By Hastings Wyman –
Outgoing Gov. Pat McCrory’s (R) penultimate act before leaving office was to observe the hanging of his official portrait in the Governor’s Mansion. His ultimate act, however, in keeping with the Republican response to Democrat Roy Cooper’s victory, was to ask the US Supreme Court to stay the lower court order that would require redistricting in a number of state House districts in 2017. If successful, McCrory’s action could mean that Cooper would have to continue to govern with veto-proof Republican majorities in both of the state’s legislative chambers for a full two years.
Republicans took control of the legislature in 2010 and solidified their lead in 2012 after redistricting, which was “Republican advantage to the max,” says Ferrel Guillory, Director of UNC’s Program on Public Life. A federal court has ruled the legislative districts violate the Voting Rights Act and it is likely that there will be legislative elections in 2017 and again in 2018. “The legislature could be tied up with redistricting,” says Guillory. He adds that Cooper’s task is “how to get more Democrats elected either in the House or Senate – more likely the House – below a veto-proof majority.”
Among a number of restrictions the legislature and McCrory imposed on the incoming governor, Cooper would be able to make appointments to only 425 state jobs, down from McCrory’s 1,500. Moreover, Cooper’s cabinet appointments would be subject to confirmation by the state Senate. While Cooper says he will challenge these restrictions in court, legal experts question whether the legislature’s actions can be overturned by the judiciary, in this state where the legislature is the supreme governing authority.
The restrictions on Cooper’s powers imposed by the Republican legislature in the closing days of 2016 has a precedent in similar moves by Democrats in the past, but the GOP’s restrictions on Cooper are more extensive than what the Democrats did.
Another set-back to Cooper was the legislature’s refusal to repeal the HB2 law on transgender access to public restrooms, which also included restrictions on local laws favorable to gay men and lesbians.
Despite the GOP’s overwhelming strength in the legislature, the state’s voters elected a Democratic governor in 2016, albeit narrowly. Indeed, the election wasn’t finally settled until Dec. 5, when McCrory conceded after a partial recount failed to show gains for the Republican incumbent. “It shows how closely the state is divided,” says Guillory.
So one minute after midnight on Jan. 1, 2017, Gov. Roy Cooper (D) was sworn in before a small group of family members and others. A more public ceremony will take place on Jan. 7. Cooper is a “center-left Democrat, in the Jim Hunt tradition,” says Guillory, “more moderate than national Democrats.” And although the GOP curbed some of the incoming governor’s authority, “Cooper still has some power, including control over a good piece of the bureaucracy. And he can change the dialogue” to emphasize his goals, such as a significant pay-raise for teachers.
Nevertheless, says another longtime observer of Tar Heel politics, “It’s going to be really hard for Cooper… He will probably set a record for vetoes.” Moreover, the legislature will be able to override many of them.
However, he continues, Cooper “will have a bully pulpit. He will take the initiative more often,” in contrast to McCrory, who let the legislature lead on many issues.
So North Carolina politics will continue to be in the news in 2017, with court rulings, possibly more redistricting, and a Democratic governor trying to set the agenda in confrontation with a decidedly conservative, veto-proof Republican majority, at least for a while, in both legislative chambers.