“I cannot believe this,” Berger said, throwing down his microphone and slumping back into his leather chair at the front of the senate chamber, as the last session of the year came to a close, the stain still indelibly affixed to his state’s reputation, and his own.
The road to political morass began six years ago in North Carolina, when national Republican donors and strategists launched a concerted effort to create a bulwark against the emerging multiracial, center-left coalition that swept Barack Obama into the White House. They sank millions of dollars into cheaply bought local and state races, seizing control of the statehouse for the first time since a now-unrecognizable Republican Party that supported racial integration and voting rights for African-Americans held it during Reconstruction. Because 2010 happened to be a once-a-decade redistricting year, the new Republican majority gerrymandered districts in which Democrats couldn’t win—which resulted in ever-more-hard-line conservatives winning primaries in each election. A Southern economic powerhouse once known for a careful, if awkward, political balance (from 1999 to 2003, the state’s voters sent both John Edwards and Jesse Helms to the U.S. Senate) became a conservative lab experiment.
In 2012, the Republican mayor of Charlotte, Pat McCrory, won the governor’s race. McCrory was an unremarkable businessman who’d remained on the payroll of Duke Energy throughout his term as mayor and campaigned as a moderate focused on education. But in a preview of what would happen nationally four years later, the GOP suddenly found itself controlling all three branches of state government.
Only a third of North Carolina’s registered voters were Republicans, but McCrory and his allies in the legislature ruled as if it were a one-party state—cracking down on abortion, slashing social services and banning state officials from considering climate change when planning development along the state’s vulnerable coastline. It didn’t matter how many would-be voters this angered, because the redrawn districts guaranteed Republican supermajorities in the statehouse and U.S. Congress. Legislators also took advantage of the U.S. Supreme Court’s rollback of the Voting Rights Act to restrict voting in black and other Democratic-leaning communities. When voters unseated McCrory and chose the Democratic attorney general, Roy Cooper, to be governor this fall, the Republican legislature greeted him with a slate of new laws stripping his powers and handing them to the legislature and Republican-controlled agencies. It also moved to usurp powers given to the state Supreme Court, which had also shifted to a Democratic majority in the election. McCrory, whose veto didn’t matter anyway in the face of a supermajority, generally signed the most egregious pieces of legislation.
Progressives and moderates watching across the country have been horrified about the evolution of a resolutely purple state into a hard-core bastion of untouchable conservative power—and what that might portend for a country where Donald Trump is in the White House and Republicans will control both chambers of Congress, the Supreme Court and 32 state legislatures—25 of which will have Republicans at the helm of all three branches of government. “The reality is this exactly how empires fall. … When people put their own political interest over the interest of institutions is when countries fail,” said Neera Tanden, president of the left-leaning Center for American Progress and a former adviser to Hillary Clinton’s campaign. “I think the message from North Carolina is that the rules have changed.”
For some Democrats, the answer is to fight back in any way they can, including in the streets. “This is a very dangerous precedent, and everyone in every state should be worried about it,” said Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), a front-runner for the leadership of the Democratic National Committee. “What we’re seeing here is reminiscent of interposition and nullification from the segregation days.” He said the Democratic Party needs to reestablish trust with voters whose faith in the system has been destroyed by “going to them, sitting with them, listening to them, encouraging them to run for office themselves.”
“I think we should back up the protest movement that is emerging” in North Carolina, Ellison added.
Indeed, the debacle surrounding the anti-LGBT legislative package, known locally as House Bill 2, shows one possible way forward for Republicans’ opponents. The saga started in February, when Charlotte’s city council—where McCrory began his political career—expanded its nondiscrimination ordinance to include LGBT people. It was the kind of update that had passed without notice over the decades in nearly every other major city, including nearby Southern metropolises like Charleston, South Carolina, and Atlanta. But the U.S. Supreme Court had recently found a constitutional right to same-sex marriage in Obergefell v. Hodges, shelving a major electoral issue, and conservatives and LGBT activists alike were looking for new fights.
In a one-day emergency session, the state legislature hit back with a law that banned all local nondiscrimination ordinances in the state, replacing them all with a single policy excluding sexual orientation and gender identity. But though it was the most sweeping part of the bill, it was not its best-known provision. To galvanize opposition during the debate over the Charlotte nondiscrimination ordinance, conservative activists there had highlighted a minor effect of the city law: that bathrooms would be one of the “public accommodations” where LGBT people could not be discriminated against, meaning that transgender people could use whatever bathroom they felt most comfortable in.
Much as segregationists had used fears of racially integrated bathrooms as a cudgel during the civil rights era, fear-mongering about the specter of transgender people—imagined by many small-town conservatives to be mostly perverts and deviants—entering bathrooms with their children proved an effective messaging tool. Berger, the 64-year-old senate president pro tempore from Eden, with a powdered sugar beard and a fierce animus toward what he calls the “left-wing political correctness mob,” asked a news conference: “How many fathers are now going to be forced to go to the ladies’ room to make sure their little girls aren’t molested?”
As a result, the new state law mandated that people only be allowed to use the bathroom matching the sex listed on their birth certificates—a requirement that would keep many transgender people from using public restrooms entirely.
