected to assist, and seemed to treat everyone — Democrat, Republican, unaffiliated, male, female, etc. — pretty much the same, which is to say, in a word, courteously, and he did that whether each conversation ran to two minutes or 10.

It is here, however, that I pretty much run out of credit to give Budd.

Let’s start with the format. It was great … if you were Budd. For the rest of us, it sucked. Here’s what I mean.

When you think of a town hall, you generally think of a large room with the congresscritter down in front with a microphone and constituents in seats, stepping up one at a time (ideally to another microphone) to ask a question or state an opinion on an issue. The whole room gets to hear the question, and the whole room gets to hear the congresscritter’s response.

That’s not what this was. This was more like a cocktail party (without cocktails, sadly), with Budd holding serial one-on-one conversations with attendees. He did not use a microphone. He moved around the room a fair bit, surrounded by a cluster of people (often including TV people with large cameras) who wanted to talk to him and therefore were forced to move with him. Often, only Budd and his interlocutor could hear what was being said. There were almost no chairs in the room until some of the attendees prevailed on hotel staff to bring a few more.

The format favored the tall and the people who were fit enough to stand in one place for extended periods, who, probably not coincidentally, also were the most likely demographic to be Budd supporters. I got close enough to take my turn with Budd several times but instead invited others who didn’t seem to be doing so well physically to go ahead of me.

It also made it very difficult — and I believe this was intentional — for others to record what Budd was asked and what he said in return. A lot of people, including me, tried, but based on what I was able to record, which wasn’t much, I doubt very many people got much that was usable. This deliberate strategy is intended to minimize the risk that a recorded statement, question, or possible gaffe by Budd could go viral.

Several attendees directly criticized Budd for this approach; he ignored them. A large number of us tried to encourage everyone else to sit on the floor and force Budd to address us as a group; the effort worked a little at first but then fizzled out. One large, loud guy (not me) on the edge of the scrum directly questioned Budd over everyone else’s head about health-care policy; the question got applause but Budd didn’t really answer it, so no progress there. (My friend and former colleague Joe Rodriguez of the News & Record captured that exchange on video; I’m hoping it’ll be up later at greensboro.com. UPDATE: Here it is. His colleague Kate Queram also got some of it here.)

I would suggest to anyone going to such an event in the future that you try to organize the crowd to insist that the congresscritter speak to the crowd as one.

Finally, there was Budd’s substance on the issues, which was, by and large, deplorable.

The guy did, in fact, oppose the Republicans’ American Health Care Act (AHCA), the would-be replacement to the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”). The AHCA would have given the top 1% of this country’s earners a $3.8 trillion tax cut while removing up to 24 million Americans from the insurance rolls over the next 10 years, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office It also would have eliminated many popular and efficient provisions of the ACA, such as requiring coverage for mental-health care, allowing children to remain on their parents’ plans until age 26, requiring coverage for pre-existing conditions, and so on. But Budd opposed the AHCA not because it went too far in enriching the rich and screwing over the middle class and poor, but because it didn’t go far enough. And in at least one exchange near the end of the event, he was forthright enough to say so.

Budd at least gave lip service to the notion of Congress as a watchdog on the executive branch. But in response to my asking him why he opposed an independent special prosecutor to examine Trump’s Russia ties, Budd continued to insist that a bipartisan congressional investigation is the best method for finding out the truth there. There is, of course, nothing in the past 16 years to suggest that congressional Republicans have the slightest interest in holding a Republican executive branch accountable, even when a president goes on live TV and admits to having ordered torture or begins violating the Constitution’s Emoluments Clause on his first day in office, and plenty to suggest that they’re eager to abuse the process if it can persecute a Democrat.

Budd strongly supports cutting off all federal funding to Planned Parenthood, even though federal law already bans spending federal dollars for abortion services and even though many poor women can only get primary medical care through Planned Parenthood. Budd argued that 1) because money is fungible, ANY money given to Planned Parenthood is helping pay for abortions, and 2) there are alternative outlets for available, affordable medical care for Planned Parenthood’s patients, although when challenged to name even one in Greensboro, he couldn’t do it. UPDATE: He apparently asked an aide to provide such a list for the constituent who asked him about it; I’ll be surprised if such facilities exist.

(And the thing about that fungibility argument is that it is, itself, fungible: I can use the same argument as a basis for saying I shouldn’t pay federal taxes because they’re going to enrich Trump by paying for his $3-million-a-week visits to his private, for-profit Mar-A-Lago compound. Indeed, I would have the better case.)

Budd believes with Trump that we need to spend even more on the military and less on government programs that help people. At this point, it is hard to think of anyone who still holds this position as anything other than a sociopath.

Budd believes the science of climate change has been, in his word, “politicized,” although he offered no proof. He argued that state, rather than federal, environmental control is best, even though (as I pointed out under my breath at the time) tainted air and polluted water cross state lines; much of North Carolina’s air pollution problem until recently was caused by coal-burning power plants in the Midwest. He argued that environmental regulations are “choking” businesses, even though 1) there’s little research to prove that and 2) we DO have research showing that most such research undervalues human life by a factor of about six.

Budd, an evangelical Christian, reiterated the old canard that the phrase “separation of church and state” is not to be found in the Constitution, a literal truth joined at the hip to a contextual lie: It ignores the existence of the establishment clause of the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion …”

To conclude: Budd is polite and courteous enough, but he is a dangerous ideologue who will pursue measures that weaken the United States strategically, economically, spiritually and as the world’s last, best hope for freedom. He’s smart enough not to behave like a total dick (see, inter alia, Berger, N.C. Sen Phil) in one-on-one interactions. But when you’re a congresscritter, your votes are your morals, and his past votes (he has sided with the GOP all but once in more than 200 recorded votes to date, per one of his aides) put him squarely on the side of screwing the middle class and the poor, imposing a brand of Christianity on this country that tens of millions of Christians find appalling, and actively harming the people whom Christ called “the least of these.” Based on his stated positions, his future votes appear likely to ignore science to do the bidding of Big Carbon even at the expense of killing the Earth (or at least human civilization as we know it), and supporting agents of a hostile foreign power in the White House, to the detriment of U.S. freedom and the country’s global interests and those of its allies. Indeed, Budd seems to have no problem with a “president” who, as I type this, may be getting us into an unnecessary war with North Korea in which millions on the Korean peninsula alone could die.

And don’t even get me started on the gun industry.

Budd strikes me as a younger version of Howard Coble — not the Howard Coble you read about in the media, but the real one: a man who cunningly used an affable personality and nonpartisan affectation to deflect attention from his cold-blooded pursuit of a partisan and dangerous agenda with his votes. The 13th District Democratic Party needs to find at least one qualified candidate to run against Budd, and it needs to do it today.

UPDATE: Reporter Kate Queram also covered the event for the News & Record and was livetweeting it, starting here. Her story is here.

UPDATE: Jordan Green’s report for Triad City Beat is here.

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