ELLIOT: Waiting for Gov. McCooper

With just 5,000 votes separating Pat McCrory and Roy Cooper, there is no certainty as to who will live in the governor’s mansion on Blount Street come January. A return to Democratic leadership will likely mean an end to the battleship-slow turn to efficiency and accountability that McCrory initiated in the executive departments. But it won’t mean much in terms of the relationship with the legislature. Whether Cooper or McCrory is victorious, the super-majorities returning to Jones Street will run the state.
When Gov. McCooper limps into office, it will be without any substantive mandate from the electorate. Should Cooper prevail — which is slightly more likely considering he holds the current lead — he will have been able to win in a GOP year. But barely. If there is any mandate in that result, it would go no further than “repeal H.B. 2,” since that was the only plank in his platform.
If McCrory can surmount the one-tenth of one percent difference, he will be the weakest governor since Jim Holshouser followed Richard Nixon and Jesse Helms to victory in 1972. In an election year in which exit polls showed voters prioritizing strong leadership, McCrory was unable to convince voters that his superb crisis management and steady executive-branch governance mattered more than his wishy-washy position on H.B. 2.
Donald Trump, who opposed H.B. 2, won the state by 177,000 votes. Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, who wore his support of H.B. 2 around his neck like Mr. T wears gold chains, trounced his well-known opponent by 301,000 votes — receiving 93,527 more votes than McCrory. Obviously there were more than a few Trump/Forest voters who skipped over McCrory or voted for Cooper. While Forest was not tied as closely to H.B. 2 as McCrory was, H.B. 2 was not necessarily fatal either.
Looking to the future, Gov. McCooper will have next to no say in the budget or in legislative changes. With veto-proof majorities, expect to hear the old adage frequently:
the governor proposes, the legislature disposes. For while voters decided to switch parties in the White House and possibly on Blount Street as well, Republicans in the state House keep the same number of seats, and the state Senate’s GOP caucus gains a member.
So prepare for a repeat of the way Raleigh looked under Holshouser and Gov. Jim Martin. Back then, the Democrat-led legislators passed “stripping bills” to take power away from Republican governors. That certainly will happen if Cooper prevails, and might happen even if McCrory wins. Democrats who howl about big shifts in the executive branch will need to keep the public’s memories short, since they did it repeatedly in the face of an opposite party in the governor’s mansion. And while there may be policy arguments against those power moves, there will not be any substantive constitutional arguments.
Just as in the U.S. Constitution, the ultimate power under North Carolina’s constitution resides in the people. But as Burley Mitchell, former chief justice of the North Carolina supreme court, once explained, the Old North State’s constitution treats the legislature “as if it were the people.” This concept is evident in the language of the document as well as in court opinions going back over a century. That means that unless a law directly contradicts with a duty prescribed by the constitution, the General Assembly’s can change the executive branch around any way it wishes.
When Gov. McCooper is inaugurated, the veto-proof legislature will make itself reign, restrained by neither party loyalty nor the desire to help a fellow Republican to a second term. Let us hope they rule wisely.