NC has experienced episodic power grabs over past 40 years

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Did the North Carolina GOP undermine democracy last week, or were they just playing a game of power politics whose rules were established by Democrats over the previous four decades?

All eyes are on North Carolina again as Republican state lawmakers consummate a power grab and consider a deal in yet another special session, this one on Wednesday to repeal the controversial HB 2, a response to Charlotte City Council striking an anti-discrimination ordinance from its books.

The North Carolina GOP’s successful efforts to clip the powers of incoming Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper have been framed by some as a test-run for Republicans to consolidate power in the new Trump era. An opinion piece published in the Washington Post on Dec. 16 by American Prospect senior writer Paul Waldman captures some of the anxiety: “There’s a kind of coup going on in North Carolina, one that tells us a lot about just how far Republicans are willing to go to hold on to power and undercut Democrats.”

Republican leaders countered that the party’s hardball legislative tactics are a continuation of political practices well established by lawmakers when the Democrats held the reins of power.

The complaint was articulated by NC GOP Party Executive Director Dallas Woodhouse when he crashed a press conference held by the NC NAACP at the Capitol last week. After NAACP attorney Al McSurely mocked Woodhouse by saying, “I know this is the last meeting he’s been in in the last two or three days that hasn’t been composed of all white people,” the party leader shot back: “Hey Alan, since you’re calling me out, how about when Jim Hunt tried to fire all the Republicans in the ‘Christmas massacre’?… And what about the Democrats stripping the Republican lieutenant governor of all his power? Was that right? Or stripping Gov. Jim Martin of his hiring authority?”

Ferrel Guillory, a longtime observer of North Carolina politics who directs the Program on Public Life at UNC-Chapel Hill, said there’s some truth to claims that Democratic lawmakers used their control of the legislature to limit executive power when a Republican was in the Governor’s Mansion, but they didn’t completely succeed and they didn’t do it in the blitz fashion carried out the Republicans last week.

“When Jim Holshouser, the first Republican governor, came in [in the early 1970s], there were a number of what were called ‘stripping bills’ that were introduced by Democrats in the House,” Guillory said. “It created quite a ruckus. Those bills tended to fall away when they reached the Senate, where [Democrat] Jim Hunt had a lot of power as lieutenant governor. Hunt was already thinking about a run for governor and he didn’t want to be subject to those limitations when he won the office.”

As to Woodhouse’s reference to Hunt’s “Christmas massacre,” News & Observer political columnist Rob Christensen wrote on Dec. 17 that after Hunt was elected governor in 1976 he asked for the resignation of 169 state policymakers in the Holshouser administration and ultimately pushed out 75.

The power exercised by Hunt as lieutenant governor to prevent his fellow Democrats from pruning the authority of the executive branch during the Holshouser administration was lost about 15 years later when a Republican, Jim Gardner, won the lieutenant-governor post for the first time since Reconstruction. Up to that point, the lieutenant governor held the authority to appoint committees and assign bills in the state Senate, but on his first day in office on Jan. 11, 1989, Democratic senators voted to strip him of those powers. The lieutenant governor still serves as president of the Senate with the ability to cast tie-breaking votes (not much of a factor now, considering that Republicans holds a supermajority in both houses), but the real power is now wielded by the senate president pro tem — a position currently held by Phil Berger, a Rockingham County lawmaker who represents part of Guilford.

On Monday, departing Republican Gov. Pat McCrory signed HB 17, a broad-ranging bill that requires Senate confirmation of the governor’s appointees cabinet-level positions, shifts the power to appoint members of the UNC boards of trustees from the governor to the legislature, strips the governor of the power to make appointments to the NC Charter Schools Advisory Board, reduces the number of political hires set aside for the governor from 1,500 to 425, and shifts power from the state Board of Education to the state superintendent of public schools, a post that will be held by Mark Johnson, a Republican from Winston-Salem who defeated Democratic incumbent June Atkinson in the Nov. 8 election.

McCrory, who previously won a legal battle to preserve executive authority, said in a prepared statement on Monday that during the recent special session he was “working as your governor to protect the separation of powers between the legislative and executive branches of government… including discouraging proposed legislation moving major departments including information technology and commerce outside of the governor’s authority” and that he “worked to deter any efforts to expand the composition of our Supreme Court.”

The possible judicial measure was widely feared by Democratic groups after the recent election of Judge Mike Morgan gave the party control of the court, but Republican lawmakers had refused to say whether they were considering such a move. Although judicial elections are nominally nonpartisan, Morgan is a registered Democrat and was backed by the party.

McCrory concluded by saying, “My major disagreement with this bill is requiring confirmation of cabinet secretaries. This is wrong and short-sighted and needs to be resolved through the leadership skills of the governor-elect working with the legislature in January.”

Guillory said the timing of the bill, coming soon after McCrory conceded the governor’s race, and the way it was rammed through without warning or deliberation “smacked of trying to shave away what the voters intended in the Nov. 8 election.”

The actions of Republicans in the special session at the very least strain democratic traditions, Guillory said.

“In North Carolina, I think that the actions of the Republican legislature with a veto-proof majority certainly put a strain on the representative nature of our democracy,” he said. “Our democracy is a competitive place, and so it shouldn’t surprise people there is jockeying for power. Democracy is fragile, too. If our system of checks and balances gets too far out of balance, there is going to be strain. We have a long tradition of accepting the results of elections even when our side loses. What do you do? You learn from your loss. You get back in the game and argue your position and try to work back towards the majority. The overreach of the Republican lawmakers had to do with their seeming to not respect the will of the people.”

On Monday, just as McCrory was preparing to sign a bill that radically reduced his successor’s powers, the lame-duck governor called another special session to consider the repeal of HB 2. Reacting to news that Charlotte City Council had unanimously repealed its anti-discrimination ordinance, McCrory blamed Cooper, Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts and “other Democratic activists” for the failure to broker a deal, adding, “This sudden reversal with little notice after the gubernatorial election has ended sadly proves this entire issue, originated by the political left, was all about politics at the expense of Charlotte and the entire state of North Carolina.” (The repeal ordinance includes language stipulating that the measure is only binding if HB 2 is repealed.)

Guillory said the recent turn of events suggests that the incoming Democratic governor may yet have a measure of “informal power,” even as he faces a veto-proof legislature with diminished executive authority.

“Senate Leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore assured me that as a result of Charlotte’s vote, a special session will be called for Tuesday to repeal HB 2 in full,” Cooper said in a statement on Monday. “I hope they will keep their word to me and with the help of Democrats in the legislature, HB 2 will be repealed in full.”