It turned out the Republicans had alienated the one constituency their leaders couldn’t ignore: corporations. A punishing economic backlash, which included the cancellation of job-creating projects by PayPal and Deutsche Bank and the cancellation of NCAA tournament games and the NBA All-Star Weekend scheduled to be held in Charlotte next year, convinced even many North Carolinians who still opposed letting transgender people into the public bathrooms of their choice that the law needed to be repealed. It is likely that anger over the damage to the state’s reputation is what cost McCrory, who signed the bill, his reelection bid in November. By contrast Trump, who lukewarmly criticized HB2 (then lukewarmly backed it after McCrory gave him his endorsement), and incumbent Republican Sen. Richard Burr, who called for a partial rollback of the bill, won comfortable statewide victories. (Josh Stein, a Democrat, won Cooper’s vacated seat as attorney general.)
As in much of the country, North Carolina’s outlying areas and many former industrial towns have become more conservative as cities like Charlotte and the “Research Triangle” of Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill have become more diverse and liberal. Because the Republicans’ first act upon taking control of the legislature after the 2010 elections had been to gerrymander themselves into unassailable districts, the white, conservative small-town legislators who make up the bulk of Berger’s caucus had no reason to fear that the backlash would cost them an iota of power.
With the election over, Charlotte’s city council rescinded its ordinance, keeping its end of a promised deal that would see the state’s LGBT protections (or lack thereof) restored to where they had been in early 2016. The city’s voters had elected new council members and a new Democratic mayor to push through the nondiscrimination ordinance, but, ironically, it was Charlotte that was taking some of the most punishing hits from the economic backlash, including the cancellation of the NBA’s 2017 All-Star Weekend.
McCrory, who could never quite decide whether he should be publicly backing or distancing himself from the law during his last year in office, had promised to push for HB2’s repeal if Charlotte dropped its ordinance. He called a final special session of the year for last Wednesday, Dec. 21.
But the hard-liners in the Republican caucus refused to play ball. Some rose to call the special session aimed at repeal unconstitutional. In the end, the only bill most Republicans would agree to included a renewable six-month moratorium on municipal nondiscrimination ordinances—which would have had the effect of continuing the ban on LGBT protections, perhaps indefinitely. Democrats refused to vote for it, and the repeal effort died. Berger was left fuming at the front of the chamber, blaming the opposition for the collapse of the deal. “They want House Bill 2 as an issue,” he grumbled to reporters after the session. “Just as it was an issue in the campaign.”
Some North Carolina Republicans have defended power grabs and unwillingness to compromise on the grounds that, during the 20th century era when conservative Democrats dominated the South, that party’s leaders often restricted the power of Republican governors and used their positions for patronage and cronyism. That’s true—though Democrats respond that Republicans today are going much farther than their predecessors did decades ago. Andrew Reynolds, a political scientist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, wrote in the Raleigh News & Observer that, in terms of freedom of electoral laws, fairness of party competition and other metrics, North Carolina now ranks “alongside authoritarian states and pseudo-democracies like Cuba, Indonesia and Sierra Leone.” “I love North Carolina … [but] the state has really been leading the way in restraining democratic principles,” Reynolds said in an interview.
But others say North Carolina offers another lesson for national politics—that a party given that much seemingly unassailable power will eventually overreach. Helping lead the backlash in the state has been a loud and well-organized protest movement whose weekly protests at the state legislative building have gotten national coverage. The Rev. William Barber III, the state NAACP leader whose passionate address at this summer’s Democratic National Convention called on viewers to be the “moral defibrillators of our time,” has called for a national economic boycott of North Carolina to demand the repeal of HB2, redrawing of fair electoral districts and the rescinding of many of the laws seizing power from Cooper passed by the legislature in December.
Progressives have also gotten backup from federal courts, which have struck down at least 14 laws passed by the Republican state legislature since 2011. That included the federal rejection of part of the voting restrictions package, which state lawmakers said was necessary to prevent supposedly unreported instances of voter fraud, but the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals called “what comes as close to a smoking gun [of racism] as we are likely to see in modern times,” noting “the State’s very justification for a challenged statute hinges explicitly on race—specifically its concern that African Americans, who had overwhelmingly voted for Democrats, had too much access to the franchise.” Federal courts have also struck down North Carolina’s congressional gerrymanders as unconstitutionally racist. A U.S. District Court ordered the state to hold early elections for the state legislature next year because 28 state house and senate districts were unconstitutionally racist gerrymanders as well.
State Democrats hope they will be able to chip away at the Republicans’ supermajority in the legislature, giving the new Democratic governor the power of the veto. Once out of office, President Barack Obama has pledged to join former Attorney General Eric Holder in an attempt to reverse pro-Republican gerrymanders—attempting to reverse the assault from below that began in places like North Carolina in 2010.
Gary Pearce, a longtime North Carolina Democratic strategist, said the failure to repeal House Bill 2 shows how divided Republicans have become in the state, and the pressure points Democrats might use to defeat them. “House Bill 2 got through [to voters] enough to elect Cooper and Josh Stein,” Pearce said. “Maybe the lesson in all this is when you have absolute power the tendency is … to go too far.”
Author: Jonathan M. Katz