Politics & Government

February 5, 2014

Episodes show that the reality TV of politics is not always pretty

North Carolina has seen its share of lawmakers behaving badly in recent years. The most recent is Bill Rabon’s profanity-laced meeting with his constituents. Political observers say such episodes only reinforce the public’s perception about politicians.

The scenes read like a script from an off-color sitcom about politics.

A top lawmaker shouts down his constituents and trashes the leaders of his own party. Another one puffs his chest and tells a “citizen” to be quiet. And two more openly refer to their critics as “morons.”

Call the show “Lawmakers Behaving Badly.” And look no further than North Carolina’s political arena for a rich trove of material.

Soon after Republicans took power in 2011, an open mic in a private meeting caught House Speaker Thom Tillis talking about giving certain Democrats a “gut punch” and retaliating against political enemies.

Last session, state Sen. Tommy Tucker told a newspaper publisher who confronted him about a bill, “I am the senator. You are the citizen. You need to be quiet.” The Waxhaw Republican disputed the incident.

In January, state Sen. Bob Rucho, a Charlotte Republican, took to Twitter to call a Raleigh resident who criticized him a “moron,” the same word Wilmington Republican state Sen. Thom Goolsby used last year to label protesters at the statehouse.

The latest example features state Sen. Bill Rabon, a Southport Republican who serves as the co-chairman of the Finance Committee.

A transcript and tape from Rabon’s meeting with constituents about the so-called puppy mill legislation leaked last week. It showed him cursing and using crude language, assailing Gov. Pat McCrory and first lady Ann McCrory and touting his “top five” power. (“Let me blow my own horn,” he said.)

And while none of that is in the same realm as New York, where U.S. Rep. Michael Grimm was caught on tape telling a reporter he would “break (him) in half” and “throw (him) off this balcony,” the episodes did reveal the uglier side of politics. Think less “West Wing,” more “House of Cards.”

Such behavior only reinforces the public’s perception about politicians, whose approval ratings at the national and state level remain dismal.

“Any one event probably doesn’t make a big deal, it’s cumulative. In political science, we think voters kind of have a running tally, and it starts to reflect in the polls,” said Kenneth Fernandez, the director of the Elon University poll. “When you have a bunch of politicians misbehaving, people start to think, ‘Um, they aren’t supposed to do that.’ ”

Political observers say that having a legislative supermajority and sitting in districts drawn so acutely in their favor is making some Republican lawmakers feel invincible.

Mac McCorkle, a Duke University public policy professor and longtime political consultant, said what struck him was how openly Rabon discussed the internal Republican Party laundry, trashing the governor and using a derogatory word for a woman’s genitalia to describe House lawmakers.

“His bizarre kind of attack on the governor and first lady in front of (constituents) … seems to me to reflect this incredible boiling cauldron that we aren’t seeing going on,” McCorkle said.

Ernie Ward, a veterinarian and pet advocate who attended the Jan. 16 meeting with Rabon, a fellow veterinarian, said he expected a politician to show respect for his voters. Instead Ward said he came away with a different vision of politics.

“As a professional colleague and a voting member of his district, I was shocked at the way we were treated,” Ward said in an interview. “We were not treated responsibly; there was no humility.”

McCrory admonished Rabon for his language, calling for a more respectful dialogue, and the lawmaker later apologized.

Dee Stewart, a Republican consultant who manages Rabon’s campaigns, put the lawmaker’s words in a different light. “He’s a very direct and interesting person to talk to,” Stewart said. “I think it’s refreshing to have a person like Senator Rabon in Raleigh who doesn’t check his personality at the city limit.”

The language, Stewart said, shouldn’t be surprising. “I think that there are occasions when some public officials use salty language in a public moment,” he said. “I think some of the people who are acting like they are taken aback by this moment probably use salty language themselves.”

Democrats are not above such behavior. U.S. Rep. Bob Etheridge grabbed a young man with a video camera on a Capitol Hill sidewalk and angrily demanded, “Who are you?”

And former House Speaker Jim Black showed a different kind of bad behavior: In 2007, the Democrat pleaded guilty to a long list of criminal charges related to illegal payments he took from campaign contributors, including taking cash in a men’s bathroom at a restaurant.

Senate Rules Chairman Tom Apodaca, a six-term Republican veteran, said that when Democrats were in power, they often showed their disregard for the minority party. It just wasn’t as visible as actions which can now be caught on camera phones and video, broadcast on YouTube or captured forever in a screen grab.

“There were plenty of times they thumbed their nose at us and did what they wanted to do,” he said.

Republicans successfully used Democratic controversies to score political points. And now the attention is focused on the Republicans who wield the gavel.

Fernandez, the polling director, said that voters are forgiving and that politicians and political parties can work to restore their image. But for those watching politics, sometimes the old adage about sausage making proves more true than not.

“The less you know and see about (politics), the better it is,” he said. “Once we start with the magnifying glass looking at the process, it looks messy.”

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