Republican state lawmakers – disappointed with the outcome of the election – moved recently to curb the powers of Governor-elect Roy Cooper and his fellow Democrats.
Democrats called it an unprecedented coup. Republicans said they were just doing what Democrats have done in the past.
Each has a point.
For Democrats to complain about Republicans’ political patronage efforts is sort of like being called ugly by a frog.
When Gov. Pat McCrory took office in 2013, the GOP legislature expanded the number of positions exempt from civil service protections from 400 under Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue to 1,500 – the highest cap ever. This allowed McCrory to hire more Republicans.
Now, lawmakers have reduced the number to 425 in what is apparently an effort to protect Republican state employees and prevent the hiring of Democrats.
But Democrats invented this practice. The 1985 Democratic legislature placed the first cap ever on newly elected Republican Gov. Jim Martin, limiting him to 325 exempt positions.
The whole business of mass firings in state government pretty much began with the election of Democrat Kerr Scott in 1948, a Jacksonian figure who beat the more conservative machine. North Carolina was a one-party state then so this was factional Democratic warfare.
“Virtually every appointive department head in state government, and many in subordinated positions, was given his walking papers by Kerr Scott,” wrote James H. Pou Bailey, a conservative columnist and later a Superior Court judge. “Whether the man had done a good job in office made little difference. More important was whether he had supported Kerr Scott for governor.”
Republicans this past week have referred to what they call “Jim Hunt’s Christmas Massacre,” noting that when Democratic Gov. Hunt was elected in 1976, he asked for the resignation of 169 state policymakers in the Holshouser administration. (He ultimately ousted about 75.)
The Democratic-controlled legislature in 1977 passed a law that allowed Hunt to fire all employees hired during the past five years - or everybody hired during the Holshouser administration.
“The game of politics, as far as I know, is still played on the basis of ‘to the victor belong the spoils,’” said Joe Pell, Hunt’s patronage chief at the time. “That’s not considered illegal.”
But the GOP appears to have a case of amnesia about what happened in 1972, when Jim Holshouser became the state’s first elected Republican governor since 1896. Among the mass firings of Democrats was the famous episode of Transportation Secretary Bruce Lentz flying around the state in a helicopter, firing about 100 DOT workers with Democratic ties.
The assertion by GOP lawmakers that they are righting some sort of imbalance between the executive branch and the legislative branch by taking away power from the governor is mere political spin.
A 1990 study by gubernatorial expert Thad Beyle of UNC-Chapel Hill found that North Carolina’s governor was one of the three weakest in the nation in terms of formal institutional powers, along with Rhode Island and Texas.
Since then, voters changed the state constitution to give Tar Heel governors veto power. But even so North Carolina governors are among only five in the country that lack line-item veto. (The others are Indiana, Nevada, Rhode Island and Vermont, according to the Council of State Governments.)
North Carolina governors are limited to two terms, while there are no restrictions on legislators. In most states, governors would be appointing officials like the labor commissioner, insurance commissioner and agricultural commissioner, while in North Carolina they are independently elected.
In a majority of the states, the lieutenant governor would not be elected separately, but would be part of the governor’s ticket.
This Republican legislature has a veto-proof supermajority, making it particularly powerful, even before any of the proposed changes.
Stripping the governor
The GOP legislature is moving to whittle Cooper down to size – forcing his Cabinet secretaries to be confirmed and ending his appointments to university boards.
Republicans say there is some precedent and that is true.
Holshouser, the Republican governor, was stripped of some of his authority, although Hunt, then the Democratic lieutenant governor, worked to stop such efforts because he too wanted to be governor and he was not sure the legislature would give the authority back.
The GOP also cites the election of Jim Gardner in 1988 as the state’s first Republican lieutenant governor. Gardner was stripped by the Democratic Senate of his power to assign committees and bills and name chairmen – a power the Senate never returned to even Democratic lieutenant governors.
But that is comparing apples and oranges. The equivalent today would be if Democrat Linda Coleman had been elected lieutenant governor and she had the power to appoint chairs and committees and assign bills in the Republican-controlled Senate.
If you think Senate leader Phil Berger’s team would have allowed Coleman to run the Senate, I have some swamp land in Eastern North Carolina I would like to sell you.
Attempting to grab control of the election machinery from the governor has apparently not been tried before in North Carolina.
The legislature is revamping an election system the state has used since 1901. The State Board of Elections is the only state agency where bipartisanship is mandated by state law. The governor appoints three members of his party and two members of the opposing party to the state board, with the board then appointing all 100 county boards of election. Each county board must have three members, with one minority party member.
With the election of Cooper, Democrats would have become the majority party. But a law McCrory signed gives the state board and each county board an equal number of members from both parties, and during even-numbered years – the years of major elections – a Republican will be chairman.
The GOP portrays this as a kumbaya moment and says it’s only interested in spreading bipartisanship.
One wonders whether this new spirit of bipartisanship will extend to proposals to set up an independent redistricting commission.
Rob Christensen has covered politics for The News & Observer for nearly four decades.