As the deadline for filing bills arrived Thursday, the N.C. House spent an hour debating whether to put a statue of evangelist Billy Graham in the U.S. Capitol.
The final vote was 71-28 – with most Democrats dissenting – to replace Gov. Charles B. Aycock with Graham as one of two statues representing North Carolina. The debate came amid a nearly four-hour session that included votes to make judicial races partisan and to study moving municipal elections to even years.
House members also got their final chance to file bills this year ahead of a 3 p.m. deadline. The last-minute crush of legislation ranged from a new economic development bill to a proposal to legalize internet sweepstakes.
Democrats and Republicans both agreed it’s time to take down the statue of Aycock, who served as governor from 1901 to 1905 and has come under fire recently for his white supremacist views. But they disagreed on whether Graham is the best pick for the honor.
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In Washington, Aycock has represented North Carolina in the National Statuary Hall Collection since 1932. The state’s other contribution there is a statue of Zebulon Vance, who was a Confederate officer, governor and U.S. senator.
Republican-sponsored bills in both the House and Senate say Graham should take Aycock’s place because he “continues to inspire the world with his good works.”
“I honestly believe he is the right person for the position and the right person to represent North Carolina,” said Rep. Charles Jeter, the Mecklenburg County Republican who sponsored the bill.
But several Democrats said legislators should take time to consider multiple possible replacements for the Aycock statue. Among the names they mentioned: former UNC basketball coach Dean Smith, civil rights leader Julius Chambers and former governors Jim Holshouser and Terry Sanford.
“We’re making a decision that will represent North Carolina to the people of the country,” said Rep. Grier Martin, a Raleigh Democrat. “We should give it careful, careful consideration. I think it’s also troubling that we’re putting in someone who is still living.”
House Speaker Tim Moore declined to allow a vote on an amendment to instead honor Chambers, a lawyer who faced firebombings while pursuing civil rights cases. Moore ruled the proposal was “not germane to the bill.”
New statues at the U.S. Capitol have to be built to certain specifications and be approved by the Joint Committee on the Library, a panel of 10 members of Congress. States can’t submit statues of living people, so Graham, 96, wouldn’t be displayed until after his death.
Jeter said passing the bill now would allow time to solicit private donations, likely made through the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte, and to commission a sculptor.
Democrats also objected to House Republican leaders bringing the bill to the floor without first holding a committee vote – an unusual move. An effort to send the bill back to a committee was voted down 67-43.
“Clearly we have not treated this bill as we have any other,” House Democratic Leader Larry Hall said. “There have been some suggestions that we have additional time to look at the bill and make any improvements.”
Republicans dismissed the criticism. “This is just a ploy to debate this forever,” House Majority Leader Mike Hager said.
A companion bill in the Senate is currently awaiting a hearing from the Rules Committee.
Also in the state House
Partisan judges: The N.C. House voted 65-48 Thursday to put political party labels on candidates for N.C. Supreme Court and Court of Appeals – a move that would reverse a switch to nonpartisan races made a decade ago.
Rep. Bert Jones, a Reidsville Republican, sponsored the bill and says voters struggle to pick judicial candidates without seeing their party affiliation. About 500,000 voters skipped the Court of Appeals contest in the last election, he said.
Rep. Mickey Michaux, a Durham Democrat, said he thinks partisan statewide courts could affect how they handle legal challenges to legislation – particularly if the same party controls both the legislative and judicial branches.
Municipal elections: An 111-1 vote called for a study of moving municipal elections to even-numbered years, when turnout is likely to be higher.
Many town and cities elect their mayors and councils in odd-numbered years, when the races are typically the only item on the ballot. Rep. Carl Ford, a China Grove Republican and sponsor of House Bill 402, says that results in turnout averaging 14 percent.
But Rep. George Graham, a Kinston Democrat, said towns and cities should decide when they want to hold elections. “This is a local issue and could best be handled at the local level,” he said.