Drain the swamp” is one of my favorite political slogans. No one really knows what it means, but it suggests that it’s time to kick the entrenched out and try something new.
Lew Ebert’s career in North Carolina has a “drain the swamp” motif. When he arrived as president of N.C. Citizens for Business and Industry in 2006, Democrats ran the N.C.
General Assembly, led by Charlotte optometrist Jim Black and Manteo restaurateur Marc Basnight. Unemployment hovered under 5%, then more than doubled over the next four years amid a crushing recession. Ebert says the trade group had no cash and was mostly focused on its monthly magazine.
In November, Ebert left the renamed NC Chamber in a changed state. While Democrats made gains in November, Republicans retain substantial majorities in Raleigh. Two Republicans, Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore, remain the state’s most powerful politicians. Unemployment is 3.6%. The chamber doubled its staff and is financially strong, Ebert says.
During his tenure, the chamber made a marked pivot to the right, eschewing the business community’s traditionally moderate stances, according to Raleigh insiders of both political parties. Amid the recession, leaders of dominant businesses — Duke Energy, AT&T, the banks and their networks of lawyers and other professional-service providers — concluded that North Carolina had lost its edge in attracting new and expanding businesses. Taxes were too high, incentives too low, leadership too lax, regulations too stringent. The swamp needed some draining.
Berger and former House Speaker Thom Tillis led the political charge that turned the tables of power, aided by Black’s felonious behavior and Raleigh retailer Art Pope’s financial clout. But it couldn’t have happened without big-business backing. Ebert played frontman.
He’s proud of the results, noting that the state’s economy has never been stronger. The corporate tax rate will soon be 2.5%, versus 6.9% in 2006. A massive unemployment benefits fund deficit is erased. The state has a record emergency reserve.
Rob Schofield, director of N.C. Policy Watch, a unit of the liberal-leaning N.C. Justice Center, isn’t impressed. “We’ve aggressively turned our tax structure so that we underfund core government services and undermine their sustainability,” he says. Per-pupil spending for K-12 education, accessibility to higher ed and income equality have declined.
Certainly more work needs to be done, says Ebert, who previously worked at state chambers in Kansas and Pennsylvania and hasn’t decided on his next challenge. But the state is better positioned than ever to grow, he says. “I’m leaving on a high note.”