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Democrats won the fight for North Carolina’s governor’s mansion this fall — but they’re now in a knockdown, drag-out brawl with the Republican-controlled legislature about who actually gets to pull the levers of power.
In the waning hours of their hold on North Carolina’s executive branch, Republicans this week unveiled and quickly pushed through bills that would significantly curb Gov.-elect Roy Cooper's (D) power.
Republicans held a last-minute special session Thursday and moved bills that would, among other things, require the governor’s Cabinet appointments to be approved by the state Senate and effectively give Republicans control of the Board of Elections during election years. Other bills appeared to limit Democrats’ influence in the courts, like making North Carolina just one of several states that holds partisan elections for its state Supreme Court justices.
Beleaguered Gov. Pat McCrory (R) is still in charge for a few more weeks and could sign the bills into law on his way out the door, though he hasn't said whether he will. Which means all Democrats can do is watch.
“American democracy may be more fragile than we realized,” warned longtime U.S. Rep. David Price (D-N.C.) in a statement.
Cooper held a press conference Thursday where he described legislature’s efforts as “unprecedented” and urged them to “go home.”
“This is about thwarting the governor’s ability to move us forward,” he said, later adding: “Most people might think that this is a partisan power grab. But this is more ominous.”
What Democrats call a concerted power grab, Republicans frame as a constitutional check and balance. House Rules Chairman David Lewis (R) told local reporters the legislature wants to “establish that we are going to continue to be a relevant party in governing this state.”
Yes, he allowed, the fact they'll have a Democratic governor next year is speeding things along. But Republican leaders maintain these reforms were long overdue.
Adding to Democrats' dismay is the fact many were caught by surprise. At the request of McCrory, GOP legislative leaders convened a special session this week to approve $200 million of disaster recovery aid for Hurricane Matthew and wildfires. There had been rumors for weeks Republicans would use the time to pack the state Supreme Court with GOP appointees, but that never came to fruition.
But as the special session for hurricane relief aid was coming to a close Wednesday, GOP lawmakers suddenly convened another immediately on top of it. They wouldn't say what it was for until the bills that would curtail Cooper’s power dropped.
Urged on by Democratic lawmakers, several hundred people packed the capitol in Raleigh on Thursday to express their concern that hurricane relief was being used as a sham to play politics. Things got particularly ugly during a NAACP press conference, when one of the group’s attorneys spotted the director of the state Republican Party in the crowd and welcomed him by saying: “I know this is the first meeting he’s been in in the last two or three days that wasn’t composed of all white people.”
Democrats are having some déjà vu. The last time GOP lawmakers called a high-profile special session, in March, they ended up ramming through one of the state's most controversial laws in recent memory, a bill limiting what public bathrooms transgender people can use and municipalities' ability to pass anti-discrimination laws for LGBT people.
A national backlash to that bill helped contribute to McCrory's upset. (He conceded earlier this month, but not before controversially calling the election into question by attempting to claim widespread voter fraud.)
The state legislature is indeed acting within its rights, said UNC constitutional law professor Michael Gerhardt.
But he said it is potentially concerning that lawmakers are powering through these changes such a blatantly political way: A Republican legislature is convening a special session to pass bills that limit an incoming Democratic governor's power.
What's happening now doesn't bode well for relations between the two branches, relations that were already expected to be contentious. Cooper ousted McCrory by some 10,000 votes out of more than 4 million cast, and Republicans in the state legislature have a supermajority capable of vetoing Cooper anytime they want. “The concern for a lot of people is we have a legislature intent on keeping the score politically,” Gerhardt said.
North Carolina’s politics could be taking its cue from Washington. President Obama's legacy has been stymied in the courts, thanks to lawsuits brought by more than two dozen GOP state attorneys general and sometimes even Congress itself.
“They look at what happened at the federal level and think 'Maybe we need to do it at the state level,” Gerhardt said.
But, much like Washington, whether you think what’s happening in North Carolina is right or wrong probably depends on your politics. Gerhardt added: “If you're a 'big D Democrat,' [this] worries you. If you're a 'big R Republican,' maybe it worries you, maybe it doesn't.”