Originally published in The Nation.
WHEN THE REPUBLICANS TOOK OVER the North Carolina Statehouse last January, Frances Cummings seemed a fitting choice to head the subcommittee on public education. As president of the North Carolina Association of Educators, she had lobbied for higher teacher pay and better funding for rural schools. She also spoke from experience: For more than a quarter-century, she had taught in a remote, violent, racially divided county on the South Carolina border. So what was Cummings’s first task as chairwoman of the House subcommittee? She tried to restore prayer in the public schools.
Exactly three weeks into her new role, the 54-year-old Cummings introduced a bill requiring schoolchildren to observe a moment of silence each day. Although the bill called for nothing more than “quiet reflection,” Cummings made no secret of her real intent. “Adults and children are more prepared now to accept that it is necessary to return to prayer for guidance of the Holy Spirit,” she told the House education committee this past spring.
The bill swept through the committee. Before it reached the House floor, Cummings issued a memorandum calling her legislation divinely inspired and declaring herself a “heavenly soldier on Earth’s battlefield.” Anyone who tried to scuttle her bill faced peril, she warned: “I will not have bloodstains on my hands.” Few House members wanted to tangle with God’s messenger; Cummings’s bill triumphed 91 to 12.
Sadly for Cummings, Democrats still control the North Carolina Senate, and they left it up to individual school boards to decide whether to institute a moment of silence. Cummings’s response: “I came to this assembly to remove wickedness from high places. Anyone who is against me is against the will of God.”
A year ago a legislator like Frances Cummings would never have been taken seriously in Raleigh, much less been given a leadership position. But the 1994 G.O.P. landslide changed the tenor of North Carolina’s statehouse—and of statehouses all over the country. The Republican sweep not only shifted the balance of power in Congress but in state legislatures, where mini-Gingriches subsequently have waged their own crusades this year.
Republicans seized control of nineteen new legislative chambers in last year’s elections. As a result, in Raleigh, Olympia, Helena, Hartford and other state capitals, conservative lawmakers—some with extremist views—are reversing their states’ policies regarding education, civil rights, reproductive freedom and environmental protection. Since November 1994 “the media and political pundits have talked about the sea change at the federal level,” says Tom Novick, project director for the Western States Center in Portland, Oregon. “But what a lot of people missed was what happened at the state level. At a time when the New Federalism is turning power and control of programs over to the states, suddenly we have reactionary forces trying to change the way state governments work.”
Novick, a former Oregon lawmaker, has watched his own state’s legislature flip from Democratic to Republican control within two election cycles. In 1994 the state Senate made the switch, while the Republican House swelled with a new breed of hard-line conservatives.
In a state known for its dedication to conservation and land-use planning, Oregon legislators introduced some 150 measures that would have rolled back two decades of environmental progress. One of the most far-reaching came from Senator Rod Johnson, nicknamed Worf for his resemblance to the Klingon warrior in the Star Trek series. The son of one of southern Oregon’s biggest timber barons, Johnson became chairman of the Senate committee on water and land use after the G.O.P. takeover.
Johnson’s “ecotake” bill, as it was called, would have forced the state and local governments to reimburse landowners whenever new environmental rules reduced the value of their property. The measure applied particularly to wildlife, wetlands, open-space and wilderness regulations. With Johnson pleading that “people are losing their life savings, their dreams, their rights” to environmental zealots in the state bureaucracy, both chambers passed the ecotake bill. Governor John Kitzhaber, a Democrat, vetoed it in a public ceremony. It was one of the record fifty-two bills Kitzhaber nixed this past year.
In neighboring Washington, however, where House Republicans gained twenty-seven seats to control that chamber sixty to thirty-eight, Democratic Governor Mike Lowry had no veto power over an even more savage ecotake bill because it originated as an initiative. The measure, which the legislature passed into law, handcuffs the state from enacting any new environmental regulations. “It’s the most far-reaching [takings law] even proposed in the United States, let alone passed,” says Don Hopps, director of the Coalition for a Livable Washington. Although voters overturned the new law in November, both sides expect the legislature to revisit the property rights issue next year.
Washington’s Republicans didn’t restrict themselves to environmental rollback. The legislature also gutted a 1993 health care reform law aimed at containing costs and guaranteeing universal medical coverage. The law required insurance companies to limit rate increases, to offer a minimum-benefits package and to use a community-rating system for setting premiums. The Seattle Times reported that the legislature’s revision of the law could leave 300,000 to 400,000 people without health coverage in Washington. Still, Governor Lowry signed the bill, explaining that a veto might spark a more extreme ballot initiative. This bill is a prelude of what might happen should Gingrich and the Republicans in Congress succeed in their campaign to dump federal health care responsibilities onto the states.
