The forces in North Carolina’s General Assembly aligned with what typically are seen as progressive causes – including strong public schools, fair and adequate taxation, wide access to decent health care, racial justice, elections open to meaningful participation by all qualified voters – began the month of April with their hopes hanging by a thread.
Progressive-minded legislators at least could say that even if they lacked the strength to advance their agenda in the face of majority-Republican opposition, they had a chance to block some conservative priorities by upholding Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s vetoes.
In the state Senate, vetoes would be shoved aside if all 30 Republican senators held together as a group. That would give them exactly the three-fifths margin in the 50-seat body needed for a veto override.
But in the House, Democrats – if united – could muster 49 votes to the Republicans’ 71. In a chamber with 120 seats and all members voting, that meant Democrats could sustain the governor’s vetoes by the margin of a single vote. It was a slender and vulnerable thread.
Then it snapped.
Rep. Tricia Cotham, a veteran Democrat from Mecklenburg County with deep roots in the party, shocked the world of Tar Heel politics when she announced on April 5 that she was becoming House Republican No. 72.
Long recognized as having an independent streak and as someone comfortable with working across the aisle, Cotham nevertheless had been a strong supporter of core Democratic positions. She had comfortably won re-election in a heavily Democratic district. But now she seemed to be turning her back on the voters who elected her.
Her explanation focused on what she described as mistreatment, even bullying, by Democratic colleagues seeking to keep her in line. As unwelcome as that kind of pressure might have been – and as counterproductive for those applying it – Cotham surely knows that her new allies will have their own expectations of loyalty. And to the degree she meets those expectations, legislative Republicans who welcomed her with delight now can look forward to a period when gubernatorial vetoes are doomed to irrelevance and their conservative wish-list suddenly looks more like a to-do list.
Ten years of Republican dominance in the General Assembly give us a good idea of what’s on that list. Among the highlights:
- Making it harder to vote and undercutting the authority of election officials who think more voting by qualified citizens serves the public interest.
- Scrimping on funds for traditional public schools while boosting support for private and charter schools.
- Tightening laws governing access to abortion.
- Cutting taxes in ways that chiefly benefit corporations and the affluent.
- Stoking divisive “culture war” concerns with bills targeting alleged racial and sexual indoctrination in schools.
- Easing access to and regulation of firearms.
- Asserting partisan, ideological control over the state’s public universities.
- Restricting the powers of the governor to direct the state’s executive branch via his appointments to key offices, boards, and commissions.
Each of these priorities has brought pushback from Cooper and his Democratic allies. In some instances, they’ve managed to limit the damage, although the gerrymandering that lies at the root of Republican control is beyond the reach of the governor’s veto.
In that regard, the state Supreme Court, when it had a Democratic majority, invoked the state constitution to curb gerrymandering driven by partisan self-interest. But with the court now in Republican hands – due in part to changes imposed by the legislature in how judicial elections are conducted – legislative chiefs look to their friends on the bench to let them draw voting districts, preserving their hold on power. Which is exactly what they’re gearing up to do.
As a newly minted member of the GOP, Rep. Cotham will have to take sides on many, if not most, of those issues and do it sooner rather than later.
In a what amounted to a test case prior to her party switch, she failed to support the Democratic effort to sustain Cooper’s veto of a bill scrapping the state’s pistol permit system. Her absence during the March 29 vote, which she said was unavoidable so she could keep a doctor’s appointment, helped House Republicans join with their Senate counterparts to push the bill through over Cooper’s objections.
The change will make it easier for people to buy handguns because they’ll no longer have to pass background checks overseen by their county sheriff – a nonsensical move indeed while gun violence of all kinds seems to be surging.
Yet the agenda that’s now in the legislative driver’s seat extends well beyond such relatively straightforward policy shifts into outright power grabs. Consider, for example, Senate Bill 512, which would sap the governor’s authority to make a slew of appointments to boards and commissions that play key roles in state government. Legislative leaders, naturally, would get to take up the slack. The bill cleared the Senate on April 6 and now is in custody of the House Rules Committee.
