RALEIGH, N.C. – North Carolina Republicans stripped the incoming Democratic governor of some of his authority on Friday and they were on the cusp of an even greater power grab, an extraordinary move that 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 two bills aimed at emasculating incoming Gov. Roy Cooper's administration. One of them was signed into law by the current governor.
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.
"This was a pure power grab," said retired school librarian Carolyn White, 62, a long-time demonstrator who was arrested as part of the "Moral Monday" protests against GOP-led legislative policies. "I got arrested two years ago. Did it make any difference? No. But just like the civil rights movement, it's forward together. You just have to keep going forward."
The protesters were so loud that Senate and House cleared the galleries — a highly unusual move. More than 50 people were arrested this week, and as demonstrators were led away from the Legislative Building, some chanted "all political power comes from the people." Those that remained behind could only watch the debate through glass windows or listen to it online.
Hundreds stomped their feet and yelled outside the gallery, causing several Republican lawmakers to note they were having trouble hearing during the debate. Democrats repeatedly stated their objections.
"The kindergartners are getting rowdy," said Republican Rep. Dana Bumgardner.
He said Democrats were "creating out of thin air a talking point for the next election."
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. The previous state elections board law would have allowed Cooper to put a majority of Democrats on the elections panel.
The law would also make elections for appellate court judgeships officially partisan again.
Another bill that received final legislative approval would force Cooper's Cabinet choices to be subject to Senate confirmation, would allow Cooper to designate up to 425 state employees as his political appointees, compared to a cap of 1,500 for McCrory.
Before adjourning, lawmakers also confirmed a salaried appointment to the state Industrial Commission for the wife of McCrory's chief of staff. McCrory nominated her.
McCrory must decide whether to sign the second law passed by the General Assembly, a body that has repeatedly tugged him to the right even though he campaigned as a moderate in 2012 as Charlotte's former mayor.
Republicans insist the legislation is simply adjusting the constitutional powers already granted to the General Assembly. Many provisions had been debated for years but had either gotten blocked or the Democratic viewpoint previously won out.
"There's probably no better time than to deal with it in the present," Republican Rep. Bert Jones said of the judicial elections provision.
Democrats said it was an attempt by the GOP to cling to power 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, holding 108 of 170 seats even though the state has been more closely divided in recent statewide and federal elections.
North Carolina is a presidential battleground state that Barack Obama won in 2008 by just over 14,000 votes. Four years later, Mitt Romney edged Obama by about 92,000 votes. Donald Trump won in November.
GOP legislators have been able to expand their majorities thanks to approving redistricting maps in 2011. But nearly 30 of those legislative districts were struck down last summer. A federal court has directed updated maps be approved by March 15.
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.
"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 late Friday.
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 in such a session.
Still, Republican House Speaker Tim Moore said, "just because you disagree with something doesn't mean it's unconstitutional."