Political Remap Could Shift North Carolina Battle's Outcome
North Carolina's Republican-dominated legislature has been repeatedly walloping Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper since before he took office, and the bitter conflict shows no sign of abating. But an upcoming adjustment to some political boundaries could sway its outcome.
A court-mandated redistricting threatens the Republicans' power to override Cooper's vetoes and make unfettered changes to state government. This possibility has GOP leaders planning to return to Raleigh multiple times this year to consider even more conservative-leaning legislation and Democrats quickly raising money in case judges order snap elections under the new boundaries.
"There's a sense that there is a deadline," said Chris Cooper, a political science professor at Western Carolina University and not related to the governor. "There's a sense of a looming change coming with redistricting."
So far, the GOP has steamrolled the new governor. It began a week after Cooper's narrow election victory last December. Republicans convened a surprise special session and proceeded to strip him of power over elections, limit the number of policy positions he could fill and subject his Cabinet to state Senate confirmation.
After Cooper went to court to try to block some of the laws, with mixed results, GOP lawmakers passed a state budget that essentially blocked Cooper's use of taxpayer dollars to hire private lawyers to sue.
"We don't think it's appropriate to sue the state and use state dollars to do so," Senate leader Phil Berger said last month. "If he wants to sue the state, he can use private dollars."
The clash quieted only slightly in March when Cooper and the Republicans cobbled together a partial repeal of House Bill 2, the "bathroom bill" limiting LGBT rights that had brought unwanted national attention to the state.
Then GOP legislators quickly resumed ignoring Cooper's wishes and eroding his powers until this year's main work session adjourned June 30. They overrode the new governor's vetoes, took away his ability to fill upcoming appeals court vacancies and slashed spending in his office.
"They certainly do have the votes," Cooper said when faced with a GOP override of his state budget veto, adding he'd "work to fight another battle on another day."
That day is coming real soon. Republicans already have scheduled two or three special legislative sessions this year, with the first Aug. 3. They plan to use them in part to keep checks upon Cooper, who won by 10,000 votes over Republican Gov. Pat McCrory on a platform of eliminating the law known as HB2 and straightening out the state's recent rightward bent. He says taxpayer-funded "vouchers" and tax cuts benefiting corporations and the wealthy need to stop.
GOP legislators also are expecting by this fall to redraw General Assembly districts struck down by federal courts as illegal racial gerrymanders. New boundaries will likely put many GOP-leaning districts in play. Democrats only have to win three more House seats or six Senate seats to end the GOP's veto-proof majority.
"I think you can see from this session what a difference that would have made," said Gary Pearce, a longtime North Carolina Democratic consultant.
Cooper and his allies want the courts to order a special election this fall under new maps. Republicans say there's not enough time and elections should wait until November 2018.
Cooper said this week he's already raised more than $1 million for an initiative with the state Democratic Party to win more legislative seats, with the goal of winning back by 2020 the majorities in the House and Senate. Republicans hadn't controlled the legislature in 140 years until 2011.
GOP legislators may otherwise avoid controversial issues during the special sessions to keep attention to broader accomplishments this year like raising teacher pay, cutting income tax rates across the board and expanding pre-kindergarten for at-risk children. They say the economy is humming thanks to GOP policies.
In recent years, they've passed abortion restrictions, prohibited "sanctuary cities" and passed HB2.
"I do not believe that social issues will be front and center in those sessions," GOP consultant Chris Sinclair said. "I think they will be pragmatic as well."
Republican Rep. David Lewis, chairman of the House Rules Committee, said lawmakers "will meet and do those duties needed to create jobs and provide tax relief to the middle class. The governor can work with us or continue to play to and listen to the far-left wing of his party."
Groups allied with Democrats have sounded the alarm that more GOP muscling could be ahead. The state NAACP is so concerned it asked federal judges to block the legislature from even meeting until new maps are drawn by an outside party and elections are held.
As for Cooper, he told reporters recently the legislature should simply consider vetoes, complete redistricting and "go home."