As Senate Democratic leader Dan Blue II walked out of a hastily convened caucus meeting Wednesday afternoon, a reporter asked him what had just happened.
"If I could figure it out," he eventually replied. "I don't know what's going on."
About a half hour prior, Blue and his Senate colleagues had voted, in the third special session of the year, to pass a $200 million relief package for victims of Hurricane Matthew and the wildfires in western North Carolina. Then—after gathering with Lieutenant Governor Dan Forest, Speaker Tim Moore, and lawyers on the Senate floor—Senate leader Phil Berger abruptly announced a fourth special session, in which Republicans would respond to voters' rejection of Governor Pat McCrory by effectively taking an ax to the last few vestiges of Democratic power in the state.
That move has sparked national outrage and threats of legal action from Governor-elect Roy Cooper and legislative Democrats. But this session also showed that many North Carolinians weren't going to take lightly this affront to democracy. Over the course of two days last week, nonviolent actions organized by the state NAACP and its towering president, the Reverend William J. Barber II, brought the fight to committee hearings and the Senate and House galleries.
Republicans claimed—without evidence—that protesters were paid, bussed in, and motivated by "left-wing" agitators.
No one paid Gretchen Garrett, who on Friday sat on the third floor of the legislative building, stone-faced on her knees, head held high, shortly before becoming one of about eighty protesters arrested last week. As hundreds of other protesters gathered in the rotunda between the House and Senate galleries chanted, "We the people, our house!" behind her, she explained why she was here.
"I don't think this is what the founders had in mind, and I don't think this is the way democracy or elections work," Garrett said. "It's just not right. It's not right. And this is the only thing I can do."
Speaker Moore told reporters on Wednesday that the decision to call the fourth special session had only been made that morning. But petitions sent to legislators dated December 12—the Monday before the special session began—showed otherwise, as did the sheer length of some of the bills that were filed that day, such as the nineteen-page House Bill 19.
"You don't write those bills in hours," Senate Democratic whip Terry Van Duyn told the INDY.
The special session began a sprint to file as many bills as possible. Ultimately, both chambers combined to produce twenty-five new bills. Several of those bills were introduced by Democrats and went nowhere. Others, such as a regulatory reform bill and a bill creating stronger regulations for commercial dog breeders, were rehashed from earlier sessions; they, too, failed to move. Bills expanding classroom-size limits and boosting infrastructure near charter schools, meanwhile, cleared the House but not the Senate.
But the legislation that did pass both chambers signaled a sweeping attack on the powers of an incoming Democratic governor and the razor-thin Democratic Supreme Court majority.
Senate Bill 4 capitalized on the bogeyman of voter fraud to render a new, "bipartisan" State Board of Elections and Ethics Reform ineffectual, as it would require a three-fourths majority on a body with an equal number of Democrats and Republicans. (The board would alternate chairmen between the parties; the Republicans would get the even years, which happen to be the years in which presidential, Council of State, and legislative races occur.)
SB 4 also responded to Democrat Mike Morgan's ascendance to the state Supreme Court—which, as the INDY has previously reported, likely came about because voters wrongly assumed, based on his ballot placement, that he was a Republican—by reintroducing partisan elections for both the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals, and by making it more difficult for constitutional challenges to go to the Supreme Court, which now rests in Democratic hands. An hour after it passed, SB 4 won McCrory's signature.
In addition, the legislature confirmed two McCrory nominees to the Special Superior Court, including his thirty-four-year-old budget director, Drew Heath, and his nomination of Yolanda Stith, wife of McCrory chief of staff Thomas Stith, to fill an open seat on the Industrial Commission. The latter produced an outcry of cronyism from Democrats; shortly after the confirmation, N.C. Democratic Party chairwoman Patsy Keever called for an investigation into "blatant public corruption."
But the real roundhouse kick to gubernatorial authority was House Bill 17. Sponsored by Representative David Lewis, R-Harnett, HB 17 requires all cabinet appointees to be confirmed by the Senate, transfers significant executive oversight over public education to the new Republican superintendent of public instruction, and reduces the number of McCrory-era bureaucrats who can be replaced by the Cooper administration from 1,400 to 425. McCrory signed it Monday.
During the special session, N.C. Republican Party executive director Dallas Woodhouse summed up just how Republicans feel about the power the new governor should have: "Mr. Cooper will still be elected governor. He gets to go move into the mansion."
Complicating these matters is the fact that the legislature is operating with districts that were struck down as unconstitutional in August by the U.S. District Court, which then ordered the legislature to redraw the districts and set new elections for 2017. To critics, this suggests that the legislative session was illegitimate.
But there's a separate potential legal issue here: in January, the N.C. Supreme Court ruled that the legislature's usurpation of the governor's appointment powers was unconstitutional. Some Democrats think the same logic could apply here.
Asked whether the constitutionality of the entire session could be called into question, Berger was defiant. "The Democrats' tactic over the past four years has been to resort to the courts," he told reporters Friday night. "All of the news reports about that decision are really a bit premature as far as I'm concerned."
After the shock of Wednesday's events wore off, the atmosphere during the rest of the week was thick with tension. During an NAACP press conference on Thursday, attorney Alan McSurely took repeated jabs at the presence of the N.C. Republican Party's executive director. "I want to welcome Dallas Woodhouse," McSurely said. "I know this is the first meeting he's been in since the last two or three days that hasn't been composed of all white people."
After a few more, Woodhouse began screaming at McSurely about the "Christmas Massacre" of 1976, a talking point Republicans frequently used last week, referring to when former Democratic governor Jim Hunt demanded the resignations of 169 employees of his Republican predecessor.
Meanwhile, the General Assembly was awash in protest. Protesters sitting in the third-floor gallery booed and chanted both Thursday and Friday, and Forest, the president of the Senate, and Moore repeatedly shut the doors on them. Those arrested on Thursday included historian Tim Tyson and N.C. Policy Watch reporter Joe Killian, who presented media credentials and was arrested anyhow.
On Friday, the protests continued, as did the arrests. That afternoon, several hundred protesters gathered on the third floor again, with Barber instructing people to knock on the doors of the gallery that they'd been locked out of. This led to a testy exchange with General Assembly police chief Martin Brock.
"All political power derives from the people," Barber told the crowd. Brock began arguing with Barber about whether or not people would be able to knock on the glass Eventually, Brock said he would arrest everyone who didn't leave the building. Several people, including Gretchen Garrett and a man in a Santa Claus costume, staged a sit-in and were arrested.
In the absence of any actual power, the Democratic caucuses threw their support behind the protests. McSurely told the INDY on Thursday that "the entire Democratic caucus is in support of mass demonstration," a sentiment echoed by Van Duyn.
"I'm grateful to the protesters. I don't think we'd be hearing about this at all in western North Carolina if it weren't for them," she said. "What [the Republicans] did, with the process they put in place, completely cut the public out in any other way but through protest."
As for Cooper, the governor-elect released a statement Thursday night that was exactly one sentence long: "Once more, the courts will have to clean up the mess the legislature made, but it won't stop us from moving North Carolina forward."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Sneak Attack."