Republican-controlled legislature looks to flex political muscle at the local level once again

By: - May 4, 2017 2:14 pm

With crossover behind them, the final negotiations over new laws have begun in the General Assembly.

Among the bills advancing is Senate Bill 285, which would break the Asheville City Council – now elected at-large by the entire city – into six districts with only the mayor elected at-large.

If passed into law, the council would have until Nov. 1 to draw the new districts or the General Assembly will do it for them.

The council has been planning a city-wide referendum on the issue for Nov. 7, but Republicans in the Senate dismissed the notion.

A similar bill was defeated last year but appears to have more momentum this session. The Senate passed the bill in a strict party-line vote with Republicans voting for it and Democrats against.

The bill echoes previous efforts by the GOP majority in Raleigh to target areas of the state that are long-time Democratic strongholds – usurping their local authority, stripping them of their powers, restructuring their governing boards, redrawing the districts from which they’re elected.

The efforts range from an attempt to take authority over the Charlotte Douglas Airport from the city of Charlotte and water authority from Asheville to restructuring how school boards in Wake and Guilford Counties and the city council in Greensboro are elected.

Some of these efforts have been more successful than others. Most recently, a federal judge struck down the Greensboro redistricting law.

A coherent political philosophy behind them is hard to discern and at times seems contradictory, but they all have the same effect: better political outcomes for Republicans.

In Greensboro, where registered Democrats far outnumber registered Republicans, the law to restructure the city council would have had candidates continue to run without their party identifications on the ballot.

In Rockingham County, where Republicans tend to dominate elections, a bill made the nonpartisan school board races into partisan races.

Bills to restructure the Wake County Board of Commissioners and Greensboro City Council, both dominated by Democrats, eliminated at-large representatives which tend to be Democrats.

In more Republican Rockingham County, the school board bill reduced but did not eliminate at-large representatives.
The Rockingham County school board bill called for a referendum on the issue, giving the county’s Republican-leaning electorate a chance to vote on the changes.

Greensboro was not allowed to hold a referendum on its city council reorganization despite both Republican and Democratic elected officials – at the local and the state level – calling for one.

Mac McCorkle

“We’re looking at Republicans flexing their current political muscle,” said Mac McCorkle, a former Democratic strategist now a professor at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy.

“I’m not saying the Democrats were angels at this when they were in power,” McCorkle said. “But they were better at understanding that part of governing is recognizing limits to what you can or should do.”

Democrats certainly used redistricting at a statewide level as a tool to get or keep political advantage, McCorkle said – but they did not target individual local governments that were more conservative and attempt to change their nature to favor Democrats.

“Doing that I think throws away a great strength that Republicans have had,” McCorkle said. “And that’s an understanding that local power should rest with local governments.”

That’s a position that has traditionally been important to conservatives, McCorkle said – particularly in the South.

“I think them doing that reflects the raw nature, the relentless nature, the unapologetic nature of how they’ve been governing,” McCorkle said. “And that shows that politically, the Republicans in power in North Carolina haven’t had the kind of maturation that you see in a place like Georgia, where Republicans are in power but some of the way they do things there would get them called liberals in North Carolina today.”

Ironically, McCorkle said, North Carolina being so politically contested may shaping the current political environment in Raleigh.

“In a place that was more solidly politically conservative or politically liberal you might not see this,” McCorkle said. “The state being so contested has really upped the partisan level – there’s this constant day to day struggle that you don’t see in a place that’s more clearly Republican, like Georgia.”

Frayda Bluestein

Frayda Bluestein, a professor of Public Law and Government at UNC, has written extensively about local and state governments, their respective powers and the tensions between them.

North Carolina is not a “home rule” state, Bluestein said – meaning that local governments are created by the state and are – within legal limits – subject to its whims. Local governments may complain about being micromanaged and may actually be so, Bluestein said – but the General Assembly has the legal authority to do so. Cases in which the courts have struck down laws passed from Raleigh that reached into local matters have tended to be more about how it was done than whether the General Assembly had the authority, she said.

“I think the main difference now is that the legislature is much more willing than they have been historically to enact a local act over the objection of the local government,” Bluestein said. “The use of local acts, historically, was upon request of local government as a way of giving the local government the opportunity to do something innovative.”

That the General Assembly is using them over the objections of local governments – and even over the objections of delegations of lawmakers to the General Assembly from the local areas in question – is new, Bluestein said. But it makes a certain sort of sense she added.

“Right now, given the mismatch with the legislature which is more Republican and the cities, which tend to be more Democratic, it’s not that surprising,” Bluestein said.

“The bottom line is that they can do these things,” Bluestein said. “They didn’t for a long time, but I think in those days the divide wasn’t as sharp as it is now.”

For years the School of Government counseled local governments to develop good relationships with lawmakers in Raleigh, Bluestein said. But in the current sharply divided and highly partisan environment, that can be more difficult.

“I think it’s also fair to say that some of these are absolutely just policy disagreements,” Bluestein said. “They have a majority, they don’t agree with these policies by local government and this is their chance to make sure these things don’t happen.”

The recent controversy over HB2, Bluestein said by way of example, was not really as much about the structure of government and state vs. local control as it may seem.

“What if it was reversed?” Bluestein said.

If Charlotte had made a local law banning transgender people from the restrooms with which they most identified, Bluestein said, the very people who were complaining about government overreach would likely have been calling on the General Assembly to intervene.

“It really reflects that the structure is just the structure,” Bluestein said. “It’s a framework. It depends on the people you put in place there.”

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Joe Killian
Joe Killian

Investigative Reporter Joe Killian's work examines government, politics and policy, with a special emphasis on higher education, LGBTQ issues and extremism.