Politics & Government

NC GOP legislators’ argument for power shift: Democrats did it first

Day of tension as special session closes

Protesters crowded the N.C. General Assembly as legislators pushed through bills limiting powers of Governor-elect Roy Cooper during a special session.
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Protesters crowded the N.C. General Assembly as legislators pushed through bills limiting powers of Governor-elect Roy Cooper during a special session.

To justify their efforts to limit Gov.-elect Roy Cooper’s powers, Republican lawmakers repeatedly cited an incident from 40 years ago when another Democratic governor took over from a Republican.

Legislators repeatedly made speeches this week that mentioned what they referred to as the “Christmas massacre” of 1976. That December, Democratic Gov.-elect Jim Hunt was preparing to take over the governor’s office from Republican Gov. Jim Holshouser. Hunt demanded the resignations of 169 state employees, although he ultimately ousted about 75 workers from the Republican administration.

“I’m not trying to say what happened in ‘76 is a reason for what we’re doing,” Senate leader Phil Berger said. “I think the better reason to know about those things is to put that in the context of what we’re doing, so that folks aren’t under the false impression that what’s happened here this week is totally out of the ordinary.”

House Bill 17, which legislators approved Friday, would limit the number of state employees the governor can hire and fire to 425. The current limit is 1,500 and was increased from 400 around the time Republican Gov. Pat McCrory took office.

“It undoes the power grabs that Democrats did 20 and 40 years ago,” said Sen. Chad Barefoot, a Wake Forest Republican. “Under this one, (employees) will be more protected. That’s not a bad thing.”

Barefoot added that the legislature increased the number under McCrory so he could “fix a broken state.”

It’s common for newly elected governors to hire their own top staffers. Reached Friday, Hunt said his administration’s transition process in 1976 was not unusual.

“Mine was probably similar to Holshouser’s,” he said. “When I came in, I’m sure we made some changes. Later on, I proposed a merit system so that you could not hire people just based on politics.”

News & Observer articles at the time did not mention the nickname “Christmas massacre.” Barefoot said he found the description in a 2003 biography of Hunt, which said his “rivals” used the term.

Hunt, however, doesn’t remember the phrase. “That’s ridiculous,” he told a reporter. “See if you find any facts to support that.”

Sen. Jay Chaudhuri, a Raleigh Democrat, said whatever Hunt did in 1976 is irrelevant to this week’s special session.

“The voters did not send us here to re-litigate the events of 40 years ago,” he said. “We’re not elected to exact revenge on each other in order to expand our powers. We would expect Republicans to lose with grace.”

N.C. Republican Party executive director Dallas Woodhouse said Hunt’s firings were “the most egregious” of several “partisan power grabs” by North Carolina Democrats in recent decades.

He also pointed to 1989, when a legislature controlled by Democrats stripped power from newly elected Lt. Gov. Jim Gardner, a Republican. Until then, the lieutenant governor –who serves as Senate president – could appoint Senate committee members and chairmen, which gave him the power to control what bills move forward. Since 1989, that power is held by the Senate president pro tem, who’s elected by fellow senators.

That role is currently held by Berger, and senators have not tried to restore power to the lieutenant governor since fellow Republican Dan Forest was elected in 2012. Forest, who was re-elected to a second term, has a largely ceremonial role in the Senate.

Woodhouse says the power shifts approved this week aren’t as dramatic as those of the past.

“This is bean bag compared to what they’ve done to us,” he said. “People ask the question ‘do two wrongs make a right?’ I think it’s the inevitable outcome of divided government and the checks and balances that come with it, and the checks and balances that people voted for.”

But not every historical power shift mentioned this week was partisan. In pushing for expanded power for the superintendent of public instruction – which will soon be Republican Mark Johnson – House Rules Chairman David Lewis noted that the superintendent was stripped of some authority in the 1990s.

In 1995, the legislature reduced the superintendent’s authority, instead giving the State Board of Education primary responsibility for overseeing public schools. The state board is mostly appointed by the governor, which at the time was Jim Hunt. Democrat Bob Etheridge, who later became a congressman, was serving as superintendent at the time.

This week, legislators moved to switch that back – transferring administration of public schools and the state Department of Public Instruction from the State Board of Education to the state schools superintendent.

Legislators, Lewis said, want to treat Johnson “with the authority that we give other heads of state agencies.”

Berger says opponents of the changes have a short memory of the state’s history. “Some people would like to divert attention by saying this is something that has never occurred before when that is not the case,” he said.

News researcher Teresa Leonard contributed to this report

Colin Campbell: 919-829-4698, @RaleighReporter