RALEIGH, N.C. — Amid a tense and dramatic backdrop of outrage and frustration, North Carolina’s Republican-controlled legislature on Friday approved a sweeping package of restrictions on the power of the governor’s office in advance of the swearing in of the Democratic governor-elect, Roy Cooper.
Protesters spent a second day chanting and disrupting debate, as some were arrested and led away from the state legislative building in plastic wrist restraints.
Democratic lawmakers repeatedly referred to the move as a “power grab” carried out by a Republican Party upset that their candidate, Gov. Pat McCrory, had lost the governor’s race. Republicans countered by emphasizing that they had suffered similar indignities for many decades when Democrats controlled the legislature here.
State Senator Chad Barefoot, a Republican, said that the changes return “power that was grabbed during Democratic administrations in the 1990s, and some in the ’70s.”
But some here said that Republicans’ effort to hobble the incoming governor had few parallels in recent North Carolina history.
“Sure, the Democrats don’t have clean hands, but this is beyond anything I’ve seen them do,” said Bob Phillips, executive director of the nonpartisan group Common Cause North Carolina. “I think we’re in unprecedented, uncharted territory with this.”
Two major bills were approved by the legislature Friday. One of them, which was quickly signed by the departing Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican, strips future governors of their power to appoint a majority to the State Board of Elections. The number of board members was expanded from five to eight, with the eight members to be evenly divided between the two major parties.
It also changes the state court system, making it more difficult for the losers of some superior court cases to appeal directly to the Democratic-controlled Supreme Court.
A second bill, which had not been signed by the governor as of Friday afternoon, strips the governor of his ability to name members of the boards of state universities, and it reduces the number of state employees the governor can appoint from 1,500 to 425.
Republicans, who once expanded the number of employees who serve at the governor’s pleasure in an effort to help Mr. McCrory, originally proposed shrinking the number of such workers to 300 in advance of Mr. Cooper’s inauguration. The number was increased in an amendment filed by Mr. Barefoot.
In another change, and one that could have the greatest impact in the near term, the bill makes the governor’s cabinet appointees subject to approval by the State Senate. Republicans currently enjoy veto-proof majorities in the House and the Senate, and the North Carolina governorship is historically a relatively weak office. Cabinet appointments are one of the major ways Mr. Cooper, a moderate Democrat, might be able to influence the direction of the state.
The moves have mobilized North Carolina’s sizable Democratic contingent, who have been galvanized, over the last four years, by the “Moral Mondays” protest movement led by the Rev. William Barber II, the charismatic president of the state N.A.A.C.P.
On Friday afternoon, Mr. Barber entered the state legislative building, triggering whoops and cheers from the roughly 200 protesters.
With the aid of a cane he made his way into the space outside the legislative chambers, and encouraged the protesters to risk arrest by knocking on the locked doors of the State House viewing gallery. Police had forbidden protesters to knock.
“You have to decide if you want to in fact knock on that door,” said Mr. Barber.
Some knocked. A number of them were arrested. The building throbbed as the protesters chanted, “Let Us In.”
The raucous protests Friday, and the votes along strict party lines, virtually guarantee that hyperpartisan political turmoil will continue to be the norm in this deeply divided state. Democratic protests began to swell here in 2013, after Mr. McCrory took office, and Republicans, enjoying control of both the executive and legislative branches, began rolling out an aggressive conservative agenda that limited ballot access and, with the passage of the legislation known as House Bill 2, curtailed gay and transgender rights.
That law, which set off boycotts and nationwide protests, is seen as a main reason Mr. McCrory lost his bid for a second term, despite the fact that he presided over an improving economy. Mr. McCrory further angered Democrats by refusing to concede the election for nearly a month as his allies filed challenges to the election results.
In a news conference Thursday, Mr. Cooper, the state’s veteran attorney general, threatened to sue the legislature over the changes. “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,” he said in a statement on Friday.
Richard L. Hasen, a voting-rights expert and professor of law and political science at the University of California, Irvine, has said that the changes to the elections board could be challenged in state and federal court. In a blog post, Mr. Hasen wrote that a federal case might allege violations of the Voting Rights Act, “in part because the legislature would potentially be diluting minority voting power and making minority voters worse off, just at the time that their candidate of choice (Gov. Cooper) is poised to assume power.”
Friday’s debates at times found Republicans arguing that they could make the changes, and Democrats questioning whether they should. Mr. Barefoot, on the Senate floor, argued forcefully that a number of the changes were well within the Republicans’ legal rights, citing specific passages from the state Constitution.
State Senator Joyce Waddell, a Democrat from Mecklenburg County, echoed many other Democrats when she complained that the matters were being decided in a hastily called special session that allowed less opportunity for public input than normal.
“Why are we rushing?” she said. “There’s no time to hear from voters.”
Republicans defended some of the moves as good-government reform efforts. Representative David R. Lewis, argued that the provision changing the elections boards will instill greater confidence in the electoral process. In addition to changing the state board, the law will also make the state’s 100 county elections boards four-member bodies evenly split between the two parties. Before, they were set up so that the governor’s party had a 2-1 majority in each.
“We have been told that one of the most important things is for our citizenry to have confidence and faith that the elections process is fair,” Mr. Lewis said, “and that it is overseen in a way that does not reflect the partisan bent, if you will, of those administering the elections.”
Published at Sat, 17 Dec 2016 01:41:55 +0000