On welfare reform, it is useful to look at Connecticut for a preview of what the federal shifting of responsibility might mean. Democrats have controlled both chambers of the Connecticut legislature for twenty-eight of the past thirty years. In 1994, Republicans gained two Senate seats to control that chamber nineteen to seventeen. Those two seats were enough to spark a complete overhaul of the state’s welfare law. The new law cuts benefits, requires fingerprinting of recipients and puts limits on how long someone can receive welfare. It stipulates that newcomers to the state will receive 10 percent less than established residents. The G.O.P. agreed to increase state funding for child care, which was the compromise it took to win the support of House Democrats. The latter were unmoved by estimates that the bill could throw 40,000 families off the welfare rolls at a time when only 10,000 low-skill jobs are available in Connecticut. “It was really pretty gruesome,” progressive lobbyist Betty Gallo says of the law’s passage. “It was really a shock. This was Connecticut; people weren’t used to it.”
For sheer extremism, though, no legislature compares to Montana’s, which essentially voted to secede from the Union after the 1994 elections gave both chambers a G.O.P. majority for the first time since 1953. The Federal Mandates Act, passed this past April, proclaims that the state has the authority to disobey any federal mandate that “does not conform to Montana’s customs and culture.”
The legislature considered all sorts of measures this year, including ones abolishing compulsory education and rescinding all environmental laws. Fortunately, these efforts never made it out of committee. But the measure that drew the most attention was one that would have forced lesbians and gay men convicted of consensual sodomy (which is against Montana law) to register their whereabouts for life. Part of a broader act requiring the registration of violent sex offenders, it passed the Senate by a vote of 41 to 8 before national outrage forced the embarrassed senators to reconsider. The legislators “were truly amazed at the outcry—truly taken off guard,” says Christine Kaufmann, director of the Montana Human Rights Network.
A reality about state politics is that the numbers make it much easier for fringe candidates to get elected. In most Congressional districts, a candidate needs a heap of money and 100,000 or so votes to win a seat in the House of Representatives. But in North Carolina, for example, a Statehouse candidate can coast in with 5,000 votes. Given how little scrutiny statehouse candidates throughout the country attract, practically anyone can plunk down a filing fee, raise $20,000 and become a front-runner. That’s especially true when a national organization like the Christian Coalition launches a drive to get its followers to the polls. And in most statehouses there are fewer brakes on extremist legislation than there are in the U.S. Congress.
Perhaps no state swept an odder assortment of characters into the legislature last year than North Carolina, where the House swung from a seventy-eighty-to-forty-two Democratic majority to a sixty-eight-to-fifty-two Republican one. Suddenly, conservatives who would have been marginalized in prior sessions became committee heads and floor leaders. There is Henry Aldridge, chairman of the House aging subcommittee, who tried to eliminate the state fund used to pay for abortions for poor women. When asked about rape victims, Aldridge said not to worry: “The facts show that people who are raped, who are truly raped, the juices don’t flow, the body functions don’t work, and they don’t get pregnant.” The legislature cut the fund from $1.2 million to $50,000.
Then there is Sam Ellis, chairman of a House local government committee. He fought a moderate Republican bill that would have granted judges the power to confiscate guns owned by convicted spouse abusers. “Only two-thirds” of domestic murders in North Carolina take place with handguns, he explained to a reporter from the Raleigh News & Observer. “I am looking for a 100-percent solution.” And Robin Hayes, who serves as the House majority whip, pushed through a bill requiring schools to teach that sexual abstinence, followed by monogamous heterosexual marriage, is the only acceptable way to live. During the debate, he endorsed a curriculum that teaches students to wash their genitals with Lysol after marital sex. Hayes, now a gubernatorial candidate, explained that the person who drafted the curriculum “says this is a commonly found disinfectant in virtually every household. Even disadvantaged folks would typically have this in their household.”
All this would be entertaining if these legislators weren’t succeeding in their missions. But this year North Carolina, long known for its liberal statehouse, curbed abortion rights for adolescents, legalized concealed weapons, made it easier to sell cigarettes to children and cut taxes by $40 million for the wealthiest 1 percent of its people while slashing social services. Ohio and Wisconsin, where the G.O.P. secured two-chamber monopolies last year, both passed school-voucher legislation that would pay for students to attend religious schools. Nineteen states have seen the introduction of “parental rights” bills that would give parents complete authority over what their children are taught. Ohio banned dilation-and-extraction abortions, which are almost always performed only in emergency cases but which have become a particular target of the Christian Coalition. And in South Dakota, where the Republicans took control of the Senate last fall, a bill was passed that gives legal personhood to fetuses.
Last month’s elections in Virginia, Kentucky and New Jersey demonstrate that the shift toward Republican state governments is not inexorable. But Democrats considered it a triumph that they did not lose any more legislative chambers. Winning back statehouses is a more distant goal. Many progressive organizations are trying to figure out how to undo the conservative victory at the national level. Fewer are targeting state legislatures. A general upswing in the Democratic Party’s fortunes at the federal level—and a decline in Newt Gingrich’s—likely will stanch the G.O.P.’s success in state legislative districts. Still, the Christian Coalition and like-minded outfits that focus on local as well as national races go unchecked in hundreds, if not thousands, of counties across the country. Unless progressives mount a vigorous counter-campaign, the recent lurch to the right in statehouses—and the legislation it has produced—might be the start of a long and painful trend.