Administration resorts to demagoguery in bridge controversy

Dec. 17, 2013 @ 11:18 AM

It’s been a tough first year in office for Pat McCrory and the Governor would do well to study and re-learn some basic political lessons if he gets some downtime over the holidays. The recent controversy over the Bonner Bridge on the Outer Banks should provide a couple.

Number One might be that it’s a really bad idea for rich guys with big salaries, big houses, big offices, big staffs and big cars who live in big, swanky homes to lambast committed advocates with whom they disagree (as Secretary of Transportation Tony Tata did recently) as latte-sipping, air-conditioned elitists. As one columnist noted wryly, picking on air conditioning in any circumstance in modern North Carolina is not likely to win anyone much praise.
But the most important and serious lesson the governor and his people ought to derive from the bridge controversy is this: When it comes to politics and policy, nothing beats really grasping an issue and engaging in serious, fact-based debate. Oh sure, theater and hyperbole have their place, but at some point you really should know your stuff and your opponents. And trying to get by on clichés and personal attacks can be a big mistake – especially when your adversaries are actually incredibly smart and dedicated people who’ve been immersed in the controversial subject at issue for a heck of a lot longer than you.
The Bonner Bridge controversy is a tough debate over an important subject with imperfect solutions. The hard truth is that virtually all construction along North Carolina’s fragile Outer Banks is hugely problematic. The barrier islands involved are incredibly vulnerable and subject to rapid change.
Given this backdrop, it’s not surprising that smart and sincere people differ over how to replace the obsolete bridge. Indeed, this is the same debate Americans have been having about their developed beach communities for decades:
Should we opt for quick fixes that cost less in the short run and put things back just like they were before the ocean intruded (as it will continue to do -- probably with increasing frequency) or should we opt for alternatives that have a larger upfront cost but that will be much more resilient and long-lasting (and probably cheaper in the long run)?
If the governor and his transportation secretary would find the time to actually read the well-researched and thoughtful statements and legal briefs filed by the experts at Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) they might come to understand the depth of this debate (and maybe even school themselves to become intelligent participants in it).  
As is frequently the case in modern America, tough issues like this one don’t lend themselves to a swift resolution.
Democratic processes take lots of time and the courts frequently take even longer -- especially when the stakes are high. Just ask the conservative opponents of the Affordable Care Act, who continue to litigate every tiny shred of the new law even after it was approved by the U.S. Supreme Court.
But is this a reason to engage in mean-spirited and personal attacks against dedicated nonprofit advocates? Good lord – the attacks on SELC by McCrory and Tata have led directly to a situation in which SELC staffers are being forced to endure personal threats! This is simply inexcusable. Can you imagine if President Obama launched such personal attacks against the lawyers in the groups challenging his health care law (an issue that, at least, truly is a life and death matter)?
One year ago, then-Gov.-elect McCrory took a different and more responsible approach when bomb-throwers in his own party were launching wild and inflammatory broadsides against Gov. Beverly Perdue during her administration’s final days.
At the time, McCrory’s decision to respect the authority of the outgoing governor and to avoid ad hominem personal attacks seemed to indicate an intention on his part to take the high road and to focus on the issues. Unfortunately, the events of the past week took his office in an opposite direction and to seldom-plumbed depths.
Let’s hope the man uses the holidays to reflect upon a better and more honorable path.           

Rob Schofield is director of research and policy development at NC Policy Watch.