North Carolina Legislature Strips Governor’s Office Of Power In Wake Of Democratic Victory
In the wake of the Democratic victory in the North Carolina Governor's race, the Republican-controlled legislature has stripped the Governor's office of significant power.
North Carolina’s Republican legislature responded to the fact that fellow Republican Pat McCrory lost his re-election bid on Election Day by passing a bill that makes the Governor of North Carolina one of the least powerful in the country, and many people who supported Governor-Elect Roy Cooper are crying foul:
Outgoing North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory has signed a measure limiting the powers of his soon-to-be Democratic successor, Roy Cooper, a move critics are calling an unprecedented power grab orchestrated by the state’s Republican-controlled legislature.
The bill McCrory signed on Friday merges the State Board of Elections and State Ethics Commission into one entity comprised equally of Democrats and Republicans. Previous state law would have allowed Cooper to put a majority of Democrats on the board, which sets the rules for the state’s notoriously burdensome balloting.
The measure also makes elections for appellate court judgeships partisan by requiring candidates to be listed on the ballot alongside their political party.
Cooper said Friday he will challenge the move and has threatened to sue the legislature.
“Once more, the courts will have to clean up the mess the legislature made, but it won’t stop us from moving North Carolina forward,” Cooper said in a statement.
Protesters packed the halls of the General Assembly Friday as lawmakers voted on another bill that would require Senate confirmation for cabinet appointments. The state Senate voted to approve that measure Friday afternoon, sending it back to the state House for final consideration.
At least 16 people were arrested Friday, according to General Assembly police.
“They’ve decided now to go back and frustrate the will of the voters,” Rep. Larry Hall, a Democrat, said of the legislature’s action.
The series of measures were introduced in a surprise move Wednesday during a special session ostensibly called by the General Assembly to consider relief for Hurricane Matthew victims. Lawmakers did indeed approve a $201 million aid package earlier in the day, but then moved onto the legislation aimed at curbing the power of Cooper, who beat Republican McCrory last month by about 10,000 votes.
McCrory did not concede until last week — a full month after voters cast their ballots — following numerous failed attempts to lodge complaints about the election results. No evidence of widespread voting fraud ever came to light.
In his first national television interview since winning the gubernatorial contest, Cooper told MSNBC’s Chuck Todd Thursday that the legislature’s action was a “partisan power grab that goes far beyond political power.”
“What they are trying to do with these process changes is to limit my ability to want to raise teacher pay, to expand Medicaid,” Cooper said. “This is why people are mad, and this is why people don’t like government because of these kind of shenanigans.”
On Friday, Cooper left open the possibility of taking legal action.
Paul Waldman gives a good example of the reaction to all this from Democrats and other supporters of Governor-Elect Cooper:
The bills Republicans are pushing through the legislature would, among other things, cut the number of appointments the governor can make by 80 percent; make his cabinet appointments subject to state senate confirmation; transfer authority for the state board of education from the governor to the superintendent (a Republican ousted a Democrat this year in the election for that seat); move the authority to appoint trustees of the University of North Carolina from the governor to the legislature; and dilute the governor’s control over the state board of elections and mandate that the board will be chaired by a Democrat in odd-numbered years (when there are no elections) and a Republican in even-numbered years (when there are elections).
And they’re barely bothering to pretend that if a Republican governor is elected in four years they won’t just reverse most or all of these changes.
This isn’t just hardball politics. This is a fundamentally anti-democratic approach to government, one that says that when we win, we get to implement our agenda, and when you win, you don’t.
To put this in context, perhaps nowhere in the country have Republicans moved more aggressively to solidify power by disenfranchising their opponents as they have in North Carolina. Immediately after the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013, Republicans enacted a voter suppression law that “targeted African Americans with almost surgical precision,” in the words of the appeals court that later struck it down. The district lines already give the Republicans an enormous advantage: In 2016, Republicans outpolled Democrats in North Carolina congressional races by a margin of only 53-47, yet they held 10 of the state’s 13 congressional seats.
The situation in the state house is similar: In this closely divided swing state, Republicans enjoy supermajorities in both houses of the state legislature because of aggressively gerrymandered legislative districts that pack African-Americans together in order to dilute their power. The districts were declared unconstitutional by a federal court earlier this year, and the state has been ordered to redraw them and hold special elections next year. But in the meantime, in this year’s election Republicans won 56 percent of votes to the state senate, yet controlled 35 of the chamber’s 50 seats. In the state house the results were similar: Republicans won 53 percent of the votes, yet hold 74 of the 120 seats.
I find myself of two minds about what’s going on here.
On the one hand, Waldman and the critics of the North Carolina legislature are right that this is a purely political action that wouldn’t be happening if the election had turned out differently. If McCrory had won re-election, the Republican legislature would not be stripping his office of power and would not have called a Special Session in order to do so. The moves are obviously intended to restrict the power of the newly-elected Democratic Governor and enhance the power of the Republican-controlled legislature in a state that has teetered between Red and Blue ever since Barack Obama narrowly won the state in the 2008 Presidential election. In that sense, it’s yet another example of the kind of cynical, dirty politics that has become all too common in the United States today. Additionally, it’s easy to see how the people who voted for Cooper would be outraged by this since it seems like, and probably is, a blatant attempt to undercut the meaning of their vote in November.
At the same time, I must admit that I don’t like the idea of Executives, be they Governors or Presidents, with too much power in their hands. At both the state and Federal level we’ve seen what can happen when the Executive Branch becomes too powerful, and the idea that the legislature in Raleigh acted to limit the power of the Governor by taking back some of the powers it had granted over the years and arguably handing power back over to the people via their representatives in the legislative branch is an appealing one. Indeed, we could stand to see the powers of the Imperial Presidency curtailed if Congress had the fortitude to do what the Constitution permits and expects it to do. Instead, what we’ve generally seen at the Federal level is a Congress that has generally become complicit in the Executive Branch’s assumption of new and greater power, whether through Executive Orders and similar measures or regulatory action that involves unelected bureaucrats making decisions that arguably should be the proper province of the elected representatives of the people. The only time there is pushback to any of those efforts, it is typically only during times when Congress and the Presidency are controlled by different parties, a fact which makes the coming era of Republican control of Congress while a man like Donald Trump sits in the White House troubling to say the least.
There’s some talk of legal action challenging what the North Carolina legislature did in the wake of Cooper’s victory, including from Cooper himself. While I am admittedly no expert in North Carolina law, it seems as though the legislature was acting well within its purview under the State Constitution when it undertook these actions, and that it’s going to be next to impossible for Cooper to overturn or repeal any of the changes that were made to the Governor’s office during this Special Session. At the very least, though, it portends a rocky relationship between the two elected branches of state government in Raleigh, which should make the next four years interesting to say the least.