North Carolina's 'Legislative Coup' Is Over, and Republicans Won

Legislators passed a slate of bills to sharply reduce the power of the incoming governor, over the heated objections of Democrats and hundreds of protestors.

Protestors demonstrate against the North Carolina General Assembly on Thursday.
Protestors demonstrate against the North Carolina General Assembly on Thursday. (Gerry Broome / AP)

It’s all over but the shouting, and the suing, in Raleigh—though both the shouts and the suits are likely to go on for some time.

The North Carolina General Assembly on Friday wrapped up a special session in which the Republicans who dominate both chambers mounted a brazen and successful effort to strip the incoming Democratic governor of a host of powers afforded to his Republican predecessor and many governors before. Having lost the governor’s seat in November’s election, the GOP legislature opted to simply reduce the governor’s power drastically. The two most prominent bills involve the elections system and the governor’s right to make appointments.

Pat McCrory, the outgoing GOP governor, quickly signed the electoral-reform bill into law. He has been presented with the bill reducing the governor’s appointments, but has not yet signed it. McCrory, who narrowly lost to Attorney General Roy Cooper in his quest for reelection, had not made any statement on the takeover bid, and he himself had tangled with the legislature over separation of powers, at one point successfully suing to recover appointment powers.

On the appointments front, the legislature withdrew the governor’s ability to make appointments to the state board of education and the boards of trustees of University of North Carolina-system schools; subjected his cabinet appointees to senate approval; and reduced the number of appointments the governor can make for government jobs. That number dropped to 425, near the level it was before the General Assembly increased that to 1,500 for McCrory. It appears that many of his political appointees could now become permanent employees.

The election reform reworks the state board of elections and combines it with the state ethics commission. Previously, the state board of elections had a 3-2 majority in favor of the governor’s party, while every county board had a 2-1 advantage for the governor’s party. Under the new rules, the state board will have eight members, four of each party, appointed half by the governor and half by the legislature. County boards will have four members. The chairmanship will rotate, but appears to guarantee that Republicans will lead the board during crucial even-numbered election years for the foreseeable future. Supreme Court elections, which have been nonpartisan but handed a majority to Democrat-aligned justices this November, will now be partisan.

It is difficult and perhaps impossible to construe the changes as anything more than naked politics. Leading Republicans even admitted that they might not have pursued the changes if McCrory had won reelection. The timing of the changes was also controversial: Legislators returned to Raleigh for a special session billed as a chance to pass disaster-relief bills for victims of flooding and wildfires. Rumors flew that Republicans would attempt to pack the Supreme Court to restore a conservative majority. That didn’t happen; instead, as soon as the disaster-relief bill had been signed, Republican leaders gaveled the special session to a close, then promptly opened a new special session, with no declared agenda—surprising both the press and Democratic members. House Speaker Tim Moore said the decision to do so had only been made on Wednesday, a claim debunked when documents putting it into motion, dated Monday, were revealed.

It appeared that part of the reason for conducting the business in a special session was to avoid rallying of opposition. That was a tactic that Republicans used to pass HB2, the state’s controversial “bathroom bill,” in the spring, and it worked this week. Democrats warned that just like HB2, the new legislation might have unintended effects, and they accused Republicans of sidestepping public opinion. Certainly, it is true that the GOP will return in the new year retaining their current supermajorities, which means they likely could have forced changes through a Cooper veto. In this case, all parties had two days to review the legislation, nearly four times as much as they did to review HB2 before it was signed into law.

“We came here to deal with a natural disaster. What we’re dealing with is a political disaster. Let’s deal with the reality: It’s a power grab,” said Dan Blue, the Democratic leader in the senate. “If McCrory had won the election, we wouldn’t be here now, reducing the number of positions he has control over.”

With Democrats so outnumbered, the result of the session was foreordained. During debate in the senate, the two sides largely talked past each other. Republicans argued, accurately, that the state constitution allowed them to make the changes they sought to make. They also pointed out past examples of Democrats attempting to consolidate power. Democrats argued, with equal validity, that the changes violated norms and could easily have been done at the start of McCrory’s term. They also noted that the GOP examples dated back decades, and were just the sort of behavior that Republicans had condemned at the time.

At one point, Senator Chad Barefoot, a Republican, insisted that the GOP had to give McCrory a chance to appoint 1,500 people because he had been trying to turn the state around. Why would anyone want to fire them? Wasn’t everyone pleased with the result, he wondered? But apparently not—after all, North Carolina voters decided not to give McCrory a second term.

Cooper has threatened to sue over the changes, though it’s unclear at this point on what grounds or how successful he might be. The sudden spree of measures to undermine him has sparked outrage and bafflement not only within the state but also nationally—once again putting the Old North State in the spotlight, just a few months after HB2. Keith Ellison, the liberal U.S. representative who is running for chairman of the Democratic National Committee, on Friday said, “Republicans are attempting to do a coup right now.”

HB2 offers an interesting contrast: While the law is unpopular with voters and has cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars, and likely contributed to McCrory’s law, it remains in place. But whereas costly and public boycotts by musicians and corporations helped turn opinion against HB2, there’s no obvious similar constituency to fight the new changes.

There is an inescapable racial dimension to the new laws, and particularly to the election changes. African Americans in the state are heavily Democratic, and Republicans have worked to overhaul North Carolina’s voting system through a variety of measures that marginalize black votes. They redistricted the state in order to give themselves a large advantage, with the result that Republican majorities now seem insurmountable for the time being. Although the state is closely divided along partisan lines, with Democrats clustered in cities and Republicans elsewhere, that gives the GOP a strong edge in Raleigh. However, a federal court also ruled that some of those districts constituted unconstitutional gerrymandering, and has mandated some new elections next year. That led Democrats to decry the special session as the work of an illegitimate legislature.

Republicans also passed a massive overhaul of the state’s voting laws, including shortening early voting, ending same-day registration, and requiring a photo-ID to vote. That law was mostly struck down by a federal court this summer, with judges ruling the law had been designed to disenfranchise minorities. The executive director of the state Republican Party then called on the Republicans who controlled all 100 county boards of elections to arrange early-voting hours to benefit the GOP.

The Democratic leaders in both houses, Larry Hall and Dan Blue, are both black, and spoke with frustration about the legislation during floor debate. But given Democrats’ disadvantages, the real action came from protests, which were coordinated by the North Carolina NAACP. On Thursday and again on Friday, protestors in the gallery of the house and senate noisily protested the special session, leading the presiding officers of each chamber to have the galleries cleared. On Thursday, a journalist was arrested for resisting. Once cleared from galleries, protestors continued chanting and making noise outside, at points still disrupting the sessions inside. Multiple protestors were arrested on both Thursday and Friday.

By about 3:30 p.m., the legislature was wrapping up its business, including confirming Yolanda Stith, the wife of McCrory’s chief of staff, to the state industrial commission. Republicans complained that the protestors were disrupting a triumphal moment for a black woman. A few minutes later, the General Assembly adjourned for the year. Outside, the protestors were still at it, chanting, “Our house!” But as the special session proved, they don’t make the rules.