Update: North Carolina Republicans reached a deal with the state's Democratic governor to repeal and replace HB2, the state's infamous "bathroom bill," which led to damaging boycotts, including by the NBA, which excluded North Carolina from its 2016 tournament and this week is planning its future tournament schedule.
The new bill, which was introduced March 29, passed the next day after an abbreviated debate in both chambers. While it repeals HB2, it includes a moratorium preventing local governments from passing non-discrimination ordinances until December 2020.
Progressive activists and civil rights organizations, including EqualityNC, and the ACLU, came out against the compromise bill, arguing that it does nothing to protect transgender people from discrimination, and makes it illegal for cities in North Carolina to pass laws protecting transgender people and the LGBTQ community.
Still, it is a nod to the reality that HB2 has been a disaster for North Carolina—and for the Republican Party there.
The problems facing North Carolina Republicans are a lesson for the nation.
The extra chairs were out, squeezed along the crimson-carpeted aisles of the North Carolina House of Representatives to accommodate the crush of family members on the ceremonial opening day of the 2017 legislative session.
Packed in tightly, Bibles at the ready for a mass swearing-in, the crowd prayed, said the Pledge of Allegiance, and sat patiently through the speechifying.
There was no evidence of the political acrimony of the previous months. Everything was cordial and Southern and orderly.
Two weeks earlier in the same room, the 2016 legislature had ended its term in dismal failure and open distress. In one of its final scenes, the visitor galleries now packed for the opening of the 2017 session were closed off following repeated outbursts from protesters, and lawmakers cast votes as police arrested protesters and dozens locked out rapped loudly on the doors to the galleries.
During lulls on the pleasant opening day of the new session, I scrolled through Twitter, reading tweets rolling in from the long-awaited first press conference of President-elect Donald J. Trump, a clear sign that the madness of the 2016 campaign would not end any time soon, if ever.
As the contrast between the rare, feel-good moment on the floor of the North Carolina House and the train wreck in Washington, D.C., began to sink in, it was oddly comforting to be in Raleigh. Despite the extended, bitter political warfare we’ve seen and the fights we know are still to come, the place felt strangely sane. Politics here are in flux, especially with the return of divided government following the election of Democratic Governor Roy Cooper. But compared to the nation, things are far more predictable.
North Carolina is deep into a cycle of political change that started in 2010 when the Republican Party engineered the takeover of the all-powerful General Assembly. The following year, Republicans cemented that win with a notorious redistricting plan that has ensured supermajorities in the state legislature since 2012, the year the state also elected Pat McCrory, its first Republican governor since 1993.
Control of all three branches of government unleashed a tide of rightwing economic and social initiatives. It’s not surprising that some have turned to recent history in North Carolina for clues on what might be coming out of Trump’s Washington.
Prepare to have your imagination tested. If North Carolina’s recent past is prologue for the nation, the scope and volume of the attacks will be head-spinning.
Immediately after the Republican takeover of North Carolina, a vast backlog of rightwing bills that never saw the light of day under Democratic leadership finally got to the floor. Some of these proposals—like printing a new state currency or denying parents tax deductions for students who register to vote on campus—were pure crazy talk. Others became law.
Republicans pushed through tax cuts and dialed back regulations as they had promised during the election. Then came a rollback in civil rights laws, mandates requiring transvaginal ultrasounds and cutting off access to abortion, a school voucher program, fracking, a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, and the end to public financing for judicial campaigns. The Republican leadership even started restructuring government itself, eliminating scores of environmental specialists, and cutting programs deemed to be legacies of Democratic rule.
Governor McCrory, who ran as a moderate and a reformer and promised to be a check on the legislature, went along for the ride. The comparison between what happened here and what is happening at the federal level gets a little tortured if taken too far, but there are lessons to be drawn about how the Republican majority might behave and how to grow and sustain an effective opposition.
Senator Floyd McKissick Jr., a Democrat from Durham and the son of a civil rights legend, sees President Trump embracing much of the same rhetoric and policies as North Carolina Republicans. “It’s a reason to be very deeply concerned about the direction our country could go in the next four years,” McKissick says.
