Rob Christensen

North Carolina’s former governors set party labels aside, united – and won

The unsung heroes of this election were the five former governors who played an outsized role in convincing voters to reject two ill-conceived constitutional amendments that would have turned North Carolina’s governor into a glorified ribbon cutter.

The two amendments were a naked power grab by an already musclebound Republican legislature, allowing lawmakers to influence who gets to be a judge and giving them vastly more control over the election machinery.

That is the equivalent of allowing Carolina coach Roy Williams to hire all the referees that work games involving UNC. Good for Ol’ Roy and the Carolina faithful, but not so great for the rest of the ACC or college basketball.

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You can’t hardly blame the Republican legislature for trying whisk a fastball past the voters. As old-time Tammany Hall politician George Washington Plunkitt once observed: “I seen my opportunities and I took ‘em.”

The amendments were drafted so obscurely that they resembled the fine print of your insurance policy. The courts made the legislature translate them to standard English – and even after the rewrite they still looked like gobbledygook.

But the five former governors – and five former state chief justices – said “not so fast.”

North Carolina already has one of the nation’s constitutionally weakest governors, experts agree. But even a 98-pound weakling of a governor was too much for the Jones Street crowd.

In a time when Democrats and Republicans can hardly agree on what to have for lunch, there was bipartisan agreement that the GOP legislature had jumped the shark.

In stepped Democratic former governors Jim Hunt, Mike Easley and Bev Perdue, as well as Republican ex-governors Jim Martin and Pat McCrory.

Joining them in opposition were all six of the former state chief justices – Democrats James Exum, Henry Frye, Burley Mitchell, and Sarah Parker and Republicans Rhoda Billings and I. Beverly Lake Jr.

Especially for the Republican former officials, this was a case of putting principles over party, and important ideas of governance ahead of narrow partisanship.

Tar Heel voters not only strongly rejected the Republican legislature’s plans to supersize their powers, but in fact they did the opposite – they clipped their wings.

Come January, the GOP will still have a legislative majority, but they will no longer have the supermajority that has allowed them to override any veto by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper.

This almost certainly will lead to more bipartisanship, because Republican lawmakers will have to take into account a Cooper veto when they put forth their agenda.

This is, of course, good news for Democrats in general, and Cooper specifically.

But the Democratic gains came with a price.

The blue wave wiped out some of the more moderate conservatives, such as my two representatives, Sen. Tamara Barringer and Rep. Nelson Dollar, both of Cary. Another Republican who was defeated was Sheriff Donnie Harrison, a hands-on law enforcement professional who has provided good service to the people of Wake County since 2002.

With polarization and gerrymandering, more centrist candidates have been losing – whether center/right or center/left. Among the moderate Democrats who have bitten the dust are congressmen Mike McIntyre, Health Shuler and Larry Kissell.

Even a strong Democratic year could not surmount the fire walls that were built around the gerrymandered congressional districts. All 13 congressional incumbents – 10 Republicans and three Democrats – were re-elected or replaced with someone of the same party.

The Republican domination came even though the GOP won only 50.3 percent of the votes cast in the U.S. House races running in districts that the courts had ruled unconstitutional.

After the spending of tens of millions of dollars on the congressional contests, the only change in the delegation is in the 9th district where Republican Mark Harris will replace Robert Pittenger, both Charlotte-area Republicans.

Pittenger, a staunch conservative, was ousted in a GOP primary last spring amid accusations that he was insufficiently right wing.

Harris, a pastor, owes his election to President Donald Trump, who twice campaigned for him, and perhaps to Rep. Mark Meadows, a leader of the House’s arch-conservatives.

Gerrymandering has corralled voters into districts that are either heavily Republican or strongly favor Democrats. Such an arrangement tends to enable the most ideologically extreme candidates.

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Christensen: 919-829-4532; @oldpolhack
Follow more of our reporting on NC Constitutional Amendments

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