By GARY D. ROBERTSON and MEG KINNARD
North Carolina Republicans stripped the incoming Democratic governor of some of his authority on Friday and were on the cusp of an even greater power grab, an extraordinary move critics said flies in the face of voters.
Just last week, it appeared Republicans were ready to finally accept Democrats' narrow win in a contentious governor's race. As it turns out, they weren't done fighting. In a surprise special session in the dying days of the old administration, some say the Republican-dominated legislature has thrown the government into total disarray, approving at least one bill aimed at emasculating incoming Gov. Roy Cooper's administration.
Cooper, the current attorney general, has threatened to sue. And many in the state are accusing Republicans of letting sour grapes over losing the governor's mansion turn into a legislative coup.
"I believe fervently in democracy. I'm watching it be undermined ... by people who seem unwilling to consider or to listen," said Margaret Toman, who was among hundreds of protesters rallying inside the Legislative Building this week, demanding that Republicans leave Cooper's authority alone.
The protesters were so loud that Senate and House cleared the galleries — a highly unusual move — and more than two dozen people were arrested this week. Some protesters chanted "all political power comes from the people" as demonstrators were escorted from the Legislative Building by authorities. Those that remained behind could only watch the debate through glass windows or listen to it online.
Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, who lost to Cooper by about 10,000 votes, quickly signed into law a bill that merges the State Board of Elections and State Ethics Commission into one board comprised equally of Democrats and Republicans, according to documents from General Assembly staff. The previous state elections board law would have allowed Cooper to put a majority of Democrats on the panel.
The law would also make elections for appellate court judgeships officially partisan again.
Another bill nearing final legislative approval would force Cooper's Cabinet choices to be subject to Senate confirmation.
McCrory's office didn't respond to phone calls and texts about the bills.
Republicans insist the legislation is simply adjusting the constitutional powers already granted to the General Assembly. Many of the provisions had been debated for years but always got set aside.
"There's probably no better time than to deal with it in the present," said Republican Rep. Bert Jones.
Democrats said it was a GOP power grab occurring a week after the Republican incumbent conceded.
"I really fear that we have harmed our reputation and integrity this week," said Rep. Billy Richardson, a Democrat.
Republicans gained power of both legislative chambers in 2010 for the first time in more than a century, and they have veto-proof majorities.
Two former North Carolina governors — Republican Jim Martin and Democrat Jim Hunt — told The Charlotte Observer this week that the legislation goes too far.
"I am very, very concerned," four-term Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt told the newspaper. "I'm afraid if allowed to stand, it will result in education being much less effective in North Carolina, hurting the people and economy of our state."
Cooper ran on a platform of defeating Republicans' agenda, saying he would work to repeal a law known as House Bill 2 that limits LGBT rights.
"If I believe that laws passed by the legislature hurt working families and are unconstitutional, they will see me in court," Cooper said.
Republicans pointed to past sessions of the General Assembly, when it was dominated by Democrats. Democrats stripped the powers of the first and only GOP lieutenant governor of the 20th Century in the late 1980s. But Democrats said there's been no such widespread effort to limit the power of an incoming executive before he took office.