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14 Key N.C. Political Stories in 2014
From the impact of "Moral Monday" protests to key races for the U.S. Senate, legislature and the courts, here's a look at 14 North Carolina political stories to watch in 2014.
A Republican rumble brewing in Raleigh?
The most intriguing tussle on Jones Street is not between the GOP and 'Moral Monday' protesters. It's between an aggressive legislature and an increasingly assertive governor.
Senate leader Phil Berger and Gov. Pat McCrory, both Republicans, have been at odds as of late over such issues as teacher pay and Common-Core repeal.
By Bryan Warner
Published: June 9, 2014
Back when their party controlled both chambers of Congress, U.S. House Democrats had a saying: “Republicans are our opposition. The Senate is our enemy.”
Here in North Carolina, a similar internal party feud seems to be bubbling to the surface, this time pitting Gov. Pat McCrory against his fellow Republicans in the state legislature.
In the past few weeks, there have been reports of friction between the governor’s office and state lawmakers over such high-profile issues as teacher pay, the state budget, Medicaid reform and a push to repeal Common Core educational standards, with mention of potential vetoes coming from McCrory.
This tension between the executive and legislative branches is largely driven not by gaping ideological divides, but personality clashes, turf battles and divergent electoral arithmetic.
A difference of political math
Republicans were swept to power in the state legislature with the 2010 elections, taking the reins in both chambers of that body for the first time in more than a century. Then in 2012, former seven-term Charlotte mayor Pat McCrory became the first Republican governor of North Carolina in 20 years, completing the GOP takeover of Raleigh.
But McCrory was elected under far different conditions than legislators.
Legislators represent relatively small swaths of the state, coming from districts crafted to largely favor their own party.
Meanwhile, McCrory governs a state of nearly 10 million people, and one where Democrats still have a sizable voter registration advantage over Republicans.
Lawmakers represent relatively small swaths of the state, with House districts holding about 80,000 residents and Senate districts about 190,000.
Plus, these districts have been redrawn by legislative Republicans to largely favor their own party (something done by Democrats, as well, during their decades-long dominance) making most legislative incumbents more concerned about a right-flank primary challenge than a serious general election competitor from the opposing party.
Republican senators who had a Democratic opponent in November of 2012 won by an average of 18 percentage points, while House Republicans won by an average of 20 points – hardly a nail-biter.
In this year’s elections, Republicans are already guaranteed to win 12 seats in the Senate and 31 seats in the House because no Democrat even bothered to run in those races.
Meanwhile, McCrory governs a state of nearly 10 million people, one where Democrats still have a sizable voter registration advantage over Republicans. And while McCrory ought to be wary of a possible primary challenge two years from now, he could encounter a much tougher general election fight.
Recent polls show McCrory's approval rating a net negative – although still far higher than the legislature’s numbers – even as Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper already builds a likely campaign against him in 2016.
Ultimately, the governor faces a starkly dissimilar electoral reality than legislators, leading to friction when it comes to just how far and fast towards the right each branch of government tries to push North Carolina.
The 'puppy mill bill' and a legislative brushback
During his first year in the governor’s mansion, McCrory largely went along with the legislature's lead in refusing Medicaid expansion, reducing jobless benefits, enacting a voter ID law, imposing new requirements on abortion clinics and overhauling the state’s tax code, among other controversial efforts.
He issued just two relatively unremarkable vetoes last year – both overriden by the legislature – compared to the record 19 vetoes from Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue during the two years she faced off against the GOP-led legislature.
But as a curious example of the legislature – and more specifically the Senate – asserting itself over the first-term governor, one might look to a somewhat obscure piece of legislation conspicuously backed by McCrory and his wife, First Lady Ann McCrory.
The so-called “puppy mill bill” would have instituted tougher standards on commercial dog breeders in the state. The governor made his support for the measure widely known, and the first lady even made a rare appearance in the House gallery to watch as it passed with strong, bipartisan support in that Republican-controlled chamber.