McKissick believes Trump will use charges of voter fraud in the same way North Carolina Republicans used them—to push through a set of voting and election law changes that included stringent voter ID rules, reductions in early voting, and the end of same day registration, efforts the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals said were employed with “surgical precision” to blunt the growing clout of African American voters in this state.
Reductions in Medicaid and unemployment benefits, penalties for sanctuary cities, and eliminating caps on charter schools all fit the North Carolina template as well. “The parallels are rather striking,” says McKissick.
Pushing back on that agenda in the legislature has been difficult. “You have to be ready to engage on a number of issues at a moment’s notice,” McKissick says. Compounding the difficulty is rising partisanship. Over the years, he notes, it has become more difficult to work across the aisle. With an election challenge more likely to come in a primary, more and more of his Republican colleagues don’t want to be known for working with Democrats.
Despite the partisanship, the mounting court challenges, and the occasional exercise of raw power, there’s a kind of equilibrium in Raleigh.
As of this writing, the FUBAR meter (Army slang that stands for “fucked up beyond all recognition”), a weathered hunk of wood numbered one to ten that hangs in the press room at the Legislative Building, sits between three and four, an indication of relative calm through the first phase of the 2017 legislative session.
The meter, which has a long history and its own twitter account (@NCGA_FUBAR), includes two extensions that take it beyond ten, up to fifteen. The extra space is there for good reason. Given recent events in one of the most politically volatile states, it’s only a matter of time before the needle inches back toward double digits.
North Carolina’s 170-member General Assembly returned this year after a bruising end to 2016 that included a month-long legal battle over the closest governor’s race in the nation, and an unprecedented string of special sessions that rolled back the powers of the incoming Democratic governor, made sweeping changes to elections oversight, and failed to repeal HB2, the state’s anti-trans bathroom bill that was passed in an earlier special session in March. The year ended in mass protests, scattered arrests, corporate boycotts, and a round of lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the new laws.
As confusing and chaotic as that sounds, none of it came as a surprise. These things are the norm here. Driving the state’s divisive politics for the past half-decade is the 2011 redistricting that gerrymandered in an unpopular majority. North Carolina, whose population is about evenly split between Democratic and Republican voters, is governed by Republican supermajorities whose leadership is beholden to an even less popular caucus dominated by rural and exurban social conservatives.
For almost five years, the most visible opposition to the North Carolina Republican agenda has been the Forward Together movement led by the Reverend William Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP.
Barber, along with other faith leaders and labor groups, started the Moral Monday protests at the legislature in the spring of 2013 and has steadily built a broad coalition, even picking up support in rural Republican strongholds on issues like Medicaid expansion and assisting homeless veterans.
Barber’s persistence has paid off. This year the NAACP’s annual march in downtown Raleigh featured an influx of young people and participants in pink hats. Turnout reached record levels. Barber promised more protests at the legislature and announced a series of rallies this spring in the home districts of Republican leaders.
Barber is adapting to the new reality under the Trump Administration. At the march, he preached about the downfall of Nebuchadnezzar and wove the King of Babylon’s obsession with gold and demands of fealty into a metaphor for the Trump era. He wound up his speech reciting a litany of the trials marchers faced during the civil rights movement, punctuating each with a reminder to the crowd that in these times “standing down is not an option.”
Meanwhile, Governor Cooper, now the most tangible check on the legislature, continues to dig into the job. His election, in a year when every other Republican governor won re-election, is a testament to both the endurance of the opposition and the overreach of the legislature.
Given how close the election was — just over 10,000 votes out of the 4.7 million cast — any one small factor could have tipped the balance for Roy Cooper. Most importantly, McCrory became a proxy for the legislature, which, thanks to redistricting, went largely unchallenged in the 2016 elections. More than one-third of legislators ran unopposed and only about fifteen races out of 170 were intensely contested.
Trump’s victory and ability to drive turnout in rural areas helped Republicans hold off a Democratic challenge to a supermajority in the House, the likeliest of the two chambers to crack. In the 2016 races, Democrats won four urban seats, but lost three rural seats.
Buncombe County Democratic Representative John Ager, a farmer whose mostly rural mountain district also includes parts of Asheville, says the election underlines a key challenge for the state and the nation. Now in his second term in the House, Ager owes his seat partly to a previous act of legislative overreach and partly to the area’s rapidly changing demographics.
