The session, complete with fervent protests, was a replay of a common scene over the last four years: Republicans in the legislature introduce a bill; Democrats argue against fiercely; a large number of protestors arrive and demonstrate; but the bills roll on with little impediment, thanks to large Republican majorities in both houses. Those majorities exist in part thanks to gerrymandered districts, some of which were so extreme that a federal court has ordered them redrawn and has shortened the terms of some legislators to a year in order to accommodate special elections in 2017.
But Republicans feel emboldened, knowing that it doesn’t matter how many hundreds of people show up to demonstrate in Raleigh, because the legislative map guarantees there’s little prospect of Democrats taking back either chamber any time soon. There is minimal pretense that the bills under consideration are anything other than an attempt to undercut Cooper. On Wednesday, the chairman of the House rules committee said they were intended to reassert legislative power, but he also admitted that they might not have happened if not for McCrory’s defeat.
It is not as if the legislature has been timid in asserting its powers, even during McCrory’s tenure. When the governor has on occasion tried to veto laws, lawmakers have been happy to override him. When he declined to call a special session this spring to pass HB2, the “bathroom bill,” they called one themselves, using a workaround. In 2014, McCrory sued after legislators asserted the authority to make appointments to certain commission. He was joined by former Governors Jim Hunt, a Democrat, and Jim Martin, a Republican, and ultimately prevailed.
Martin and Hunt on Thursday spoke out again, blasting the Republican moves as overreach. “I am very, very concerned,” Hunt told The Charlotte Observer. “I’m afraid if allowed to stand, it will result in education being much less effective in North Carolina hurting the people and economy of our state.” Martin said, “I think they’d be going too far in taking away appointments to the board of [education] and the UNC system.” McCrory has been quiet. But even if he wanted to veto the bills, the legislature could likely override him.
Instead of arguing the moves have anything other than a partisan motivation—after all, if the reforms were essential, they could have been introduced at any time over the last four years—Republicans have pointed to past moves by Democrats to seize power. In 1976, for example, Governor Hunt demanded the resignations of scores of staffers in an attempt to install his own loyalists. In 1985, during the first year of Governor Martin’s term, the Democrat-controlled legislature limited the number of appointments he could make.
With the voting arithmetic clear, and stacked against them; little factual debate over the Republican motivation; and little turf for political compromise, Democrats resorted to appeals to Republican shame and critiques of the process. They have also said they are attending the special session under protest and have challenged its constitutionality. Democrats said that the power grabs cited by Republicans were decades ago, before almost any of them were in power, and furthermore contended that Republicans had promised to curb just these sorts of abuses when they took control of both chambers in 2010 for the first time in 140 years—carried to power in part by voter disgust with Democrats’ employment of just this sort of abuse. Now, Democrats contended, the GOP had embraced the tactics they once abhorred.