Republicans Forge Ahead With Their North Carolina Power Grab

As GOP efforts to restrain gubernatorial power rolled forward, Governor-elect Roy Cooper, a Democrat, threatened to sue, and activists were arrested for disrupting the legislature.

Protestors at the North Carolina General Assembly on Thursday
Gerry Broome / AP

DURHAM, N.C.—A Republican effort to handcuff incoming Democratic Governor Roy Cooper rolled forward on Thursday, in a day marked by somewhat acrimonious debate and fierce protests at the General Assembly in Raleigh. About 20 demonstrators as well as one journalist were arrested amid demonstrations against what liberal groups are describing as a “legislative coup.”

Cooper offered brief remarks Thursday morning, firing back at Republicans and threatening to sue over them.

“If I believe that laws passed by the legislature hurt working families and are unconstitutional, they will see me in court,” said Cooper, who is currently the state attorney general. “And they don’t have a very good track record there.”

The state senate passed a bill overhauling the state board of elections, combining it with the state ethics commission, as well as county boards of elections, by a 30-16 margin, along party lines. It’s the latest in a long-running, partially successful effort by state Republicans to rework the state’s elections system to benefit themselves. The state house passed a bill that will reduce the number of jobs appointed to the governor from 1,500 to 300, make Cabinet picks subject to state senate approval, and withdraw the governor’s ability to make appointments to University of North Carolina system boards of trustees and the state school board. (In effect, that will convert many of the political appointments made by outgoing Governor Pat McCrory, a Republican, into permanent jobs.) That bill passed 70-35.

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.

“I just ask you to treat us with fairness,” said Representative Darren Jackson. Other colleagues offered variations on the old saw that two wrongs don’t make a right. Representative Mickey Michaux, one of the few legislators who was around in 1976, conceded that Republicans might have the authority to make the changes they had. “Just because you can doesn't mean you should,” Michaux scolded.

Democrats also complained that there had been insufficient time to review and debate the measures. Cooper said during his press conference that he hadn’t even had time to fully review the bills on offer. He and other Democrats warned Republicans that the session could end up like HB2, a law that was introduced, debated, passed, and signed, all within less than 12 hours. (Emails made public later suggested that McCrory did not fully understand the legislation at the time he signed it.) They also derided Republicans for bringing up the legislation at a time when lawmakers had ostensibly returned to Raleigh to pass disaster-relief bills after flooding in eastern North Carolina and wildfires in the west.

Cooper said the bills should be brought forth not “in the dark of night,” but in a standard session, when citizens and lawmakers had time to deliberate.

“We don’t want another disaster like House Bill 2,” he said. “It’s time for them to go home. Let’s stop this last-minute process that could really end up hurting North Carolinians, just like they did with HB2.”

Some out-of-state progressives took to social media to criticize North Carolina Democrats for not fighting hard enough, but it’s a mystery what methods they might use to derail the legislation. For the last four years, General Assembly Democrats have tried and mostly failed to find ways to block the Republican supermajorities. Their most potent tool, and one that some analysts credit with electing Cooper, is the vast activist base gathered under the Moral Monday banner. The protestors were out in force on Thursday. At different times, the presiding officers had both galleries cleared after members of the public cheered loudly during debate. It happened first in the senate, forcing members to take a brief break while protestors were ushered out.

Later, it happened again in the house, while Michaux was speaking. This interruption was longer, with protestors filing out but remaining outside the chamber, chanting loud enough to stall the hearing, for some time. A reporter, Joe Killian of N.C. Policy Watch, was arrested. So were about 20 other protestors who refused to leave. (Such mass arrests are a formalized process at this point; Moral Movement organizers sign up willing arrestees ahead of time, and late in the protest Thursday an organizer announced that anyone who didn’t intend to be arrested should skedaddle.)

Michaux, a fiery veteran of the civil-rights movement and friend of Martin Luther King, spoke in defense of the demonstrators, telling the chamber, “The reason I’m able to be here is because I broke the law in civil protest.”

But Dallas Woodhouse, the executive director of the state Republican Party, called the protestors “nuts” and demanded they denounce Hunt’s 1976 “Christmas Massacre.” Assuming the bills continue to move apace, they are likely to face legal challenges, though what those challenges might look like, where they would be filed, and what their chances are still remain too far off to predict. It’s interesting, though, that Woodhouse did not mention one important detail of that episode: Hunt’s Democratic allies in the legislature passed a law that allowed him to fire anyone hired by his Republican predecessor, a court later ruled that law unconstitutional and reinstated fired staffers. Sometimes precedents are less clear-cut than they initially appear.