Hundreds protested at the state legislature Thursday morning and again Thursday night, accusing the GOP majority of using Hurricane Matthew victims as pawns in a ploy to seize power from Democratic Gov.-elect Roy Cooper. At least 20 people were arrested in the later demonstration, which caused the public galleries to be cleared in both the House and the Senate.
A crowd of roughly 300 gathered outside the chamber, cheering as officers led away the arrested protesters who had refused to leave the House gallery. A chant of “All political power belongs to the people” rang out uninterrupted for about 15 minutes.
The bulk of the crowd cleared away from the chamber doors when officers warned that more arrests would follow if people did not leave.
Names of the 20 people arrested were not immediately available.
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Earlier Thursday, several hundred people jammed into space outside the legislature’s press room, urged on by some Democratic representatives. The protesters said that the $200 million in aid approved in large part for families hurt by Hurricane Matthew’s October flooding was inadequate and masked the true reason for calling a special December legislative session. The flood relief money was approved Wednesday as part of the session, which was called by Gov. Pat McCrory.
In a news conference Thursday, Sen. Erica Smith-Ingram, a Democrat from the northeast corner of the state, said the legislature approved relief money that is significantly less than the amount spent after Hurricane Floyd in 1999, even though Matthew caused greater devastation.
Shortly after adjourning the Wednesday special session on disaster relief, Republicans in the legislature convened a new special session, the fourth of the year. Members then filed more than two dozen bills, some of which would limit Cooper’s power in a variety of ways. One bill calls for making the new governor’s Cabinet appointments subject to approval by the state Senate. Another proposal aims to evenly split election boards between the political parties rather than keeping them under control of the governor’s party.
Smith-Ingram described GOP bills aimed at limiting Democrats’ power as a “court pack and power hack.”
“I feel like I am the face of this disaster,” added Viola Ryals Figueroa, a flood victim from Goldsboro who was at Thursday morning’s news conference, “but I feel exploited by this special session.”
On Thursday evening, some protesters began to laugh when senators characterized one of the proposed bills as designed to end partisanship, said Lori Bennear, 44, of Raleigh.
“Then people booed,” she said, “and they got a second warning. So people started making hand gestures instead. Some people hissed, and the (Senate) said the hissing and the hand gestures were disrupting the business of the Senate.”
A similar move followed in the House. Protesters then filled the upper floor of the rotunda, chanting “Whose House? Our House!”
Protests led to a testy exchange Thursday morning between Alan McSurely, an attorney with the state NAACP, and Dallas Woodhouse, executive director of the state GOP. Speaking before a crowd that included NAACP members, McSurely said, “I want to welcome Dallas Woodhouse. I know this is the first meeting he’s been in in the last two or three days that wasn’t composed of all white people.”
McSurely went on to describe Republicans’ efforts during the special session as an “overreach,” to which Woodhouse called from the crowd, “Hey, Alan, since you’re calling me out, what about when (former Gov.) Jim Hunt tried to fire all the Republicans in the Christmas massacre? What about the Democrats stripping the lieutenant governor, a Republican, of all his power? Was that right? I’m just curious. Or stripping (former Republican Gov.) Jim Martin of his hiring authority?”
Several people in the news conference asked Woodhouse to leave, but McSurely said, “He has freedom of speech.”
Woodhouse issued a news release Thursday that elaborated on what he called instances of “partisan power grabs by Democrats” in the past, including Hunt, as governor-elect in December 1976, working with the Democratic General Assembly to obtain the ability to fire some Republican state employees.
After the news conference Thursday, Democrats in the legislature addressed protesters from atop planters in the rotunda.
“We don’t have the power to stop what the Republicans are going to do today,” said Rep. Graig Meyer, a Democrat from Orange and Durham counties. “But the Democrats are going to stay and fight. We may lose in the legislature today, but they will see us in court.”
Outside, protesters held signs in the windy weather, with temperatures in the high 30s. “The nation is watching,” said one.
“I’m incredulous,” said Jean Chapman, 70, from Chatham County, who called the Republican actions sour grapes for losing the governor’s race. “It’s the kind of behavior we talk to our small children about. If you lose, then you speak kindly to your opponent.”