The Republican Power Plays at the Heart of N.C. Politics | News
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Monday, December 11, 2017

The Republican Power Plays at the Heart of N.C. Politics

Posted by on Mon, Dec 11, 2017 at 8:45 AM

I’ve started working on the INDY’s Year in Review issue (due out December 27), and it’s occurred to me that one of the prevailing themes of 2017 is the aftermath of Republican efforts to consolidate their power after Governor Cooper defeated Pat McCrory last year. There’s the ongoing imbroglio with the elections board, as well as lawsuits challenging the legislature’s decisions to block Cooper from appointing Court of Appeals judges and members of the N.C. Industrial Commission. The legislature also stripped much of the control of the state’s schools from the State Board of Education, who are appointed by the state’s governor to eight-year terms, and gave it to the new Superintendent of Public Instruction, Mark Johnson, a Republican who defeated a longtime Democratic incumbent last year. Now, that move is headed to the N.C. Supreme Court.
  • “The State Board of Education is appealing a lower court ruling in July that upheld a state law that shifts more control over public education operations to State Schools Superintendent Mark Johnson. In an order released Friday, the N.C. Supreme Court agreed to the state board’s request to bypass the state Court of Appeals to hear the case now. … Last December, state lawmakers passed a law that shifts some of the powers of the state board to Johnson, including control of high-level hiring and spending at the Department of Public Instruction. In its lawsuit, the board said the legislature was trying to take away responsibilities conferred by the state constitution.”
  • “In a court filing, the state board said the new law ‘will move the entire $10 billion public school system under the control of a single individual for the first time in North Carolina history.’ The board also said the law empowered Johnson ‘to take drastic action,’ such as unilaterally firing more than 1,000 employees at the state Department of Public Instruction. Johnson accused the state board of making ‘unsupported and exaggerated representations’ in its court filing.”
  • In something of a similar vein, the N&O also has a story this morning on the Republican senators who want to remake the state’s court system in their image—specifically, by giving them more and voters less of a say in who sits on the bench: “North Carolina lawmakers have spent much of the past year focused on the courts. They have made all judicial races partisan, from the state’s highest court to the district courts, which handle traffic cases, child custody issues and misdemeanors, but decided to do away with the partisan primaries in May that typically would narrow the field of candidates. The lawmakers are weighing vast changes to election districts that have determined the state’s 272 district court judges, 109 superior court judges and elected district attorneys. As that issue remains unresolved, Berger’s chief of staff has been floating the possibility of lawmakers asking voters whether the state should abandon the election of judges and move toward an appointment process to decide who sits on the bench.”
  • “North Carolina lawyer associations have advocated for years changing how judges become judges, with many supporting an appointment system based on ‘merit-selection.’ Many of the same organizations, though, have been hesitant to support changes being discussed in the legislature.”
  • “At the Senate select committee this week, Sen. Ralph Hise, a Spruce Pine Republican, questioned why lawmakers in the General Assembly were not in a better position than the governor to appoint judges.”
  • Alicia Bannon, senior counsel at the New York University Brennan Center for Justice, “who was interrupted many times during her presentation with questions from lawmakers, advocated for a merit system that would leave the ultimate task of appointing judges to a governor who is elected on a statewide ballot and can be held accountable to a public that votes him or her in or out of power. ‘When you look at the three branches of governance, there is only one branch of governance that designs, writes and ratifies law,’ Hise said during Bannon’s presentation highlighting problems in South Carolina, Virginia and Rhode Island, where lawmakers appointed the judges who decide whether their laws pass constitutional muster. ‘… When you’re coming to a matter of what does a law mean or what does a law stand for or how is a law drafted or what does a law say, is it not the drafter of the law ... that would be the most defining expert of the law itself? As we create it, wrote it, draft it, passed it among two chambers and placed it out, why would it be the role of the government whose sole authority is to execute that law to have that kind of balance of power shifted to them?’”

WHAT IT MEANS: That Hise quote is something—and it also gives away the game a little. Basically, he’s saying he wants to pick the people who decide whether what he’s doing is constitutional, like the home team selecting a favorite referee. More than that, though, this is a power play: judges have struck down any number of GOP initiatives over the last few years, so the GOP wants control of who those judges are. (Not for nothing, Hise is also again diminishing Cooper’s office—“whose sole authority is to execute that law”—as if Cooper’s election were illegitimate.) The same dynamic is at play in the school system case. With a Republican in power, fellow Republicans sought to maximize their control of the system and minimize the Board of Education; this was not a concern for them when a Democrat was superintendent. And that gets at the core issue, at least for me: beyond what they’re trying to do, the naked political motives behind those moves are jarring. Like, they’re not even trying to hide it behind some mumbo-jumbo about good government. This is all about power, and making sure Democrats don’t have it, even if voters elect them.


