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Republicans Forge Ahead With Their North Carolina Power Grab

As GOP efforts to restrain gubernatorial power rolled forward, Governor-elect Roy Cooper, a
Democrat, threatened to sue, and activists were arrested for disrupting the legislature.

DURHAM, N.C.A Republican effort to handcuff incoming Democratic Governor Roy


Cooper rolled forward on Thursday, in a day marked by somewhat acrimonious debate and fierce
protests at the General Assembly in Raleigh. About 20 demonstrators as well as one journalist
were arrested amid demonstrations against what liberal groups are describing as a legislative
coup.

Cooper offered brief remarks Thursday morning, firing back at Republicans and threatening to
sue over them.

If I believe that laws passed by the legislature hurt working families and are unconstitutional,
they will see me in court, said Cooper, who is currently the state attorney general. And they
dont have a very good track record there.

The state senate passed a bill overhauling the state board of elections, combining it with the state
ethics commission, as well as county boards of elections, by a 30-16 margin, along party lines.
Its the latest in a long-running, partially successful effort by state Republicans to rework the
states elections system to benefit themselves. The state house passed a bill that will reduce the
number of jobs appointed to the governor from 1,500 to 300, make Cabinet picks subject to state
senate approval, and withdraw the governors ability to make appointments to University of
North Carolina system boards of trustees and the state school board. (In effect, that will convert
many of the political appointments made by outgoing Governor Pat McCrory, a Republican, into
permanent jobs.) That bill passed 70-35.

The session, complete with fervent protests, was a replay of a common scene over the last four
years: Republicans in the legislature introduce a bill; Democrats argue against fiercely; a large
number of protestors arrive and demonstrate; but the bills roll on with little impediment, thanks
to large Republican majorities in both houses. Those majorities exist in part thanks to
gerrymandered districts, some of which were so extreme that a federal court has ordered them
redrawn and has shortened the terms of some legislators to a year in order to accommodate
special elections in 2017.

But Republicans feel emboldened, knowing that it doesnt matter how many hundreds of people
show up to demonstrate in Raleigh, because the legislative map guarantees theres little prospect
of Democrats taking back either chamber anytime soon. There is minimal pretense that the bills
under consideration are anything other than an attempt to undercut Cooper. On Wednesday, the
chairman of the House rules committee said they were intended to reassert legislative power, but
he also admitted that they might not have happened if not for McCrorys defeat.

It is not as if the legislature has been timid in asserting its powers, even during McCrorys
tenure. When the governor has on occasion tried to veto laws, lawmakers have been happy to
override him. When he declined to call a special session this spring to pass HB2, the bathroom
bill, they called one themselves, using a workaround. In 2014, McCrory sued after legislators
asserted the authority to make appointments to certain commission. He was joined by former
Governors Jim Hunt, a Democrat, and Jim Martin, a Republican, and ultimately prevailed.

Martin and Hunt on Thursday spoke out again, blasting the Republican moves as overreach. I
am very, very concerned, Hunt told The Charlotte Observer. Im afraid if allowed to stand, it
will result in education being much less effective in North Carolina hurting the people and
economy of our state. Martin said, I think theyd be going too far in taking away appointments
to the board of [education] and the UNC system. McCrory has been quiet. But even if he
wanted to veto the bills, the legislature could likely override him.

Instead of arguing the moves have anything other than a partisan motivationafter all, if the
reforms were essential, they could have been introduced at any time over the last four years
Republicans have pointed to past moves by Democrats to seize power. In 1976, for example,
Governor Hunt demanded the resignations of scores of staffers in an attempt to install his own
loyalists. In 1985, during the first year of Governor Martins term, the Democrat-controlled
legislature limited the number of appointments he could make.

With the voting arithmetic clear, and stacked against them; little factual debate over the
Republican motivation; and little turf for political compromise, Democrats resorted to appeals to
Republican shame and critiques of the process. They have also said they are attending the special
session under protest and have challenged its constitutionality. Democrats said that the power
grabs cited by Republicans were decades ago, before almost any of them were in power, and
furthermore contended that Republicans had promised to curb just these sorts of abuses when
they took control of both chambers in 2010 for the first time in 140 yearscarried to power in
part by voter disgust with Democrats employment of just this sort of abuse. Now, Democrats
contended, the GOP had embraced the tactics they once abhorred.

I just ask you to treat us with fairness, said Representative Darren Jackson. Other colleagues
offered variations on the old saw that two wrongs dont make a right. Representative Mickey
Michaux, one of the few legislators who were around in 1976, conceded that Republicans might
have the authority to make the changes they had. Just because you can doesn't mean you
should, Michaux scolded.

Democrats also complained that there had been insufficient time to review and debate the
measures. Cooper said during his press conference that he hadnt even had time to fully review
the bills on offer. He and other Democrats warned Republicans that the session could end up like
HB2, a law that was introduced, debated, passed, and signed, all within less than 12 hours.
(Emails made public later suggested that McCrory did not fully understand the legislation at the
time he signed it.) They also derided Republicans for bringing up the legislation at a time when
lawmakers had ostensibly returned to Raleigh to pass disaster-relief bills after flooding in eastern
North Carolina and wildfires in the west.

Cooper said the bills should be brought forth not in the dark of night, but in a standard session,
when citizens and lawmakers had time to deliberate.

We dont want another disaster like House Bill 2, he said. Its time for them to go home.
Lets stop this last-minute process that could really end up hurting North Carolinians, just like
they did with HB2.

Some out-of-state progressives took to social media to criticize North Carolina Democrats for
not fighting hard enough, but its a mystery what methods they might use to derail the
legislation. For the last four years, General Assembly Democrats have tried and mostly failed to
find ways to block the Republican supermajorities. Their most potent tool and one that some
analysts credit with electing Cooper is the vast activist base gathered under the Moral Monday
banner. The protestors were out in force on Thursday. At different times, the presiding officers
had both galleries cleared after members of the public cheered loudly during debate. It happened
first in the senate, forcing members to take a brief break while protestors were ushered out.

Later, it happened again in the house, while Michaux was speaking. This interruption was longer,
with protestors filing out but remaining outside the chamber, chanting loud enough to stall the
hearing, for some time. A reporter, Joe Killian of N.C. Policy Watch, was arrested. So were
about 20 other protestors who refused to leave. (Such mass arrests are a formalized process at
this point; Moral Movement organizers sign up willing arrestees ahead of time, and late in the
protest Thursday an organizer announced that anyone who didnt intend to be arrested should
skedaddle.)

Michaux, a fiery veteran of the civil-rights movement and friend of Martin Luther King, spoke in
defense of the demonstrators, telling the chamber, The reason Im able to be here is because I
broke the law in civil protest.

But Dallas Woodhouse, the executive director of the state Republican Party, called the protestors
nuts and demanded they denounce Hunts 1976 Christmas Massacre. Assuming the bills
continue to move apace, they are likely to face legal challenges, though what those challenges
might look like, where they would be filed, and what their chances are still remain too far off to
predict. Its interesting, though, that Woodhouse did not mention one important detail of that
episode: Hunts Democratic allies in the legislature passed a law that allowed him to fire anyone
hired by his Republican predecessor, a court later ruled that law unconstitutional and reinstated
fired staffers. Sometimes precedents are less clear-cut than they initially appear.

David A Graham