On Wednesday morning, while some lawmakers attended an event memorializing the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, North Carolina Republicans held a surprise vote to override Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of the budget bill. GOP legislators had reportedly told Democrats that the House of Representatives would hold no votes on the morning of Sept. 11. Then, with nearly half the lawmakers absent—and only a handful of Democrats in the chamber—Republican leaders held a vote anyway, overriding Cooper’s veto by the necessary three-fifths majority. At the time, Cooper was at the 9/11 commemorative event, as were some Democratic representatives.
Such brazen contempt for democracy has become a hallmark for the North Carolina GOP, which has long fought to entrench its own power through underhanded and illegitimate means. Republicans held a supermajority in the General Assembly during Cooper’s first two years due to an egregious racial gerrymander and routinely overrode the governor’s vetoes. In 2017, however, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down that gerrymander, requiring new maps that cost the GOP its supermajority after the 2018 election. Republicans now face a threat to their majority due to a state court ruling invalidating the current legislative districts as a partisan gerrymander. They appear to be resorting to whatever tactics they can to preserve their power.
The stalemate over the budget revolved in part around health care. Cooper supports expanding Medicaid, a move that would provide coverage to 634,000 North Carolinians by 2022 and bring 37,200 jobs to the state. Yet Republicans sent the governor a budget that lacked Medicaid expansion, triggering his veto.
Republicans did not appear ashamed to have voted to override the veto during a state memorial ceremony commemorating 9/11. GOP Rep. Jason Saine, who called the motion for the vote, declared that he was “appalled that anyone in our country would stop going about their normal business on this day. When we stop being a beacon of freedom, hope and democracy, then the terrorists win.” The vote now goes to the Senate, where Democrats will have to remain united to block an override.
To understand the further degradation of democracy in North Carolina, I spoke with Democratic state Rep. Chaz Beasley, who is currently running for lieutenant governor in the state. Beasley is a staunch defender of Medicaid expansion and an outspoken critic of the GOP’s machinations who publicly expressed his disgust with Wednesday’s vote shortly after it occurred. Our interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mark Joseph Stern: What happened in Raleigh today?
Chaz Beasley: We were told that there would be no votes this morning. The rules chair of the House, [Republican Rep.] David Lewis, specifically told our minority leader, [Democratic Rep.] Darren Jackson, that there would be no votes. We received three different forms of correspondence saying there’d be no votes this morning, so there were only a handful of Democrats there—mostly people who live pretty close by.
Then, Republicans realized they had the numbers to override the governor’s veto of the budget. Democrats have held the line for the past 60 days to prevent Republicans from overriding the veto. But once [Republican Speaker of the House] Tim Moore saw there weren’t enough Democrats there [to block the override], he decided that this was the time and sprung this vote. Republicans overrode the veto 55–9.
It appears that Republicans exploited the fact that Cooper and some other Democrats were attending 9/11 memorial events.
The fact of the matter is that members, of course, want to commemorate today for what it is. It’s one of the toughest days in American history, when we should be focused on the fact that so many people lost their lives and that this country was forever changed. Instead of us talking about that today, we’re talking about shenanigans in the General Assembly. We’re talking about people playing tricks on us. The fact that this is what today has become about is sad.
Why has the budget become so contentious this year?
North Carolinians sent us up to Raleigh to have a voice and a say in how we spend $24 billion. And what we’ve seen throughout this process is that many of us were not at the table when whole swaths of the budget were negotiated and settled upon. The governor has made it clear what he would like to see in the budget. One thing he’d like to see is Medicaid expansion in there.
But problems with the budget go beyond the fact that it doesn’t expand Medicaid for 500,000 North Carolinians. We still underpay our teachers. We still have schools that lack the resources to be successful. We still haven’t given a large enough pay increase to our state employees, or a cost of living adjustment to our retirees. Instead, the budget includes things like expanding programs for virtual charter schools that do not have good ratings for how they’re teaching our kids.
All these things add up to a problem. We would have been willing to work with our Republican colleagues to create a budget we all vote for. None of us like voting against the budget. Some people have said that the governor has drawn in a line over Medicaid expansion, but that’s not what’s happening here. Democrats just believe that we should be a part of the negotiating process and we should create a budget that everyone can get behind. Instead of coming to the table in good faith and negotiating a consensus budget, what we saw this morning was Republicans springing a vote on us at a time when they said there would be no vote.
Wednesday’s surprise vote occurred in the midst of negotiations over redistricting. A state court struck down the current legislative map as an illegal partisan gerrymander and directed the legislature to draw new districts free from partisan bias. Do you think Republicans have led that process in good faith?
The court said we’re not allowed to use partisan data to draw the new maps. And the law firm that represents Republican legislative leaders sent partisan data to legislators’ staff. That in and of itself shows that this process has already had partisanship injected into it when the court said specifically that was not allowed.
Look, we’ve had so many redraws. I was elected to the General Assembly in 2016, in a competitive seat that we flipped from red to blue. This will be the fourth different iteration of my district since then. I average a different district every year. That is unacceptable. It just shows that we politicians do a terrible job of drawing our own lines. It does not work. We should have an independent redistricting commission that draws maps that are competitive and fair, and reflect the will of the people, because this process just isn’t working.