by Bob Geary
I was at the General Assembly yesterday afternoon. The good news is that the Racial Justice Act survived the Republican effort at repeal. Senate Bill 9, the repeal bill, was vetoed by Gov. Bev Perdue. The Senate yesterday voted to override her veto by a party line tally of 31-19 — every Republican for the override, every Democrat opposed (and in favor of retaining the RJA). Over in the House, though, the Republicans needed some Democratic votes to override a veto, and they couldn't find any, apparently. So the House never voted. Never voted on the RJA, anyway.
Now, onto the bad news of the day ... and the night ... and the early morning hours that followed.
How ugly can we be? they said. Here, we're pulling down our pants now ...
I won't attempt to relate everything that went on. Laura Leslie at WRAL wrote an excellent account of it, as did John Frank at the N&O, Mark Binker at the News & Record and I'm sure there were others who stayed for the full 14-hour ordeal. I did not. I left after the Senate vote when the House leadership postponed its scheduled session from sometime in the late afternoon to sometime in the evening. (I don't remember the exact hours, because every time the House set a time for its session, before long they'd push it back another hour or two or three until it got to be, what, 12:45 a.m.?)
What struck me, before I exited and especially as I learned what transpired overnight, was how morally bankrupt the Republicans have become.
In the afternoon, the House Republicans were railing on about how Gov. Perdue was violating custom and fair play by doing something that the law allowed her to do, but which Perdue surely knew was not the proper thing to do.
Just because you can do something doesn't mean you should do it is an excellent rule for all of us.
So, an hour or two later, Perdue did do the right thing — did what the Republicans wanted.
After which the House Republicans — and they couldn't have done what they did without a supportive Senate resolution — turned around and used their power in a way that, while arguably legal, but probably not, nonetheless violated every principle of fair play you could imagine.
The Republican rule seemed to be, Because we can do something, we're gonna do it even though we know how shabby and under-handed it is.
Or worse, We're gonna do it because it's so shabby and under-handed, and we want everybody to know just how low we're willing to go.
You want details?
Early in the afternoon, about 2:30, House Speaker Thom Tillis called a press conference, flanked by a couple dozen of his fellow House Republicans. Tillis went on and on about how unfair it was, what a violation of "custom" and "process" it was, for Gov. Perdue to be holding up the seating of a duly chosen replacement House member named Trudi Walend.
I had to agree. Walend was picked by the Republican Party leadership in her district — it's way up there in Henderson, Polk and Transylvania counties — to replace a guy named David Guice, also a Republican. What happened to Guice? Perdue had given him a job in her administration; he's a former prison official, and she gave him a leadership job in the new Department of Public Safety.
Walend was there with Tillis. She was ready to take office. Her paperwork was in. The governor, by law, must "appoint" her, because as her party's choice (a Republican leaves, gotta be a Republican replacement), the governor had no discretion whether to seat Walend or not.
However, the law does give the governor a 10-day window to do her duty. Thus, Perdue was within her legal rights to sit on Walend's appointment for six or seven more days. (It wasn't clear to me when Walend's selection papers were "received" by the Governor's Office — Monday or Tuesday, I gathered.)
But legal or not, Perdue would be wrong to sit on the appointment. A special session of the General Assembly had been called, by Perdue, on a date (yesterday) set by Perdue, for the purpose of giving the legislature a chance to override her veto of Senate Bill 9 if they chose to do so. The good people of Henderson-Polk-Transylvania were entitled to be represented in the session. Walend was their chosen representative. And she was ready to go.
So, quite right, I thought to myself as Tillis blasted away. Perdue hadn't appointed Walend yet, though — according to Tillis — all the legal documents were in, including a required economic disclosure form signed by Walend. What was Perdue up to?
Well, Tillis suggested darkly, Perdue could be stalling because Walend's appointment might be the difference between a successful House override on the RJA and having it fail by one vote.
Did Tillis have some Democratic support lined up for the override, reporters asked? We're still counting the votes, Tillis answered.
But he wasn't even thinking about the outcome, Tillis went on. The important point was that Perdue was thumbing her nose at legislative custom. She wasn't playing fair. A press release distributed by his staff as the press conference ended quoted Tillis as accusing Perdue of — wait for it — "pure partisan politics."
Anyway, within a hour or two, Perdue appointed Walend. In other words, Perdue did the right thing, albeit only (according to many accounts) after getting assurances from the Republicans that if Walend were seated, they would do the right thing too and take up only the RJA override — the reason they were in session. They would not pull something sneaky like voting on other override measures that weren't on the agenda.
Understand, while Tillis was rattling on about Perdue's misfeasance, the building was crackling with rumors that the Republicans were going to hold sneak-attack override votes on some other Perdue vetoes, including the Voter Photo ID bill and the Fracking bill (stage name: Energy Jobs Act).
People who know the legislative rulebook (I don't) were debating whether the Republicans could get away with that — could they rewrite the rules? Ignore them? Read some obscure rule to let them do what Perdue's session call seemed clearly to prohibit them from doing?
Officially, the General Assembly was in session to consider Perdue's veto of Senate Bill 9, nothing else. But I've been around legislatures long enough to know, if the majority is determined to do something shitty, they can find a way to justify it even if it means reading the word "no" in a rule to mean "why not?"
Nor is the world short of lawyers who will affirm that in exigent cases, "no" and "shall not" are ambiguous terms.
So, yes, it turns out that the House Republicans did have the power to screw around with the agenda and begin a "new" and different "session" after the clock struck midnight. And since they couldn't find the votes to override the RJA repeal veto, or the Fracking veto, or the Voter ID veto, they turned on the state teachers association and screwed it over.
They had the power, and all it required was lying to the governor and ignoring the plain language of her session call.
Well, and one more thing: It required being total hypocrites about the importance of custom, good process and fairness.
Put it this way: If you're meeting after midnight, at 1 a.m., at 2 a.m., in a previously unscheduled session without any prior notice to anybody about what's going to be on the agenda, and you're cutting off debate because it's so damned late ... that's when you know that your mama would be ashamed of you.
To quote Tillis, it was "pure partisan politics." Or, as Tillis also said about Perdue, "one of the most inexcusable examples of failed leadership that I have ever witnessed."
Finally, Walend being seated had no effect on the RJA override outcome. So when Tillis was accusing Perdue of abusing her power to get her way politically, well, probably the Speaker just has trouble counting his votes.