By DAN MCCUE
(CN) – Republican lawmakers in North Carolina remained unbowed Friday in their quest to strip power from the incoming Democratic governor despite public opposition and statehouse protests that have led to more than 40 arrests over the past two days.
On Friday afternoon, the public entrances to the legislative chambers, located on the third floor of the state capitol, were locked, and the large crowd gathered outside them erupted in anger and chants of “let us in” and “shame.”
Rev. William Barber, president of Repairers of the Breach and head of the North Carolina NAACP, told the crowd “The most important thing you can do is stand up.”
“Whenever somebody cheats, it’s because they’re scared,” the reverend said.
Shortly after he spoke, the police cleared the third floor, except for several protesters who began an impromptu sit-in. In the meantime, the final act — at least until the inevitable lawsuits are filed — was playing out in the outgoing Gov. Pat McCrory’s office.
McCrory, who had not publicly commented either the controversial bills introduced in the legislature curbing his Democratic successor’s power, or the anger that they’ve caused, signed both into law shortly before 4 p.m.
North Carolina has been a flash-point for the nation’s political divide for much of the year. It’s passage of the controversial House Bill 2, also known as the “Bathroom Law,” curbing civil rights protections for members of the LGBT community, inspired lawsuits, demonstrations and many national brands, entertainers and athletic organizations to cut or limit their ties to the state.
North Carolina was also one of the most contested states in this year’s presidential election, and its race for governor was exceedingly tight, with Democratic state Attorney General Roy Cooper edging Republican incumbent McCrory by just over 10,000 votes out of the more than 4.4 million cast.
In fact, McCrory only conceded the outcome of the election on December 6.
That admission of defeat was followed by two special sessions of the GOP-controlled legislature. The first session was called for lawmakers to approve disaster relief to residents in the eastern part of the state whose homes and businesses were flooded by Hurricane Matthew in September and those in the western part of the state who were adversely impacted by this year’s active wildfire season.
But then the lawmakers convened an additional special session on Thursday in which they proposed about two dozen bills, the two most contentious of which — House Bill 17 and Senate Bill 4 — deal with appointment powers and the state elections board.
In short, the bills seeks to strip Cooper of some of his authority. Among the particulars: 1,500 staff positions that an incoming governor would normally fill would be cut to 300; the governor would no longer have control of the state election board, and the governor’s cabinet picks would now have to go before the state Senate to receive confirmation.
The confirmation legislation also would direct the legislature to revive its constitutional prerogative and take over the governor’s authority to name some members to trustee boards of University of North Carolina campuses.
Another critical wrinkle in the bills is a proposal to require appeals of the measures be heard by the Republican-controlled state Court of Appeals, rather than the Democratic-majority state Supreme Court.
For his part, Cooper said that after McCrory conceded the election, he reached out to Republican lawmakers, hoping they could find a way to work together. Now, as the state’s incumbent attorney general for two more weeks, he’s faced with the prospect of going to court to block the measures on constitutional grounds.
“Major changes in the way state government operates should be done deliberately, with input from all parties, particularly something as important as elections and making sure people have the opportunity to vote,” Cooper said during a news conference. “They shouldn’t be pushed through in the dark of night.”
The Republican action drew hundreds of protesters to the state capitol Thursday night, most of them very vocal in their disdain for what was transpiring, the lack of transparency with which it was being carried out, and loudly questioning the legitimacy of the special session and anything that comes out of it.
As far as the protesters — and Democrats in the state — are concerned, what’s transpired in the North Carolina statehouse over the past 24 hours is nothing more than an 11th-hour power grab by the GOP.
Brian Fitzsimmons, a Wake County Democratic leader, rebuked the Republican lawmakers during public comment on one of the bills, saying that what they were doing was clearly wrong.
“This is not the way good and reasonable and honest people govern,” Fitzsimmons said. “Stop using this body as a means of our desire to achieve greater power.”
But Rep. David Lewis, a Republican from Harnett, N.C., said on the House floor that the proposed legislative actions are “a good step forward in reasserting legislative authority vested by the constitution and entrusted to the members of this body.”
The controversial bills passed by large margins despite Democratic pleas that their Republican colleagues reconsider their actions, and against the backdrop of disruptions in the Senate and House that led chamber leaders to clear their galleries so they could continue to vote.
Scores of protesters refused to leave, and after they were arrested they were taken down to the capitol basement for processing. When reporters attempted to follow, they were refused access to a public hallway in the building, according to the Raleigh News & Observer.
But even as the arrestees were led away, their wrists bound with plastic ties, hundreds of other protesters chanted “Shame” and “This is what democracy looks like.”
Early Friday morning protesters had already begun to return and to gather on the third floor of the state capitol. Among them was Matt Guess who came with a sign that said, “Stop the power grab.”
“I was watching the proceedings online yesterday. It made me more willing to come out here today. It made me outraged,” Guess said.
“I think civil disobedience is probably the only power that people have right now. Lawmakers in there are not listening to us. They’re not hearing our voices,” he said.
Asked what he’s anticipating Friday, Guess said, “I’m expecting protests, outbursts.”
“The people are going to rise up in some way and make a demonstration,” he said.
Another protester, Thomas Kevin said he came to the legislative building due to “concern for our state politics and the skulduggery that’s taking place currently.”
“I’m semi-employed, and I don’t know if it’s because of bad policy by the Republicans, but they’ve got a lot of people who are very tired, upset and frustrated. The people are going to come out and show their distaste for the unethical process of law that’s taking place here right now,” he said.
In the meantime, two former North Carolina governors, one a Democrat, the other a Republican, criticized the GOP lawmakers in the legislature.
Former Gov. Jim Martin, the Republican, said he thought the lawmakers are “going too far” in limiting the governor’s appointment power.
Former Gov. Jim Hunt, the Democrat, said he’s “very concerned” about the legislature’s bid to wrest power from the hands of the governor, saying he fears it will ultimately hurt “the people and economy of our state.”
But the GOP lawmakers in the legislature dismissed these comments. One, Rep. Jeff Collins, of Rocky Mount, N.C., told the Charlotte News & Observer, that Martin and Hunt convinced the legislature to expand the governor’s power years ago, and that the balance of power in the state has been “way out of kilter” ever since.
Republicans also rejected suggestions by Cooper and others that they hold off on final approval of the bills until the legislature’s regular session next year.
“There is no other time to run this,” said Sen. Ralph Hise, a Republican from Mitchell, N.C., of a bill that would merge the state elections and ethics boards.
“This is the opportunity,” he told the Associated Press.
Courthouse News reporter Rich Ivey contributed to this report.