And yet the bill stalled in the GOP-led Senate, with no sign of it moving forward anytime soon, even after McCrory renewed his call for its passage earlier this year.
Opponents of the proposal have argued that it could be used by animal-rights activists against livestock farmers. But given the governor’s high-profile backing of the fairly noncontroversial measure, the Senate’s obstinacy seemed like something of a brushback against a new governor trying to promote his agenda on Jones Street.
A long history of legislative dominance
This conflict between branches of government is nothing new. Throughout its history as a state, North Carolina has purposefully rendered its governor as one of the weakest chief executives in the nation, an impulse rooted in colonial times when North Carolinians endured overbearing royal governors.
Indeed, it was not until the 1970s that North Carolina governors could serve for two consecutive terms. And the state was the last in the nation to grant its governor veto power with a constitutional amendment approved in 1996.
While the governor’s office has grown in stature over the past few decades, driven in great part by the sheer will of four-term Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt, the power struggle between the legislative and executive branches continues.
Arriving amid an ongoing turf battle
When McCrory came to Raleigh in January 2013, he was greeted by a Republican legislative majority that had already been in place for two years.
During the 2011 and 2012 legislative sessions, lawmakers battled a Democratic governor, but the House and Senate also competed against each other, with some speculation that the inter-chamber feuding might spill over into a primary fight for U.S. Senate between House Speaker Thom Tillis and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger.
Yet Berger declined to run, sparing Tillis from what could have been his most serious challenge for the Republican nomination. Instead, Berger seems content with remaining in Raleigh and becoming arguably the most powerful player in North Carolina politics, even as the bright spotlight of state and national media attention focuses on Tillis and his senatorial campaign.
McCrory appears to have a friendlier relationship with Tillis, who like him hails from Mecklenburg County, than he has with Berger and other legislative leaders. Indeed, Tillis made a point to downplay any perceived rift after his chamber voted to override the governor’s two vetoes last year.
But with Tillis leaving the legislature regardless of the outcome in his U.S. Senate bid, the governor is losing a key ally in that body and potentially setting up a more acute contest between McCrory and Berger to determine who is to be the driving force in steering state government.
A looming showdown
Unlike Tillis, Berger does not wield the gavel in his chamber – that somewhat thankless task goes to Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Forest. Instead, Berger operates more often behind the scenes. He seldom speaks during debates, allowing Rules Committee Chair Tom Apodaca, a Henderson County Republican, to act as his lieutenant and the “bad cop” to Berger’s “good cop.”
"I hear the governor didn't like our budget. Well, we didn't like his."
- Sen. Tom Apodaca (R-Henderson)
Case in point: after rolling out his teacher-pay plan, Berger said little about how it might conflict with the proposal put forward earlier this year by McCrory. But when Apodaca was told by reporters that the governor expressed concerns about Berger’s proposal and the Senate's spending plan, he shot back, "I hear the governor didn't like our budget. Well, we didn't like his."
It may be revealing about the working relationship between Berger and McCrory that they each crafted their own high-profile plan for upping educator salaries without involving the other. Instead McCrory jumped out first with his proposal, followed by Berger, who seemed to trump the governor’s plan with a bigger potential boost in pay, but at the cost of tenure protections for teachers.
How a possible compromise plays out in the remaining weeks of this year’s session could be a strong indicator of whether the governor’s office and the Senate are in harmony or if tension persists between the two.
Regardless of which party holds the reins of power at the state or national levels of government, power struggles are commonplace in the sharp-elbowed world of politics, especially when it comes to disputes over issues that have real substance and consequence, like protecting the quality of our schools or boosting our state’s economy.
Of course, Berger and McCrory are far more alike than different when it comes to their conservative political views. But today in North Carolina, the two-centuries-old competition between the governor’s office and the legislature carries on.
And with a more assertive Gov. McCrory beginning to push back against an aggressive legislature amid his second year in Raleigh, some political fireworks – and perhaps a few vetoes and some veto overrides – could be seen on Jones Street before this session ends.