The chants of protesters yelling, “You work for us! You work for us!” echoed through the building. Lobbyists scurried, nervously asking legislators whether they knew what was going on. Republicans ducked in and out of conference rooms, saying little and avoiding the press. Democrats like me collected tidbits of information to try to piece together what was going on.
It was a legislative ambush, executed with painful precision. Here’s how it unfolded.
Last week, outgoing North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory called the state’s General Assembly into a special, emergency session to fund the relief effort for victims of a recent hurricane and major forest fires. We passed the relief bill and were adjourned.
Then, minutes later, the Republican leadership of the General Assembly called a surprise, second special session. They had secretly compiled the number of Republican signatures needed for another session, to begin immediately. Even our hyperactive rumor mill hadn’t alerted us to this maneuver.
We were informed that all bills for this new special session would be filed by 7 p.m. By 6 p.m., there was nothing.
Then, as the deadline approached, the bills started rolling in. Soon we were staring at more than two dozen bills on all types of issues. Some were more than 40 pages long and had clearly been in the works for weeks. I guzzled coffee as I tried to speed-read my way through the stack of legislation. I figured if I missed only one or two really important items, that would be a job well done — and, hopefully, one of my colleagues would catch them.
It was a varied lot of legislative proposals, but there was a clear theme. There was legislation that provided for Republican control of the State Board of Elections in every even year (which, incidentally, means every election year), legislation that makes Supreme Court elections partisan (which, incidentally, benefits Republicans) and legislation that transfers new power to the office of state superintendent (which, incidentally, is passing from a Democrat to a Republican). These measures all passed and are now law.
Other legislation stripped power from incoming Gov.-elect Roy Cooper, a Democrat, in a number of ways. Bills passed that made his Cabinet appointments subject to Senate approval, reduced the number of employees he can hire from 1,500 to 425, and eliminated his authority to make appointments to the State Board of Education and to the board of trustees for the university system. All are now laws.
Much of the legislation was thoughtlessly partisan with no pretense of legitimate policy. However, where real policy goals did exist, they were submerged beneath the layers of mistrust and misunderstanding. Items of potential consensus became political weapons. Conversation stopped; resentment boiled over.
On the day of the ambush session, I got 4,000 emails — about 100 times the usual load. No one who wrote me supported what was happening. By comparison, with HB2 — the infamous “bathroom bill” — the ratio was about 4-to-1 in opposition.
The rest of the country has taken notice. I’ve gotten media requests from Florida and Brooklyn and New Mexico, even Canada. The reporters I’m talking to all sound as if they’re trying to mask how stunned they are when asking questions, which I’ve never heard before.
An interesting rationalization has taken hold among members of the majority party. They seem to know this was lousy, but they also know that they were on the receiving end of similar abuse when they were the minority party. They keep citing offenses from the 1970s. I keep telling them my parents hadn’t even met yet.
North Carolina has no filibuster, and the majority party has the votes to pass anything it wants. We knew the outgoing governor wouldn’t veto anything because he’s interviewing with President-elect Trump right now and getting overridden by his legislature wouldn’t help his image. So there was a heightened level of frustration to match the powerlessness people felt about the raw power grab they had witnessed.
On top of it all, North Carolina’s Republicans have completely gerrymandered the state to give them a nearly impenetrable majority, no matter how deeply they offend basic norms of governance. It’s that last point that often tips the scales in favor of political pessimism.
That’s when I remind my constituents that a federal court just ordered us to redraw most of our districts because of impermissible racial gerrymandering. We’re having a special legislative election in 2017, with many more competitive districts than we have now.
That cheers folks up a little. Until then, there’s only one way out of the ambush, and that’s to fight right through it.
A version of this post originally appeared on the Charlotte Agenda.