After Rare November Win, Democrats' Power Under North Carolina GOP's Attack

by | December 16, 2016

By Matt Pearce

No honeymoon, then.

North Carolina's incoming Democratic governor, Roy Cooper, threatened legal action Thursday after Republican lawmakers, in a surprise move, moved to strip power away from political branches and boards about to be taken over by Democrats.

The GOP move happened Wednesday night, as state legislators gathered for a special session to approve relief funds for victims of Hurricane Matthew. After the funding was approved, Republican lawmakers launched a second special session and introduced bills that would limit the gains made by Democrats in November.

One proposal would require Cooper's Cabinet nominees to be approved by the Republican-dominated state Senate. Another would eliminate the governor's ability to appoint trustees for the state's university system.

Yet another would require more cases to be heard by the state's Republican-controlled appellate court before going to the state's Supreme Court, where Democratic justices just gained a 4-3 majority.

Republican lawmakers also proposed to diminish the power the governor's party to influence the political makeup of county election boards, where Democrats had stood to gain seats because of the election results.

"Most people might think it's a partisan power grab, but it is really more ominous," Cooper, the state's attorney general, said at a news conference Thursday.

Cooper, who beat Republican incumbent Gov. Pat McCrory by just 0.2 percent of the vote, said his agenda on education, business and the environment could be unduly threatened if McCrory enacts the bills into law.

"We don't look good to our people here in North Carolina or to the rest of the country when laws are passed hastily, with little discussion, in the middle of the night," Cooper said.

The race between McCrory and Cooper was unusually bitter, and McCrory finally conceded defeat Dec. 5, nearly a month after election day. It's unclear whether he intends to sign the new legislation.

The GOP's election losses in North Carolina were an anomaly in a year when Democrats lost power across much of the country. Although Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump carried the battleground state, political observers suggest voters went against North Carolina Republicans for passing the nation's first law limiting transgender bathroom use.

That law, HB 2, had also been a product of Republican lawmakers' efforts to consolidate the Legislature's power, during another special session where legislation was passed with little input from Democrats.

During those deliberations, in March, Republicans had wanted to exert stronger control over the state's more liberal cities. Republicans formulated HB 2 in part to block the city of Charlotte (and any other North Carolina city in the future) from enforcing a new municipal law that established nondiscrimination protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender residents.

Among the provisions of HB 2 was a requirement that transgender people use government-owned bathrooms that matched the genders on their birth certificates, which many transgender people said would place them in greater danger of harassment or assault.

The policy immediately drew protests and lawsuits from liberal advocacy groups, plus boycotts from corporations and organizations. But Republican lawmakers, backed by McCrory, did not relent.

Cooper, as attorney general, opposed the law, and his race against McCrory was so close that it took weeks after the election to settle. The final results: 2,309,157 votes for Cooper, 2,298,880 votes for McCrory _ a margin of 10,277.

The Legislature, however, remained Republican-held, and Democratic lawmakers said they were caught off guard by Wednesday night's second special session.

"Evidently that has been planned by the Republicans for the last several weeks, maybe months, behind closed doors. We certainly were not aware of it," Democratic state Sen. Jane W. Smith said at a news conference, where she called the moves "completely a partisan power grab."

On Thursday, left-leaning protesters flooded the Capitol in Raleigh holding signs that said, "SAY NO TO POWER GRABS," "RESPECT OUR VOTE" and "SHAME."

Republican state Rep. David Lewis, chairman of the House Rules Committee, told reporters, "You will see the General Assembly look to reassert its constitutional authority in areas that may have been previously delegated to the executive branch," according to The Charlotte Observer.

GOP lawmakers are going to "work to establish that we are going to continue to be a relevant party in governing this state," Lewis added.

The Republican Party's state chairman, Robin Hayes, said in a statement that the proposals to split election boards between Republicans and Democrats was necessary to remove "the hyper-partisanship out of our elections administration in order to solve future election concerns in a bipartisan manner." Under current law, the boards have three members, with two from the governor's party and one from the other party.

Some Democrats and liberal groups have said they think the special session was unconstitutional, including Derick Smith, the political action chairman of the North Carolina chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

"For them to introduce 25 bills on one day, in a special session and not inform anyone on the other side of the aisle or the citizens, is nothing but tyranny," Smith said at a NAACP news conference. "North Carolina needs to take heed, the citizens need to reject this. ... This is not a democracy at all."

(c)2016 Los Angeles Times