There are a lot of things on the line tomorrow in Alabama. For the president, there’s a test of whether his full-throated endorsement carries much weight even in a deep-red state. For the Democrats, there’s a test of whether they can rally enough support to defeat an accused child molester. For the Republican Party, there’s a test of how many of its members will rally to the banner of said accused child molester, all for the sake of trolling the libs/passing corporate tax cuts/whatever. For America, the future of the GOP’s tax bill could possibly hang in the balance. And for the state of Alabama itself, there’s a test of how it wants the world to perceive it. Perhaps fittingly for what has already been a crazy special election, last night another crazy story hit the wires.
  • In 2011, while appearing on a conspiracy-driven talk radio show, Republican Senate candidate/avowed homophobe/alleged pedophile Roy Moore told the Truther and Birther hosts that he would be open to hearings on “what really happened” on 9/11 and invoked Adolf Hitler in a discussion of President Obama’s birth certificate. But perhaps most notably, he argued that eliminating constitutional amendments after the Tenth would “eliminate many problems. You know people don't understand how some of these amendments have completely tried to wreck the form of government that our forefathers intended."
  • Ironically, Moore specifically cited the Seventeenth Amendment, which requires the direct election of U.S. senators rather than their appointment by state legislatures. This is ironic, of course, because of the Alabama legislature was picking its man, that man certainly wouldn’t be Roy Moore.
  • The amendments Moore don’t like include those passed to end slavery, guarantee citizenship and equal rights to former slaves (Moore agreed with the host that “the Fourteenth Amendment was only approved at the point of the gun”), give women the right to vote, mandate the direct election of senators, enact presidential term limits, extend the vote to eighteen-year-olds, and eliminate poll taxes.
  • “Moore's campaign spokesman told CNN's KFile that Moore does not believe all amendments after the Tenth should be eliminated. ‘Once again, the media is taking a discussion about the overall framework for the separation of powers as laid out in the constitution to twist Roy Moore's position on specific issues,’ Doster said in an emailed statement. ‘Roy Moore does not now nor has he ever favored limiting an individual's right to vote, and as a judge, he was noted for his fairness and for being a champion of civil rights. Judge Moore has expressed concern, as many other conservatives have, that the historical trend since the ratification of the Bill of Rights has been for federal empowerment over state empowerment.’”

MEANWHILE: Last week, Alabama’s sitting senator, Republican Richard Shelby, said that he couldn’t bring himself to vote for Moore and wrote in an unnamed Republican instead. “I think Alabama deserves better,” he said on CNN yesterday.
  • President Trump, however, has no such compunction: “Trump, according to three sources briefed on the discussions, cast doubt on the claims leveled by Moore's accusers. Who were these women, he asked, and why had they kept quiet for 40 years only to level charges weeks before an election? Trump’s sentiment—he has also complained privately that the avalanche of charges taking down prominent men is spinning out of control—helps explain the president’s evolving attitude toward Moore over the past three weeks, when he has gone from uncharacteristic silence to a full-throated endorsement of the controversial candidate. The shift has benefited both men, helping the scandal-tarred Moore bounce back from what looked like a probable defeat to become a slight favorite in Tuesday’s special election—and offering the president a chance to claim credit if Moore ekes out a win.”
  • “The precarious fate of Republican tax legislation, which passed the Senate 51-49 in early December, also weighed on him. It was a real-time reminder of the potentially grave consequences of losing even one Republican vote in the upper chamber. The president is conscious of the thin margin in the Senate as he looks to sign other legislation in the new year on issues including infrastructure and immigration. ‘This was a clinical decision. It’s not an easy choice to give up a Senate seat that’s up in 2020,’ [Brian Walsh, president of the pro-Trump super PAC America First Action] said.”
  • Outside liberal groups are trying to rally its supporters—they estimate that African Americans will have to comprise 25 percent of the turnout to have a chance—albeit cautiously: “A constellation of liberal groups outside the state has showered money and manpower on turnout efforts aimed at helping Mr. Jones. But they are working discreetly, hoping to avoid the appearance of trying to dictate whom Alabamians should support. As part of those efforts, former Gov. Deval Patrick of Massachusetts, only the country’s second elected black governor, was at Ebenezer [Missionary Baptist Church] to make the case for Mr. Jones. In the vestibule were stacks of sample ballots for the Democrat, whose smiling visage was on literature left on every car in the parking lot. A few blocks away, at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the site of Bloody Sunday in 1965, the message was starker: ‘Vote or Die’ read a sign aimed at this region’s black majority, whose turnout could decide the race.
  • “Former President Barack Obama has taped a get-out-the-vote call for Mr. Jones, but on Sunday night the candidate’s advisers were still weighing whether to use it. Mr. Obama is beloved among black voters but is still unpopular among some of the Republican-leaning white voters Mr. Jones needs. But Mr. Jones’s campaign is highlighting Mr. Obama in another way. It has deluged black radio stations with commercials promoting Mr. Jones, one of which describes Mr. Moore as ‘backed by the racist alt-right groups’ and brands him ‘a birther, still insisting that Barack Obama was born in Kenya and isn’t an American.’”

WHAT IT MEANS: The president decided, apparently based on nothing, that Moore’s accusers are lying, just as he’s claimed that he own sexual misconduct accusers are all lying. Beyond that, he then made the calculation that, even if that weren’t the case, the Senate seat is worth supporting a child molester. That’s remarkable of itself. But what’s more remarkable to me is that, despite the sexual misconduct allegations, despite Moore’s ample record of racism and misogyny and homophobia and conspiracy theories and theocratic authoritarianism, despite audio and a curriculum he co-authored casting aspersions on women’s right to vote or hold office, he’s still the slight favorite. Tribalism is a hell of a drug.
  • Jones pollster Paul Maslin: “If it’s possible [for a Democrat] to win a race in Alabama, we’ll do it. It may not be.”

This post was excerpted from the INDY’s morning newsletter, Primer. To read this morning’s edition in full, click here. To get all the day’s local and national headlines and insights delivered straight to your inbox, sign up here.

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