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N.C. governor brushes off criticism amid weekly protests

By Jim Acosta, CNN National Political Correspondent
updated 5:46 AM EDT, Tue July 16, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Republicans control N.C. state politics for first time in more than a century
  • Liberals have protested outside the statehouse every Monday for three months
  • Democrats accuse Republicans of "turning back the clock" with regressive agenda
  • Governor: Protesters are protecting status quo and that state needed new ideas

Raleigh, North Carolina (CNN) -- Washington no longer has a monopoly on bitter partisanship. Much of the nation's political rancor has spread to statehouses across the country. And the weekly demonstrations outside the North Carolina legislature, dubbed "Moral Mondays," are only the latest example.

As they have for three months, liberal activists rallied once again on Monday outside the GOP-dominated statehouse to protest what they see as an aggressive and fast-moving conservative agenda.

"First the Great Recession. Now the Great Regression," read one protest sign.

"It's about exposing what's immoral and extreme," the Rev. William Barber II, a key Moral Monday leader, said.

Republican leaders in the state just walk past the demonstrators and their posters. Ever since they won control of the legislature and the governor's office for the first time in more than a century, they have repeatedly flexed their newfound muscle.

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Just this year, Gov. Pat McCrory and GOP legislators have cut unemployment benefits, rejected the expansion of Medicaid under the new national health care law, and moved to change voting laws, to the chagrin of Democrats.

On the same day of the latest Moral Monday protest, McCrory announced a deal to reduce state personal income and corporate taxes. Another check, Democrats complain, on the tea party checklist.

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In an interview with CNN, McCrory said, "Frankly it's pragmatic, systematic change that's going to make North Carolina more competitive."

McCrory brushed off criticisms from Democrats that he is only pushing a conservative agenda.

"I have stepped on toes in my first six months in office of the right and the left and the media," McCrory added. "Maybe that means I'm doing something right."

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Democrats in the state, who lack any power to pass, sign, or reject laws for the first time anybody in the party can remember, feel that it's only their toes that McCrory is stepping on. And they accuse the governor and the Republicans of trying to "turn back the clock."

"Overall there tends to be a movement, as we would call it, backwards," Democratic state Sen. Ben Clark said.

McCrory points to his record as mayor of Charlotte for 14 years as proof he can work with both Democrats and Republicans. But Democratic lawmakers are waiting for that bipartisan leadership to emerge in Raleigh.

For progressives in a state that helped elect President Barack Obama in 2008, the only recourse is to protest.

Among the thousands of protesters at this week's gathering, hundreds filed inside the legislative building for a show of force that ended with dozens of well-choreographed arrests.

Gayle Ruedi, a veteran Moral Monday demonstrator who was arrested at a protest in May, said she traveled to Raleigh again, despite having her first court date this week.

"What they did with unemployment is wrong. What they did with Medicaid was wrong. (And) what they're doing with abortion," Ruedi said.

Last week, Republican lawmakers in the state House of Representatives approved new rules governing the practices of physicians who perform abortions.

McCrory has indicated he will sign the guidelines into law, a move Democrats say would break a campaign promise to stay clear of any new abortion restrictions.

"Absolutely not," the governor said, insisting the new rules are only a necessary legal update to regulations already on the books. "Absolutely, that's a promise kept."

The sudden partisan combat in Raleigh is seen as a test to the state's reputation of both business-friendly and centrist leadership.

"I think there are people all over the place who say it doesn't help to have this much disagreement," North Carolina State University political science professor Andy Taylor said.

In light of the state's 8.8% unemployment rate, McCrory argues North Carolina needed a jolt of new ideas.

"They're fighting to keep the status quo," the governor said of the demonstrators.

Taylor says what's happening in Raleigh is a continuation of the partisan battles that have moved from Washington to statehouse in Texas and Wisconsin where Republican governors have recently pushed through controversial abortion restrictions.

As in Austin and Madison, the protests from liberals are having little effect on the legislative process.

Several leaders of the Moral Monday movement said they may continue their weekly gatherings beyond the end of the legislative session, knowing full well they are having little direct impact on the laws passed in their state.

Their focus is on next year's elections.

"The one thing they don't want to see is all of us coming together," Barber said.

CNN's Matt Hoye contributed to this report

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