To gauge the bill’s effect, think of termites eating away at the underpinnings of gubernatorial authority. Let’s say the governor wants to advance a strong policy against coastal overdevelopment by appointing protection-minded members to the Coastal Resources Commission. He or she now names nine of the panel’s 13 members and also selects the chairman. So the commission, as it sets regulations reasonably, can be expected to be attuned to the governor’s views – the governor who, after all, was chosen by a majority of the entire state’s voters.
Currently, two of the commission’s remaining members are appointed by the state House upon recommendation of the House speaker and two by the Senate in line with a nod from the president pro tem. Those numbers each would increase to three.
The final member would be named by the commissioner of insurance, and the panel would elect its own chair. In the end, the governor would make a minority of the appointments, six rather than nine. His sway over coastal policy would be diminished as the commission basically became a legislative creature.
Here are other panels that would be put through a similar wringer enhancing the legislature’s influence: the Utilities Commission, which sets rates for electricity and natural gas; the Environmental Management Commission, which enacts regulations to uphold air and water quality; the Commission for Public Health; the Board of Transportation, which sets the state’s priorities for new roads and other transportation improvements; the Wildlife Resources Commission, which approves rules for hunting and fishing as well as wildlife conservation; the (state-owned) N.C. Railroad Board of Directors; and the UNC Health Care System Board of Directors.
These changes not only would shift the balance of power in how state government carries out its duties. They also would further hamstring a governor who already rates as one of the nation’s weakest in terms of his formal authority by reducing the political leverage flowing from his appointment privileges. Call it patronage if you wish, but to be effective, a politician needs some leeway to reward his otherwise qualified friends and supporters – and a seat on the Wildlife Resources Commission, say, is a plum, whether it comes from the governor or a legislative bigwig.
Squeeze on elections
Along with grinding the governor down, Republicans enjoying their new supermajority status can be expected to ramp up efforts they describe as enhancing “election integrity” but which have all the earmarks of good old voter suppression. The targets, of course, are voters who tend to lean Democratic. Republican dogma holds that such Democratic-leaners are more likely to vote by mail, to vote early or to lack a photo ID.
Hence legislation such as House Bill 123, calling for a constitutional amendment that would limit early voting to seven consecutive days, and House Bill 304, the “Election Day Integrity Act,” which would eliminate the three-day, after-election grace period for receipt of mail-in ballots postmarked by election day. And then there’s the anticipated push to revive a photo ID requirement for voters, now that the newly Republicanized state Supreme Court is poised to give a green light even though the court’s previous Democratic majority declared such a rule to be racially discriminatory.
Tricia Cotham, with all these issues swirling, will need to make some hard calls as she adjusts to her new party affiliation. Will House Speaker Tim Moore grant her the flexibility to occasionally vote with her former allies on matters of principle, if for no other reason than to avoid looking like a complete hypocrite? Perhaps that question will arise most sharply if legislative Republicans press ahead with hardline changes to the state’s abortion laws, following up on the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe vs. Wade.
Cotham has been an outspoken advocate for abortion rights, so shrinking the window for the procedure, currently the first 20 weeks of pregnancy — perhaps to the point where many women wouldn’t even realize they were pregnant — would seem to be very hard for her to accept.
Women who value the right to make crucial decisions about their own health care, whatever their partisan allegiance, surely would approve if she held to her pro-choice views. And North Carolina would be well-served if the soul-searching by this newly minted Republican didn’t stop there.
Mark a Finkelstein says
Thank you for working to keep North Carolina voters informed. People of faith need to turn out next year and end this decade of complete right-wing control of our legislature. Neighbor-loving does not hold a majority in NC these days.
Thanks for the info. I had been a long-time supporter of Tricia Cotham. That will end!
Carolyn B Guckert says
Great column, thanks for outlining how much is at stake here.