North Carolina's new law pushes the partisan envelope

North Carolina's Republican-led legislature has fundamentally altered the balance of power, taking power from the governor before a newly-elected Democrat takes office. 

Ethan Hyman/The News & Observer/AP
Jeanne Aaroe protests outside the Senate gallery after it was cleared during a special session of the North Carolina General Assembly in Raleigh, N.C., on Friday.

Forty years ago, North Carolina’s newly-elected Democratic governor, Jim Hunt, did something that might sound suspiciously familiar today. He fired 169 Republican staffers in what came to be known as the “Christmas Massacre.” 

On Friday, the state’s Republican-majority legislature and its outgoing governor, Republican Pat McCrory, went several steps further. 

In a brazen political power play, they used a special legislative session to strip power from the governorship before Roy Cooper, a Democrat, takes over Jan. 1. 

The package reduces the number of appointments the governor makes from 1,500 to 300, it makes cabinet picks subject to Senate approval, and it ends the governor’s power to make appointments to the state’s powerful University of North Carolina boards of trustees and the state school board. 

Republicans have said their moves are fair turnabout given the state's fraught political history. But while Tar Heel Republicans and Democrats both have grievances from the past, the current crisis comes at an explosive moment. Partisanship nationwide is more pointed than it has been in generations, and blue states are now promising to revolt against the Trump administration like red states revolted against President Obama. Any new demonstration in partisan one-upsmanship risks spreading and becoming a new normal. 

So while the roots of the current showdown might be in the state’s own past, the implications could be broader.

“I’m not aware of other states where legislators try to rewrite the balance of power because they lost the governor’s office,” says Steven Greene, a political scientist at North Carolina State University in Raleigh.

But the power grab, he adds, may have wider repercussions on American politics because it “is so beyond the pale, and because it comes on top of the Trump election and concerns that democratic norms are under threat. People don’t realize how much a stable democracy depends on norms, not actually the laws. Just because you can do something doesn't mean you do it." 

A checkered political past

An illiberal streak has appeared in North Carolina politics at least as far back as Reconstruction, when, with the help of Ku Klux Klan voter suppression tactics, Democrats took the legislature and impeached Republican Gov. William Holden.

In 1988, the Democrat-controlled Senate stripped the office of the lieutenant governor of much of its power when a Republican won the post for the first time that century.  

And this year, federal judges have ruled that not only have many of the state's General Assembly districts been racially gerrymandered, but that Republicans legislators also used “almost surgical precision” to disenfranchise black Democrat voters with new voter rules put into place in 2013. The United States Supreme Court is expected to rule on the voter laws by the end of its term in June.

Even with that history, however, the bill signed by Governor McCrory Friday is driving a "real sense of surprise and outrage," says Pamela Conover, a political scientist at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. 

That is partly because North Carolina voters sent a strong message last month. Though they chose Donald Trump for president and Republican Richard Burr for US Senate, they voted McCrory out of office and elected a Democrat to the state Supreme Court, ensuring a 5-to-4 Democratic majority. 

To many in the state, the election was partly a repudiation of backroom and payback politics that have tarnished the state’s reputation, including the passage in the middle of the night of House Bill 2. The so-called “bathroom bill” gutted nondiscrimination guarantees in cities such as Charlotte for members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community and led to widespread boycotts of the state by businesses, sporting events, and even other state governments.

At first, McCrory refused to accept the outcome of the election. In his campaign for a recount, McCrory alleged widespread fraud with scant evidence.

Protests, process, and partisanship

But Republicans say they are well within the law to make the lame-duck changes to government they did Friday. 

State Rep. Jeff Collins (R) told the Raleigh News & Observer that the legislature should have more power because its members are more accountable to citizens than the governor. “They don’t get to see the governor pumping gas in Rocky Mount,” he said. “Our legislators are the closest state officials to the electorate. I think anything we can do to balance the scales back in that direction is a good move.”

Yet even activists who support such changes say the legislature has gone about them in the wrong way. 

“Some of the ideas that are being considered are ones we've championed for a long time, [but] the process is very flawed,” Mitch Kokai, a senior policy analyst at the John Locke Foundation, a conservative think tank in Raleigh, told Vice. “All of these are ideas that would benefit from having full discussion in a normal legislative session when you have time for [bipartisan] input.”

Hundreds of North Carolinians descended on the State Capitol to protest the moves. More than 50 have been arrested this week, according to ABC News

To Professor Greene, it is about more than partisan politics. 

“People call this blatant partisanship, but that’s an insult to partisanship,” he says. “This is blatant undermining of democratic norms.”

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