In 2014, he defeated his neighbor and fellow farmer Nathan Ramsey, who had backed a controversial bill to take over the Asheville water system and turn it over to a regional board. The move, which was successfully challenged in court, resulted in a local backlash that ousted two Republican representatives, a rare breakthrough given the effectiveness of Republican mapmakers in 2011.
Ager says North Carolina’s changes mirror the nation’s. The expansion of cities and the steady loss of opportunities for work outside of them have exacerbated a growing urban-rural divide. Like the cities, North Carolina’s rural counties are changing rapidly, but in a far different way, getting older and sicker as young people and families move to urban areas for work.
In his district, Ager says, the disconnect between newcomers and natives is growing. Many of his constituents in Asheville and the growing retirement areas that surround it seem unaware of how bad it is for their neighbors.
“Our rural mountain culture, probably rural culture in general, is really struggling,” he says. Most small towns have lost the manufacturing operations that were scattered throughout the mountains, the kinds of institutions that help anchor communities. Opioid addiction, he says, “is eating up Appalachia.”
It’s frustrating, Ager says. “It’s almost like there’s meaninglessness.” And that’s made it easier for politicians running on “God, Guns, and Gays” to get people excited. Notes Ager, “So much of the November election was driven by the same forces.”
For now, exploiting the urban/rural divide is a working strategy for Republicans in both state and national races, but in North Carolina, at least, that won’t be the case forever.
The population and demographic change here is so intense that by the time the legislature elected in 2020 prepares to draw up new districts, it will be almost impossible to repeat the mapmaking feat of 2011.
Undoing what’s happened since then could be almost as difficult.
Right now, the North Carolina General Assembly is boxed in on repealing HB2, the so-called Bathroom Bill, one of the most glaring examples of the General Assembly’s overreach. Businesses and their allies in the Republican Party wish HB2 would just go away. But the Tea Party leaders that pushed it won’t let it die. Despite almost a year of pushback and economic boycotts, including the loss of several NCAA championships and the prospect of losing many more, House and Senate leaders are insisting that any bill changing the law be approved by a majority of Republican members, a nearly impossible hurdle.
They’ve also insisted that Cooper, whom they accused of purposefully sabotaging repeal efforts for political gain, come up with the compromise himself, even though the governor’s last attempt at a compromise, which even included tougher penalties for bathroom peeping and indecent exposure, was quickly rejected.
A new compromise out of the House is beginning to attract support, including among some conservative Democrats. But there’s a sense that time is running out for a deal.
Representative Deb Butler, a Wilmington Democrat serving her first term, says the chances of finding a way out of the box are fading for this session.
Butler, the only openly gay woman in the legislature, says that while the governor is trying to work out a compromise, she doesn’t want to see him go too far to bail out the Republicans. She’s frustrated by the attempts at finding a murky, political solution to a law that shouldn’t have been passed in the first place.
“I’m almost to the point where I think the people that did this damage to the state of North Carolina are going to have to live with the political consequences,” she says.
The economic damage has dominated the debate, Butler says, but the core issue is discrimination. “It’s wrong when individuals do it, but it’s unconscionable when the government does it,” she adds.
The final outcome on HB2 could be settled in the courts. This spring, the U.S. Supreme Court takes up a Virginia case that could decide the fate of HB2 and similar laws. If so, HB2 will join a growing list of controversial laws passed by the General Assembly and settled by judges.
Cooper continues his legal challenges to the laws passed in the waning hours of the McCrory administration that dialed back the governor’s powers and revamped the state elections board in the GOP’s favor.
Cooper and Attorney General Josh Stein, a fellow Democrat, withdrew the state’s petition to the Supreme Court for review of a decision overturning the GOP’s landmark voter ID and elections law.
Legislative leaders have vowed to sue Cooper over that as well.
Meanwhile, the redistricting maps themselves, challenged not long after they were passed in 2011, are still awaiting final adjudication after being in place through three election cycles.
The oldest case in the batch, it’s underlined the main lessons from the experience in our state: Everything significant ends up in court, nothing good happens fast, and, yes, elections matter. ω