Over the course of the last week, Folwell waded into a series of high-profile issues — from public education to transgender medical procedures to the impending selection of Mandy Cohen to run the CDC. And for the first time, he publicly embraced the title of gubernatorial candidate.
Folwell is still an extreme long shot to capture the Republican nomination, and he doesn’t appear to have taken any steps toward mounting a serious primary campaign. But put together, the last week seems to be a sign that Folwell isn’t planning to finish his political career quietly.
Let’s quickly run through Folwell’s busy week.
On Monday, Folwell sat for his first extended public interview since declaring for the governor race back in March. In a 45-minute video interview with conservative education activist Sloan Rachmuth, Folwell criticized the current state of public education in North Carolina and touted his record as state treasurer.
“I think that we've lost our way. We've lost our mission. Everything we do is focused on indoctrinating, and not educating students,” Folwell said. He then set the goal of having the highest-performing fourth graders in the country, presumably on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as the Nation’s Report Card.
Folwell also pledged not to repeat Gov. Roy Cooper’s mistakes when it came to COVID.
“The aftermath of shutting down our schools, the lack of common sense that went into those decisions, will never happen in a Folwell administration,” he said.
And he ran through some of the highlights of his tenure as state treasurer, including his fight against ESG investing — the practice of large money managers insisting that companies promote leftist policies before buying their stock. He introduced his own version of what ESG should stand for: energy independence, safe streets and neighborhoods, and good government.
“I've made all the right enemies as the keeper of the public purse,” Folwell said. “I’ve taken on the health care cartel, the prescription drug cartel, the insurance cartel, and the Wall Street cartel.”
Then on Wednesday, Folwell issued a press release reminding the state of his stance on perhaps the hottest of hot-button issues in the national discourse, gender ideology.
Folwell’s office has been the subject of a lawsuit for nearly five years related to how the state’s publicly funded health insurance plans cover “gender-affirming” treatments, including hormones and surgery.
Under previous State Treasurer Janet Cowell (a Democrat), the State Health Plan voted to approve coverage for these procedures for one year. That one year expired after Folwell was sworn in, and the State Health Plan trustees did not vote to renew the coverage. Activists sued to reinstate it.
The case hasn’t gone so well for Folwell. As of last year, North Carolina is under court order to cover these procedures under publicly funded health insurance policies, and Folwell pointed out that the State Health Plan has currently funded gender dysphoria treatments for 270 people so far in 2023 to the tune of $356,000.
Earlier this month, the attorneys general of 21 states filed an amicus brief in support of Folwell’s position, as the press release points out. Significantly, the press release calls out Attorney General Josh Stein (the presumptive Democrat nominee for governor in 2024) for refusing to defend him in the suit. Representing state government entities is a major part of the attorney general’s role.
Arguably the biggest “talker” of the past week was the news that President Joe Biden is expected to nominate former N.C. Department of Health and Human Services secretary Mandy Cohen to be the next director of the CDC.
You’ll recall that Cohen played a major role in North Carolina’s response to COVID, and earned the scorn of many conservatives for her pseudo-scientific approach. Highlights included being caught wearing a mask only when she was in front of TV cameras, and joking about using her power to ban normal activities.
Folwell wrote a message on Twitter taking her to task.
The tweet was widely shared among N.C. political observers. It was a pretty unusual message for Folwell, who doesn’t use social media platforms very much at all.
I don’t see this flurry of activity as a precursor to a statewide barnstorm or a major TV buy — or anything you’d consider a traditional campaign. Folwell nearly died in March 2020 when he was one of the first wave of people to contract COVID, and he still has lingering effects. Showmanship has never been Folwell’s cup of tea, anyway.
At this point, I think Folwell recognizes that his political career is rapidly coming to an end.
But the Executive Mansion has clearly been on Folwell’s mind for years: Before pursuing the state treasurer role, Folwell ran for lieutenant governor in 2012. Along the way, he’s developed a simple but compelling philosophy on public service.
“My focus all the time I've been in Raleigh has been, how we can save a mind, save a life, or save money?” as Folwell told Rachmuth.
What I see in this past week is that Folwell still has some things he wants to say. If he’s going out, he’s going out on his own terms. He still has more to share with the state of North Carolina, and we’d all do well to pay attention and take his advice to heart.
What’s happening: Led by powerful Senators Ralph Hise, Paul Newton and Warren Daniel, the N.C. Senate introduced a series of changes to North Carolina’s election laws last week that seeks to shore up confidence in the system. Senate Bill 747 would:
Set Election Day as the deadline for receiving absentee ballots. In prior years, the state has accepted absentee ballots for a number of days after Election Day, so long as there was a postmark on or before it.
Prohibits the State Board of Elections or local election boards from accepting private donations. This is especially relevant in North Carolina: Mark Zuckerberg’s Center for Tech and Civic Life gave more than $7 million to our state’s election boards in the last election cycle, with the goal of promoting left-leaning policy.
Require people who register to vote and cast a ballot on the same day to cast a provisional ballot and verify their address before the vote can be accepted.
Create a software system to verify signatures on absentee ballots.
Why this matters: North Carolina remains deeply concerned about the integrity of its elections. In a Civitas poll this month, just about half of N.C. voters said they were confident the 2024 elections would be definitely or probably “free and fair,” with the other half not quite so sure.
All of the provisions above are well in line with steps other states have taken to shore up election integrity, and in a normal political environment would be pretty uncontroversial. Of course, we don’t live in a normal political environment.
What comes next: The voter ID requirements finally going into effect this fall will help, but expect the General Assembly to push through these changes despite another major temper tantrum from Gov. Roy Cooper.
What’s happening: North Carolina’s public schools receive lower grades, in general, than schools in other states that have similar A-F performance grades. Roughly half of the elementary and middle schools in our state receive D or F grades.
However, N.C. Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt says North Carolina’s schools don’t actually perform worse than states like Florida and Texas.
So she is proposing changes to North Carolina’s school performance grades with the overall goal of raising the average score. According to a presentation to the House education committee, Truitt would like the state’s grading system to include a series of subjective or easily manipulated measures including:
Percentage of students who demonstrate “seven durable skills”
Percentage of students who participate in an extracurricular or intra-curricular (whatever that means) activity
Percentage of students and teachers who “affirm the qualities of a school related to engagement and environment” (whatever that means)
Why this matters: There is a valid conversation to be had about whether North Carolina’s school performance grades accurately reflect the actual quality of a school. They most likely don’t, and there have been debates about whether performance grades should focus more heavily on growth than pure proficiency. Right now, North Carolina’s grades overly emphasize proficiency.
Some of the metrics Truitt proposes are useful, like the percentage of students chronically absent at a school, and performance increases among particular student groups.
But I strongly encourage the state to stick with hard numbers here and avoid survey-based or subjective measures. Florida, for example, has a broader range of measurement criteria — but does not go the route Truitt proposes.
Politically, this proposal is a pretty good example of why Truitt (a Republican) takes flack from conservatives. The education bureaucracy has a bad habit of simply changing the grading system whenever the results aren’t to their liking. This feels like more of the same, and yet another attempt to water down a key method of accountability for our state’s public schools.
What comes next: Changes here would need legislative approval. I don’t see the General Assembly adopting them.
The Texas legislature has passed a bill that would allow residents to recall district attorneys for “official misconduct,” including refusing to enforce certain categories of laws. Gov. Greg Abbott has said he will sign the bill into law.
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