We rolled down through the Sandhills and into Scotland County slipping down toward South Carolina the back way, as we do every year, making as many miles as we can off the purgatory that is Interstate 95 in the holiday season.
We drove through the small towns and occasional crossroads, through the mid-sized towns in the area and the places where roads off the blacktop aren’t the cul-de-sacs of the Triangle but unpaved, sometimes rutted and stretching off into the flat distance behind the cotton, collards and tangled of grass and briars in the lands left fallow.
There is water standing here still, water from the floods in early October when the hurricane rains swept in and drowned the southeast borderlands of our state.
You can see the places where it cut the highway, stranded people and hungry livestock. Down the road at 60 miles per hour, it doesn’t look like devastation, not now with the water down, but I covered the storm enough to recognize the names of the towns that were hit hard here in this high-poverty pocket of the state. These are the places where the challenge is the greatest, where lifting whole communities that have been under water not just recently, but in so many other ways for so long that it is hard to wrap your mind around the task.
Last week, as we settled into place at the legislature for a session called to continue the hard work of recovery, you’d have thought that these places would be the focus.
But the times are such that even a disaster of this magnitude is only a temporary distraction from the raw exercise of power that hangs like a dark cloud over the capital.
Sitting on press row on the floor of the House, I watched as they voted unanimously on the disaster relief sending million in aid to eastern and western parts of state hit by disaster. It should have felt good, but it was joyless. Everyone knew that it wouldn’t be but a couple of minutes before the clouds came back. Then they did.
It was a heck of an opaque moment for the season of light. Eclipse-like.
Sometime a little after 2 p.m. Dec. 15, the House adjourned the disaster recovery session and then around 2:07 p.m. they opened a new, previously announced extra special session. Those kept in the dark asked what it was about. The speaker said it was open to anything and when pressed simply recited sections of the House rules.
Being a reporter is a lot of things. Sometimes, it’s not just another day at the office. History happens before you and you try to write it down, photograph, and record it as straight up as you can.
Within hours there were 28 bills to read and think about and sort through. It never got any more transparent.
What business that happened in the day and a half of legislating that followed was done between seemingly endless, closed caucus meetings and usually interrupted by protests from the galleries, which were subsequently closed. The halls were filled with people from all over the state who were frustrated and angry and worried enough to get to Raleigh.
Fact check: To call them paid protesters from out of state is an outright, shameful lie.
In the end, the final votes on the bills that stripped the incoming governor of powers and appointments and made sweeping changes to the judicial branch came while more than a hundred of people outside emptied and locked galleries made their anger and frustration known. You could hear their chants and stopping feet and constant rapping on the door to the galleries as the session wound to a close.
You can try all you want to put the moves in some kind of historical context of the struggle happens when one party controls the legislature and one the governorship. There is definitely precedent for what went down on paper, but what happened in reality is a new twist.
To look up at the galleries from the floor of a place that’s purports to be doing the people’s business and seeing no people is an unsettling sight and an unsettling way to start a new year and a new era.
Kirk Ross is a longtime North Carolina journalist, musician and public-policy enthusiast. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org