North Carolina lawmakers remind us yet again why they’ve earned our distrust

July 25, 2018 5:30 am

Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett

In the first two paragraphs of state Rep. David Lewis’ ludicrous and lamentable plea for a special session this week, ostensibly to rescue the GOP-approved constitutional amendments from liberal “gamesmanship and politics,” the Harnett County Republican mentions the word “maneuverings” twice.

If you’re having difficulty processing Lewis’ use of the word, you’re not alone. After all, Lewis is the overseer of a decade of nakedly partisan gerrymandering, a divisive figure and Karl Rove-style political strategist who’s adept at manipulating process and voters to Republican advantage.

Lewis once boasted in 2016 that his proposed Congressional district maps were crafted “to give a partisan advantage to 10 Republicans and three Democrats because I do not believe it’s possible to draw a map with 11 Republicans and two Democrats.”

Federal judges surely chafed at Lewis’ grandstanding when they struck down those districts in January. Hence the heartburn over Lewis’ weekend fret, in which the lawmaker bemoaned that a Constitutional Amendments Publication Commission not controlled by Republicans would create captions for the six amendments.

Republicans already graced those amendments with blushing, friendly descriptions on the ballot, but they worried the captions atop the amendments could be used to sway voters, to manipulate the GOP’s so carefully planned manipulations.

Lewis’ call, as expected, prompted a speedy call for a special session that convened Tuesday afternoon and, within a matter of hours, passed a sweeping power grab that wrests control of those captions.

Gov. Roy Cooper is expected to veto the last-minute shenanigans, but Republicans have left themselves just enough time to override Cooper’s veto before the amendments must be delivered to election officials in early August. It helps that they passed convenient new rules Tuesday that would allow them to override the veto on the same day it’s received.

While the three-member commission that lawmakers hope to circumvent is comprised of a majority of Democrats, there’s no evidence to believe that panel—composed of Secretary of State Elaine Marshall, Attorney General Josh Stein and Legislative Services Officer Paul Coble—will act with any less altruism than this legislature.

That commission had already launched a public input process and website addressing these troubling constitutional amendments, while state lawmakers ramrodded their own version Tuesday with less than a day’s notice and just a handful of comments from the public. To these leaders, the input of North Carolinians made breathtakingly little difference anyway.

Yet, putting aside that this legislature is responsible for the constitutional process that they condemned and then mutated so lustily on Tuesday, it’s not hard to comprehend why a Republican-controlled General Assembly would be troubled by the prospect of two powerful Democrats having a say in how these amendments are put to the voters.

“There’s been a lot of discussion about what I would believe and what a lot of my colleagues believe is to misrepresent and politicize something that should be purely administrative,” House Speaker Tim Moore told reporters Monday.

But there’s been nary a mention of creating a new process that eschews partisanship, only the prospect of placing all power once more in the hands of a GOP establishment that long ago lost credibility on such issues.

So forgive us if it’s difficult to stomach General Assembly leaders’ attempt to cast themselves as avenging heroes in this scenario, rather than anti-democratic bilkers. Spare us the Batman and Robin act, jokers.

One imagines that some of our state leaders qualified themselves for these roles not only with their skills and intellect, but also with their capability to spout hypocritical bilge without, seemingly, a shred of shame.

Legislators chatted and guffawed in the House and Senate chambers Tuesday like they were attending a cookout, even as protesters outside the gallery held signs that read “shame,” deriding a “surprise special session” that was neither a surprise nor special. Some took to calling it a “deception session.”

Put simply, to trust these leaders to practice nonpartisan restraint in this scenario would be an absurdity. It would require a fruit fly’s memory and a wan dispassion for good governance. But North Carolinians aren’t likely to soon forget this General Assembly’s transgressions.

They will remember how Lewis and his friends in the ruling party manipulated a hurricane relief session in December 2016 to curtail the powers of incoming Gov. Roy Cooper. Just weeks after thousands of North Carolinians’ homes were, quite literally, underwater, the leadership of this General Assembly was bound and determined to settle partisan scores.

They will remember when, in 2013, Republican lawmakers commandeered a motorcycle safety bill to impede a woman’s legal right to an abortion.

They will recall how state lawmakers, in 2013, authored unconstitutional voter ID provisions—much like one of the amendments voters will consider this fall—that studiously sought to disenfranchise those who may be inclined to vote against Republicans, particularly voters of color. These were laws, spearheaded by House Speaker Tim Moore that read like some debased, Jim Crow fan-fiction. Call them “Tim Crow Laws” if you wish.

And they will recall how Republican lawmakers rammed through a secretly-negotiated $24 billion dollar budget this year without room for amendment or the slightest collaboration with their Democratic counterparts.

It’s true that Democrats were loath to entertain GOP budget amendments when they ruled the legislature prior to 2011, but no matter what the current legislative leadership tells you about the “efficiency” of their maneuver, know that the 2018 budget process was an unprecedented, dictatorial move that may set the tone for years to come.

And just hours after reconvening, Senate lawmakers moved to rewrite party affiliation rules in upcoming judicial elections, a last-minute attempt to move the goalposts and improve the party’s chances in a pivotal state Supreme Court race this fall.

Recounting every instance in which General Assembly leadership negotiated in bad faith is an exercise in futility. It’s why the typical North Carolinian is exhausted by these petty manipulations, perhaps why only a few weary protesters came to trot out their denunciations of the legislature once more Tuesday.

These shenanigans may be part and parcel to modern North Carolina politics, but such devilry will one day have consequences.

The partisan nihilism of our legislative overlords may yield cynicism from many, but we should believe that it will yield consequences too, perhaps not this month, or even in 2018, but political leaders who abuse their power ultimately make history for all of the wrong reasons.

Leaders like Lewis should know that this “ends-justify-the-means” approach to policymaking will reaps its just rewards. And perhaps, if these amendments are utterly rejected by North Carolinians in the fall, we can say the means justified the end.

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Billy Ball

Billy Ball, worked at NC Policy Watch from 2016 to 2020 — first as an education reporter and later as managing editor.