Depending on who you talk to, the special legislative session that left North Carolina’s new Democratic governor with much-diminished power was either an unprecedented GOP power grab or a time-honored Tar Heel tradition of sore losers sticking it to their opponents while they still can.
But what doesn’t seem to be up for debate is whether the state’s heavily Republican legislature could legally pass the bills that it did when it quickly gaveled into special session at the end of last week to pass a series of new laws to strip Roy Cooper of much of the governor’s traditional power once he is sworn in. So far the Republicans seem to be on solid, if unattractive, ground.
“Similar things have happened before, so this not new,” said Irving Joyner, counsel to the NAACP of North Carolina and a professor of law at North Carolina Central University. “It is new in the breadth of the powers that the legislature has sought to limit, but acts like this are not new and have been going on for decades.”
Cooper beat Republican incumbent Gov. Pat McCrory last month with a promise to repeal some of the most controversial legislation that McCrory passed with the help of the GOP legislature, including HB-2, the so-called bathroom bill that has cost the state conventions, sporting events, and millions of dollars in lost revenue.
But Cooper’s upcoming job has become infinitely more difficult now.
Among the bills quickly introduced, debated, and passed during the surprise special session were measures that will require state senate approval for Cooper’s cabinet members; remove control of the state boards of elections from the governor’s party; strip Cooper’s authority to appoint members to the boards of the University of North Carolina system; and cut the number of politically appointed state employees from 1,500 to about 400.
Of the potentially unconstitutional elements of the session, only the narrowest jump out to Joyner and others steeped in North Carolina state law: whether the legislature properly defined the reason for the special session; and whether it enacted private legislation, for the benefit of specific individuals, in some of the names put forward for state appointments.
The biggest challenge to Cooper’s power, as Joyner sees it, would be in the limit to appoint the cabinet of his choice, although advising and consenting to the choices is a power given to the legislature in the state constitution. “That could be a problem if the legislature wants to be mean-spirited, and clearly they appear to be mean-spirited,” he said.
Joyner said the changes to the governor’s power to control boards from education to elections to infrastructure could have wide-ranging implications: “All of it has the ability to cause problems for people we seek to serve.”
Dallas Woodhouse, executive director of the North Carolina Republican Party, defended the GOP measures as not only constitutional but historically consistent, or more specifically, nothing different from what Democrats have been doing to Republicans for decades. “We have done bean bag compared to what they did to us,” Woodhouse said.
By “what they did to us,” Woodhouse is referring to the 1985 Democratic legislature, which passed legislation to limit the hiring powers of incoming GOP Gov. Jim Martin. In 1977, the Democratic legislature gave the new Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt the power to fire all of the state employees hired by the outgoing Republican governor in the previous five years. Those moves and more were predated by examples of different factions of the North Carolina Democratic Party sticking it to the incoming rivals on their way out the door.
In a nutshell, Woodhouse said, McCrory and the Republicans are hardly taking the road less traveled for Tar Heel politicians. Just don’t call it a power grab.
“The way I would phrase it is a rebalancing of the strength of the legislative branch, which has been historically done every other time over the last 60 years when there has been a situation of divided power and divided branches,” Woodhouse said.
For some Democrats, though, the GOP’s special session seemed less like a historical “rebalancing” and more like an act of spite, especially after McCrory refused for weeks to concede the election to Cooper, claiming to be the victim of widespread voter fraud, even though none was proven.
Last week, progressive protesters filled the public areas of the statehouse as the legislators huddled and passed bills one after another. Police arrested dozens who refused to leave the building, including a white-bearded man dressed as Santa. “They’re arresting Santa!” one protester shouted as Santa was led away in plastic handcuffs by police officers. “Thank you, Santa!”
Gov.-elect Cooper vowed Friday to fight the legislature on any of the measures he thinks could be unconstitutional and promised to take them to court if necessary.
In a press conference at the end of the week, he also said he considered one of his top goals to be restoring the state’s reputation after the political chaos the state has dealt with for the last weeks, months, and years.
“We don’t look good to the people of North Carolina or the rest of the country when laws are passed hastily, with little discussion, in the middle of the night,” Cooper said. “This has got to stop.”
Making North Carolina’s political system look great again may be more than any one man can achieve, though. As longtime Raleigh News & Observer columnist Rob Christensen put it over the weekend, Democrats calling out Republicans for a power grab “is like being called ugly by a frog.”
In other words, right now nobody looks good.