Near the end of a marathon day at the General Assembly on Thursday, Representative Grier Martin, D-Wake, asked a question about why the doors to the House floor were still locked to the public. Well after the hundreds of protesters who had previously occupied the House balcony had dispersed following threats from police, and after two dozen protesters (and one NC Policy Watch reporter) had been arrested, Speaker Tim Moore got riled up.
Moore called a personal point of privilege and then proceeded to drill into the now-dispersed protesters, calling them “lawbreakers” who wanted to disrespect the institution and the state. At the end of his rant, Moore thanked all of the legislators, including the Democrats, for “conducting themselves properly” during the session.
After Moore’s comments, Representative Mickey Michaux of Durham—who has served in the General Assembly for thirty-seven years and was encouraged by Martin Luther King Jr. to run for public office—spoke up. “Thank you for calling me a lawbreaker, Mr. Speaker,” Michaux said. “The reason I’m here is because I broke the law in civil protest.”
Today, House and Senate Democrats should take Moore’s glee at Democrats behaving themselves away from him. Not only should they not vote; as a unified front, they should join their constituents, people who have been slandered as “paid protesters,” and protest this sham special session right alongside them.
This is where we’re at: on Thursday, the House and the Senate (many of their members unconstitutionally elected in illegally gerrymandered districts, according to a federal court) began the process of ramming through a series of bills—introduced Wednesday when the fourth special session of the year was suddenly dropped on everyone who wasn’t a member of the Republican caucus—that, among other things, clarified charter school roads funding and approved two business court nominations that Governor McCrory made on his way out the door.
But two main bills are SB 4 and HB 17. The former merges the Board of Elections into a “bipartisan body” that Republicans—so long as they continue to have fewer registered voters than Democrats—will get to control in even-numbered years, reintroduces partisan elections for Court of Appeals and Supreme Court positions, and limits the authority of the Supreme Court to take up constitutional challenges. The latter requires Senate confirmation of cabinet appointees, transfers gubernatorial authority for UNC Boards of Trustees appointments to the General Assembly, and gives other gubernatorial authorities over public education to the Superintendent of Public Instruction (a Republican). Both of these bills passed their respective chambers of origin and will likely see floor votes in the other today.
During the session, Democrats tried in vain to offer amendments, such as a proposal by Senators Angela Bryant and Floyd McKissick to add nonpartisan redistricting to the elections reform bill. Each time, they were shot down and told that their ideas could wait until the long session, where they are sure to die a very dignified death in the Senate Ways and Means Committee.
None of this is very surprising; with two supermajorities, Republicans have the authority to do whatever they want, and they frequently do it. Regardless, Democrats in both the House and the Senate protested repeatedly; in the House, as the two business-court nominations were heard, legislator after legislator opposed the bill because they said the session was unconstitutional, not because they didn’t think the candidates were qualified. (Representative Graig Meyer of Orange County was the rare exception.)
But of course, these protests ever went nowhere. Nor, so far, has a constitutional protest by Representative Darren Jackson, although it’s possible that a court challenge that Roy Cooper promised if Republicans pass any of this stuff may eventually render part or all of the legislation passed in the session invalid.
On Thursday, along with repeating calls for this protest, Jackson tried something else: Jackson has emerged as a leader for the Democrats in dark times, both against HB 2 and against this special session. And at the end of the day, Democrats are truly between a rock and a hard place, at least until they’re able to break the supermajority in one of the chambers to sustain Roy Cooper’s vetoes.
But asking for mercy is simply the wrong approach to take. The entire premise of the session, after all, is to do unfair things. The way to combat it is the Moral Monday way, by cramming as many North Carolina residents into the General Assembly and telling the legislature that enough is enough. NAACP lawyer Alan McSurely told the INDY after police ordered protesters to leave that “the entire Democratic caucus is in support of mass demonstration.” At the NAACP press conference earlier that morning, Senators Jane Smith and Erika Ingram-Smith said as much.
So for Democrats, now is the time to stop being complicit in their own humiliation. Their votes don’t matter, so the best way to make their voices heard is to show solidarity with people who care deeply about changing this state’s reputation as a “testing ground for alt-right and ultra-conservative ideas” and protest alongside them.
Legislators using protest as a tool would be nothing new this year. In March, North Carolina Senate Democrats walked out on the HB 2 vote, and in June, Democrats in the U.S. House staged a sit-in to force a vote on a (bad) gun control bill. For minority caucuses that are being bowled over by the majority, it’s a great strategy in that it garners media attention, which in turn helps North Carolinians who might not be totally aware of what’s going on. Maybe a few of them could risk arrest; after all, the sight of a few Democratic lawmakers getting hauled down to the police station would almost assuredly wake people up.
Would Moore be pissed? Sure, but who cares? The country is already watching, so let Moore ram his bills through a half-empty chamber, let Representative Paul Stam go on tangents about the seventeenth century to half-asleep Republicans, and—most important—let the entire country see how authoritarian North Carolina has become.