CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — North Carolinians have had a rough 2016.
From HB2, infamously known as the bathroom bill, to the protracted redistricting battle to the nearly month-long ballot recount that culminated in Republican Gov. Pat McCrory’s concession to Democrat Roy Cooper on Dec. 5, political dramas in the Old North State have consistently provided political reporters and late-night comedians with an abundance of material throughout the year.
Now, thanks to the state Legislature’s latest actions, I’m confident television writers currently have enough source material to inspire several scripts. (Paging Shonda Rhimes.)
Truth is indeed stranger than fiction.
Hurricane relief and court-packing rumors
Last Wednesday, the North Carolina General Assembly convened for a special session in Raleigh. Outgoing Gov. McCrory ordered the third special session of the year, ostensibly to provide disaster-relief funding to North Carolina counties still struggling to recover from damage wrought by Hurricane Matthew and subsequent wildfires that torched thousands of acres of land in late October.
In the month leading up to the special session, rumors ran rampant through the state’s political circles that the Legislature, controlled by a GOP supermajority in both chambers, planned to place two additional conservative justices on the North Carolina Supreme Court. (In addition to McCrory’s loss to Cooper, the North Carolina Supreme Court also picked up an additional Democratic justice, tipping the court’s balance to the Democrats.)
The Legislature did not pack the court with any additional justices, but what legislative leaders actually planned amounts to a breathtaking display of partisan arrogance: Immediately after closing the third special session, legislative leaders announced a fourth “surprise” special session, catching Democrats and members of the press completely off guard. Legislative leaders refused to furnish any agendas for the session and stonewalled attempts to get more immediate information.
Chilling legislative overreach: Because they did it first
Over the next couple of days, the Legislature hastily passed a number of measures aimed at strictly curtailing the incoming governor’s power. One of the main bills, HB 17, would transfer appointment powers from the executive back to the legislative branch, including a requirement that the state Senate confirm the governor’s cabinet members.
When questioned by the press, members’ answers ranged from admitting that some of the changes would not be happening if McCrory would have prevailed to the denial that the session amounted to anything more than business as usual because the other party did it first. One member’s evidence involved an example of Democratic overreach from 1989.
Using the “because they did it first” line to justify these actions is childish, and it is as arrogant as it is insulting. It’s especially relevant here: As political operative Thomas Mills rightly points out, the GOP promised voters they wouldn’t govern like the Democrats. Essentially North Carolina’s GOP leadership is saying voters shouldn’t care what its own members said a mere six years ago, but they should definitely care about what the other party did in 1989.
Ignoring the will of the voters will be McCrory’s legacy
The chicanery surrounding the origins of this special legislative session is chilling, and the Legislature continues to show us that they’re more than happy to ignore the will of the voters. The NCGA promised to help struggling counties with hurricane-disaster relief, but, before the election, leaders indicated that they could wait until the new legislative session convenes in January 2017. Indeed, the wildfires could have also changed this calculus, but the $200 million funding bill passed last week falls far short of what counties need.
Holding a special session costs taxpayers around $42,000 per diem, so why not wait a few more weeks? The answer is clear: Leaders in the NCGA know that they’re about to lose one of their most effective puppets — McCrory could never match the intellect of Senate Pro Tempore Phil Berger, and he lacked the backbone necessary to even try.
Moreover, he now has the dubious honor of being the “first governor in the history of North Carolina to lose a bid for reelection,” and it’s evidently been a tough pill for him to swallow, especially given the fact that President-elect Donald Trump and Sen. Richard Burr both won the state handily. North Carolinians crossed party lines to deny him another term in office. Instead of helping to ensure a smooth transition (as he promised to do when he conceded the race), he’s evidently content with subverting the will of the voters to prove, once again, that he will be remembered as one of the most stunningly ineffective governors the state has ever seen.
Why you should care
There are an impressive number of thoughtful pieces about what’s going on in North Carolina right now, and I would advise people to take the time to read them, regardless of where you live. I agree that we’re going to see more of this in other states, and it will be tempting, at times, to dismiss it as normal partisan politics, especially if you feel like your party is on the winning end right now. However, very little of North Carolina’s latest special session can be deemed normal — would it bother you if your state’s legislative leaders called a special session without informing their legislative colleagues, the press or the public? I would imagine that it would. It should.
At one point during the special session, members barred the public from sitting in the galleries and arrested a journalist who was covering the session for his organization. Dozens of citizens were arrested during the special sessions, and some legislators even accused protesters of being paid to be there. In the galleries and outside in the rotunda, protesters chanted, “All political power comes from the people,” and “You [the legislators] work for us.”
As I began writing this piece, I found out that the NCGA will be holding yet another special session on today (the fifth special session, for those keeping track at home) to possibly repeal HB2 in full.
Let the reindeer games begin (again).